Buffalo’s Metro Rail: What Transit Should Be

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“Did you know Buffalo has a subway?”

I love asking this question of my fellow Rochester residents… rather, I like to watch the inquisitive, almost doubtful expressions spread across their faces as they try to reconcile the fact that the Upstate New York city just an hour away has an infrastructure feature that most people only associate with New York, D.C., Boston or Chicago.  The truth is, if you asked New Yorkers to raise their hands if they knew Buffalo had any kind of commuter rail, you’d likely get a crowd of full pockets.

Buffalo residents, on the other hand, know they have light rail… whether they think it’s a useful urban amenity or a terrible waste of resources is still a popular debate among city residents.  Either way, the city has a single 6.4-mile light rail line that runs along Main Street in the city’s downtown, terminating at Canalside.  The north end dives underground near the theater district and continues under Main Street all the way to the University of Buffalo South Campus, servicing 8 stations and a large swath of residential neighborhoods along the way.

Beginning operation in the mid-1980’s, the hope was that the Metro Rail would fuel downtown Buffalo’s economy and jump start interest in the city’s core.  Meanwhile, Buffalo continued to bleed residents at an alarming rate, and ridership numbers, which peaked at over 8 million annually in the early 1990s, have fallen steadily to approximately 4.6 million today.  The percentage of riders who use the light rail system used to make up 25% of Niagara Frontier Transit Authority’s overall bus/rail network.  Today, it makes up less than 17%.  There are many likely factors contributing to the steep decline in ridership.  Most notably, improvements to the above-ground streetcar section through downtown were recently made, allowing cars to access a portion of Main Street once again (previously, the section of Main that the Metro Rail inhabited was off-limits to cars).  This caused significant delays for some time, which more than likely forced many riders to seek alternative options.  Furthermore, transit ridership as a whole has been in decline across the country for the last several years, with factors like increased car ownership and the popularity of Uber and Lyft to blame.

The declining metrics of the Buffalo Metro Rail has a number of environmental drivers, most of which are based in Buffalo’s declining residential population and a lack of a major surge in downtown employment.  But if we ignore ridership and look simply at design, the high potential for this route to become a force once again is relatively high.  While new streetcar projects such as Cincinnati’s Bell Connector and Detroit’s QLINE feature short routes focused on moving people around a small section of entertainment-based downtown growth, Buffalo’s Metro Rail actually has substantive ability to practically move residents, not just fun-seekers.

The QLINE Streetcar in Detroit

In a time when so many of our sparkly new transit initiatives are being built around one-dimensional tourist draws and nightlife, Buffalo’s Metro Rail services urban neighborhoods, college campuses and areas where car ownership isn’t as high.  Even in its limited 6.4 mile state, it provides regular connectivity for Buffalo residents who don’t have access to reliable transportation, while still servicing destinations like Canalside, KeyBank Center (where the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres play), Coca-Cola Field (MiLB’s Buffalo Bisons), Buffalo’s vibrant theater district, and if you’re up for a 15 minute walk, Delaware Park, The Buffalo Zoo, the arts-rich Elmwood Avenue neighborhood and more.

The Metro Rail is more than just a circulator… it has just enough reach to provide respectable service for those who rely on transit for work or to reach important resources, while still having the power to move fun-seekers to key entertainment centers.  In other words, this isn’t just transit for the wealthy, the tourist, and the sports fan, it’s also a great option for folks who rely on public transit every day.

It’s Smooth

Riding the Metro Rail is surprisingly comfortable.  If you’ve ever ridden New York or Chicago’s rail systems, the cars sway, the tracks rattle and the ride is generally uncomfortable.  Buffalo’s trains are smooth and steady, and the ride is surprisingly pleasant.

It’s Clean

The NFTA Metro Rail cars are clean and this is great.  But the cleanliness of the stations is the real surprise.

Furthermore, art installations and unique additives to many of the stations create a level of nuance and attraction to each of the transit nodes.

Naysayers will claim that the stations are clean because nobody uses them, but this is simply not true.  By some metrics, Buffalo’s rail system is one of the most utilized in the country.  See below…

Ridership Per Mile Is One Of The Highest In The US

Despite recent decline and the misconception by many Buffalo residents that the Metro Rail is never used, it actually boasts one of the highest “average daily boardings per mile” rates for light rail systems across the country.  Using this metric as a gauge, Buffalo’s line is better than the light rail systems in Los Angeles, Portland, Houston, Phoenix, San Diego, Charlotte, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver, Philadelphia, Dallas, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Tucson, St. Louis, Sacramento, Baltimore, Norfolk, San Jose and Cleveland.  This paints a clear picture that Buffalo’s system is doing what transit is supposed to do… move people to jobs and resources, not just to entertainment centers.

It’s About To Grow

In an ambitious initiative, the Buffalo Light Rail system is on track to get an extension northward to the University of Buffalo’s North Campus, a move which will connect northwest suburbs and 30,000 students as well as 14,000 employees with downtown Buffalo.  The move has tremendous potential to create new ridership fuel the city’s continued rebirth.

Balance Is Key

Finding that sweet spot between practically moving people who rely on public transit every day, providing a convenient transit solution for those who desire sensible transit choices (and thus reducing road traffic congestion), servicing college campuses with students who often don’t have access to a vehicle, and providing convenient access to entertainment zones is tricky.  For its size, Buffalo’s Metro Rail does this as well as any rail line in the country, and the ridership per mile metric shows this very clearly.  With so many rail lines boasting economic development as their top priority, this line actually works for the diverse set of people who use it and need it.

In My Opinion…

I’m a bit of a train nerd, always have been.  But I’m also a big fan of sustainability and practical city design.  While I enjoy riding shiny new streetcars like Detroit’s QLINE, my sense of urban sensibility overwhelms my love for this “Disney World” transit model.  I was born in Chicago, a city that boasts an extensive network of heavy rail subways and elevated trains.  When I step into Buffalo’s rail stations, I feel like I’m in Chicago again.  When I feel the trains approach the platform… when I step inside and see an incredibly diverse set a riders… when I see packed trains during rush hour on weekdays, I feel like I’m back in the Windy City, riding a train that works hard to move people to where they need to go.  I see a city that needs this line, that relies on its prompt and regular service.  I see a downtown with enormous potential, and a train that is ready to serve its growth.  I see a major college campus ready to be better connected to the rest of Buffalo.  I see transit that works for us all, a decidedly blue collar approach to moving people about a city that is just starting to turn the corner, and I for one am excited about the future.