When we talk about building a strong foundation for the future of our cities, it’s difficult to argue with Rochester’s progress over the last few years. Once shackled by the horrors of job loss and mass exodus, the city is starting to turn the corner thanks to a number of Upstate-firsts that are opening eyes here in our state, and around the country.
The Inner Loop East Infill
Syracuse and Buffalo are talking about it. Rochester has done it. The Flower City was one of the first mid-sized cities in the nation to recognize that an underused, decaying downtown expressway could be turned into hundreds of thousands of square feet of development-ready space.
Finally, years after the start of the east-side Inner Loop Infill, development is beginning to take shape in the form of mixed use apartment buildings and the expansion of the Strong Museum of Play. With this project, Rochester joins larger cities like San Francisco, Portland Oregon, Seattle and Milwaukee, who have already removed downtown expressways in favor of creating vibrant new “street level” neighborhoods. Rochester is quickly becoming the often-cited example for how to effectively turn our damaging urban highways into powerful urban space.
Road Diets/One-Ways to Two-Ways
Portions of Main Street and East Avenue are just a few examples of Rochester’s many “multi-lane conversions” or “road diets.” Roads in our cities and communities were frequently overbuilt for the volume they carry, while many have seen a decrease in traffic in the last decade or two.
Taking roads from 4 lanes to 2 (or three if a turning lane is needed) and adding parking and/or bike lanes reduces traffic speed, makes streets safer and gives other modes of transportation a leg up. Reducing lanes and slowing traffic has also been shown to increase walking and biking, and can have a positive impact on street-facing city businesses.
Rochester has also made a concerted effort to turn its one-way streets into two-way streets. Like road diets, this has been shown to decrease traffic, crashes and crime while increasing property values.
Rochester has been an Upstate New York leader with regard to traffic calming, road diets and converting one-way streets to two-ways. Much work still needs to be done to make our streets safer and more inviting for pedestrians, cyclists and local businesses, but the progress is clear and the results are beginning to reveal themselves.
Dockless Bike Share (And Scooter Share?)
Rochester’s Pace Bike program was a pioneer in the implementation of dockless bike technology in Upstate New York, allowing riders to pick up and drop off a shared bike virtually anywhere in the city. While problems with theft arose last season, Pace and the City of Rochester are working hard to resolve the issue. In any event, dockless bike share continues to be a fun additive as well as a last-mile transit solution in The Flower City.
Furthermore, Electric Scooter Share may be coming to Rochester as soon as this summer via Zagster. If this happens, the city will once again be on the forefront of urban innovation in the State of New York.
Since 2011, Rochester has committed to 64 miles of bike lane coverage. Recent additions of bike lanes on Main Street, East Ave and the beautiful new Cycle Track along Union Street have been particularly welcomed as the city continues to show that it is in favor of cycling as a mode of occasional or primary transit.
WXXI Rochester recently featured a piece on the issue of people parking, standing and unloading passengers in bike lanes, but this is not the fault of the lanes themselves. Like any mode of transportation, time, education and a growing presence will raise awareness for safe cycling and the need to respect the space of those on two wheels.
Rochester’s RTS bus system has been conducting an extensive “Re-Imagine RTS” study to better determine the needs of riders in the city and across the region. The goal is to create a leaner, more efficient bus network with a greater emphasis on regular service for the most commonly traveled routes.
The excitement around urban development, coupled with twenty-plus residential projects in the city, have fueled a rather dramatic rise in Center City Rochester’s population.
While the state is losing population, downtown’s new “neighborhood” is flourishing with thousands of new tenants who are already embracing the benefits of new urban life.
Plans are already in the works for improvements to High Falls and Roc The Riverway, a new initiative that aims to reconnect residents and visitors to the historic Genesee River. Clear plans for downtown’s most coveted piece of land, Parcel 5, and other key areas will likely materialize within the next year or two as well.
What Does All This Mean?
The City of Rochester and other creative minds are working hard to cultivate a rich urban soil. Reconnecting the once-torn fabric in Rochester’s downtown is the first step to growing a much more prosperous city that invites residents, visitors and employers (both home grown and remote!). I travel to city centers across Upstate New York, and while each of them have their own strengths, many of which Rochester could learn from, Rochester is continuously the leader in creating an environment that excites the senses while enriching the human factor in our urban landscape.
This is not a puff piece, nor is it an attempt to table the extreme issues of poverty, or the issues in the Rochester school district. It is, instead, a brief but positive look at just how much Downtown Rochester has changed in a few years, and how that change is leading the pack when it comes to Upstate New York.
We have a lot to do, and we will surely get our hands very dirty in the coming decade. But for a brief moment, let’s embrace the fact that Rochester has taken some incredibly powerful steps on the way to creating an innovative urban landscape that people will want to be a part of for years to come.