The Hard Work of Advocacy.
Unbeknownst to people in Buffalo in the 80’s, Washington, D.C. was one of the first cities to put in a “bike highway” that linked the outer reaches of Northern Virginia with the District of Columbia. The Custis and he WO&D trails, were opened in the early 1980’s in the shadow Highway 66 and the Potomac River respectively. Due to their strategic placement, they are both beautiful and interesting as well as incredibly useful.
Like a highway, the trails have road markings dividing the lanes with opposing bike traffic, shoulders, bridges, and off/on ramps complete with signage. On a bike commute in Buffalo there are intermittent bike lanes where you still must dodge cars because people park, stand and idle in them. You consistently run out of bike lane and must swerve around man-eating potholes. Then on some avenues like North Elmwood, it’s common for motorists to hug the curb, with an eight-foot-wide car driving in a 12-foot-wide lane. They effectively block what could have been a bike lane. It is easy to understand why people still don’t commute to work in Buffalo. In D.C. Metro, by contrast, you can ride 20 miles on a protected, wooded, serene bike path without ever dealing with a car.
Even though the ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act) was passed in 1991 with specific direction for municipalities to include alternative modes of infrastructure planning, bike infrastructure implementation languished for decades. Since funding wasn’t attached, very little got done, that is until Justin came on the scene.
Under the umbrella of the Wellness Institute, Justin had some entrepreneurial latitude to pursue research about potential health oriented projects. The bike thing made a lot of sense. So Justin began his mission to find out just what it would take to bring bike infrastructure to Buffalo. He did research, went to conferences, started writing grants and looked at what had been done around the country and how they did it. He asked a lot of questions and one of his first bike infrastructure mentors told him that the key to pushing through bike initiatives was to create a bicycle pedestrian advisory board where all new transportation infrastructure projects in the city are obliged to go through a review process with the Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Board for inter-modal sustainability. In tandem, Justin also started working on getting this work codified in the “Green Code,” so the toolbox he was creating for implementing complete streets infrastructure could be institutionalized.
Justin mostly created that board himself and has chaired it for the six years. He says, only now in the past two years, has it truly functioned the way it was designed. The first years were full of ups and downs and getting people to understand the positive economics and societal effects holistic perspectives on traffic could have on the city at large.
To that end, Justin wrote for and was awarded a grant from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to study the impact of cycling on Buffalo. Like a lot of us in the wider cycling communities, we know there are great studies that have been done by highly reputable authorities in large cities around the country that outline the positive impact holistic transportation solutions have on communities. Justin probably knew that people in Buffalo wouldn’t be interested in what was happening in other cities, it was important to show the direct impact here.
To think that Justin asks the City for bike lanes and just gets them is wildly inaccurate. It took all of that and a whole lot more to make Buffalo as bike-friendly as it is today.
I was a bike messenger in San Francisco in the bad old days of biking. These days it seems like everyone rides a bike there. In 1995 there was one extremely lame mile-long bike lane out in the middle of South of Market (SOMA). Back in 1995 this part of town was a barren wasteland. The bike lane was there because that was what the City allowed its
bike lane advocates – the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition to have. It was the least “disruptive” option. The rest of the city was a free-for-all. In the 80’s and 90’s you had to have huge balls to ride in traffic in San Francisco. People were regularly killed both on foot and on wheel. While I was there, a guy was decapitated by a motorist who opened their car door into traffic.
The SFBC was dauntless, harried and unstoppable. They killed themselves and got nowhere for years. The same could be said for Transportation Alternatives of NYC. Possibly the reason Washington, DC had such a brilliant example of bike path nirvana was because the city itself pushed the concept of inter-modal infrastructure. Where else but the national capital could bike infrastructure plan be pushed down peoples’ throats? Around the country, we fought for decades just to have a sliver of real estate. Justin learned from the work of advocates around the country that came before him, and he worked efficiently. He didn’t operate within the car-centric, “parking equals economic growth” model.
Knowing the Department of Public Works could be his number one ally or his number one adversary in this mission, he set about on a charm offensive. On his own steam, through grant writing and research, he funded a trip to a NYC conference (Walk 21) for two Buffalo DPW (Department of Public Works) engineers, so they could see what mayors around the world were doing about inter-modal infrastructure. It was an atypical approach, but effective. For another the Bicycle Planning Innovation and Design in Portland, Justin and the Buffalo engineers went to bike infrastructure school. By day it was death by power point, in the afternoon it was infrastructure field trips and every evening, they did a different brew pub kicking back, bonding and talking about the future of inter-modal infrastructure in Buffalo.
“There is an intersection between zoning and public health.” Justin told me in this interview. “You have a bridge being built that has a lifespan of 50-70 years, adding the bike/pedestrian connections on it is a once in a generation opportunity.” Getting in on that planning is key to making cities more accessible to everyone.
Justin is passionate about the deeper effects of bad infrastructure planning, planning that happens without residents’ input, “These bad infrastructure projects like the 33 cut through the middle of our city and separate our communities. They create blight, air pollution and who is it affecting the most? The poor, people of color. It has become an environmental and economic justice issue.” Like so many Sustainability advocates, he points out the externalities, “We all end up paying for it later, the childhood asthma, the unemployment, obesity, why not do something that makes sense.”