Gas prices may have focused the collective mind - for a heartbeat, in historical terms - but the transportation picture is as blurred as ever. If ever a nation seemed intent on driving itself crazy, it’s the US.
And Rochester is doing its patriotic part.
I thought of this the other morning as I coasted down the S. Clinton Ave. sidewalk at the edge of downtown, on my way to teach at MCC Damon.
Yes, I feel the need to use this one short stretch of sidewalk, between the I-490 overpass and the intersection of Woodbury Blvd. Normally I won’t bike on any sidewalk; doing so is technically illegal in the downtown business district, and only kids should use the walks elsewhere. But Clinton Ave. is murder during rush hour. Drivers exiting I-490 West hit the gas as they try to make the light at Woodbury, and again at Court, Main, and intersections to the north.
So, like so many others of its kind in the twilight of the Machine Age, Clinton is no longer a thoroughfare open to the full range of traffic (walkers, bikers, horses, skaters, etc.). It serves a specialized group: fuel-injected commuters and truckers trying to beat the time clock. You're well advised to keep out of their path.
The praiseworthy Rochesterians who are fighting the construction of “Renaissance Square” have shown how the terminal will exacerbate bus traffic on Clinton south and north of Main Street. But few people have commented on how bad the avenue is already.
Here experience is a demanding teacher.
The first thing that hits a biker while navigating Clinton through midtown - from Woodbury north to the Amtrak station - is the lack of a decent shoulder. As you keep tabs on overtaking traffic, you pay close attention to your right pedal, which could easily jam on the curb and send you who knows where. You have manage with a slim margin of safety.
Then just before Court St., in the shadow of the Universalist Church, you find yourself - assuming you’ve virtuously kept to the right - in a classic squeeze play. The traffic engineers have facilitated traffic flow by creating a right-turn-only lane onto Court. If you want to go straight, you have to occupy the turning lane to keep traffic from crossing your path. So if you simply exercise your vehicular right to proceed north on Clinton, you get a line of impatient, hard-charging behemoths all but up your wazoo. Fun.
But the fun’s just starting. When you pass Broad Street, you have to contend with curbside bump-outs that limit your maneuvering room significantly. This makes the 45-mph traffic at your left elbow more, well, noticeable. When you arrive safely at the East Main stoplight, you pause and consider kissing the earth. Only the ground here is asphalt contorted by the combination of heat and heavy vehicles - and topped off with a appetizing coat of petro-slime. It’s enough to make you long for the good old days of literal horseshit in the streets.
Renaissance Square will suck down a quarter billion dollars that could have boosted the bus system and provided decently for bicyclists and pedestrians. Amtrak, routinely starved by the feds, won’t get the benefit of an intermodal makeover in downtown. The fast ferry schedule will diminish to the vanishing point.
Even with the best intentions, we'll need decades to nurture a sustainable transportation system. And politically speaking, we're not close to giving our best.
How about stepping back a little? Instead of RenSquare, we need Square One: a comprehensive regional transportation plan that puts people and human-powered vehicles first.
For now, though, I'd settle for implementation of an old proposal: change all of downtown's one-way race courses back to two-way, human-scale urban streets.