February 1, 2017
Eric Schmarder, Senior City Traffic Engineer for the City of Buffalo, wasn’t always hip with bike lanes. But Schmarder’s perspective—along with that of the City of Buffalo Department of Public Works and the Mayor’s office—has changed significantly since 2008.
Eric Schmarder, Senior City Traffic Engineer for the City of Buffalo, wasn’t always hip with bike lanes.
In his job with the city, he was primarily concerned with cars and traffic and did not have much exposure to complete streets and its focus on necessary improvements for the benefit of all commuters – in cars, as well as on foot or on bikes.
“I’ll be honest, at first, when the complete streets policy was first introduced, we didn’t know what that was. I thought, well, we’ve got a couple streets we could do this with, but overall we thought of transportation as cars.”
But Schmarder’s perspective—along with that of the City of Buffalo Department of Public Works and the Mayor’s office—has changed significantly since 2008.
Schmarder credits the evolution of his viewpoint on transportation to a speaker at the Walk 21 conference he attended with our Executive Director, Justin Booth. The speaker helped him to realize that everyone is a pedestrian at some point in the day, even if they are not a bike commuter or transit rider. Schmarder started to really think about how he felt and others likely feel when interacting with traffic as a pedestrian or cyclist.
“Do you feel safe? How do you want to be treated?” asked Schmarder, “As traffic engineers, we need to put ourselves into that perspective.”
Invigorated by the conference, Schmarder returned to Buffalo with a mission to implement a few small projects to improve the safety of our most vulnerable street users: pedestrians and cyclists.
It All Starts with a Sharrow
Eric Schmarder checking out Vancouver's great bike infrastructure for the Pro Walk, Pro Bike conference this year.
On a quiet Columbus Day in 2009, Schmarder and his striping crew added the first sharrow (shared lane marking) to the streets of Buffalo, signaling to road users that this thoroughfare is for cyclists AND motorists alike. This was the first complete streets-focused project in Buffalo.
But the real turning point came with Linwood Avenue in 2011, a project Schmarder credits with giving him a much better appreciation of what complete streets meant and how it could be used as a tool for Buffalo citizens. The initial redesign of Linwood Avenue did not include bike lanes. After a concerned citizen emailed the Department of Public Works asking for bike lanes and citing the Complete Streets Policy, Schmarder realized that these concerns needed to be addressed and recognized the need for truly incorporating complete streets ideals into repaving and restriping projects in the City of Buffalo.
So when Delaware Avenue was next on the list for repaving and restriping, a new type of design was proposed: the corridor between North Street and Niagara Square would undergo a complete road diet, including lane reconfiguration based on current best practices, bike lanes, and timed signals. The project was not without opposition (see Delaware Avenue Traffic Changes Get Mixed Reactions from the Buffalo News), but the fearless public works team, including Schmarder and Commissioner Steve Stepniak, barreled forward. Four years later, the results are in: while overall accidents have increased in line with greater traffic volume, overall injuries have significantly decreased. In addition, pedestrian counts have doubled at W. Huron, are 30% higher at W. Tupper, and 21 % higher at Allen St.
A Bike Master Plan for the Dreamers and the Engineers
Eric Schmarder and GObike Buffalo learning about best practices in active transportation.
In 2016, Mayor Byron Brown released the Bicycle Master Plan, a collaborative effort between the City of Buffalo and GObike Buffalo, with the assistance of design firm Alta Planning and Design. The plan has been integral in getting a number of community stakeholders --from Buffalo Riverkeeper to Buffalo Sewer Authority to the Department of Public Works-- on the same page in regards to bike infrastructure planning.
“The bike master plan not only guides the public, but also our design,” said Schmarder. He credits the plan with making his job a lot easier as it creates a blueprint for street design whenever a new project arises. He also noted that the plan, as well as the success of previous projects, marked the paradigm shift in the thought process of the public works department and allowed everyone to get on the same page.
“We didn’t do the master plan to put it on a shelf; we wanted it to be something we put into practice with every project,” said Schmarder. “The planners dream up a lot of things, but the engineers have to actually build them. We wanted a plan that could actually be built.”
And being built, it is. Thanks to the support and collaboration of Mayor Byron Brown, the Department of Public Works, including Commissioner Steve Stepniak, City Chief Engineer Mike Finn, and the rest of the City’s public works department, Buffalo is on track to have more than 300 miles of bike lanes implemented over the next 10 years.
“The City of Buffalo’s support for Complete Streets and other fundamental policy changes over the last decade has laid the groundwork supporting the transformational work now being done,” said Justin Booth, Executive Director at GObike Buffalo. “It has been important to build relationships with all levels of government to work collaboratively towards the same goal of a more walkable and bikeable city and as lot of credit belongs to Eric Schmarder and his peers at the public works department for moving policy to implementation is deserved.”