Jim Jones, GObike Engineer and retired Town Engineer for the Town of Tonawanda, attended the Congress for New Urbanism’s (CNU’s) weeklong conference, Designing for the Future of Mobility in Buffalo, hosted by the City of Buffalo, the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency (BURA), and national consulting firm Stantec Urban Places. Jones’s greatest takeaway from the event: we can better plan the future of Buffalo using planning principles that prioritize people (and walkability) over the automobile.

Last week, the City of Buffalo teamed up with the CNU, a national organization dedicated to championing walkable urbanism, to host a design charrette. A charette is a focused planning effort that gathers stakeholders from all dimensions to solve a problem or develop a solution–– in this case, how future mobility technology will be integrated into Buffalo’s transportation system to solve access and congestion issues. Citizens, planners, and engineers from the City of Buffalo and members of CNU from across the county worked together to outline expectations in Buffalo as mobility and land change in the next decade or two.

The Seneca One development is expected to add 1,500 jobs to Buffalo’s downtown business district, including 1,000 high technology jobs for M&T bank. Experts expect for every job created, an additional five supporting jobs will be created. Additionally, an expanded job force needs a system of support services, including restaurants, groceries, shops, etc.

With this expected change as well as impending technological changes in transportation such as autonomous vehicles, mobility services like Uber and Lyft, E-bikes, E-scooters, and micro-mobility technology in conjunction with traditional modes as personally owned vehicles, bicycles, micro and mass transit, and walking, the workshop team worked through various scenarios that would best prepare Buffalo. The city concentrated on the lower Main Street region, which roughly encompassed the area between Elmwood Avenue to Oak Street, between West Mohawk and the Buffalo River. This area includes Canalside and the Seneca One Tower and is highly impacted by the Niagara section of the thruway and the Skyway.

Collectively, the group established a framework of foundational principles that would guide the planning process, including a “feet first” approach wherein any proposed transportation or land use improvement had to consider the pedestrian experience as the greatest priority. This guiding principle supports that everyone must be able to move from point A to point B via foot (and associated mobility devices such as strollers, wheelchairs, walkers, etc.) safely and comfortably. Another guiding element of the framework was that any design and policy established must be based on universal access and thus providing equity and inclusion for users of every age and ability.

Additional baseline assumptions guiding the planning objectives include:

At least 1,500 jobs will be created in the near term and will catalyze five additional jobs per one job created.
Six to 8,000 affordable (30%) and market-rate mixed housing units will be added in the study area shortly.
Emerging mobility innovations will transform our region in the next 20 years.
New York State will soon adopt a law regarding bicycles with electronic assist and electric scooters.
Autonomous vehicles (AV) will continue to evolve. Shared AVs are preferred.
The Skyway will be removed.

The CNU first hosted a public meeting to introduce the project to the public. For the next three days, the organizers divided stakeholders and participants at the charette into four sections focusing on land use, mobility, design, and policy with an emphasis on how these will change in the next 20 years. The land use group addressed existing land use patterns and how they will evolve. The mobility experts looked at all available methods to move today and how they could and will to change. The design group analyzed the current state of the transportation infrastructure and what changes would be necessary to facilitate the type of change desired. For example, they identified Washington Street, Church Street, and North and South Division streets as possible incubator projects to be used for testing new technologies and methodology. The policy group evaluated how to use the city’s existing Green Code land use plan, complete streets policy, and parking policy to lead development, as well as state and federal rules, regulations, and policies.

The CNU presented the charette findings and conclusions to the public on Saturday, February 29. The CNU consultants will have a draft report in May and will present the results through a series of public meetings.

In summary, the charette was a sound effort to get a jump on change. The planning principles guiding the process with walkability as the top priority are considerably more equitable than the automobile-dominated planning approach that has been in vogue for the past 50 to 70 years. This antiquated planning approach is represented in the discussions regarding the Skyway removal and the conversion of the Scajaquada and Kensington Expressway corridors, with motor vehicle movement prioritized over our economy, community, and people. As they say, the process of planning is the best part of a plan as communicating and collaborating with all stakeholders helps forge and foster essential social capital bonds which often get overlooked.