Cars are everywhere. Shopping is at one of the four major malls, out in the suburbs – there’s almost no retail left downtown. There’s an inner and an outer loop of expressways that act like walls to the now forbidden city. All that’s left of public transit is a bus system, and here in Rochester it is impossible, unbelievably, to get a single system-wide map. You know what this all feels like – everywhere U.S.A.
Not so oddly, it wasn’t always so. Rochester once had all of the buzz, and commerce and mobility, of the Erie Canal.
And a huge amount of rail service – freight, passenger, short haul and long, interurbans to Buffalo and Syracuse and beyond, and of course, the ubiquitous streetcar, complete with a line to the amuseument park in Charlotte, on the shore of Lake Ontario. A truly intermodal city. And a handsome one, at that.
Rochester even had a subway, shown below during construction.
The subway opened in 1927, and ran beneath the city until 1956. The alignment map shows a system oriented northwest to southeast. There were connections available to a number of surface rail systems – streetcar lines, interurbans, and longer range rail lines. It must have been pretty easy to move around the region in those days.
The line ran only about 2 miles in tunnels – the rest was grade-separated in a cut, most of which, before 1918, was the old Erie Canal. The Erie canal was relocated and became the Erie Barge Canal in about 1918, and the old canal bed was set for its next incarnation – rail transit.
Of course in its current incarnation, much of the canal has become home to the expressways of today – such is progress.
Rochester was reputed to be the smallest city in the world with a subway system. And interestingly, much of the old downtown subway tunnel remains mostly intact.
Image by Carol Fil/Flickr.
In fact, it has become the center of a protracted debate about the need for renewed public transit access, public safety (the tunnels are often used as shelter for the homeless), and public fiduciary responsiblity (the city pays something north of $1.2m annually to maintain the tunnel). The city has been trying for years to fill the tunnels in, and transit advocates have kept this from happening. It looks at this point as if the advocates are finally going to lose – the tunnels are slated to be filled in the spring of 2010. As a local urbanist said recently, unearthing them later is not an overwhelming task. We shall see.
And of course Rochester is blessed with more than its fair share of transit geeks (I count myself as one of these, by the way). One of the groups, the Rochester Rail Transit Committee, is outspokenly advocating a revival of regional rail transit. They have even created their own system map.
The proposed system connects most of the region of now about 1.2 million – spread out all over the place – connects the airport to the rest of the city, gets down to the University of Rochester, the region’s single largest employer (Wegmans, the grocer, is second largest, and Kodak now a distant third), and hooks up the High Falls and the river downtown to Charlotte and the Lake Ontario beaches to the north. Oh, and reuses the old subway tunnel. Not a bad piece of work, really. The four cardinal shopping malls aren’t part of the system – they aren’t really sustainable for too much longer anyway – but the baseball stadium AND the soccer stadium are on the green line.
And so, like many other American cities, an unsustainable auto-dominated present is built upon the foundations of a past which featured a rich array of mobility assets.
Back to the future!