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curved flyovers and multi lane highways in Shanghai

For a long time, I have found myself wondering about a simple question: how much do we spend every year on our roads and bridges? Is it a lot? Is it not very much? Essentially: are we putting our tax dollars to work in the best way we can when it comes to securing and enhancing our mobility?

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In the back of my brain was the suspicion that if I knew the answer to my question, I might feel unhappy. Or even angry. Compared to all of the things in our world that need our attention, and our tax dollars, things like education and health care and social equity and our courts and our environment and our resilience, perhaps our spending on further enabling cars might be, well, out of proportion. Does the money we spend assist our present and assure our future, I ask?

And so I have spent time trying to figure out what we in Monroe County, New York spend annually on our transportation costs. Just Monroe County. Here goes.

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It is fairly simple to discover the Federal part of this total. The Federal allotments to our region are quite clearly laid out and available, thanks to the Genesee Transportation Council, our MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization) legally charged with overseeing our transportation health. The answer: well, it varies, depending on which of our Federal Highways we are repairing, but generally the number runs to about $150,000,000 per year.

And now the plot thickens. The rest of the funding for our mobility in Monroe County comes from the State of New York, Monroe County, and all of the municipalities within the county’s boundaries.

The State of New York budget for transportation runs to about $11 billion, and there are 11 regions in the state. We are Region 4. As near as I am able to determine, we see something near $65,000,000 in annual spending.

In Monroe County, the transportation budget is pegged at $62,000,000. Aviation is a  separate budget at $21,000,000.

Taking apart all of the municipal budgets to discover each of their line items and coming up with some form of total is a scholastic exercise. Taken all together, and spread across all of the towns, cities and villages of the county, seems like it comes up to about $100,000,000.

So if we add up the Feds, the State, the County and the locals we come up with an annual budget of $377,000,000 without aviation, or $398,000,000 with aviation.

As a side note, the budget for our public transportation system, RTS, is $81,000,000 – about a fifth of what we spend for our cars and trucks.

So. In the end, the annual spending in our county for transportation is just a bit shy of $400,000,000.

And as I did my research and read many budget summaries from the State and elsewhere, most budgeteers suggest that this number is absolutely not sufficient to maintain our existing infrastructure.

I 490 traffic

Nearly half a billion dollars every year is a lot of money. And we are told it is not enough. Let’s see – if we need more money for our vehicles, what shall we not do? Something for our children? Our health? Our future? Or maybe we should not fix some things – leave some bridges to fail, or some roads to become impassable.

Should be an interesting New Year….

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In the Old City, Ahmedabad.

In February and March we spent a month visiting seven cities across India, from south to north, from west to east. Our time there was completely exceptional: invaluable, surprising, educational, revealing, depressing, infuriating, eye-opening and more. I continue to reflect on those days, and it has taken me until now to begin to digest, and therefore to be able to begin to describe, what we saw and experienced. Herewith, some first thoughts.

First, this: it seems certain that the best opportunity to understand the city in the 21st century and its challenges, obstacles, options and solutions, may be in India. India’s 1.3 billion souls live in the largest democracy on Earth, they own a rapidly expanding and developing economy, they face nearly insurmountable problems, and they are working as hard as they can to build a better urban future. Perhaps once we might have gone to Rome or Paris or Vienna to build a foundation for 20th century urbanism in the west. But now it’s time for the American Academy in Rome to become the American Academy in Delhi, or Chennai. I urge you: go, look, learn – you will be changed forever.

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The seven cities we visited were, in the order in which we saw them, Chennai (once called Madras), Mysore, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Delhi. Together, their populations equal over 70 million. To put that in some kind of perspective – a central operation both during and after this remarkable journey – the largest 72 cities in the U.S. add up to about 70 million.

In the U.S., 82% of us live in metropolitan areas. In India, 32% of the population live in a metropolitan area. India’s urban populations are exploding – most have doubled in size since 2000 – and this explosion gives potent urgency to the need to solve a panoply of problems that we face, and that they face, as the future races toward us all.

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Sarojini Nagar Market, in Delhi.

These cities feature an average density of 30,000 people or more per square mile. To say that slightly differently, each citizen has just over 900 square feet in which to dwell. In U.S. cities, we average about 5,000 people per square mile, or approximately 5,600 square feet per person. Indian cities are really dense.

And loaded with unbearable traffic, too many cars and motos, and endless honking and pushing and shoving. In the context of a measureable poverty of road infrastructure, the cities we visited had – nonetheless – over 20 million cars. Chaos.

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Traffic in Bangalore.

Vehicular traffic is so bad that there is NO solution that involves cars. The car is over in many places in this world, and in India expanding wealth will most definitely not want to hear this, but there is no urban mobility solution that involves cars. In Bangalore they twice tried an even/odd license plate number scheme to control congestion, and there were nearly riots in the streets. In that city, the average speed for traffic is projected to be 6 mph by 2030. We sat in one Bangalore traffic jam for over an hour and moved only the length of a ruler. A short ruler.

Gather all of the traffic engineers and transport experts in a room, tell them that they must solve problems in urban mobility, and let them know that no solution they devise can employ cars. We will see what they come up with, and it seems likely we’ll see it first in a city in India: their current state of urban transportation demands as yet unimagined solutions.

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Traffic in Delhi.

So many other challenges exist. In Bangalore, for instance, the city has seen 525% population growth, a 78% decline in vegetation, and a 79% decline in water bodies in the last few decades. Some Indian urban experts call Bangalore a dead city. And yet,

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Bangalore.

life goes on there.

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Traffic in Bangalore, beneath the Metro.

Another challenge: when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, one of his early pledges involved toilets. In India, 53% of homes have no toilet, and this is causing and has caused giant health problems. While 89% of this problem exists in rural locales, it is significant that many Indians prefer NOT to use toilets.

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Sprawl on the horizon, Delhi.

And then there is sprawl. As I have noted, Indian cities are expanding at breakneck speed, and while the improvisational and makeshift nature of much vernacular Indian urbanism covers some of this expansion, each of the cities we visited, big or small, is struggling with sprawl. Indian planners and architects and developers, using western and mostly U.S. patterns and models for ongoing contemporary development – single separated uses, car domination, and a pronounced lack of walkability – are creating places (well, not really places, but locations) that they will very soon come to regret. In the context of  the rapid urban growth of each city, the weaknesses of this method of dealing with needed newness shows up really fast. We had a mid morning flight one morning (commercial aviation in India is well developed and quite sophisticated) and we were told we had to depart for the airport at 6:30am for a 10:00am flight. We drove for hours through dreadful and very recent developments, in horrific traffic. Try something else, folks.

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Bangalore’s 2031 Master Plan – a bit of a puzzle.

And that something else could find its roots in the contingent and provisional urbanism so characteristic of the oldest parts of Indian cities. While it is true that much of this ad hoc urbanism has all kinds of structural and infrastructural problems, it is also true that the density of this urbanism, its mixture of uses, its walkable intimacy, are potent paradigms for growing a city. Some of the most powerful and moving places we witnessed were these older places. They are so vividly alive, so robust and vital.

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The images: two from Ahmedabad, one from Jaipur, and two from Delhi.

That vitality of Indian cities, more exuberantly than almost anywhere we have been, is situated in the  life of the street. In Indian cities, the street is a conduit for, and the principle stage of daily life. Dodge the motos and walk the streets – it is worth every second. Everywhere are merchants on the ground floor, usually open to the street, and often grouped by type: the jeweler’s street, the baker’s street, the tailor’s street.

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Jaipur.

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Jodhpur.

And above? All kinds of things: apartments, clinics, hotels, more shops – a real mix. These streets filled with commotion are active and vigorous day and night. The theater of these cities has no intermission.

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Chickpet and Avenue Roads, Bangalore.

In the end, the challenges are colossal. But these cities are so full of life and energy. And they seem to be – except maybe for the politicians – mostly free of cynicism. And marked by a substantial good will. There seems to be some hope that these cities can and will, eventually, show the rest of us how to make a 21st century urbanism. We can watch, and we will anticipate, how this struggle unfolds. Onward.

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Ugh. Somehow, we seem incapable of naming any important planning or design initiative anything other than ROC. ROC is the airport code for Rochester.

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Must we really persist in this ROC title for our restaurants, bars, carpet cleaners, dry cleaners, home inspectors, car repair shops, bagel shops, theaters, barber shops, moving companies?… And urban design plans?

Anyway, the Governor of New York has threatened to provide our city with tens of millions of dollars ($50 million) to transform the Genesee River, which runs through our city, into the asset that it should be, and could be. The City’s ‘plan’ for the money involves spending most of it on maintenance that should be undertaken anyway, like repairing and redesigning very bad riverside plazas (with parking underneath: let’s get rid of all parking along the river – all of it) created during “urban renewal”, fixing terraces and paving at public facilities alongside the river, or repairing the now pedestrian-only Pont de Rennes bridge, which crosses the river at High Falls and offers sensational views of the city’s greatest natural asset (it needs to be fixed – it’s rusting!).

Pont de Rennes bridge

Oh, and there is a plan to re-water the aqueduct that once carried the Erie Canal through our downtown. Really expensive ($35 million?!?). This is, for me, way down the list of things we need to do right away.

The place to begin, it seems to me, is to create a real plan. This would include tasks and costs, as in the city’s shopping list, and then move on to priorities, phases, and methods of implementation. Our river runs through downtown, and the return on investment there could be quite substantial. But our river runs through the rest of the city as well, past University and neighborhoods, parks and other waterfalls, wetlands and marshes, marinas and boat clubs, all the way out to Lake Ontario.

What we really need to do is just three really important things. If it takes $50 million, fine. If not, call me: I could go on…. Here’s my list:

  • Connect both sides of the river continuously for public use, from Lake Ontario some 8 miles to the north, to as far south as money and jurisdictional power will take us. (I am told that the only way to do this is to redo the aqueduct. I say Nuts to that).
  • Invest in the waterfall and its High Falls District, which lies at the heart of our city, and our city’s history, and support programs which educate, celebrate and redevelop this central stage of our community. (Full disclosure: I am on the board of Greentopia, and we are proposing that this place, and our first-in-New-York-State Eco-District, get some help in this ROC thing).

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  • Make the river in our downtown the magnet for citizens, businesses and adjacent redevelopment that other cities – Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver, Grand Rapids, others – have succeeded in achieving. This would mean $100s of millions in increased value, jobs, and tax revenues if done properly. Downtown river development has worked real wonders in other cities, like Columbus, Ohio, or Greenville, South Carolina.

High Falls aerialPhoto from Greentopia.

That’s it. Three tasks. If we did these three, perhaps we could go from ROC to Rochester. Wouldn’t that be nice?

 

 

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Once upon a time, North Water was a district that featured garment manufacturers, technology innovators, shoe makers, brewers and distillers, warehousers, and more than a few squatters.

From Main Street, North Water proceeded to Central Avenue and the railroads.

 

Most, though not all, of the buildings on the river side of the street were large masonry loft buildings, housing manufacture and warehousing for retail. In April of 1924, the Lawless Paper Company had a huge fire, and crowds gathered to gawk.

 

Lawless Paper burns, April of 1924. Note the house on the left side of the street, behind the crowds. That’s Marie Lappitano’s.

The small buildings, above, were destined for demolition to make way for an enlarged Chamber of Commerce, thanks to the largesse of George Eastman

And many of the buildings on the east side of the street – opposite the river side – were small, older, residential, and mostly removed, like the Marie Lappitano house at 88 North Water above, built in 1865 and about to vanish, in this view from 1922. The house disappeared by 1926 or so.

Here’s a map from 1962 that shows what Water Street and Front Street were like just moments before they disappeared into the jaws of urban renewal. (Thanks to M. Denker for this plan).

The idea was to replace all of the run-down, old fashioned and dilapidated urban fabric on both sides of the river with this:

Above, the Tishman proposal, and below, the I.M. Pei proposal.

And today:

Photo from Panoramio by Soxrule 19181.

In another city, Chicago, their riverfront revival looks like this:

Our work lies before us. If we can keep images of the rich and historic life that was Water and Front Streets in our imaginations, and if we can be cheered by what’s possible, we can make a better city.

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The narratives – the stories – that any place has to offer us often occur in multiple chapters. We need to find ways to keep listening as these stories slowly unfold before us. So it is with Carthage – another installment.

1817 was quite a year in this part of the world. For example, in 1811, Nathaniel Rochester began laying out the streets and lots of Rochesterville, his town, and by 1817 the population had soared to nearly 1,500. In that same year, Colonel Rochester sought to ensure the future of his burgeoning community by sitting on a committee that was petitioning the state to bring the Erie Canal to Rochester via a northern route from the Hudson. As we know, he would succeed.

Meanwhile Elisha Strong was busy in Carthage. Even though this part of the Genesee River gorge was thick with bears and wolves and wildcats, and home to rattlesnakes “as thick as a man’s arm,” he and his fellow attorney (and later judge) Elisha Beach were undaunted.

And now enter the third Elisha: Elisha Johnson.

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Nice looking guy. Dickens’ Bumble the Beadle perhaps?

Johnson, like his friend and colleague Strong, was a Canandaiguan. An engineer, Johnson owned land upstream (south), adjacent to Colonel Rochester, and in the year 1817- yup – he gave 80 acres of land to Rochesterville (the city didn’t become Rochester until 1834) that would become Washington Square Park – our city’s central urban space.

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Washington Square Park, Memorial Day, 1909

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President Taft and the GAR parade at Washington Square Park, 1911

In 1817, Carthage looked like this, in a plat map created by Elisha Johnson:

Map of Carthage 1817 Elisha Johnson

This was a bit ambitious…. Carthage was tiny, and about to become home to a huge bridge construction project, and then a gigantic collapse, as we’ve learned. Maximum population in Carthage could be measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Interestingly the later development of Rochester proceeded much as Johnson outlined in his map of 1817.

In the 1830s Johnson, ever the entrepreneurial engineer, would build a horse railroad from Rochesterville to Carthage that hauled freight to an inclined plane that allowed cargo to reach the river from its eastern banks. The railroad carried passengers too, in two carriages. One was named Grieg, the other Duncan. The railroad, one of the first of its kind in the nation, would become a model for later streetcars. And shortly thereafter, Carthage was annexed by Rochester.

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I don’t know if this is Grieg or Duncan

Meanwhile, in 1817, Rochesterville looked like this:

1817 mapNorth is, oddly, to the right in this image – a map not made by either Colonel Rochester or Johnson. A couple of years later, Colonel Rochester’s ambitious plan for his nascent city looked like this:

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Of course the place didn’t look quite like this plat: the population in 1820 was 1,502. Here is a view from a bit earlier, 1812, to give you a sense of the difference between the hype of the maps and the reality on the ground.

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Main Street and the Genesee River (soon to become the heart of downtown Rochester) looked like this in 1812:

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The bridge at Main Street and the river, looking west

But the Canal was headed toward reality, and once it arrived, the city exploded. Herewith, below, a lovely map of Rochester from 1827, by none other than Elisha Johnson. The population? About 9,000. Note the presence of the canal.

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Washington Square Park, marked with the letter M, is between the larger letters F and O in the word Fourth, in the lower right

So there you have it.

In 1838, Elisha Johnson became the fifth mayor of Rochester. He fought on the wrong side of the Civil War while living in Tennessee with his brother Ebenezer (a former mayor of Buffalo….), was pardoned by Sherman, moved back north to Ithaca, and died there in 1866.

So our cities are made, Elisha by Elisha.

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In the interest of trying to come to a better understanding of what we believe is a very misguided decision to locate a Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park (STAMP) in Alabama, New York, out in Genesee County, we hopped in the car for the voyage west to the site. The STAMP here is aimed at generating 10,000 jobs, and will have a completed price tag north of $500 million.  About an hour later (yes, we took the expressways, and it was mid-morning, not rush hour), we arrived. Here’s the site:

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Actually, here’s the site, looking southeast:

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Looking northwest:

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And here is Alabama, New York:

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Alabama is quite a small hamlet – a few dozen buildings surrounded by farmland. Less than a mile away is the 10,000 acre Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, with its swamps and meadows and woodlands.

The site is within the Genesee County AG-2 district, as designated by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. The stated purpose of designated agriculture districts is “to protect and promote the availability of land for farming purposes.” Genesee County names the site as containing “prime” farmland, and much of the site area is within a designated Smart Growth Zone. In New York State, our legislated Smart Growth Policy says this:

 “§ 6-0105. State smart growth public infrastructure policy.

It is the purpose of this article to augment the state’s environmental
policy  by  declaring  a fiscally prudent state policy of maximizing the
social, economic and environmental benefits from  public  infrastructure
development  through  minimizing unnecessary costs of sprawl development
including environmental degradation, disinvestment in urban and suburban
communities and loss of open space induced by sprawl facilitated by  the
funding  or  development  of  new  or expanded transportation, sewer and
waste water treatment, water,  education,  housing  and  other  publicly
supported   infrastructure   inconsistent   with   smart  growth  public
infrastructure criteria.”

The site’s western boundary, literally, is a reservation for the Tonawanda Band of the Seneca Indians.

Further north – about 6 miles – is the village of Medina, population 6,000, and 14 mile to the southeast is Batavia, population 15,000.

So, what did we conclude during our sojourn? Several things.

Alabama has a lot going for it. Designated and protected prime farmland, a Smart Growth Zone, a nearby National Wildlife Refuge, substantial history for Native-Americans, designated and protected wetlands, great opportunities for activities outdoors.

Alabama is not near a major population center, with existing infrastructure, skilled workers, transit, and brownfield sites already prepared for redevelopment. To get to Alabama from Rochester, workers need to plan on a commute by car – no transit is available to the site – of about an hour.

To put a STAMP out in Alabama, with 10,000 workers, is complete madness. Not only would the STAMP violate nearly all of the assets of the place, and would certainly not represent anything approaching Smart Growth, but a STAMP here would mean missing the opportunity to employ new job creation where it is most logical, and will do the most good – the city. We thought it was a bad idea before we went to Alabama. After our visit, we are sure. This is a legacy mistake in the making. Perhaps better, another legacy mistake in the making.

A last note for our none-Rochester readers. In a recent newspaper article here, it was suggested that a model for this Upstate New York STAMP is the Intel Campus in Hillsboro, Oregon. Just to be quite clear, Hillsboro is less than 15 miles from downtown Portland, and that site is served by MAX, the region’s light rail transit system, with trains every 15 minutes.

 

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A good model. Not Alabama, New York, but a good model, and a great argument for putting the STAMP where it belongs – in the city.

 

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And now my TEDx talk from last November is up and on YouTube. Thanks to Tony Karakashian and the Rochester TEDx crew, and to WXXI for their editing work.

 

 

 

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