The coup against cars

Buffalo and Delaware Park can learn from Central Park’s move to get rid of cars

danm

On Friday, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in a press conference and on Twitter that Central Park would permanently be car-free starting in June, with the exception of the lowered roads that go through the park at 97th, 86th, 79th and 65th streets.

As an anti-car citizen of Buffalo, I can’t help but dream of a car-free Delaware Park, which is currently cut in half by the hideous and hazardous Scajaquada Expressway. The famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed both parks, and he never wanted a stream of loud automobiles to cut through the sense of calm and solitude urban park-goers need.

Now, the decision in New York doesn’t ban automobiles entirely. The four lowered transverses, all originally designed by Olmsted to be as non-invasive as possible, will remain open for cross traffic between the east and west sides of Manhattan when the rest of Central Park’s roadways are closed to cars.

You could argue the Scajaquada would be the same situation: a transverse road serving as a vital east-west artery. It’s practical and necessary for quickly moving through the city, and is a direct link between the Kensington Expressway –– the biggest urban planning mistake in Buffalo’s history –– and the I-190, a major international trade route.

But the Scajaquada’s history has an especially tragic chapter.

In 2015, a car veered off the expressway and hit a mother and her two children. Maksym Sugorovskiy, 3, died. In the immediate aftermath, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Department of Transportation lowered the speed limit from 50 to 30 mph and installed guardrails, effectively putting band-aids on the gaping wound that is the Scajaquada.

It shouldn’t have taken that long to do anything about the Scajaquada. The DOT has since proposed several plans, one that called for a downgrade of the expressway to a street, but the city and the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy felt that didn’t go far enough.

The BOPC’s current position, listed on its website, calls for “any roadway through the Park” be “in a manner faithful to Olmsted design,” much like the four transverses through Central Park. It calls for “park access for multi-modal use from surrounding neighborhoods.” It calls for “lowering elevations of the roadway corridor … to the greatest extent possible.”

In short, the BOPC wants what any Buffalonian should want: a world-class park. The Scajaquada, if it must exist, should be lowered into the ground, much like the Central Park transverse roads are. The park should be open, safe and accessible to the community, just as Olmsted intended. Delaware Park should be car-free.

It can be difficult to imagine the disappearance of an imposing roadway, but it’s not unprecedented. Portland, Oregon’s U.S. Route 99W became the first victory in the pushback against freeways back in 1974. The city closed most of the roadway and built a waterfront park over it, giving pedestrians the space and greenery they deserve. Since then, cities across the country have reclaimed space once covered in concrete.

So, we need to either completely demolish the Scajaquada or mirror Central Park’s lowered transverses. But why stop there? The Central Park development stems from an urban planning mentality New Yorkers have that Buffalonians are not eager to embrace: less cars, and more pedestrians, bicycles and transit.

Buffalo’s urban planning historically valued the automobile over everything else. The Kensington Expressway, a highway no one wants that effectively segregates the city, was built to appease car-loving suburbanites.

Recently, the city has taken a few steps in the right direction. In 2016, the zoning code was radically changed, with the intention of “promoting walkable neighborhoods, mixed developments, historic character, environmental sustainability and mass transit,” according to The Buffalo News.

Last week, the DOT showed the public plans for the new downtown Amtrak station, which included a covered walkway to the NFTA metro line. It’s still a head-scratching decision to not build the new station at the beautiful Grand Central Terminal, but any transit-oriented development is a good one for me.

Cities should value transit, walkability and preservation of neighborhood character. New York’s transit-based development has given it countless pockets of communities built around metro stations. Buffalo’s Main Street metro stations sit in largely decrepit and abandoned parts of town instead of denser, walkable communities.

New Yorkers are almost infamous for complaining about the MTA. With 74 percent of riders being late because of subway delays, according to The Daily News, who can blame them. But it says something about their mentality. New York and mass transit –– subways, buses, trains, etc. –– are inextricably linked. Even when the system is falling apart it seems, New Yorkers still want to talk about their intense love-hate relationship with the MTA.

Of course, New York and Buffalo are very different places. New York is an aging marvel of interconnected transit where pedestrians are the norm and cars are the nuisance. Buffalo might not have the population density or the finances to beef up its transit enough to take down cars, but in the case of Central Park and Delaware Park, two famous Olmsted projects, Buffalo could do worse than following its downstate companion’s decision.

Dan McKeon is the copy chief and can be reached at dan.mckeon@ubspectrum.com and @Dan_McKeon_.