Genealogy & Local History in Buffalo, NY

Traffic Calming in Buffalo

By Cynthia Van Ness, © 1998

Originally published in Artvoice, Buffalo, NY, August 5-11, 1998, p.3.

One of the songs I learned in kindergarten was "I Knew An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly." As all former children should know, the Old Lady happened to swallow a fly. We don't know why she swallowed the fly; perhaps she'll die. So she swallowed a spider to catch the fly, which wriggled and wriggled and tickled inside her. She swallowed a cat to catch the spider, she swallowed a dog to catch the cat, and so on up the zoological ladder. Eventually the old lady swallowed a horse..."she's dead, of course!"

When I think about the place of cars in pre-automobile cities like Buffalo, I'm reminded of this ditty. Not to delve deeply into the history of federal highway policy, but when the US committed to a transportation monoculture, in which the automobile displaced everything: rail, wagons, carriages, bicycles, pedestrians etc., cities like Buffalo swallowed that fly.

Every pre-World War II building demolished to make way for a parking lot is another Black Widow down Buffalo's throat. When we widened graceful Delaware Avenue by ripping out the canopy of mature curbside trees, and turned Olmsted's Humboldt Parkway into a concrete channel, we swallowed the cat. When we cut off our city from its waterfront with a noisy divided highway, we forced down another feline.

Our interior residential streets suffered from the same syndrome. Narrow streets that safely and easily accomodated horse-drawn carriages in both directions now seemed obstructionist and faintly un-American in the face of 150 horse-power engines. Two-way streets were changed to one-way to speed up traffic, an unquestioned urban "good" for over 50 years. Widening everything for parking, for more and more lanes, meant widespread tree slaughter.

Now the Traffic Calming (TC) movement emerges to question whether cities are obligated to meet the automobile's insatiable demand for asphalt and speed. As an almost year-round bicycle commuter, I am eager to join a conversation about the proper role of the infernal combustion engine in urban environments. Mr. Hendrix's article accurately captured the complaints of Lower West Side (LWS) residents about car-borne social and environmental pathologies, so I needn't enumerate them here.

However, I am appalled to find that Buffalonians are being "sold" the most extreme, invasive, and anti-social of Traffic Calming techniques: gates and barriers. What Mr. Hendrix's article omitted was any mention of the Traffic Calming measures proposed for the Ashland/Norwood (A/N) neighborhood: 6 permanent barriers installed diagonally across key intersections to force cars on Ashland or Norwood out onto Elmwood or Richmond. The traffic complaints of the A/N residents echo those of the LWS, although, as a cyclist who traverses almost the full length of Ashland and Norwood every day, I have to say that I can usually count on one hand the number of cars I encounter during rush hour.

Traffic Calming techniques are as diverse as the LWS itself. In order to slow drivers down, Buffalo can:

  • Install brick or cobblestone crosswalks. The effect is similar to the incised pavement leading up to toll booths. The change in surface texture makes you slow down.
  • Install alternating bands of brick or cobblestone amidst the asphalt on longer blocks like Ashland & Norwood between Summer and Bryant. Or replace all of the ashphalt with paving stones. I'll wager that the brick portion of Niagara Falls Boulevard suffers few speeders. This will not only slow traffic, but will beautify the street and enhance property values, which has been a stated goal of TC in Buffalo.
  • Allow parking on both sides of the street, 24 hours a day, from May to November. This has a narrowing effect, which slows down drivers. The most significant omission in most local discussions of TC, Mr. Hendrix's article included, is that in this climate, snow and ice are nature's own traffic calmers. Must we have permanent barriers to solve an essentially seasonal problem?
  • Finally, restore one-way streets to two-way. When you have oncoming traffic, you cannot barrel down the street any more.

Recall, if you will, that several of the streets slated for barriers and gates are presently one-way. Since one-way streets are designed to speed up traffic, why don't we make them two-way? Installing barriers or gates is just another automobile-inspired uglification of Buffalo's neighborhoods. It is an example of swallowing the dog instead of spitting out the cat.

We are fortunate as a city, thanks to UB, to have a large supply of designers, planners, and architects, many of whom live in the areas being targeted for gates and barriers. While their expertise is valuable in this debate, Buffalonians should ask themselves: was it ordinary citizens like me who clamored to denude Delaware Avenue of its trees? Was it Joe Steelworker who decided to destroy Humboldt Parkway? Did housewives eagerly volunteer to sacrifice their homes and neighborhoods for highway construction? With all due respect, these depredations were brought to us by various planners, engineers, and architects. I could go on about closing Main Street to traffic; blocking off our radial street plan, and so on. When design professionals insert themselves in the center of TC debates, with polished renderings of gates and barriers, I ask my neighbors to consider their past performance.

Until the world's fossil fuel runs out, which we can expect in under a century, we will not disgorge the automotive fly. But we can subordinate the auto without ingesting more and more permanent, disfiguring distortions to our historic streets. Perhaps proponents of gates and barriers are convinced that if we can just gulp down this canine, we'll solve a lot of our urban problems, but Buffalo has swallowed quite enough already. Some plans, Mr. Hendrix, should remain untried because, simply, they are dogs.

Updated1 8 March 2010