Public Transit in Rochester: Still Miles from Where it Needs to Be

When I lived in D.C., I walked everywhere. To work, to get groceries, even downtown. Since I’ve moved back to Rochester, I’ve been car-bound, despite working just eight minutes from my house and living mere streets from the Public Market. This is for a number of reasons but mainly because getting around any other way is exceedingly slow and cumbersome.

There’s no question that transportation in the city of Rochester is severely lacking, negatively impacting residents’ ability to find and/or commute to work, get to high-quality grocery stores, and more. For a city where everything is 15 minutes away, residents without a car often feel isolated and face an inability to travel easily, conveniently and cheaply.

“We take transportation for granted here,” said Ravi Mangla of ROCitizen. “You can drive from one end of the city to the other in, what, 15 minutes? About 25 percent of people don’t have access to the car. That’s upwards of a quarter of people, families. That’s your access to grocery stores, job, green spaces, everything.”

Rochester, in a 2000 census, made the list of 100 cities with the most households without a car. Since, more updated numbers have been difficult to find. However, while the exact number of carless families remains unknown, local advocates know the number remains high, and with high poverty and joblessness rates, public transit is becoming a high priority locally. From bike-sharing being rolled out to ride-sharing working it’s way through the state legislature, and RTS’ own initiatives, advocates, environmentalists, those without cars and many, many more are hoping to see a change in commuting around the city in the near future.

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“Anyone who has ridden pubic transit knows it’s not very effective,” said Mary Lupien, a candidate for City Council and public transportation advocate. “Unless you live on a bus line and work downtown it doesn’t really serve your needs. I live on a bus route and I worked downtown and it was great— I loved it. I’d walk half a block so I see the benefit it can give you. I’ve lived without a car for several months. It’s challenging especially if you have kids. It’s not really serving the needs of our community,”

And while bussing isn’t the only way to get around the city, it’s the largest system in place. Some of the major challenges for bus riders include low-frequency bussing, which means busses visit stops infrequently. While the Dewey Ave bus line makes stops every 10-15 minutes during rush hour, other riders on other lines only get busses every half hour to hour. They are also notoriously slow and riders often complain they are late and don’t show up at all. Additionally, the hub-and-spoke pattern of the system with the Transit Center in the middle and routes reaching out like fingers to cover the area means some parts of the city are caught between lines. People can find themselves with a long walk to the nearest stop, reducing their likelihood to take the bus.

This RTS map shows the bus routes serving the greater Rochester area (via RTS)

This RTS map shows the bus routes serving the greater Rochester area (via RTS)

So what do you do? Create more stops, right? Tom Brede, Public Information Officer at RTS explained the issue with this stating that RTS works with a small budget and, often, to create service one place, they have to disrupt service elsewhere. Other options include working with lawmakers or receiving private help from a development. For instance, Brede explained that when developers are looking to build a project locally, they can and should include RTS earlier in the conversation. By bringing RTS to the table early on, leaders there can work to create a budget and system that benefits the new company’s employees.

He also explained that more and more when businesses are moving to the area they do so in the suburbs or just outside of city limits, which can be increasingly difficult for RTS to serve.

Pete Nabozny of the Center for Governmental Research added to this point, explaining that Rochester’s sprawled design means RTS has more space to cover, which can create an automatic challenge.

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“It’s not just transportation it’s about decisions like land use, and sprawl, legacy and ongoing white flight,” he said. “A lot of our job places are outside of the city limits, and its an increasingly kind of sprawled local economy. It’s important to re-emphasize the point that public transportation is completely tied up in how we decide to organize our community, and upon where we build housing and locate businesses and highways and all of these other factors, tremendously. You can’t just look at the issue of transportation but how we organize ourselves and the lines with which they exist, those things are linked. It’s difficult to build a good transportation system in a sprawled region. It depends on density if you want a good tran you need densely populated communities. And those go hand in hand. They’re really tightly linked up!”

To try and keep up with this sprawling economy, RTS has created Roc-It bus routes which focus on key places in the city that residents may need to travel quickly and conveniently to. For example, riders can quickly get to the Wal-Mart on Dewey Ave and the Greece Ridge Mall. While this isn’t exactly new (the routes were just limited stop routes previously) it does point to RTS commitment to moving people where they have to go. He even quickly mentioned the possibility of neighborhood shuttles, which could move residents around their immediate area but then also connect to the larger RTS bus stops. It’d make not only getting around the city easier but residents’ own neighborhoods, encouraging spending at the micro-community level and help them grow their own areas, instead of the neighborhoods around malls and popular retail spots.

However, it’s not just bussing. Lupien also pointed out that the city isn’t friendly to walkers or bikers either (though this is changing due to work by local biking organizations). She used how few biking lanes exist in the city as proof and added for those with lanes, sometimes they’re incomplete or don’t have a lane coming back the other direction. From protected bike lanes (made possible through narrower lanes) and complete sidewalks, she argued residents could move around much easier, potentially even abandoning their cars, if not totally, then for some of the trips they used to make. Already in neighborhoods like the South Wedge, where a focus on biking has actually been translated into action, bike lanes are popping up and residents are taking advantage of them. It’s important to note the Wedge also has more retail, food and public spaces within the neighborhood, offering its own incentive for residents to get out and get moving.

Ride-sharing and bike-sharing are also potentially being introduced to the city. And it wouldn’t be competition. Ideally, these various forms of transportation can work together to fully cover the gaps in Rochester’s area, said Brede. Theoretically, one day it could be much easier to get from the heart of the city to deep Greece or from Irondequoit to the Mall in Marketplace with no issue. Brede stated RTS is actually hoping these new forms of getting around will be complementary, helping with some of the gaps on their route.

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“If you live a mile or two from the bus stop maybe you can ride your bike to the stop, put it on the bus rack and then go wherever you have to go,” he said. He added the same could be for ride-sharing, which is currently going through the State Legislature, by a user riding the bus to a popular spot like the mall or Wal-Mart and then using ride-sharing to go the rest of the way, which would save them money on the full trip of ride-sharing and ensures they get where they need to go.

So why does this matter in the long run?

It’s not just about getting to work, though that’s what we’ve focused on here. Very rarely do people fully understand how much transportation factors into their decisions and how they live their life. In fact a Harvard study published last year identified transportation as the most critical hurdle to getting out of poverty. Not only does it make it harder to find a job, but being without reliable transportation can make grocery shopping more expensive, restrict entertainment possibilities and it can also dictate your childcare needs.

“I hated my daughter’s daycare,” said Elise Vazquez, a 26-year-old who works in retail at Greece Ridge Mall. She said she’d pick her daughter, 3-year-old Alize, from daycare and often the girl was laconic or unwilling to talk about her day. “I later learned that the other kids were being mean to her and the provider didn’t do a single thing about it. I also thought she’d be there learning, getting ready to go to school but that wasn’t happening. What was I paying for?”

“I have a car now, thankfully, but it took me a few years to save up,” Vazquez said. “I can get to where I need to now but for years I struggled. I’d get Burger King from the mall for dinner so many nights. That’s not healthy. Luckily Alize gets fresh fruits and things at her new daycare.”

And interestingly, Lupien believes that this could also break down some of the divides in our city. In larger cities like New York and D.C., everyone utilizes public transit and while Rochester’s masses may not be chomping at the bit to take the bus to work, making it easier for them to walk or bike to smaller priority destinations only helps and it gets them more into the community.

Between Rochester's weather, the sprawl of the city, the cumbersome nature of public transit in general and many more factors, most people choose to drive wherever they have to go.

Between Rochester’s weather, the sprawl of the city, the cumbersome nature of public transit in general and many more factors, most people choose to drive wherever they have to go.

“I think as transportation improves, people will be the catalyst to make a lot of change in Rochester. It’s more than just transportation,” she said. “I met someone who used to live in Atlanta and she said she saw more diversity in one hour (on public transit) than she saw in a year here. We’re so divided. Having a public transportation that we all take will start to heal those wounds. It’s isolating to be in a car,” She added that the stress of rush hour traffic and long commutes don’t compare to being able to read a book on the bus- if that bus works for you.

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“I love the idea of public transit and I’m frustrated I can’t use it more often,” said Mangla. “We’re a massively segregated city, economic and racially, but by bringing everyone into it, really marketing it, and reaching out to all people, it’s a platform to build relationships and bring people together. We’ve seen in other cities and it can happen here. I’ve never understood why they don’t market to younger people.”

Mangla’s point aligns with national studies that find millennials want to dump their car so by marketing to the city’s young professionals, you’re more likely to get the investment (financial and social) needed to make public transit “cool” again.And this change is necessary if Rochester hopes to reduce the brain drain, keep graduates and attract young professionals, who flock to hipper cities like D.C., San Francisco, and, of course, New York City.

But for those with a car, not everyone wants to abandon it. Here, it’s cheaper than most large cities to have a car and so combine this with a colder climate and a lacking public transit system and it’s going to be difficult to chase after those with cars and convince them to take public transit.

Currently, I can drive down a number of streets during the morning or afternoon rush and the only people walking are students going to school or professionals downtown looking for a bite to eat or coffee to guzzle. That’s not indicative of a city with healthy transportation options, but this may all change as various options are considered for the city and the understanding of transportations’ link with employment, health and economic mobility is further explored. As give residents more options, they may not all rush to sell their cars, but some will walk to the Market, bike around more and for those of us who can’t afford a car to begin with, well, they only benefit from the increased options and financial stake in public transit.

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