We’ve all experienced it.
Cars zipping recklessly through intersections. Sidewalks in bad repair. Poorly designed intersections that make crossing the street unnecessarily risky.
“I have neighbors who live near some of the more dangerous intersections,” Suzanne Unger, president of the Stockade Association, told me. “They sit out and watch the near-misses.”
Unsafe streets are a longstanding Schenectady problem, but Unger and her fellow neighborhood association leaders believe they’ve gotten even less safe during the pandemic.
And they’re ready to do something about it.
Schenectady United Neighborhoods, a coalition of neighborhood associations, is teaming up with the pro-bicycling group Cycle Schenectady to push city leaders to make the city’s streets safer.
It’s a welcome effort, and it deserves support.
Making Schenectady’s streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists will make the city safer for all, improving quality of life and leading to greater health and happiness. The best cities are designed with everyone in mind, not just those who drive cars.
“We want to see a walkable city,” Tom Carey, who heads SUN, told me. “We want pedestrians and cyclists to be on equal footing with cars in everything they do.”
Among other things, the groups involved in the safe streets campaign would like to see dangerous streets and intersections redesigned to reduce speeding, and have been compiling a list of problem spots.
Another goal is to lower the speed limit on city streets from 30 to 25 – something that requires permission from the state Legislature.
In September, Schenectady residents expressed their frustration over speeding and other dangerous behaviors, such as illegal dirt bike riding on city streets, to The Daily Gazette, and lawmakers indicated they were going to look at the issue.
“These issues have always been around, but they got worse this summer,” Carey said.
Indeed, an article in Wired, a magazine that focuses on technology, describes 2020 as the “year of driving less – but more dangerously.”
“Evidence suggests that the pandemic created, at times, a road safety perfect storm,” the article notes. “Open roads tempted speeders. Police reduced traffic enforcement because of low traffic volumes and reduced arrests for minor offenses to protect officers’ health, according to a government survey. And many places saw spikes in drug and alcohol use, which public health officials theorize are linked to stress, boredom and the lack of a regular schedule.”
To some extent, SUN and Cycle Schenectady are simply urging the city to do things it has already committed to doing, like implementing the bike infrastructure master plan it finalized in 2017.
This plan contains a number of good ideas for making biking in Schenectady safer and easier, such as establishing new bike lanes and connector paths throughout the city.
“Walking and biking are really about community building and taking back the streets,” Art Clayman, founder of Cycle Schenectady and former longtime Daily Gazette editorial page editor, said. “Can’t we create a little more space for bicyclists?”
I believe we can – and that now would be a good time to do so.
Bicycling boomed during the pandemic, while auto sales fell to their lowest point in 10 years. And while reopening brought some traffic back to local streets, it’s possible a more permanent shift is occurring, as more people work from home and cut back on lengthy commutes.
Ultimately, what SUN and Cycle Schenectady are pushing the city to do is adopt a “complete streets” approach to road design and safety.
Right now, the purpose of city streets is to enable cars to get from place to place. A complete streets approach would change that, requiring the city to also consider the needs of cyclists and pedestrians, lower-income residents who rely on public transit and the disabled.
Unsafe driving often spurs calls for more police enforcement, but the approach advocated by SUN and Cycle Schenectady is more holistic, emphasizing the need to remake and redesign infrastructure in the name of safer, better streets.
“With speeding, people think we need to be giving out more tickets, but it’s really a design issue,” Unger said. “It’s rethinking things, shifting goals a little bit. We are going to work with the city to understand what needs to happen to be a truly walkable city.”
A truly walkable city would be a great thing to be.
I hope lawmakers and city officials greet SUN and Cycle Schenectady with open arms, and embrace their campaign to make city streets safe for all.
It’s an idea whose time has come.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.