Tuesday, August 29, 2006

NY Times Article on Buffalo

I don't know about a lot of people, but I'm getting sick of seeing people boosting cities as if that's going to solve all their problems. That said, The New York Times had an interesting article ("To Burnish Its Image, a City Stages an Alumni Reunion," August 28, 2006) on Buffalo, New York, today. It began:
Frustrated by decades of watching friends and family flee New York’s second-largest city for warmer climates, healthier economies and sunnier images, a group of Buffalo boosters gave a party this weekend.
The complaints about the weather seem to be the prevailing wisdom about Buffalo's failings, but it doesn't explain why many cities with as bad or worse weather are actually doing fairly well, including world-class Toronto not even 150 miles away.

So really, what are Buffalo's problems? It's really a rather elegant city. It's rather drab, perhaps, both in terms of client and environment, but it's not ugly.

The article about the boosters quoted many people who felt the people were friendly. The mayor, Byron Brown, himself is a former resident of the Queens borough of New York City. “I came here at 17 to attend college and just fell in love with how friendly people are and how easy it is to get around,” Brown was quoted as saying in the article. “I’ve been here ever since and I’ve never regretted it.” My limited experience with Buffalo kind of tells me the same thing. The people are nice.

While the architecture isn't as awe-inspiring as you find in New York City or Chicago, or even Boston for that matter, it has character. The abandoned Buffalo Central Terminal (link includes pictures, as does the New York Times article) kind of embodies what I said about the city being grab, yet elegant. Amtrak service to Buffalo now is centered on Exchange Street Station.

In considering Buffalo's demise, it's important to consider its rise. Buffalo, like many places in New York State, became a large city because of a historical accident: the builders of the Erie Canal decided to use Buffalo, then a village, as the canal's western terminus. Buffalo grew to over half a million people by 1950, before canal traffic was abruptly cut off by the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which allowed shipping to bypass Buffalo. At the same time, the demise of railroads in the United States made Buffalo rather unimportant as a waypoint for goods and travelers heading west to Chicago and elsewhere.

Could the answer to Buffalo's problems lie with better transportation? Some Upstate New York politicians have been pushing for high-speed rail to Upstate New York, including making a trip to Buffalo possible within three hours (see "New York high-speed rail" on WikiPedia, which I largely wrote).

I personally don't know if three hours is fast enough service, and have found myself pondering whether or not it would be worthwhile to try to find a way to make a two-hour round trip possible, perhaps through maglev service linking New York's largest cities. If you follow the traditional New York Central "water-level" route, this would require average speeds upwards of 350 miles per, which is probably too fast for conventional high-speed rail.

Naturally, peak speeds would have to increase depending on how many stops are added, but one would figure a route would need to stop in New York City, White Plains, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo to capture the five most important centers of commerce in the state; four of those cities are on the list of the ten biggest in the state, White Plains being the exception merely as a center of commerce. To facilitate commuting, service would have to run from early morning to around midnight, but the side-effect would be a massive unified labor market throughout New York State.

To fully compete with the automobile, service would need to be frequent twenty-four hours a day, or at least on par with the busier lines of the New York City Subway (which seem to run at least half an hour apart late at night). The positive side-effect of this is it would allow people who live as far away as Buffalo to enjoy the amenities of New York City, which include world-class dining and Broadway shows, without having to concern themselves with losing half a day getting to New York City, or finding a hotel room. Likewise, people who live in points between could take advantage of Buffalo's relatively famous and permissive night life as easily as they could New York City's.

Further, for those who can't put up with the obscene housing and real estate costs in New York City, points inbetween the two cities offer cheaper real estate. Being able to allow the rest of the state enjoy New York City's talent pool, while letting New York City enjoy the remainder of the state's cheaper, yet still as of now well-trained labor market is also a good trade-off.

For the remaining cities in the state, combinations of feeder lines varying between light rail (as Buffalo already sort of has, and Rochester and suburban Albany want again), traditional grade-separated mass transportation, local commuter rail, and conventional high-speed rail could still allow ready access to the cities mentioned above. Binghamton, for instance, could be fed by high-speed rail into centrally-located Albany to allow ready access to White Plains and New York City to the south and Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo to the north. The New York metropolitan area could always use expanded transit services, including perhaps PATH service as far north as Yonkers, or as far south as Staten Island.

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