Biking without chains: Buffalonians seek to make cycling safer throughout the city

By: Malachite Karpie-Jones

News Contributor

With bicycling numbers at an all-time high in Buffalo, it’s time for the resurging Rust Belt to pull in all support from its diverse riding community. Henry Raess from Go Bike Buffalo granted this reporter an interview back in March, giving insight into both the growing bike-scene in the city and its effect on the larger community. As a clean, efficient, and cheap way to get around, bicyclists have been consolidating their voice through grassroots organisations targeting local and regional governments. As a result, City Hall has been receptive. The Bicycle Master Plan, which seeks to drastically increase cycling-safe infrastructure, is coming along slowly. All the while, the number of Buffalo bikers is quickly rising. The Griffin caught up with Henry Raess last spring, and has continued to watch the progress of this city-wide phenomenon.

It’s a bitter cold afternoon in the first days of March as Henry Raess dismounts his weathered, personalized ten-speed layered for the late winter season. A high of 16 degrees calls for his neon, high-visibility windbreaker, padded riding gloves, and a wool cycling cap beneath his sleek black helmet. He maneuvers through a snow bank as he uses two locks to secure his ride to the rack: a heavy, steel U-lock for the frame and a cable to link the tires. Raess enters the immediate warmth of the GO Bike Buffalo office, peeling off his gloves and unzipping the high-vis. The cycling “casquette” stays on, its visor masking his thick-framed glasses from the lights above.

Bicyclists like Henry are no new commodity to Buffalo, New York. In a struggling, post-industrial region, the homier metropolitan has seen a lengthy transformation from a flexing hub of industry to a quiet, artsier scene with its own local urbanite personality. With cafes, book shops, and small breweries popping up in North and West regions of the city during the late ‘90s and 2000s, a newer mass of young, hip twenty-somethings seemingly came out of hiding, bringing with them a new trend in bike riding. Vintage road bikes and single-speed fixies quickly became the norm, throwing a spotlight on the daily commuter population and spandex-clad cyclists. The numbers speak to the scene: the League of American Cyclists 2014 census data marked Buffalo as the 14th heaviest population of daily commuters by bicycle, a ranking that continues to climb. From 2000 to 2013, the number of riders in the City of Buffalo alone has seen a 268 percent increase. Biking in Buffalo is seeing a steady surge with infrastructure like bike lanes, vehicle and bike shared “complete streets,” racks outside of businesses, and bike paths through the abundant green space. Buffalo currently holds a bronze rating as a Bicycle Friendly Community as projects and organizations continue to adhere to the growing statistics.

Henry Raess, a New York City product and tenured cyclist, is just one of those helping to build the community with the GO Bike Buffalo organization. Raised in Buffalo at a young age, he then traveled the country often throughout his young life. In his early 20s he moved to arguably America’s cycling capital, Portland, Oregon, living with former bike messengers and picking up numerous tricks of the trade.

“I saw how integrated biking was to the infrastructure, community, and social fabric of the city, it honestly was so inspiring, it changed my life,” Raess continued, “By the end of my stay I could disassemble and reassemble a bike entirely.”

From there, he visited multiple cities and gained experiences in their community bike shops, using Buffalo as a temporary stay between each new visit. When a position in the Green Options organization, a Western New York nonprofit bicycle conglomerate, held an opening, Raess’ experience and knowledge earned him a paid position as an event coordinator. Now under the name GO Bike Buffalo as the city’s leading program, he continues to breed Buffalo’s resurgence through biking with community education workshops, group rides, and endeavors towards infrastructure throughout the entire region.

As far as any sound explanations for the mass influx of commuters at the turn of the century, Raess first channels the national and local economies.

“Gas prices, it’s simple economics. We spiked from $0.90 to $4.00 a gallon in less than a decade. The average person, depending on region, can save anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000 a year by simply not driving.”

General social acceptance has brought many riders out of the darkness as well, with recent vintage revival and eco-friendly trends bringing more relevance to biking on a cultural standpoint.

“Trendiness is a definite factor, young people now see it as cool. Before, riding a bike as a main form of transport, you’d probably get asked ‘how come you’re not just driving?’ Now younger people, and even middle aged folks, are starting to embrace it for what it is and people won’t be looked at weird for riding their bike to work.”

Regarding strictly local endeavors towards biking, the choice to ride is not always one that the mass stereotypes of cyclists are attributed with. According to the 2014 US Census Bureau Report, Buffalo is the nation’s fourth most impoverished city; a factor that makes transportation expenses one of the most difficult to endure for the inner city demographic.

“Western New York is a poorer community, specifically Buffalo with lower income and poverty. When you don’t have many options on the table for transportation, maybe even a bus pass becomes too expensive. A bike can often be the most economical or inexpensive alternative to walking for some people.”

Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Board, headed by Justin Booth, features monthly public meetings with a panel of community and city representatives to ensure bicyclists and pedestrians aren’t overlooked in city infrastructure projects. Petitioning and matters happening on a federal level can bring that much more immediate response, which is only possible through a strong, vocal community. Locals are often asked to contact their congressional representatives in terms of any cycling concerns or pushes for further infrastructure. Organizations like GO Bike take the extra step to consolidate and educate the community riders and give the public the idea that Buffalo’s up-and-coming resurgence can be one that features bicycling and pedestrians alike. Last spring’s complete redesign of Allen Street, featuring wider lanes for parking and painted “sharrows” reminding drivers to share the road with cyclists, was courtesy of federal funding that was largely attributed to the public effectively voicing their input. Over the summer, Delaware Avenue’s “S-curves” saw an update with new vibrant, green bike lanes where any contact points between bicycles and merging vehicles are possible.

“It helps to have as many different opinions on the changes as we can,” Raess said about the Allen Street changes, “everyone simply deserves to have their voice heard. When you’re talking about one of Buffalo’s most prominent commercial districts in the last 30 or 40 years, you want to have as many people heard who will be affected.”  

A Western New York exclusive project has been in the works for 2015, coming to be known as the Bicycle Master Plan. GO Bike has paired with the City of Buffalo to bring a massive haul of infrastructure and education about riding to the city, in hopes of eventually turning the existing bronze rating as Bicycle Friendly Community to platinum status as a premier cycling destination in the country. While countless propositions for changes and evaluations of Buffalo’s existing conditions are released and discussed, the first order of the Master Plan will largely be the most difficult. While areas like Allentown and Elmwood Village have active and vocal support from passionate riders, others don’t acknowledge their community of bicyclists and form a public voice.

“The Master Plan will call support from all stretches of city riders. I know we’ll have our usual suspects in Allentown or Elmwood, or even the college kids, but we seriously need all the different neighborhoods to get involved. Outlying neighborhoods like the East Side and South Buffalo are really what we want to see. Suburban families, folks that ride with their kids, might not be able to make all the public meetings but will still want to make a safer environment for their children. This is where we’ll need them all most.”

Buffalo’s biggest obstacle to biking is itself. As a melting pot of different cultures in every neighborhood, many hold that biking in general has become too diversified and has excluded certain riders to inhibit the desperately needed community involvement. Raess is quick to call out the unnecessary false image of bicycling that came first with 2000s era popularity. The stereotyped images of cyclists, whether the young, urban hipsters riding fixies or “weekend warriors” who don spandex and embark on hundred mile rides on specialized bikes costing upwards of $2,000, have thrown a certain ideal of cyclists in people’s faces that almost discourage participation from those who can’t identify with an image.

“Even the word cyclist has a come under fire for being alienating. Many people now are saying I ride a bike, but I’m not a cyclist, choosing to popularize the word biker or bicyclist instead. There’s a big push on the national level to make sure the biking movement is diverse. There’s a lot of poor, rich, suburban, city, white, and black riders, but when you look at strictly the advocacy angle and the media, it’s not well represented. It tends to be white, middle class, educated people and there needs to be a bigger push to include everybody. Especially in Buffalo where the lower income community has made it a widespread affordable option. Though they might not be advocates to the biking community, they’re a huge part of it whether they know it or not.”

Bike lanes in those lower income areas like the East Side’s Humboldt Avenue have received a largely positive reception thus far. GO Bike is striving to draw in all communities and make sure each region can have their own necessary infrastructure to promote and encourage more bicycling. Options like a text messaging service were introduced, allowing anyone to message GO Bike toll free with a simple location of where they’d like to have a bike lane or shared street in their area. As more neighborhoods gain a sense of community, involvement will snowball.

“No matter if those with the lower income are taking their bikes, it’s still part of this bigger movement to make bikes more ‘normal.’ You look at Europe, almost 40 percent of the people ride bikes in some cities, it’s so normalized there. That’s what we’re working towards in the United States. It doesn’t need to be anything special where you need spandex or a fancy bike. Just pick up your bike, take it to work,  get groceries, and just go out and ride.”

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