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RochesterSubway.com Talks at TEDxRochester

January 21st, 2013

Mike Governale at TEDxRochester. Mike is a designer, blogger, and founder of a local public transit advocacy group, Reconnect Rochester. [PHOTO: Jeffrey Hamson]
Last November I had the ridiculously huge privilege to give a talk at TEDxRochester. The gravity of the honor may have been too much for my little brain to comprehend. In fact, when they initially asked me to do it I said “no thanks” – twice. Long story short, I gave in. And I’m glad I did, because the experience was one of those “once in a lifetime” things.

Since much of my talk was influenced by you, RocSubway readers and participants, I thought you’d like to watch (and share) the official video which has just been released. A word of caution: I’m not the most riveting public speaker, but there is lots of good stuff buried within this 12-minute presentation, so watch thru to the end if you can…

The Transcript,
for those who prefer to read:

So, I have a blog.

So, what? Everyone has a blog.

Well, mine was inspired by the “Rochester Subway.”

No, not like the sandwich shop.

I mean the actual Rochester Subway.

But I’m not here to give you a history lesson about the subway. Just know that we DID have a subway at one time, and a very extensive streetcar network. Really a world-class transit system.

But by the 1960′s, all of this…was replaced with this; the subway is now interstate 490 and 590.

Rochester's subway is now interstate 490 and 590.
Now, I’m not any kind of transportation specialist, or even an historian.

I’m a graphic designer. And I really just wanted to be able to hang the story of the Rochester Subway on my wall and imagine, “What might have been” had we not given all this up.

So with the help of my friend Otto Vondrak, I designed a Rochester subway map.

It’s got the original subway line in blue and all of the stops.

And it even shows all of the lines that were proposed at one time or another.

Rochester subway 'fantasy' map.
Of course, this map is complete fantasy. But it has opened up Pandora’s box. Everyone who sees it seems to have sort of a visceral reaction to it. And not everyone reacts the same way.

RochesterSubway.com receives quite a bit of interesting mail from readers.
I’ve received tons of stories from people who have fond memories of riding the subway when they were little kids.

I’ve received serious proposals from people either wanting to reopen the subway or turn the abandoned tunnels into something of a shrine or a museum.

I’ve also heard several ghost stories. The photo on the left is supposedly a photo of a subway ghost that chased someone out of the abandoned tunnels. I can’t make this stuff up.

And many people have told me this map instills a sense of pride in them for their hometown.

As though somehow this map puts Rochester into the exclusive league of cities around the world with real, actual rail transit systems.

But the full magnitude of this fantasy subway map hit me when I began receiving hate mail.

Some readers, like Christine, think transportation is luxury item.
For example, Christine. This woman wrote me to say this…

“This city does not need another whacko liberal project to waste our tax dollars. We do not want your stupid bus station. We do not want a fast fairy. And we do not want a subway. Buy a S.U.V. if you need a ride.”

Ladies and gentlemen, THIS is what I love about blogging.

Little golden nuggets of ideas can come from anyone, at anytime.

I thought about Christine’s comments, and I realized she’s right. If all I need is a ride, I should pay for it myself. I shouldn’t expect you, the taxpayer, to pay for some wacko, liberal project to move me around town. In fact let’s take a look at some of these kinds of “whacko projects”…

How about the Inner Loop?

34 Million dollars to build in 1960.
It destroyed entire neighborhoods, and has strangled downtown ever since.

Today the city is seeking 22 million dollars to correct this giant mistake.

How about an ever sprawling network of streets… and highways that constantly need maintenance and rebuilding every 20 years.

Millions of dollars each year for road upgrades, new highway interchanges at the University of Rochester, diverging diamonds… what ever that is.

And how about Municipal parking garages and fancy new bridges… And all the maintenance that goes with these projects.

Christine probably thinks her gasoline taxes pay for all this stuff? Not even close. Highway “user fees” (including gas taxes and tolls) only pay for half the cost of building and maintaining our roads and highways.

Highway user fees are not paying for the full expense of our highways. It's not even close.
Since the dawn of the interstate system, over 600 billion public dollars have been sucked into road construction alone.

If not for THESE whacko liberal projects, Christine would not be getting very far in her S.U.V.

See, I started researching and writing about these things on my blog. And the more I dug into them, the more I came to realize that Christine’s thinking is terribly flawed. Mainly because transportation is not just about getting MY ass from point “A” to point “B”.

Transportation is about connecting people to jobs and services and food supplies.

And not just for those of us who have the ability, or the means, to drive a car.

Transportation also affects land use. And THIS is perhaps the ugliest, most wasteful use of land.

Satellite image of a section of Jefferson Road in Henrietta, NY. Places designed around the automobile.
This is a satellite view of a small section of Jefferson Road in Henrietta.

EVERYTHING we build in Rochester today is centered around the automobile. Even so-called urban developments like College Town and Irondequoit Square need to be designed around great big parking lots because 98% of Rochesterians drive everywhere.

No hybrid-electric-hydrogen-fuelcell-wind-powered car will EVER fix this mess.

The problem with this, as James Kunstler often says, is that places like these are places that are not worth caring about.

Rochester has too many of these, places that are not worth caring about.
We go there because we have to, we get what we need, and then get the hell out of there as fast as we can… and we sure as heck don’t walk there.

Rochester now has way too many of these places.

One of the things I like to do on RochesterSubway.com is show local places that Rochesterians used to care about, until we needed more space for parking.

The site of the old R.K.O. Palace theater. Everyone loved it. But we loved our cars more.
Places like the old R.K.O. Movie Palace downtown. I can’t tell you have many people have told me how magical this place was to watch a live show or Saturday morning cartoons as a kid.

But soon after our subway and streetcars were removed, we began tearing down places like this so we could park our cars on top of them. Here’s the R.K.O. Movie Palace in 1965.

And just this past year I tried to save this building from demolition. This was a 19th century brewhouse in the High Falls neighborhood. A truly one of a kind building. But it wasn’t just the building I wanted to save. I was actually more interested in saving the public space created by the presence of those buildings and their relationship to the street.

A rendering of what could have been Rochester's Historic Brewery Square. Now a parking lot.
This is a rendering I did using actual photos of the property. And you can see the kind of intimate public space, and attraction, that could have been created between the Genesee visitor center, 13 Cataract Street and the future GardenAerial trail. I called it Rochester’s Historic Brewery Square.

Unfortunately, the equity firm that bought the property thought the land would be more valuable as parking.

The Mayor of Rochester and the Zoning Board agreed. So this is what we have now. A very historic empty lot.
At least parking is plentiful in downtown Rochester.

More than 60 percent of our downtown surface area has been intentionally wiped out and is being used today exclusively for storing our vehicles.

How much CITY do you think can exist between all of these dead spaces?

As you can see, the transportation choices we all make, impact our community in a very real and lasting way.

And think about this: There is enormous demand now across the country for walkable, transit-oriented living.
Young people, college graduates, and retirees are seeking out cities that can offer them this type of urban lifestyle.

Being able to live without having to rely on a car. Being able to walk to work, to shopping and entertainment.
We have very little of this in Rochester, but it represents an enormous economic opportunity that we’re missing out on.

And why wouldn’t we want to do everything humanly possible to activate streetlife in Rochester?
Isn’t THIS is what we’re after?
Foot traffic…
People on the street…
This is what attracts businesses.
Which in turn attracts MORE people.
And when you have people on the street sharing public space.
Fun stuff happens. Good things like window shopping.

This is what our community looked like before we all became car dependent.

These streets are supposed to be the living room of our community. The way it was before we all became car dependent.
People on the street sharing ideas. We didn’t need to have a TED conference to share ideas. The street was the living room of our society.

But today, this is our idea of community. We drive around and communicate with each other through our car windows, and say to ourselves, “it’s such a shame our city looks the way it does.”

And the sad part is, we all seem to be perfectly content. And this is very telling…

I emailed our county executive, and I asked her what she thought about our current transportation system and if there was anything she’d like to see changed or improved.

This was her response…

“Our local transportation infrastructure is far more than adequate… The average commute for residents in our area is a scant 20 minutes… At present, our residents and visitors seem to be very satisfied with the transportation infrastructure we have in place.”

She’s absolutely right. It only takes 20 minutes to get anywhere in Rochester – as long as you’re behind the wheel of a car.

Ask yourself, are you satisfied with this? “Rochester, the city with a 20-minute commute – to no where!?

Are you satisfied with this? 'Rochester, the city with a 20-minute commute to no where?'
We have to understand that THIS did not happen because our economy crashed. THIS happened because for the past 70 years we’ve been building our community around cars instead of people.

The good news is that this IS reversible. But right now, we don’t even realize there’s a problem.

I founded an organization called Reconnect Rochester. We’re not trying to bring back the subway. The ultimate goal is safer, more attractive streets and neighborhoods, through effective use of land and transit.

Reconnect Rochester needs YOU!
We’re building partnerships throughout the Rochester region to get people to at least start talking about smarter growth policies and transportation alternatives.

We’re working closely with RGRTA to encourage the use of public transit with programs like “ROC Transit Day” this past June. And we also work to support the improvement of regional pedestrian, bicycle, and rail facilities.

One easy way you can help, is to ask yourself before you get in your car, “Do I need to drive today? Or can I walk, ride my bike, or hop on a bus?”

It’s your choice. You can hang the Rochester Subway map on your wall, and fantasize about what might have been.

Or you can start showing your elected officials that it’s time to trade in our WACKO LIBERAL AUTOMOBILE-ONLY PROJECTS, for a more balanced approach to transportation in Rochester.

Thank you.

• • •

Credits:

Many of the great Rochester photos in this presentation were shot by local photographer Rick U. You can see more of his amazing work at RocPX.com external link.
Other graphics, illustrations, and video were created by the fine people at RochesterSubway.com.
Much appreciation for the ongoing service and support from:
Thanks to all the volunteers at Reconnect Rochester external link for doing the all the hard work – the stuff no one else will do. Please, ask them how YOU can get involved external link.
Thanks to Tony Karakashian, Gary Jacobs, Amanda Doherty, and Jen Indovina at TEDxRochester external link for helping to make Rochester a better place – and for all the support.
And the biggest thanks of all goes to my family (they know who they are) for putting up with chronic negligence of family duties and my raging geekness.

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This entry was posted on Monday, January 21st, 2013 at 6:26 am and is filed under Opinion, Rochester History, Rochester News, Transit + Infrastructure, Urban Development, Video. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

4 Responses to “RochesterSubway.com Talks at TEDxRochester”

  1. A great talk, and we’re so glad you finally caved in…er, I mean agreed…to talk at our event!

  2. Gary made some pretty ugly threats.

  3. Tim Louer says:

    This was very inspiring, I’m a 21-year-old college student in Syracuse who only found out about the historic ruins of the Rochester subway last year. I think it’d be terrific if it could somewhat return to the way it was but sadly too much damage has already been done.

    Syracuse’s downtown district, like many medium sized metropolises, also faced a harsh period of replacing history with parking lots. It’s a sad tale all around but it’s nice to see blogs like this supporting urban renewal and change!

  4. Nick DeRosa says:

    Great speech, I completely agree. As an engineer, I’m surprised to see how predictable development has become, and how easily people confuse throwing some landscaping around a see of asphalt with urban planning.
    I hate the fact that the mere mention of “public” transportation these days is met with labels of “liberalism” or wastefulness. People in this country seem to have an irrational fear of public works projects, even though they are often much more efficient overall than maintaining highways and byways. They have this vision of scary drug users freeloading off the system for rides, not a community connected by several group transports. They’d rather see thousands of vehicles on clogged expressways, with seemingly never enough parking available when they reach their destination.
    The post WWII sprawl mangled most American cities, and in a car-obsessed age of selfishness, where anything public has cynically become Communistic, I worry that the process needed to restore cities to their former glory will be too slow and organic to fully realize in my lifetime.


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