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Transporting Western New York

A conceptual image of Cincinnati's proposed new streetcar system.

Electric streetcars in Cincinnati, Hamilton, Tampa…Buffalo?

There is a new reality in urban America: Electric streetcars and electric light rail are back in in a big, big way. The growing cities of Portland and Seattle are using their wealth to help amplify their density with a surface transportation system that attracts riders and spurs development. In Toronto, the political debate is not whether to boost public transit but which kind: Toronto’s mayor favors a subway while Toronto’s city council favors light rail and expanded streetcars, and just like in Portland and Seattle, the issue is how best to accommodate a growing population that is decidedly urban.

And then there is Hamilton, whose population is growing just a little bit, but whose self-image has changed from a Rust Belt loser from which to flee, to a self-aware city seeking to intensify and revitalize from the core outward. Hamilton seems to be converging on an electric light-rail consensus, as is K-W, more formally known as the conjoined cities of Kitchener and Waterloo, where the hiccupping company that makes Blackberry smart-phones is based. But then there’s Cincinnati, the shrinking Ohio River city that lost over 10 percent of its population in the last decade, and that, like Buffalo, is down below 300,000 souls today. Cincinnati’s sprawl-burdened county lost over five percent of its population since 2000. But Cincinnati isn’t just talking about streetcars. Cincinnati recently broke ground on a new, public, electric-powered system.

The streetcar surge underway is partly a result of the Obama administration making alternative transportation funding available. But what’s driving the move toward new city-centered public transportation all over North America is the observed success of the European cities that never abandoned their trolleys but instead improved them, plus the observed success of American cities where new streetcars have replaced diesel-belching buses and along the way have seen that streetcars are helping their aging, poor, crumbling city neighborhoods become vibrant, walkable, investment-attracting neighborhoods. Looming over the cities that haven’t yet committed to the new-old transit solution is the issue of energy prices and energy availability.

The new reality of income non-growth should bolster the efforts of public transportation advocates. Data from the federal government are fresher than data from New York State, so we can only generalize for the US as a whole, thus: Since the 2008 economic crisis, incomes haven’t recovered for the 99 percent. More American workers are working temporary or “contingent” jobs than ever before. Emmanuel Saez of the University of California just this past week updated his 2003 paper “Striking it richer: the evolution of top incomes in the United States” with numbers from 2009 and 2010, and the new data are pretty tough. The richest one percent of Americans have seen their incomes recover by over two percent since the crash, but during the recovery, everybody else has come back only 0.2 percent. “Hence, the top 1% captured 93% of the income gains in the first year of recovery,” Saez writes.

The latest numbers for incomes we have for around here tell the same story. In Buffalo, the median household income is $30,000, with 29.6 percent of all households in poverty. In Erie County, the median household income is $47,000, with about 14 percent overall living in poverty. In Cincinnati, the numbers track: Median household income in the city is $33,000, with 27 percent in poverty; in Cincinnati’s shrinking county, the median household makes $48,000, and poverty is 15 percent.

What they figured out in Cincinnati is that most people aren’t getting richer, and that the city needs to combat suburban sprawl by making the city environment more friendly to people who don’t want to or can’t spend their stagnant or shrinking incomes on cars, and that it’s smart to take advantage of Obama’s offer of building an alternative to cars.

The oil-power reality

Yet this week, petroleum historian and analyst Daniel Yergin is hosting a huge conference in Houston at which hundreds of industry specialists, government officials and “thought leaders” will convene to discuss not whether to get to alternatives to oil, but how to manage what he calls “the great revival: the Western hemisphere’s oil renaissance.”

And in a country that reshaped itself with personal transportation, the messaging from President Obama on down is consistent: American prosperity means making more cars here. Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company gains green cred with a couple of his models, and nods politely at the notion of public transportation, but his most recent PR thrust is on integrating personal automotive technology with information technology, as in his February speech on the bright new future of cars that will be so smart that they will drive themselves. Personal transportation, in other words, has the floor.

And, despite all the data about stagnant family incomes, so does oil. The economists at Deutsche Bank, for example, think that gasoline prices aren’t going to be much of a problem for America despite the 25-cent-a-gallon increase we’ve seen since Christmas. In their February 28 report, which warns of inflation in just about every other category, they acknowledge but pooh-pooh gas price rises. Their economic model predicts a consumer-driven recovery chugging along merrily all this year until or unless crude oil rises above $150 a barrel from its current $100 a barrel. The Deutsche Bankers just don’t think there’s a problem ahead, though they concede that $5-a-gallon gas could have “psychological implications for consumer and business confidence. “

The counter-narrative is not yet empowered. Those who see petroleum prices as rising because of “peak oil” share some chat space with those who see petroleum as a commodity whose continued use will kill us. Non-scientists like William Howard Kunstler and William McKibbon publish and speak to ever-growing audiences about the findings of physicists, climate scientists and other investigators who connect fossil-fuel use with accelerating climate change, and climate change with unspeakable disasters, including the killer droughts that are wreaking havoc in the Middle East today. (Check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maps of the fifth straight year of catastrophic drought in Syria, which have sent millions of destitute farmers to the cities, and connect the dots.)

Economists are increasingly getting into that nexus of climate, fossil fuels, and alternatives because when the rain patterns shift, and when the productivity of land changes, and when the scientists all speak about the consequences of using coal, oil and gas as being negative, the economists get asked to crunch the money numbers on how to go another way. They are starting to sound like the physicists—and streetcar advocates. Fix it now, says Yale’s William Nordhaus, and get going right away on reducing the emissions that the scientists blame for droughts and other economy-wrecking climate disruptions, or face a $4 trillion bill.

Transportation Today and Options for Tomorrow

Saturday, March 10, 2-5 pm

On Saturday afternoon, the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College and Artvoice present a panel discussion on the subject of public transportation. The panelists include Dr. Wende Mix, a professor of geography at Buffalo State; Anthony Giammarise, a senior consulting engineer for General Electric; and Gladys Gifford of Citizens for Regional Transit. The event, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, is the second in a four-part series called Challenges and Choices.

Getting around in 2020 and beyond

But even if Daniel Yergin and the celebrants of North American oil’s “renaissance” are correct, we all have a problem: There are simply too many scientists saying that we need to live carbon-free, and soon, and that means living in cities instead of spread out all over suburbia, and it means using energy more effectively to move, heat, and power our lives.

There are two discussions underway that talk past one another but that somehow need to be connected. One is about climate change and whether it’s going to be catastrophic or just a big, expensive set of challenges. It’s in that discussion that the fight over energy is waged, and it seems to come down to two views. There are the people who follow Daniel Yergin’s view think that there is only one reality, which is today’s (and, they say, tomorrow’s) oil-dominated world, a world in which we will certainly have to have some public transportation, but withal the world will still be shaped by personal transportation in oil-powered cars. The alternative view of energy is that of the scientists at the Institute of Physics who just published “Greenhouse gases, climate change and the transition from coal to low-carbon electricity,” in IOP Publishing’s journal Environmental Research Letters. In it they warn that the world has to move immediately away from fossil fuels if we are to stop catastrophic global warming from killing off humanity after about 2050.

Meanwhile, urbanists know something much more practical and much more immediate: namely, that most Americans don’t have much money, and that the market for public transportation will grow to serve a population that doesn’t have the wherewithal to buy a $30,000 Prius or a $40,000 Volt or even a $10,000 used car that gets only 15 miles per $5 gallon of gas—simply because there isn’t enough money in the household.

Making new public transportation options available means attracting more people than those who currently ride the bus. Making new public transportation options available means calculating how much diesel fuel will cost in years to come, how much federal money is available today to build infrastructure for alternatives, and calculating also how much electricity will be available, and how many new riders a sparkling new streetcar system can get compared to a smelly old bus.

Those are the calculations that have been made in Cincinnati, Portland, Seattle, Tampa. And given that Obama has put more money into his Department of Transportation budget for transportation alternatives, including light rail and streetcars, the calculation is going to get made not just in the fast-growing cities, but in the slow-grow and no-grow cities. Maybe even in Buffalo.

But there’s an additional, region-specific calculation that should be made right here, right now. The economists, the engineers, and the cost accountants should figure out what the optimal public transportation power source should be in this area, where energy is actually produced. As it happens, Western New York produces a couple of kinds of energy: low- and no-carbon energy from the Niagara Power Project’s hydro turbines, and from the lakefront and hillside wind turbines, and high-carbon energy from natural gas.

So here’s the challenge: to work up a profile of what the energy costs would look like were the NFTA to change a few lines of gas-powered buses to a replacement streetcar line or, better, a network of lines. If streetcars in Buffalo ran every 10 minutes as they do in the new streetcar cities, would more people use them? Would the greenhouse gas footprint of public transportation change? Would household incomes be spent on consumer items other than those pumped at gas stations? That seems to be the conclusion in Cincinnati, Portland, Baltimore, Kenosha, Tampa, Seattle, Toronto, Quebec…

Bruce Fisher’s new book is Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, available at bookstores or at

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