Overlooking the East Side

Categories:  Features    Community
Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 at 3:45 PM
Overlooking the East Side by Josh Morgan (with Civitas members Lisa Austin and Adam Trott)
contributed photo

Mayor Joseph Sinnott, who deserves applause for getting Erie’s budget under control, seems to believe that the McBride Viaduct is just a liability haunting the city. Some in the administration suppose that the Viaduct could become a financial debacle, undoing the Mayor’s hard work. The firm of L.R. Kimball (LRK), contracted to determine the most prudent course of action for the Viaduct, nurtured such concerns.

It is important to note that despite John Nolen’s century-old call for Erie to hire someone with urban design expertise, the City of Erie does not have a city planner. Lacking an articulated vision for a walkable, bikeable community from their “employers” (the City of Erie), the LRK team of traffic engineers naturally focused on moving cars and trucks through the east side. Sadly, walkability – a key urban planning strategy to promote health, protect the environment, and foster economic development – was not adequately on LRK’s radar.

Money and jobs

To build the Viaduct today, the price tag is estimated to be $15-$20 million. Estimates of the cost to tear it down have risen from $1.2 million to $2.3 million (and are likely to rise further when all environmental hazards are identified). Whatever the cost ends up to be, the demolition and clean up money will likely go to out-of-state contractors. In contrast, the $3 million needed to stabilize the Viaduct (for its current use as a pedestrian and bicycle bridge) can be tied to a Community Benefits Agreement ensuring that locals get the jobs.

Railroad divides Erie

Erie’s east side neighborhoods have terrible north-south connectivity. From the Ash Street underpass to Downing Avenue – a mile and a half – only the Viaduct and the highway cross over the tracks. In LRK’s vision, automobile traffic – especially on the highway – should become the preferred mode of transportation on the east side, even though travel by car is a privilege unavailable to many.

Rather than making a bad situation worse, the Viaduct should remain in place as a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the railroad tracks.

Safety

The proposal to retain the Viaduct in its present use has been criticized as an unsafe municipal liability attracting crime, injuries, and even suicide. However, there is no known record of any of this occurring during the Viaduct’s five years as a pedestrian and bike path; these criticisms are frivolous.

LRK and the supporters of demolition claim that Viaduct users will be safely and adequately accommodated with only the 9-foot-wide path along the Bayfront Connector. We suggest the next time it rains or snows, take a comparison walk. Having children and teens traveling to school along a four-lane highway with 22-ton trucks barreling by is not something a responsible community should endorse.

Other benefits

Jane Jacobs and other urban studies researchers have long observed that the connectivity of a neighborhood is linked to the quality of life and social capital its residents enjoy. In general, more pathways between neighborhoods tend to correlate with safer, more positive living experiences. Converting the Viaduct into a permanent pedestrian and bike path would likely parallel an increase in social interests, as well as increases in positive social forces over time. We have found that this is already happening for the Viaduct, and that benefit will continue to grow, enriching the local population.

The McBride Viaduct pedestrian and bike path is a landmark in the making. If cleaned up, painted, and lighted, the bridge could reenergize the surrounding economy and instill a sense of pride among residents of the east side. As is, the McBride Viaduct is an unquantified channel of social capital, trust, and reciprocity for east siders and the city at large, as the bridge enables countless social interactions among the residents who use it.

The retention of the McBride Viaduct path will symbolize generosity and trust from the city government toward residents of the east side, social dimensions that are now grossly deficient.

The potential effects of demolishing the McBride Viaduct

LRK’s preferred alternative of demolishing the Viaduct would offer two benefits: the removal of structure in need of repair, and the quashing of a debate for an outgoing administration. However, demolition would cause significant problems for surrounding neighborhoods.

LRK has recommended that pedestrians and bicyclists be directed to cross the Bayfront Connector at the Broad Street or East 12th Street intersections. They acknowledged that these routes would result in longer walking and biking times, but LRK failed to assess their practicality.

Because the Viaduct serves as a channel for human interaction and connectivity on the east side, removing it would have depressive social and economic effects. The effects of urban isolation have been documented in case studies by political scientists and urban sociologists. It is reasonable to expect crime and violence to increase after the Viaduct is demolished.

It is safe to assume that everyone who uses the Viaduct does so because it is safer and more pleasant than the one alternative route. Students going to school and workers going to their jobs, two key groups that currently use the Viaduct, would have no choice but to cross the tracks using only the 9-foot wide, much longer Bayfront Connector bridge. 

Sadly, people under no pressure to cross would avoid the longer routes and stop crossing as often.

The impacts on life in the east side would be measurable, and would also include declines in civic engagement, local business revenues, and labor force participation. A 2011 study out of Penn State University found that walking and biking infrastructures in the U.S. facilitate long-term job creation by an average of 12 new jobs per $1 million invested.

Removing the Viaduct would further hinder the ability of the east side’s economy to support itself.

LRK’s flawed urban study

LRK did not properly acknowledge that demolishing the Viaduct would disrupt the lives of individuals who rely on it to cross the CSX railroad tracks between East 12th Street and East 19th Street. Shockingly, they based their recommendations about the Viaduct on data collected on two winter days.

LRK’s methodologies and case for demolition lacked scientific rigor, particularly in their assessments of pedestrians’ and bicyclists’ needs. For reference, the entire study can be downloaded at mcbrideviaduct.com, under the “Getting Involved” section.

For one, LRK conducted pedestrian and bike counts at intersections near the Viaduct and near the site of their proposed Buffalo Road interchange (in Appendix D1 of the study), but they only collected data during peak hours on two dates: one in November 2011, and another in December 2012.

Given that these types of traffic vary by time of day, time of year, weather, temperature, visibility, and other factors, data for two points in time are not enough to allow for any significant analysis.

The reliability of these counts is also unclear because LRK did not provide a methodological statement to support them. What other studies have used the same or similar research methods? What did those other studies observe? LRK chose not to explain. Thus, the precedent for their research method is unknown.

Despite poor transparency, LRK’s data show that pedestrians and bicyclists used the Viaduct more frequently than the Bayfront Bikeway or other routes, which they ignored during their recommendations. Further research is needed to indicate how people walk and bike in the area year-round.

One of the study’s most blatant offenses comes from their survey of residents about the Viaduct (in Appendix C2). According to LRK, “Nearly 1,000 surveys were distributed via email, postal mail, and hand delivery. Ninety-eight responses were received.”

This dismal response rate to LRK’s survey is a failure of survey design, not of the target population to respond, and would be embarrassing for any professional survey firm to publish. Among survey researchers, 20 percent is considered the low end for acceptable response rates. This survey did not deliver 10 percent.

Had the survey’s authors attempted to draft a proper methodological statement, perhaps they would have discovered that a sample size of 98 is nowhere near large enough to represent the total population of their study area. As it stands, the statistics they calculated from their survey are not reliable and should be recalculated from new, more reliable data.

LRK’s flippant environmental analysis

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires all state and federal contractors to conduct at least a Phase I environmental site assessment on projects that would modify the built environment. Generally speaking, a Phase I assessment identifies obvious environmental liabilities, and involves combing through public records, interviewing property owners and neighboring residents, and surveying a site for environmental clues. LRK conducted a Phase I assessment of the Viaduct, as required.

The problem is that the Viaduct sits on an industrial site that was active for decades before EPA regulations. There is a real risk of soil contamination that will require extensive cleanup if the Viaduct were to be demolished. Such a cleanup would require millions of dollars over budget that LRK’s assessment does not anticipate, and that the city is not prepared to take on.

Had LRK assumed due diligence and conducted a Phase II site assessment, the next step above general fact-finding, the debate over the Viaduct’s future might carry a different weight.

Overall, LRK’s approach to urban design is subjective in that they would prefer all forms of human movement on the east side to conform around motorized traffic. This auto-centric approach to urban design is almost as old as the automobile, and is facing obsolescence in many settings — not automobiles themselves, but their dominance over urban mobility.

LRK’s preferred alternative works against the natural patterns of pedestrians and bicyclists on the east side instead of with them. Granted, LRK tailored its recommendations to the city’s limited terrain and resources, but the methods in which it chose to do so should be revisited.

LRK published an incomplete study that was lax in its methodologies, muddying the debate over the Viaduct’s future.

Recommendations

Mayor Sinnott and city council must be urged to table their plans to demolish the McBride Viaduct. Ideally they should move forward with stabilizing this city asset, and work with community organizers to help establish a public-private partnership (like LEAF at Frontier Park) to help the city care for the Viaduct.

At the very least, the current administration must address the shortcomings of LRK’s study by undertaking the following three recommendations:

One, a longitudinal study of intersections around the Viaduct, accounting for pedestrian and bicycle traffic throughout the year, should be a priority. Two examples of successful models for counts like these can be found with Ann Arbor’s Transportation Authority, and in a 2012 study of non-motorized traffic in Minneapolis by Steve Hankey and associates.

Two, a more extensive survey research to identify the needs of those who rely on the Viaduct would be ideal. Emails, requests via postal mail, and phone calls will receive fewer responses than face-to-face interactions, so volunteers would have to be rallied for such an effort — not an impossible task.

Three, a Phase II assessment of soil quality should inform the city’s final decision about the Viaduct site. Otherwise, Mayor Sinnott’s progress toward financial stability could be challenged.

Still, the demolition of the Viaduct remains a stubborn possibility. Should that come to pass, here are two more recommendations:

One, pedestrians and bicyclists need routes to travel beyond LRK’s preferred alternative. Period. There is a mile and a half between Ash Street and Downing Avenue where people live and cannot cross the CSX railroad tracks safely without the Viaduct. Expecting residents to follow the alternate routes without consequence dismisses our rational tendencies as humans. Unfortunately, the Viaduct is the only north-south track crossing that aligns with the only north-south business corridor in this region of the east side: East Avenue.  Demolishing it greatly diminishes East Avenue’s attempts at economic turn-around.

Two, proper signage, education, and beautification would improve the safety and usage of alternate routes. LRK’s recommendation to install fencing and barriers at dangerous crossing points in the area is callous and does not go far enough. A 2014 study of American adolescents suggested that it may be possible to persuade pedestrians to walk farther by providing high-quality, stimulating routes.

Opportunity

The McBride Viaduct is a misunderstood asset. With commitment, Erie could use it to attract and retain residents and entrepreneurs in unique ways. East siders need comfortable and convenient ways to walk, bike, and enjoy the outdoors, and the Viaduct can facilitate all three. In addition, Erie needs to repair its self-image problem, with or without the Viaduct, but that will never happen as long as city officials allow their fear of risk to override their desire for innovation.

It makes sense for Mayor Sinnott and other critics to question the Viaduct’s feasibility, but LRK’s unreliable findings have tainted their opinions. LRK’s study of the Viaduct was flawed in that their research methods violated scientific standards. Also, their recommendations focused on financial factors, not social ones, and they implied that driving should be the dominant mode of transportation, despite national trends to the contrary.

The McBride Viaduct is a platform for innovation waiting to be utilized. Erie desperately needs a win, having long ago reached a point where financial woes became excuses for doing nothing. Those who are moving away are doing so to escape that tired, old narrative.

Last Fall, Pittsburgh hired a new Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator to improve its walking and biking infrastructure. Buffalo is now rolling out its new Green Code, an overhaul of the city’s development strategy that encourages pedestrian and bicycle-friendly construction. In February, the Cleveland City Council approved a plan for a pedestrian bridge on its lakefront, among other improvements.

In June 2015, the former Milwaukee Mayor, John Norquist, wrote in his Erie Times-News op-ed that “the Viaduct should be preserved as a convenient walkway.” At the Booker T. Washington Center last August, the Columbia University professor, Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, urged Erie to keep the Viaduct in order to create a “Safe and Connected City.”

Let’s keep pedestrians safe and create local jobs.

Let’s seize this unique Erie opportunity.

Let’s rethink the McBride Viaduct.

What do you think about this? The Mayor and City Council will soon decide the Viaduct’s fate. Come and voice your opinion during the first-come-first-serve segment of the “(Viaduct) Citizens-to-be-Heard” portion of the City Council meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 16, at City Hall, 626 State St. Details on Facebook: Rethink the McBride Viaduct.

Josh Morgan, a sociologist and freelance writer for the Washington Post and other publications, specializes in quantitative research and produces The Plural of You, a podcast about people helping people. Architect Adam Trott, a member of Civitas, can be reached via his website, ajtarch.com. Lisa Austin, a social sculptor and co-founder of Civitas, can be reached via civitaserie.com, via Facebook at CivitasErie, by email Lisa@civitaserie.com, or by scheduling a Friday morning meeting at the Civitas office in the Masonic Building, 32 West Eighth St.

Erie Reader: Vol. 6, No. 20
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Now serving up good vibes on State Street

Fighting for change in our most vulnerable communities.

Running into a blazing building can be ‘terrifying,’ but some choose to do it, anyway. 

Here are three good opportunities to lighten up as the nights grow longer.

Dancing Wheels bring a world premiere to Mercyhurst.

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