A New Approach to Retrofitting a Dangerous Suburban Road

The Syracuse suburb of Dewitt is overhauling its wide traffic artery -- and putting bikes at the center.

Dewitt, New York, a suburb of Syracuse, is remaking a dangerous, car-centric road with a median greenway. Images: Elevating Erie
Dewitt, New York, a suburb of Syracuse, is remaking a dangerous, car-centric road with a median greenway. Images: Elevating Erie

Erie Boulevard East in Dewitt, New York, is ugly, stressful, and dangerous. It’s also entirely unremarkable in America’s suburban landscape.

The defining feature of this grey, six-lane road is its weed-lined concrete median. If you even try to walk or bike on Erie Boulevard, you’ll immediately feel like you’re doing something wrong.

The street has “absolutely no regard to aesthetics or humanity,” said Sam Gordon, Dewitt’s director of planning. “It’s existed that way ever since that was put in.”

Erie Boulevard typifies suburban roads that were designed and built to funnel motorized traffic. But it’s about to get an overhaul drawn up to meet completely different goals: safety, walkability, bikeability, and public health.

The cities of Dewitt and Syracuse, with help from the state of New York, which contributed $18 million to the project, will be repurposing two of the car lanes along 2.75 miles of Erie Boulevard to make room for a center-running bikeway and pedestrian safety improvements at intersections.

Dewitt is a suburb that developed during the heyday of the auto era. It has no real town center save a shopping mall. But Erie Boulevard is lined with stores and restaurants — the problem is that people can only get to them by car, given the current design of the street. Gordon thinks this project could serve as a model for other suburban communities that want to retrofit dangerous, car-centric roads as safe, useful biking and walking connections.

The greenway is the result of a sustained public engagement process and an international design competition. The center-running design was chosen from 70 entries, Gordon said. Working with Alta Planning + Design, the cities decided that a bikeway in the median would be safer than curbside protected bike lanes because, like many suburban arterials, Erie Boulevard is riddled with driveways.

The center-running trail will keep cyclists away from driveways. Here's how the intersections will be designed. Graphic: Elevating Erie
At intersections, cyclists will get dedicated signals to prevent conflicts with turning drivers. Graphic: Elevating Erie

The dimensions of Erie Boulevard and the roads it crosses present challenges at intersections. Junctions are wide, with lots of turning movements, so traffic signals will have dedicated bicycle phases to separate people on bikes from motorists crossing the greenway. Intersections will also get upgraded walking infrastructure, including pedestrian islands and high-visibility crosswalks.

In addition to serving as a local biking connection, the greenway on Erie Boulevard will link up with the larger Erie Canalway Trail System, eventually running all the way from Buffalo to Albany. Erie Boulevard itself runs over a filled-in part of the canal system, which has been significantly rerouted since it opened in the first half of the 19th Century.

Gordon hopes the project will reconnect people to that heritage. “There’s no reference to that along the corridor,” he said. “The reason why central New York exists really can be attributed back to the history of the Erie Canal. And that’s basically been erased.”

Construction on the Erie Boulevard redesign is slated to start in spring 2019 and wrap up in 2020.

Eire Boulevard will be part of a bike path system stretching all the way from Buffalo to Albany. Graphic: Envision Erie
The 2.75 miles of Erie Boulevard that will be redesigned are marked in light blue. The dark blue marks another 1.5 mile segment of the trail. Graphic: Envision Erie

20 thoughts on A New Approach to Retrofitting a Dangerous Suburban Road

  1. Other high priority things to help non-motorists that jump out at someone who hasn’t ever stepped foot in Syracus:
    beacon crossings,
    significantly reduce parking ratios/implement parking maximums (there’s an astonishing amount of parking around everything along Erie Blvd seen from Google maps!),
    Coordinate cross-access/cross-parking agreements (especially when users have different peak demands for parking) to better utilize parking and consolidate driveways for fewer sidewalk-driveway intersections

  2. Cyclists don’t patronize local businesses, only motorists do.

    Or at least that’s what I’ve heard from about 95% of business owners when it comes to bike lanes on “their” streets.

  3. I still think that a side-running bikeway would be better. Driveways aren’t unsafe because they are mostly private, so people rarely go in and out of them. Driveways are also usually narrow, so people go very slowly when entering and exiting them.

    Also, why not just make the protected bike lane a narrow “shared space” area on both sides of the street, which prioritizes pedestrians and bicyclists, only allowing access to cars in one direction when these cars are accessing driveways. Where there were not frequent driveways, cars could be banned in the protected pedestrian/bike area. This approach is used in the Netherlands and in China, and it works, at least in areas that are not extremely busy. The advantage of this approach is that you have a wide, well-protected calmer area on the side of the road to bike and walk in, and you don’t have frequent breaks in protection to accommodate driveways.

  4. As a cyclist, even in the super-bike-friendly San Francisco Bay (by US standards), its often hard to find bike racks at businesses. On numerous occasions I’ve attempted to go to a shop/store/restaurant, and gave up because there was no where to leave my bike. Between dodging speeding motorists in parking lots and driveways and getting weird looks walking in with your helmet, it’s usually not worth the effort. I lived in Rochester for 4 years and I can’t imagine having used my bike anywhere off a trail.

  5. When they say driveways, they mean commercial/retail driveways. Nobody lives on Erie Blvd – it’s the mail commercial strip with a thousand stores, local businesses, gas stations etc, so bike lanes along the sides would be impossible.

  6. Wow. Good for them. When I suggest similar concepts, I’m called an uppity dickhead that’s trying to change the neighborhood.

  7. Well, they certainly won’t patronize local businesses with this design, but hey, it’s all about safe spaces. We wouldn’t want to have to cycle with cars or people around. That’s dangerous!

  8. The intersection is still hugely problematic. As a pedestrian, you can only cross on 3 sides, 2 of which include islands before the turn lanes, a configuration motorists often blast through at high speeds. Simply staying in the middle bike/walk section means crossing literally 8 lanes of traffic. I predict this will become a nice, boulevard-like stretch of greenery that isn’t frequented by anyone except dedicated cyclists on recreational rides.

  9. Really? Dress it up and it will get accolades. Function? Not so much. It’s rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Horrible pedestrian design at intersections (as noted, one leg on the intersection shown doesn’t even facilitate crossing). Massive block lengths, not at all human scale, giant strip malls with parking lots fronting the road. Requires doubling back and/or biking on the sidewalks in order to get to any destinations not at the infrequent intersections. Typical boondoggle from bureaucrats that don’t understand placemaking and functional design.

  10. Thanks for the report. This raises the possibility of places that, in terms of utility, are not attractive for walking but are attractive for biking. It might be attractive for recreation, depending on how often intersections come up and how quickly it leads to somewhere nicer for recreation.

    I’m not “getting” to other comments about non-utility for shopping by bike. As someone who shops using a bike all the time I know it is one thing to get _near_ the shop and still another to get _to_ the shop. Most of the trip is planned with flexibility to find a low-stress route. For the last bit one is stuck with the conditions hear the store, whether that is a walkable area with shops or a wretched strip mall. Where I live, almost all cycling facilities are placed where politically feasible. That means away from the nice walkable shopping street (gotta preserve parking) and away from the shopping center (developers seem not to be able to conceive of a biking or walking access portal to their effing developments that isn’t actually a road for cars). So the last 200 meters to the shop is wretched no matter what.

    Anyway I hope these suburban retrofits make progress. Those of us who bike everywhere could use some.

  11. Indeed. Every time I visit a coffee shop with no bike parking, I quietly freak out. Shopping by bicycle in the USA is like trying to give money to someone who doesn’t know what money is.

  12. As long as they DON’T take down all the trees in the meridian! I have walked the whole way from McDonalds to Shoppingtown Mall; & More than a dozen times I have walked from Westcott St. to Lowe’s. The walk in the meridian is very nice – soft grass feels good even while wearing shoes. I can complain about the Sidewalks on the business sides. Especially when they don’t clear the snow and ice off them!!!!!! The photos at the top of this report I find Very deceiving since there are Very few trees or lawns on the retail properties and will not look so lush as pictured. The sidewalks on each of the edges of the meridian are about 2 feet wide and made of disgusting, lumpy black top – This is where the improvements need to happen – widen the sidewalks and include a bike lane on each side of the meridian – NOT Down the middle!!! I suggest making pedestrian cross walks at each set of Traffic lights Connecting ALL four corners and limiting the Right turn on Reds (They keep nearly running me down!) Question: What happens to flow (traffic, water, etc.) when the way is narrowed? It gets more crowded and has more pressure, therefore it speeds up! So eliminating lanes would be Very detrimental to the whole situation. So where the meridian is concrete and without trees, this is where it should be widened and then take the needed space from retail curb line. (Where there is a ‘right of way’ already in place!)

  13. The proposed project will encompass portions of Erie Boulevard East in DeWitt and in Syracuse. In the city of Syracuse there is a wide grassy median – that in some areas is in excess of 80 feet wide, with trees and grass. The multi-use path will be located within that median. In the town of DeWitt the median is significantly more narrow and is paved with asphalt. As part of the proposed design the median in these areas will be widened landscaping and trees will be added as well as the multi-use path. Sidewalks will also be added to the outsides of the Boulevard from Teall Avenue (Syracuse) to Bridge Street (DeWitt). We did explore adding bike lanes to the sides of the boulevard as part of our concept report (http://www.elevatingerie.com/from-us/2017/10/12/big-update-elevating-erie-concept-plan-announced), but there are many driveway conflicts on the outside – and the bike infrastructure is part of the statewide empire state trail project (https://www.ny.gov/programs/empire-state-trail) which ultimately is connecting Buffalo to Albany – so reducing those kinds of conflicts are important.

  14. Glad to see this long-overdue makeover. In the 1990s I served on the NYS Thruway Authority’s Canalway Trail Steering Committee, and we put on public meetings across the state and met with local planners and officials about completing the Canalway Trail from Albany to Buffalo. At the time my friend Jeff Olson, now of Alta Planning, was NYS’ first-ever bicycle-pedestrian coordinator. I recall lots of conversations about what would possibly be done for this section of the trail. All discussions concluded with the realization that whatever was ultimately done would cost a substantial amount of money. That proved to be true, but will be well worth it. This will still be a very car-centric corridor, but that reflects present realities. This looks like the best possible intervention at this time. It will be good to see it implemented.

    Twenty-five years ago last month, NYS announced the hiring of Jeff Olson to be the state’s first-ever bicycle-pedestrian coordinator. In the same announcement, the state declared its intention to complete the Canalway Trail across the state. It may have taken a quarter century, but I’m delighted that we’re closing in on that goal.

  15. @disqus_e3rgHd7MHb:disqus – we are very excited that this long awaiting project is coming due. Jeff Olson and Alta planning have played no small role in this project. Jeff served as a juror for our international ideas competition (http://www.elevatingerie.com/ideas-competition-overview/), and later we worked with Alta Planning on the development of a concept report (http://www.elevatingerie.com/from-us/2017/10/12/big-update-elevating-erie-concept-plan-announced) that looked at the feasibility of incorporating a bikeway into the boulevard. This lead to detailed and technical discussions with NYS DOT about the corridor and what was technically feasible. Of course, we would be nowhere without the investment by the State in the Empire State Trail project.

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