Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
After the death of a child on the Scajaquada, or New York Route 198, Buffalo locals are demanding changes.
“A walk in the park.” It’s a cliché of peacefulness and ease. But for the family of 3-year-old Maksym Sugorovskiy, a walk in Delaware Park in Buffalo turned into a nightmare that will never end.
On a pleasant spring day, a driver traveling on the Scajaquada Expressway—a high-speed four-lane thoroughfare that slices through this majestic and popular green haven at the heart of the city—veered off the road. He smashed into Maksym, his mother, and his 5-year-old sister as they walked away from the little girl’s soccer game. Maksym was killed. His sister was critically injured. The driver told police he had fallen asleep at the wheel. The crash is still under investigation.
In response to the tragedy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the speed limit on the Scajaquada lowered from 50 to 30 mph. Guardrails are being erected to protect people on foot from drivers. But members of the community are asking why it took the death of a child to make the changes, and calling for a comprehensive redesign of the road that would reunite the divided park, one of Frederick Law Olmsted’s most beautiful.
“For years we have, as a community, fought this road,” says Michael DeLuca, a member of the Parkside Community Association, which has been among many groups advocating for a complete redesign since the 1990s. “The speed limit is 50 miles per hour, but people go 60. It’s been laden with accidents through the years. All around the park, there is not one safe pedestrian entrance.”
Maksym’s death has mobilized a whole new group of activists on the issue, including Kerri Markovich. She’s a Buffalo native who lives near the park and often takes her two young children, aged 22 months and 5 months, to the Buffalo Zoo, which is near the crash site. “It was so traumatic, to think it could have happened to me,” says Markovich. “I couldn’t not mobilize. I’m like the angry mom of Buffalo now.”
Markovich started a Facebook page called Parents for a Safe Delaware Park, which has gathered nearly 2,500 supporters, and started a petition demanding that the expressway be turned into a parkway, with a speed limit of 30 mph and ample accommodations for people on foot. Because the Scajaquada is a state road, any changes have to go through the New York State Department of Transportation.
Prioritizing cars over people
The Scajaquada Expressway, named for a nearby stream, is by no means an original feature of Delaware Park, which was designed in the 1870s by Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux, the acknowledged geniuses of American urban green space. Olmsted came to Buffalo—then a thriving city, grooming itself for a limitless future as a center of commerce and innovation—with a grand plan. He laid out not a single great park, as he had in Manhattan with Central Park, but rather an interconnected system of six varied green spaces, of which 350-acre Delaware is the centerpiece. As in all of Olmsted’s parks, there is a unifying theme of tranquility and an attempt to create an immersive experience of nature in the heart of the city.
But in the 1950s, with Buffalo’s population at its peak, planners decided that moving car traffic was more important than the historic design of the park, and that the city needed to connect Interstate 90 with New York State 33. The Scajaquada, also known as New York State Route 198, was born—a full-scale expressway replacing low-speed, verdant parkways that covered the same ground. By the 1960s, construction of the road, engineered for maximum “throughput” of cars, had effectively severed one side of the park from the other, defacing Olmsted’s grand design. Ironically, the same period saw the beginning of a long economic and population decline for the city.
Today there is only one place where pedestrians can cross from one section to the other. “It really put a scar through the park,” says DeLuca.
It’s not just the Scajaquada that mars Olmsted’s bucolic vision. Adjacent neighborhoods serve as conduits for cars leaving and entering the road as well. Parkside Avenue, which runs along the park’s eastern edge, has been the site of countless dangerous traffic incidents, with some intersections logging three times the number of crashes as the state average.
Mary O’Herron, who has lived on Parkside since 1972, led protests in the 1970s to get a traffic light installed at the corner of Florence and Parkside, a major pedestrian entrance to the park. She and her neighbors stopped traffic, carrying a simple white casket in a symbolic funeral procession to illustrate their point.
The DOT did finally install a light, but O’Herron says that the situation hasn’t improved much. “The light did not do a lot,” says O’Herron, who notes that as Buffalo has been seeing something of a renaissance over the past decade, the safety issue is becoming even more pressing. “Now we’ve got a lot of pedestrian traffic crossing into the park at that point. People going to the zoo, the basketball courts. College students. It’s really a wonder that some pedestrian hasn’t been killed on Parkside.”
People often blow through the red light at the intersection, and speeding drivers, many of whom are exiting the Scajaquada, regularly drive into the front yards and sidewalks along Parkside, which is lined with historic homes. O’Herron says drivers have totaled several cars parked in her neighbors’ driveways. They’ve plowed up gardens and lawns. In one case, a driver tore the front porch off a house just down the street from her. She doesn’t bother planting flowers in front of her house anymore.
Lobbying for change
In 2013, neighborhood residents staged a “park-in” protest, parking illegally on both sides of Parkside during rush hour and narrowing the street to two lanes rather than four. The result? For that evening, drivers moved closer to the 30-mile-per-hour speed limit, rather than the 45 or so they usually do through the neighborhood.
Now, with Maksym’s death, DeLuca says that his group and many others who have a stake in Buffalo’s parks and neighborhoods are renewing their calls for lasting changes to the Scajaquada and surrounding streets. Simply lowering the speed limit on the expressway won’t be sufficient, he says, and a holistic redesign is necessary to slow traffic and prevent further loss of life.
Meanwhile, cars are being eliminated from major sections of two other Olmsted gems. In New York City, where community advocates have been lobbying against cars in parks for years, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the other day that motor vehicles will be banned from large parts of the loop roads in Central Park and Prospect Park.
Maybe Buffalo will be the next place to radically rethink the way it is using its Olmsted legacy. “People don’t want to have a highway in the middle of the park,” says Markovich. “People want to get from one side of the park to the other without dying.”