Making James Street Better

When a car ran over 13-year-old Zyere Jackson on James Street his mother called it a ‘freak accident.’ It wasn’t. Cars regularly run into things and people on that street, and every day sees dozens of near-misses. People keep trying to walk across it, bike along it, and drive on it, though, because it’s the easiest route through several of the most populous neighborhoods in the City. James Street needs to be safer for everybody who uses it.

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The first thing to do is slow down the cars. No one needs to drive 35 miles an hour on any city street. That’s obvious, and it’s why so many people talked about reducing the speed limit after that car hit Zyere Jackson. It’s a good idea, and City Hall should do it and put up speed-cameras to enforce the new limit effectively and fairly.

But the feel of driving down James Street also need to change so that people in cars are comfortable at 20 mph instead of 35 (or 45). Right now the street feels like a race track, and drivers treat it that way. Take it down to two lanes, and people will choose to drive more slowly all on their own.

That will also open up new space for bus lanes. More buses run down James Street than any other street outside of Downtown. There should be even more buses, and they shouldn’t get stuck in traffic. The SMART1 study predicted that 23% more people would ride the bus on James Street if the bus came more often and if it ran in its own lane. That’s hundreds more people using the street to get where they’re going safely, without holding up traffic, and without polluting the air in their neighborhoods.

That number could be even higher if the new BRT service ran out to the East Syracuse Wegmans (that’s less than ½ mile past where SMTC suggested the line end). Starting the line at a park-and-ride there would give more drivers the option to avoid James Street entirely, and it would mean that bus riders had one more place where they could buy groceries or get a job.

But gas-powered vehicles aren’t the only ways to get up and down James Street. People also bike it, and the street needs to be safer for them too. Back in 2011, City Hall said that unprotected bike lanes were part of its ‘near-term’ plans for James Street. Well it’s 2019 and people are still riding on the sidewalks to try and stay safe from cars. Now City Hall takes a different tack and points to this bike ‘suitability map’ that says people shouldn’t even try riding on James Street at all.

That’s nonsense—there should be space for people to bike along James Street without risking their lives. There’s more than enough room for a bike lane above the curb between the street and the sidewalk (there’s so much room there that the STSA even suggested running street cars in that grass). Putting a bike lane above the curb keeps people safe from cars, and City Hall could plow it and the sidewalk at the same time.

This would also make James Street better for the people who walk it. Right now, the too narrow, uneven sidewalks have to handle both foot and bike traffic because they’re the only place safe from cars. Putting bikes in their own space would give the sidewalks back to pedestrians—the people who are really supposed to be using them in the first place.

James Street wasn’t always a death trap. It used to be so beautiful that people put it on postcards. This serene tree-lined avenue where people took walks for the joy of it is nothing like the congested traffic sewer we have now, and it shows that the way things are isn’t the way things have to be. James Street could be better. It could be a street that gets people to their destinations quickly and safely, no matter how they’re traveling. It could link the neighborhoods that line it, rather than a barrier that separates them. It could be so much better, if only we had the will to make it happen.