There are two possible versions of the Community Grid. The better version has safe streets, clean air, and quiet neighborhoods. The worst possible version of the Grid is one where interstate vehicular traffic drives through city neighborhoods instead of following I81 around Syracuse. NYSDOT risks building the bad version of the Grid because they continue to prioritize high-speed through traffic over neighborhood well-being.
The Grid needs to reduce traffic speeds and traffic volumes in order to fulfill its promise of creating safe, healthy, connected neighborhoods. But that can only happen if removing the viaduct also removes cars from the middle of Syracuse. It’s cars that emit exhaust, cause a racket, and crash into people.
Removing the viaduct should lower traffic volumes immediately. Cars and trucks traveling through Syracuse from somewhere else to somewhere else should avoid the densely populated neighborhoods of the Grid and instead just follow 81 (currently 481) around the City.
But the Grid will only bring this benefit if it is in fact faster to take the highway around the city than to drive on local streets through it. If cars can drive faster from Tully to Brewerton by taking the Grid instead of the highway, then that’s what they’ll do because their phones will tell them to. Syracuse knows too well that no amount of signage can convince a driver to take the route that traffic engineers want if google maps says some other route is faster.
NYSDOT is coming dangerously close to this worst-case outcome. First off, they’re keeping almost all of the highway in place and even widening it north of Downtown so that more cars can drive faster. Second, they are designing Almond Street and Erie Boulevard to accommodate (illegal) speeds of 35 mph with too-wide lanes, too-huge intersections, and traffic signals that will show speeding drivers a “sea of green.” And third, even when Syracuse demands that NYSDOT take steps to reduce traffic volumes and pollution at key sites like an elementary school, NYSDOT’s response is to make the highways even longer and the Grid’s local streets even shorter.
You can tell this is the worst version of the Grid, because it’s exactly what the Save81 crowd describes when they want to discredit the very idea of reconnecting neighborhoods and reducing noise and air pollution in people’s homes. You want ALL the cars from I81 running through the middle of town? they ask. It will be total gridlock. Tens of thousands of cars clogging local streets and spewing exhaust into people’s homes.
It’s worth saying that, as bad as this version of the Grid would be, it’s still better than building a brand new bigger, wider viaduct through the middle of town. A too-wide, too-fast Almond Street would still be safer, it would still reduce pollution, it would still uncover lots of land where people could live, and it would be much easier to fix—by narrowing lanes, adding traffic signals—than a brand new bigger viaduct and 81/690 interchange. Even Save81’s worst version of the Grid is more appealing than actually saving 81.
But we should build the best version of the Grid. One that will bring safe streets, clean air, and quiet neighborhoods—not a high-traffic, high-speed, high-pollution highway-street hybrid. The Grid has to prioritize people’s safety, health, and peace over vehicle speeds. That means the fastest route for through traffic cannot run through the very neighborhoods that I81 has been polluting for 60 years. NYSDOT has to amend its designs now to build the Grid that this community needs and deserves.