I recently found more information about NY bike Route 517. Apparently, after a couple of years, they finally got around to adding it to their website.
State Bicycle Route 517 is a signed on-road bicycle route that extends 90 miles from the Pennsylvania State Line near Jamestown to the Hamlet of Olcott. This route connects with Pennsylvania State Bicycle Routes , the NYS Canalway Trail and the NYS Seaway Trail It also intersects with State Bicycle Routes 5 and 17.
You may have seen these signs around and wondered what they meant. Or not. They are easy to miss. The Bike Route 5 signs have been here for a long time along Route 31 in this area, and some information about them was found online, but the 517 and others were a mystery. I wrote here about it a while back.
So, having found some real, official information about this route, I decided to ride it the other day and see what kind of a bike route it was. I had already formed some opinion on it just from my own knowledge of some of the roads I had seen the markers on, but kept an open mind as I headed out from the northern end of BR 517 where it begins, in Lockport, about a block from where I live.
The first stretch of road is in the City of Lockport. Transit Street, also known as Route 78. It’s a busy, four-lane street and most locals don’t ever ride a bike on it. They stay on the sidewalks. Even the local bike club which is mostly experienced, competent riders, avoids it and goes a mile or so out of the way to cross it at controlled intersections when they go to Panera Bread on their breakfast ride.
But I rode it to prove it could be done. At about 10AM, traffic is not too heavy and most drivers were content to use the left lane to go by me. The striped bike lane is about two feet wide, barely enough for my trike, or for that matter, the handlebars of a regular bike. Of course, once I got out past the city line into the Town of Lockport, there was no bike lane at all and I was just another vehicle. Just the way I like it.
Further on, though, a full shoulder appeared and riding was good, although relegated to the shoulder. The shoulder is well-paved and for the most part clear of debris, but it’s still riding on the shoulder.
Why don’t I like riding on the shoulder or a bike lane? Well, not far from here, I was cut off by a motorist turning into a driveway. Cyclists call this a “Right-Hook.” I noticed a vehicle pull up next to me and slow, then turned right in front of me. Had I not been a.) riding defensively b.) going slower than I might have been and c.) aware of what was happening around me, I would have run into the side of the vehicle or under it’s back wheel.
I took a second entrance into the parking lot and followed the driver. I had a short, non-confrontational conversation with him and asked him to be more careful in the future. His excuse was “I didn’t even see you.” Statistically, that is the most common reason given for car-bike accidents.
If he didn’t see me, on my weird recumbent trike, with an annoyingly bright LED light flashing and a big flag waving on the back of it, would a kid on a BMX bike, or a roadie biker with his head down over the handlebars have stood a chance?
That’s why I don’t like bike lanes or the shoulder of the road. Once you are there, you are off the road and out of the drivers mind. They are concerned with what is in the road and paying attention to what they need to in order to drive. The mind filters out what isn’t essential and focuses on what it needs. But by removing the cyclist from the traffic pattern, they become invisible to the motorists mind.
Unfortunately, on a busy road, riding in bicycle in a traffic lane just isn’t an option either.
Soon enough, I was out of Niagara County and into Erie County. Here, BR 517 turns down Millersport Highway, Route 263 and heads towards Buffalo.
At the northern end, Millersport is a long, straight run with little in the way of businesses or side roads. A friend of mine used to call it the “Millersport Deathway” because there apparently used to be a number of head-on crashes late at night after the bars closed. It’s easy to see how someone could nod off on this stretch of road. But that shouldn’t be a problem at this time of day.
At the I-990 intersection, the bike shoulder ends and you risk being run over by vehicles turning onto the on-ramp. Several places like this – entrances to UB, the I-290 interchange – exist along Millersport. They are very dangerous to cyclists. No special bike lane markings are even attempted.
In some areas, they put markings, painted lines, on the road to indicate a bike lane through these sort of places. They don’t really DO anything to protect the cyclist, but at least they give some indication to the motorist to expect a cyclist going straight. After all, bikes aren’t allowed on the expressway!
Eventually, I got through the S-turns near the University of Buffalo and past the I-290 interchange and continued on Millersport Highway, south of Sheridan Drive. The shoulder narrows to just a concrete gutter. Unlike the bike route between the UB campuses along North Bailey, just a mile away, there are no markings to indicate a bike lane.
The little green 517 signs have been sporadic, as well. Often more than a mile between them and seldom at an intersection. Had I not known where it went, I might have thought I was lost. The route continues on Millersport Highway until it turns into Grover Cleveland Highway. This only goes a short way before you turn right onto Main Street (Route 5) in Buffalo.
Once on Main Street, the route goes through a variety of neighborhoods, past churches and colleges, bars and gas stations, your typical urban street. No bike lane markings or signs and the RT 517 placards are sporadic at best. Again, I was glad to be riding in mid-morning, not rush hour when people were trying to get to work or school.
But the street is still four lanes minimum, two in each direction and in light traffic, I usually had one lane. Enough cars are parked along the curb that there is no way to stay all the way to the right anyway.
I kind of knew there was a change of route somewhere along here, but I didn’t remember the details. My plan was to follow the signs and see if someone without a map could navigate the Bike Route. Main Street in Buffalo is closed for an number of blocks downtown because the Metro Rail uses it. The light rail system runs underground from back at the UB Campus and paralells Main Street until it comes up out of the ground for frequent stops in the downtown area. But I wasn’t sure what the bike route did about it.
Eventually I came to the above ground section of the Metro Rail. The last sign I saw for BR517 was somewhere before Virginia Street and when I came to the last block of Main Street open to autos, I saw a big, green Bike Lane sign, so I followed that. That lasted for one block and left me in the pedestrian-only section looking over at the rail tracks. There didn’t seem to be a problem riding along there, though, as long as I went slowly.
The route actually jogged one block to the south, onto Washington Street, which runs parallel to Main. I saw no signs for it and I’d imagine anyone intentionally following this route would get lot here as well. I knew that at some point BR 517 went onto a section of South Park near the hockey arena, so I continued on in that direction.
Actually, I was kind of enjoying the atmosphere along downtown Main Street anyways.
Downtown Buffalo can be interesting. I worked there many years ago – before the Metro Rail – and I think it’s nicer now. It’s not as large a downtown area as many other cities, and there isn’t the business that there used to be, but it’s not a bad place to walk around, or ride your bike.
I took a few more photos after this, and you can see them all here, but this is about the end of the BR 517 journey. After I had wandered downtown, and failed to find one BR 517 sign on South Park, I decided I had about reached my limit for one day’s ride. After all, the further out I got the further back I had to ride home.
I took in a press conference at the First Niagara Center about the Buffalo Sabres and then wandered back through the new harbor area and past the Commercial Slip and into the Buffalo Harbor, I intended to eat lunch at The Hatch, but I arrived right after noon and the lines were out the doors, so I rode on up the Shoreline Trail towards the Tonawandas and on home. That could be a story in itself, but it’s one I’ve done several times and really not about Bike Route 517, so I’ll leave that to your imagination.
Anyway, conclusions about New York Bike Route 517:
I’m sticking with my pre-conceived notions. That is, you couldn’t pick worse roads to expect someone to use for a bike tour. They are high-traffic, bike-unfriendly roads and most riders would be in fear for their lives riding on them. Once in Buffalo, it was batter, but not by much.
Signage was poor, at times non-existant.
Road markings, as well, were non-existant. Specific areas where safety could be enhanced with some simple painted lines are ignored.
Information about the NY State Bike routes has gotten better, but they are still little-known and avoided by local, knowledgeable cyclists.
There are far better routes, safety and riding experience wise, all over Western New York. The only reason I can see for the state department of Transportation devoting one iota of time to this boondoggle is they probably qualified for Federal funds by doing so. As such, they were limited to only state-operated highways, and that left few choices of roads suitable for cycling.