I recently spent a few days in Erie, PA, to attend a conference. Before arriving, I had looked at the map to figure out how to get from the bus station to my accommodations to the convention center. On the map it looked pretty straight forward and simple. All the places I had to get were within a mile of each other—piece of cake. I often walk that far just to get to a bus in Pittsburgh. Shortly after arriving in Erie, I realized that purely considering distance does not capture the true picture. The seemingly short mile-long paths that I had to take included significant geographical and man-made barriers.
The main drag ran up through the town and straight out to the waterfront ending at the convention center hotel. From the town square (6th Street), most of the buildings are flush with the sidewalk, except for the parking-lot-centric McDonald’s in the middle of these older buildings. At 3rd Street, this changes. The next two blocks are dominated by the campus of a UPMC hospital. Then the barriers come.
First there is a small hill down toward the waterfront, then a wide parkway, followed by a barren strip of land on one side of the road and a marina on the other. Finally, there is the convention center hotel. Of course you have to pass the long parking garage, the lobby and rooms of the hotel, go up an elevator across a pedestrian bridge over the entrance to the marina, and down another elevator before you get to the convention center.
I was staying in a Bed and Breakfast near the town square, so several times a day I walked back and forth along this route to attend the conference events. Even though the walk was only about a mile long, it seemed to take forever because of the barriers of the hill, road, vacant land, and water. After going back and forth a few times, I realized that the set up was not much different from what I had seen in Cleveland this summer. That city also has a major roadway cutting off the town from the shores of Lake Erie. This road of course was much bigger than the one in Erie as the city is correspondingly bigger.
Despite the fact that there is a major freeway dividing the waterfront from downtown Cleveland, I still felt welcome to cross this barrier to reach the waterfront park or the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. In Erie, I got a very clear impression that the downtown residents were not welcome to cross the barriers to get to the convention center/hotel or the little public jetty next to it and that the visitors at the hotel/conference center were not encouraged to explore into downtown Erie. This situation seems to defeat part of the purpose of convention centers to bring economic benefits to the surrounding area, by bringing in more people to use local services.