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The Bus Stops Here

CDTA’s new Albany service plan aims to serve more customers using the same resources

by Shawn Stone on November 16, 2011

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

On Wednesday morning around nine o’clock, a middle-age woman with a cane is waiting as a No. 13 New Scotland Avenue bus pulls up in front of the Dunkin’ Donuts at the corner of Lark Street and Madison Avenue in Albany.

“Does the number 116 Madison Avenue bus stop here? Someone said I could get it here,” she asks.

“No,” she is told. “You want the number 114, and you’ll have to walk over to Madison Avenue, to the stop in front of Metroland, to catch it.”

That stop, on the north side of Madison below Lark, was until last week served by two now-discontinued buses, the Quail Street Belt (No. 3) and the Belt via Hackett (No. 30). The woman expresses her unhappiness with the recent changes, but only briefly, as the westbound No. 114 is due in a few minutes. She heads off toward the correct location.

A few days ago, on Sunday, Nov. 13, the Capital District Transportation Authority instituted the most sweeping changes to Albany County bus transit in decades. Long-familiar routes that served Albany neighborhoods from Arbor Hill to Buckingham Pond were discontinued, replaced by new routes that CDTA says better reflect ridership patterns. Unlike the Schenectady County reorganization in 2010, this plan has not resulted in consolidations that led to overall reductions in service (aka contraction); the Albany County plan is “revenue neutral,” as the agency tries to better allocate its limited resources.

What does this kind of change mean, in practice?

Before the restructuring, Madison Avenue’s bus service was haphazard. The No. 3 traveled part of the way, and the No. 30 a little less, as they filled their respective roles as “belt” buses—the connective tissue in any transit system. The Quail Street Belt made clockwise and counterclockwise trips bounded by Quail to the west, Clinton Avenue to the north, Pearl Street to the south and Madison Avenue to the east; the No. 30 traveled a long, rangey route from downtown along Madison, over New Scotland and Holland Avenues through University Heights to Hackett Boulevard, finally heading over North Allen Street to Central Avenue (and back again).

These routes have been replaced by multiple buses designed to serve multiple needs.

The No. 114 is a dedicated service on Madison that serves that lovely avenue from (almost) beginning to end, running every 30 minutes during peak hours, and once an hour in the evening. So this solves the inconvenience to neighborhoods along the way that was caused by the spastic schedules of the 3, 30 and another discontinued bus, the No. 4 Pine Hills. It also serves three “prime destinations,” the Amtrak station in Rensselaer on the eastern end, the University at Albany and Crossgates Mall at the western terminus. And, as the No. 114 travels to/from Crossgates via Washington Avenue and North Main Avenue, thus passing near Albany High School, another prime destination (how about that?), this service is also clearly designed to ease the overcrowding on the No. 12 bus ferrying students between shopping and part-time jobs at the mall, UAlbany, and classes and dorms at the downtown UAlbany facilities.

There was evidence of all these needs being met on Monday, Nov. 14, the 114’s first day of service. At 7:35 AM, two people boarded the westbound bus at Madison and Philip Street, in the Mansion Neighborhood. Asked how the first morning was going, the driver said, “I’m enjoying this. This has been the best day so far.” Another passenger boarded at the Empire State Plaza; at Dove Street, a woman headed for UAlbany got on the bus. A few more passengers boarded at the Lark Street and North Lake Avenue stops; someone got off the bus at Quail Street looking to connect with the No. 100, the new Mid City Belt. And on along toward UAlbany, passengers waiting for the No. 12 on Washington Avenue boarded this new bus instead.

Some of the CDTA’s stated goals, particularly more service options for to attract more customers, and a reallocation of buses to make the travel experience more enjoyable, seem recognizable in practice—at least, so far, over a couple of days, on the 114.

Reached by telephone on day four of the new system rollout, CDTA spokesperson Margo Janack is asked how the plan is proceeding.

“Really well,” she says. “We’re pleased.”

And she does sound happy.

Janack had spoken at length, when the service changes were announced, about the efforts CDTA planned to get the word out. There followed a series of presentations at various Albany Public Library Branches across the city and suburbs, and an extensive print, broadcast and Internet media campaign.

CDTA’s boots-on-the-ground campaign probably was more important, however. In the weeks leading up to the switch, notices began to appear on the buses, followed, in the final run-up, by CDTA reps (supervisors and travel trainers) armed with info. If you rode the No. 30, for example, on Nov. 2, you were greeted by a supervisor as you boarded: “This bus is going to be discontinued.” Then you were given a bundle of new schedules. “These may help you explore your options.”

Having day one on a Sunday allowed for a “soft rollout,” as many services either don’t operate, or operate at reduced frequency levels. Still, there were enough significant changes, from the debuts of a couple of new buses to slight shifts in older services, that CDTA needed to have reps available. But it was day two, Nov. 14, when CDTA had people out in force.

“Between our supervisors and travel trainers, there were probably two dozen people on the streets,” Janack says.

“It’s going to take some time for people to adjust,” says Janack, but CDTA hopes that within a few weeks, things will be back to normal. In the meantime, Janack says, “we’re here to help.”

It was just as CDTA’s Kristina Younger, a deputy executive director for business development, said at a Citizens for Public Transportation meeting at the Albany Public Library in September: “Almost everyone who isn’t answering a phone [at CDTA] is going to be on the street.”

And on Monday afternoon, Younger herself could be spotted answering questions at the North Allen Street Station on Central Avenue.

Gray skies and a hint of rain couldn’t dampen enthusiasm among those gathered in front of the Union Missionary Baptist Church on Morton Avenue (at Grand Street), as Willie White, community organizer and director of A Village, led the people in a classic call-and-response cheer:

“Tell me what democracy looks like!”

“This is what democracy looks like!”

“TELL me what democracy looks like!”

“THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!”

On Sunday afternoon, members of the South End community were having a party to celebrate the first day of the bus that’s supplanting the Quail Street Belt as the main “belt” connecting inner-city Albany: the No. 100 Mid City Belt. They were going to take a ceremonial ride up and down the block, and enjoy the salutations of assorted elected dignitaries, including Mayor Jerry Jennings (dressed casually, and apologetic about not being his usual dapper self) and Albany County Legislator Lucille McKnight (dressed to the nines). Most of the local TV stations were on hand, as were many familiar faces from other commnunity groups, including Alice Green of the Center for Law and Justice, Lucille Brewer of Citizens for Public Transportation and Tom McPheeters of Grand Street Community Arts.

Willie White was taking time to say hello to everyone. He and his organization were instrumental in advocating for bus service on lower Morton Avenue: They collected thousands of petition signatures and partnered with a wide range of community groups—including those referenced above, plus the Trinity Alliance, the South End Neighborhood Association, and the Capital Area Council of Churches—to make something happen.

And they succeeded.

It’s an excellent example of the power of community organizing. The resulting bus service, the 100, is also a good example of an agency needing to be prodded to adjust transit to meet a community’s needs. Because there was a bus serving Morton Avenue before—the No. 9—but it didn’t extend far enough down the hill, and it didn’t run often enough.

A passenger riding the 100 on Monday morning summed it up nicely: “The 9 turned at Eagle Street. I love this. The 9 just ran once an hour. I didn’t like that.”

The problem is that the 9 exited/entered Morton up the hill from where there’s a large concentration of Albany Housing Authority residents—many of them elderly, or parents with small children. Passengers either had to schlep up to Eagle Street to catch the once-an-hour (in each direction) No. 9 bus, or schlep down to South Pearl Street and take multiple buses to travel in the same direction.

The 100, as the city’s main belt, will run every half an hour in each direction. It’s a monster of a route—a kind of Quail Street Belt on steroids—but it will allow timely connections to all the major east-west bus routes, and direct connections between the South End, Arbor and West hills and the major city medical centers.

It’s a bus that’s capable of making people’s lives easier.

“We’re hoping,” Margo Janack says, “that ridership levels will go up.”

She explains that while they should be able to get a rough idea of how the new system is succeeding in a month or two, it will take longer to draw any conclusions about any tweaking the new routes might need.

Not everyone is happy with the new routes. Some passengers who used to ride the No. 30 or No. 4 are still not happy with the replacement service. And some residents of Quail Street south of Madison Avenue aren’t thrilled with that South End favorite, the No. 100 bus. Traveling on the No. 100 north on Quail Street after the rally at the Union Missionary Baptist Church, 10th Ward councilwoman Leah Golby points out the blocks where the residents have expressed concerns: Here Quail Street narrows and the houses don’t have much in the way of lawns to act as a buffer with traffic.

But no change is going to make everyone happy. After a lengthily planning process, CDTA has successfully revamped its Albany services. Now we’ll see if the customers like the product.