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We've got a plan: Albany bicyclists examine a map of the city's streets.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Progress on Two Wheels

Albany is working on a plan to become more bicycle friendly

Judging from the 200 or so people who showed up for Albany’s first public meeting on a proposed “Bicycle Master Plan,” the organizers will need to come up with something for everyone as they tackle a long-overdue idea that starts with this simple assumption: Bicycles should be part of the city’s streets.

The hard-core cyclists were easy to pick out in the standing-room-only crowd that filled a conference room at the Albany Public Library on Feb. 25. They were the ones who rode their bikes to the meeting, in the dark and in 30-degree temperatures, and strode into the room with their helmets tucked under one arm. But the meeting also attracted recreational cyclists—more interested in peddling around Washington Park than riding to work—retirees, and parents with children in tow who said they wanted to make the neighborhood streets safer for young cyclists.

The size of the crowd caught the organizers from Albany’s Department of Development and Planning by surprise. People stood in the hallway to hear the presentation when the conference room got too crowded, as staff members scrounged for extra chairs.

The Bicycle Master Plan got its start when Albany won a $56,250 grant from the Capital District Transportation Committee for developing the idea. The city pitched in $18,750, and hired the North American engineering firm IBI Group to develop the plan.

Norma Moores, an IBI engineer who presented the draft plan for the first time at the public meeting, is from IBI’s office in Hamilton, Ontario. The fact that Hamilton is such a bike-friendly city—with a system of bike paths that runs for dozens of miles through and beyond downtown—appealed to the Albany planners overseeing the project, said Doug Melnick, Albany’s director of planning.

“That was one of the things that interested us,” Melnick said, “having someone coming from outside of the United States who had a different perspective on bicycling.”

Moores told residents that they will have a direct role in developing the final version of the proposal. The city distributed a questionnaire about bicycle needs at the meeting and asked the audience to divide into groups to study the proposal and give immediate feedback. A special e-mail address (AlbanyBikePlan@cdtcmpo .org) has been set up for residents to offer further comments.

“This isn’t going to be just the city’s bike plan—it’s the community’s bike plan,” Moores said. “We want this to be a system that meets as many needs as possible.”

IBI estimates that the largest group of cyclists in the city are what the firm calls “interested but concerned,” at 60 percent of all riders. These are the people, Moores said, who like to cycle but find the city an intimidating place to do so.

“We know there are quite a few short trips you might make around the city of Albany if it was safer and more comfortable,” she told the audience. “We’re trying to identify a plan to improve cycling, and it will be both short term and long term.”

Right now, the draft plan aims to promote bicycling as “a viable transportation alternative” in Albany, to develop an identified “Bikeway Network” that links obvious destinations and residential areas, and uses devices such as bike lanes, signs and designated shared roads to make cycling easier on city streets. The draft plan aims to also determine priorities for putting all of this in place, because, as Moores reminded the audience, the Bicycle Master Plan will be a gradual process. The proposal aims to change the way both cyclists and motorists think about bicycles on public roads, but it won’t be a single construction project, such as the installation of a bike lane.

Responses from the audience revealed a passion for bicycling in Albany that’s very real but not always very obvious, and also gave a glimpse of the wide variety of cyclists in the city. Among them was Tina Lakinger, who works at General Electric. Lakinger said she recently rode her bike from her Lark Street home to GE’s offices in Schenectady in 15-degree weather.

“Not a lot of employers know what to do with cyclists who come in every day,” Lakinger commented during the meeting. She’d like to see the Bicycle Master Plan heighten awareness among employers, and help get more bike racks at Capital Region companies.

Feedback from the audience was generally enthusiastic, and residents will get more chances to comment in person, as well as through surveys or e-mail. The city will announce further public meetings on the draft plan.

“I think that it’s commendable that they’re getting to it at all,” said Dan Odell, 68, after the meeting. Odell retired as the Albany County planner in 2002, and is now on the city’s technical advisory committee for the Bicycle Master Plan. Odell, who is a member of the Albany Bicycling Coalition—an advocacy and recreational riding group—said he’s probably typical of a large number of cyclists in the city: someone who sometimes uses his bicycle for errands, but also for fun.

Public participation will be key to the final version of the plan, Odell said.

“We’ve got to stay on this and encourage the city to follow up,” he said.

—Darryl McGrath


What a Week

 




The Race Is On

Albany Councilman Corey Ellis throws his hat into the ring to run for Albany mayor

 

The realities of the 2009 Albany mayoral race became clearer Monday morning as Common Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3) announced that he will run to unseat four-time incumbent Mayor Jerry Jennings. Now the stage seems to be set for a three-way primary showdown between Jennings, Ellis and Common Council President Shawn Morris. Morris told Metroland she expects to announce her candidacy on Sunday at 2 PM on New Scotland Avenue. Jennings, who had indicated he would not seek another term during the last mayoral race, has reversed himself.

Ellis was joined Monday by fellow council members Barbara Smith (Ward 4) and Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) as he announced: “If we truly want to change direction in this city, if we truly want to create the roadmap that will allow us to face our challenges head-on, we need to elect a leader who understands that the people need a voice.”

Ellis was born in Arbor Hill and also lived in the South End. He left Albany to attend Fordham University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.

It’s only been about three years since Ellis, who had worked diligently on Albany County District Attorney David Soares’ first campaign, sat at a crossroads in his political career. Having lost an extremely close primary to Jennings’ ally, incumbent Councilman Michael Brown, Ellis was unsure of whether to challenge Brown in the general election. Ellis eventually decided his future was in politics and was elected on the Working Families Party line.

Ellis has been an outspoken voice on the council since taking office, and has recently earned tremendous publicity for calling for an investigation into the ghost-ticket scandal. Whispers about Ellis’ possible run began last winter when the councilman started working as chairman of Albany for Obama.

Ellis enjoyed much attention for his work on the Obama campaign and appears to be translating that into his campaign. During his announcement speech, he said, “If we are going to take advantage of the new leadership coming from Washington, we need new leadership here in Albany.”

Perhaps the most telling part of Ellis’ announcement was his introduction by Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro.

Calsolaro was responsible for initiating meetings over the past year to try to unify opposition to Jerry Jennings. The meetings eventually yielded Albany Neighborhoods First, but it did not provide a singular candidate.

Calsolaro said that he saw in Ellis someone “fresh—who can grow with the position, who is not an entrenched politician.” Calsolaro said that his introduction should be seen as a wholehearted endorsement of Ellis.

Morris said she is not “focusing on who is with me for the announcement but more on the people who live here. Part of the problem in Albany,” she said, “is the insider’s game.”

Ellis said that Calsolaro’s endorsement means more to him than “just some name endorsement.” He said Calsolaro’s work on the council has influenced his approach as a councilman and his outlook on what it would mean to be the mayor. In his remarks, Calsolaro said that he was happy to have Ellis join him on the council as an outspoken voice of opposition.

Calsolaro is a popular figure among local progressives. While constituents and city residents still call for him to run for mayor, Calsolaro said because of his physical condition he felt it was unfair to residents: “I wouldn’t be able to go door to door.” Calsolaro said he thinks Ellis has all the tools necessary to be mayor. And Ellis said that he hopes those who supported a Calsolaro run for mayor will see that he and Calsolaro share a vision and will support his candidacy. “I’m just happy to know that Dominick is saying, ‘You’re the guy who should run the city.’”

One council member who was conspicuously missing Monday was Carolyn McLaughlin (Ward 2). Some insiders say McLaughlin, who announced Tuesday that she will run for Morris’ soon-to-be-vacant council presidency, was expected to be at the announcement but did not show. The Times Union later reported that McLaughlin had decided it was in her “best interest” to stay neutral in the mayor’s race. “I’m staying neutral at this point. I’m going to see how the campaign unfolds,” she told the TU.

“Just call me Colin Powell. I will be watching as the campaign evolves and weighing things,” said McLaughlin, reached later by Metroland. “Barack Obama told us to be the change, and that is what I am trying to do. I will be looking to support candidates who do the same.”

Ellis said that McLaughlin hadn’t been “confirmed” to attend his announcement.

Morris, who served three terms as the council representative of Albany’s 7th Ward before becoming council president, said she thinks her advantage comes down to “depth.” “I think it’s my depth of experience, my depth of involvement that will make the difference.”

Ellis said he thinks it’s important that he began his candidacy so early in the year. “There was a need for us to get out early because I am relatively unknown. There is time now for anyone to come onboard. And it will let them know that I made my decision to run based on what I want to do for the city, not on who is or who isn’t in the race.”

—David King




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