Ideas for enhancing alternatives to driving in the Capital
easy to say we ought to be less dependent on cars. Important
to say, yes. Global warming, shrinking oil reserves, pollution,
accident deaths. . . . You know the score. But simply saying
“drive less” becomes rather hollow if we don’t also make the
alternatives viable. After all, we don’t want to recommend
that people replace taking the car for a spin with spending
a few more hours alone in front of the TV. So we took a look
at how the Capital Region is doing on four of the major alternatives
to the personal internal combustion engine—buses, trains,
bikes, and feet—and offer here some perspectives and suggestions
on how to reward (or at least not punish) those who venture
outside their autos. It’s not a comprehensive plan, but we’re
confident that more attention to questions and solutions like
these would make a noticable difference in the region’s non-driving
quality of life. (And who knows, it may even help with the
on the Bus
was a Sunday afternoon in beautiful downtown South Colonie.
I was waiting, alone, for the eastbound No. 55 bus (Albany-Schenectady)
at the intersection of Central Avenue and Lisha Kill Road.
It was a late spring day, warm and sunny, and a convertible
with its top down pulled up to the red light. There were two
college-age guys in the front seat; they looked over at me
and laughed. (That’s never a good sign.) The one behind the
wheel yelled, “Get a job, loser, so you can buy a car.”
I wasn’t quick-witted enough to come up with anything, not
even a weak reply like, “I’ve got a job, pal, in that building
right over there in fact, and I worked all morning, and, anyway,
my car is in the shop.” I was too dumbstruck at being insulted
for using public transportation.
Of course there is no downtown South Colonie, just as sure
as Johnny Carson’s “beautiful downtown Burbank” never existed.
The lonely stretch of Route 5 where my job was located, between
Route 155 and Mohawk Commons (née Mall), was, and still is,
a kind of no-man’s-land where intersections are spread out
and traffic lights are less than plentiful. Though Colonie
does a pretty good job of maintaining the sidewalks—even in
winter—it’s a car-, not pedestrian-friendly area. Nothing
better illustrates this than watching folks cross the four-lane
highway, dodging heavy morning or afternoon traffic in the
middle of one of these long, unsignaled suburban blocks, to
get to their jobs. Day after day. Another good indication
is the suburban disdain I experienced.
My encounter with the two chuckleheads happened a dozen years
ago. Fact is, I can’t remember whether I had a car at the
time or not. In between owning a number of used GM products,
I’ve gone for extended periods without one. Believe it or
not, car owners, it’s possible to live and work in the Capital
Region if you don’t have your own wheels. The Capital District
Transportation Authority has a bus going your way.
Of course, there are a few qualifiers to this equation.
You can’t live in the suburbs. If you live near enough to
a park-and-ride, and work downtown, it might be possible to
make a go of it—as long as you’re willing to either stay home
or take cabs everywhere on the weekends. Generally, though,
you need to live in or near one of these downtowns: Albany,
Schenectady or Troy. Of the three, Albany has the most seamless
service, with routes covering a wider geographical area. If
you’re in either the Electric or Collar cities, you’ll be
doing more walking to get to the bus.
Plan to take cabs on Sundays. Less than a quarter of CDTA’s
routes operate on the seventh day. And with the exception
of Ol’ 55, none of these are in Schenectady.
Oh, and you can’t get to Saratoga on weekends. CDTA never
runs its own buses there; Upstate Tours operates weekday service,
but not on weekends or state holidays. It’s easier, for example,
to go to New York City and see a movie at Film Forum than
it is to go to Saratoga Film Forum. The former takes only
a two-and-a-half-hour Amtrak trip, and a quick ride on the
subway; the latter is possible but impractical. Yes, there
is Greyhound and Trailways bus service to/from the Spa city,
but there are big problems. There are no morning buses northbound.
Most of the southbound buses originate in Canada, and are—post
Sept. 11—averaging two-hour delays at the border. If your
return trip is in the evening, you’ll be waiting outside:
The bus station closes at 4 PM. (Bring an umbrella—there’s
little shelter from the rain.)
All this underlines the obvious: people who have cars hardly
ever consider the bus as an option, except to get to or from
work. People without cars make do.
Here’s a good example of middle-class indifference to the
bus: CDTA operates two of the Capital Region’s three train
stations, the palace in Rensselaer and the newly renovated
station in Saratoga Springs. They operate bus service to both
locations, but it isn’t exactly overused. I’ve taken the bus
back and forth to Rensselaer at least 20 times over the years,
at varying times of day, and on every trip—without
exception—I’ve been the only person getting on or off at Amtrak.
In need of less anecdotal evidence? Go to CDTA’s home page:
It’s quicker to access driving directions to either station
than it is the bus schedules.
The sad thing is, CDTA has steadily improved its service over
the last decade. A series of traffic studies have facilitated
better scheduling. A network of shuttle buses connects Albany
International Airport, the East Greenbush Route 4 corridor
and various malls to main routes. A long-requested shuttle
extension started up this month connecting the Northway Mall
and Colonie Center. [“Shopping Dangerously,” FYI, Nov. 13,
2003] Buses are more handicapped accessible; many buses can
accommodate bicycles. It isn’t what it could be, but it takes
increased ridership to spur route expansion.
Don’t be a loser. Ride the bus.
My Rail Will Come
does Sacramento have that we don’t have?
government? We have that too. A large state university? Check.
Proximity to hundreds of first-class wineries? Oh, come on
now, let’s be realistic.
the Region Friendlier to Non-Drivers
ideasfrom simple to pie-in-the-skyfor
moving away from car culture
bicycles in drive-though lanes.
to clean-fuel buses: not only are they better
for the environment, they will draw new riders
who currently get headaches from the diesel
Rapid Transit: Much of the benefit of light
rail, at less than half the cost. Dedicated
lanes and other ways to keep buses from being
stuck in traffic, well-spaced stops, and stations
that allow prepayment can seriously reduce one
of the major bus complaints: the slow trips.
Its under consideration right now for
the Route 5 corridor, and the Capital District
Transportation Committee hopes that will be
a prototype for other routes.
major businesses, social service agenices and
attractions along bus routes stock bus schedules,
and make sure employees understand them enough
to answer simple questions like Do the
22 and the 24 leave from the same spot?
the state to sponsor walk/bus-to-work homeownership
programs for downtown workers who want to live
within the city of Albany.
sure buses accept Swiper cards of students who
stay late after school.
on every road, and into and between all shopping
employers offer non-driving commuters the cash
equivalent of a parking space.
property owners to allow bike parking on their
railings for an hour at a time, or during daylight
hours, much like curb parking.
walking school buses where one parent
leads a group of kids from the neighborhood
to school on foot.
bus schedules with special events, and offer
discounts for those who arrive by bus
is exactly what some people say when others who live here
in New York state’s Capital Region bemoan the fact that we
still don’t have—or have any plans on the table for—a light-rail
Sacramento is just one of many cities in the United States
that has implemented light rail in the past two decades, and
is particularly notable for two reasons: one, it is not a
top-25 market (though it is somewhat more populous than the
Capital Region), and its system has been successful beyond
expectations. New transit lines continue to be demanded and
implemented, typically on time and at or below cost projections.
And like St. Louis and Portland, Ore., two other cities where
ridership is above projections, Sacramento’s light-rail system
has not depressed bus usage but rather has reinvigorated the
transit network as a whole, drawing increased ridership to
feeder buses crisscrossing the train lines. Finally, these
systems are showing an added benefit in that, along with the
expected patronage of commuters, they are also drawing unexpectedly
high numbers of recreational users, including strong ridership
to Portland Trailblazers basketball games and St. Louis Rams
Oops, there we go again. The Capital Region has no top-tier
professional sports team.
It also appears not to have the passion or the political will
or, shall we say, the level of visionary optimism required
to take on such a costly project for which the results would
almost have to exceed reasonable projections in order to be
termed “successful.” In other words, if light rail transit
along, say, the Route 5 corridor between Albany and Schenectady
and the Northway corridor from Albany to Saratoga were to
have the modest impact experts say it would, we would have
spent too much for too little benefit. For light rail to succeed,
it not only would have to draw more housing and commerce closer
to its station nodes; it would also have to create a paradigm
shift in the way area residents view public transportation.
Some optimists say that’s exactly what it would do. But the
Capital District Transportation Committee—the organization
charged by federal mandate with coordinating the region’s
transportation planning—tends to take a more conservative
According to the CDTC’s John Poorman, the group’s most recent
study of land use and transportation along the Route 5 corridor
reached a familiar conclusion: All five municipalities from
Albany to Schenectady favor pedestrian and bicycle improvements
and better road design, but are not sold on the benefits of
rail transit. A rail line might be justified, Poorman said,
if all of the land-use changes that would need to accompany
the line were “desirable and feasible.” Among other things,
that would entail development clustered around station nodes—a
natural occurence near some station stops that also could
be spurred by government incentive—which might include, say,
new retail space and high-rise office and apartment buildings.
answer we got from the national economic firm [retained to
study the corridor] was that it really wasn’t plausible from
an economic standpoint because it would require such a high
percent of the growth in the region to happen along the corridor,”
Pooman says. “And communities along the corridor weren’t interested
in any greater intensity along the corridor than already exists.”
Poorman points out one other logistical obstacle to creating
a transit line along Route 5: Unlike the grid-oriented Salt
Lake City (which also has very wide city streets), which can
take one arterial for its light-rail line and reroute traffic
to parallel streets, Route 5 has no parallel option and in
some places may be too narrow to handle trains along with
its busy auto traffic. For the $400-million-or-so investment,
Poorman says, “What you might end up with is a rail line that
doesn’t operate much better than a bus system.”
Which brings us to the good news: The CDTC has not given up
on improving mass transit in the region, and one mode the
agency is seriously considering is “bus rapid transit,” in
which buses operate at higher speeds in dedicated lanes, are
able to bypass some busy intersections, and stop at more formal
stations. The idea is to mimic some advantages of rail without
the huge one-time capital investment. BRT could more easily
be implemented in stages as funding becomes available, and
there is currenly state money earmarked for studying it.
And rail transit is not completely off the drawing board.
For one thing, Poorman says, “the I-87 corridor is still an
open subject. . . . They’re looking at all kind of things,
including commuter rail. One of the subjects that they have
specifically been charged to look at is high-speed rail from
Albany to Montreal.” While commuter rail between Albany and
Saratoga has been discussed—even funded, at one point—no project
is currently in the works. But Poorman speculates that improvements
along the Albany-Montreal corridor used by Amtrak could create
infrastructure for setting up commuter rail, perhaps from
Albany all the way to Glens Falls.
Meanwhile, if you look into your crystal ball and see futuristically
funny-looking mini-rail cars moving on elevated guideways
without drivers, you’re probably seeing CyberTran, a yet-untested
system whose inventors hope it will be economically feasible
because it uses commercially available software, signal controls,
etc., and will be inexpensive to construct because modular
guideway units can be built off site and dropped into place.
Passengers would be whisked, on demand, between locations
via computerized controls; one such route proposed for whisking
is between the Rensselaer Amtrak station and the Empire State
Plaza. The purpose of such a project would be twofold: to
provide a practical transportation link that presumably would
have considerable demand, and also to demonstrate its feasibility
right under the eyes of state government.
Perhaps the most hopeful sign that local planners may yet
reopen discussions on rail transit is that the CDTC plans,
in the coming months, to look more closely at communities
that have invested in rail and analyze why they felt the huge
investment was worthwhile: Are they getting out of it what
they thought they would? How did they come to their decision
to build? And why were their conclusions so different than
So, what does Sacramento have that we don’t have? Perhaps
now we’ll find out.
Step at a Time
5:30 PM on a Tuesday, and the intersection at Lark Street
and Washington Avenue is just a mess.
A block to the west, traffic is stopped at a red light, creating
a line of idling cars that trails more than the full block
backward, effectively severing Lark on one side of Washington
from its continuation on the other. With questionable optimism—or
raw, teeth-grinding impatience—motorists inch forward, aggressively
staking claims to mere slivers of asphalt. The light changes
and the cars surge forward. A purple Mustang bolts from Lark
in a hard southwesterly slant across lanes toward Western
Avenue, virtually kissing the fender of a slightly slower
Taurus sedan, as a group of five young men dart on foot through
the shifting gaps between moving cars, well outside the marked
Back on the northwest corner of the intersection, a gray-haired
woman shifts a parcel from one arm to the other and gets a
firm grip on her canvas tote bag. When the foreboding red
hand of the pedestrian-traffic signal relents and the generic
hieroglyph of the confident pedestrian is offered, she makes
her move: In about 4 seconds she’s halfway across, but she’s
forced to circumnavigate a UPS truck stopped directly before
her. It takes only a second, but now the hand is blinking
in warning, and the woman has to execute a quick shuffle to
complete her crossing before traffic leaps forward again.
Ask around, you’ll find that this is a typical rush-hour scene
in downtown Albany. And, though this intersection is the focus
of frustration for many Center Square residents and nonresident
lunch-hour pedestrians, it’s likely not the worst. At the
very least, it does have wide, clearly marked crosswalks and
pedestrian traffic signals. And Albany, in general, has capacious
sidewalks (as part of Lark Street’s recent rehab, those particular
sidewalks were actually widened).
In fact, says Eric Ophardt, manager of the New York State
Department of Transportation’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Program,
things for cyclists and pedestrians in the state are looking
up. “I think the department is moving in the right direction,”
he says. With a leading question, he does, however, acknowledge
that there will likely be short-term obstacles. “Is it moving
as fast as I’d like . . . ?” For the moment, and perhaps inevitably,
the answer is no.
like to see pedestrian accommodations on every single project;
I’d like to see sidewalks at every single setting,” he says.
“If I could change one thing, it would be to require sidewalks
at the town level. That’d be both for all new construction
and retrofitting, where necessary.”
This would be the goal “in a perfect world, if we had infinite
resources,” Ophardt says. In the real, highly political and
cash-strapped world, measures must be more focused. That means
a fair amount of haggling and a lot of compromise.
Citing a trouble spot that makes Lark and Washington seems
positively Dutch in its pedestrian friendliness, Ophardt explains
the compromises that would come to bear on any change to the
intersection of Routes 4 and 43 in North Greenbush (where
a pedestrian was recently struck and killed).
roadway there is, I believe, five or six lanes wide, so you
need a refuge island to give pedestrians time to cross safely,
along with adequate signal timing,” Ophardt says. But, he
points out, that’s only one side of the equation: “There’s
a trade-off with adequate signal timing: For a pedestrian
to cross 80 feet of roadway at 4 feet per second—that’s the
walking speed that the federal government and AASHTO [American
Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials]
have identified—that’s 20 seconds. It adds that much delay
to motorists, and there are costs associated with those motorists
sitting there for those additional 20 seconds.”
One of the more obvious costs is the increased consumption
of gasoline. Of course, it would seem that more pedestrian-friendly
roadways would encourage increased pedestrian travel, more
than offsetting the gasoline consumption of those 20 seconds.
Historically, however, townships are less worried about costs
like that, and more worried about those associated with maintaining,
and being liable for injuries that happen on, sidewalks and
pedestrian crossings. Townships are responsible for pedestrian
accommodations built at the state’s behest, or by a developer
at their own encouragement, making pedestrian accommodation
seem like a double-edged sword. The Erie County town of Amherst
is currently being sued in just such a case.
Requiring sidewalks is a hotly debated issue on many fronts.
“We as a state agency have gone around and around on this,
whether or not we can require a developer to put in sidewalks
as a condition of giving them access to our highway network,”
Ophardt reports. “And I have never seen a definitive answer
to that question.”
Nevertheless, the DOT has issued a Pedestrian Generator Checklist
to identify developments with “a potential need to accommodate
pedestrians.” The nine questions include “Is there an existing
or planned sidewalk, trail or pedestrian crossing facility?,”
“Are there bus stops, transit stations, or depots/terminals
located in or within 800m of the project area?,” and “Is there
more than occasional pedestrian activity?”
These are just guidelines, says Ophardt, rather than rules
with the force of law. Much is still left to the discretion
of the project engineers, some of whom are not well-versed
in the needs of pedestrian and cyclists—yet.
we do as a program, in the simplest terms,” Ophardt says,
“is the four Es: engineering, encouragement, education and
enforcement. . . . And really what that means is making our
streets more inviting, friendlier, for pedestrians and cyclists.”
The friendlier roadways may not yet be in place the next time
you sprint across Washington Avenue, but Ophardt seems confident
they are coming. In an e-mail note he sounds a cautiously
optimistic note: “It will take time to and considerable funds
for the department to retrofit all of its highway system to
fully accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists . . . but we
are moving in the right direction.”
There Room on This Road for Two More Wheels?
what happened to me in a 24-hour period last summer as a bicyclist
in Albany: A pedestrian stepped out from between two parked
cars in the path of my approaching bike, without looking.
One driver opened his car door directly in front of me; another
almost clipped me as he began to pull away from the curb.
A woman cutting an abrupt right turn into a parking lot never
saw me peddling alongside her—actually, never even looked—and
nearly hit me.
I’ve been an avid bike rider ever since my sister taught me
to peddle a two- wheeler without training wheels. But my parents
refused to let me cycle around our neighborhood much before
9 AM. Drivers aren’t looking for you this early, they would
say. Forty years later, the drivers still aren’t looking,
and it doesn’t matter what time it is.
I use my bike all over the city, for recreation, errand-running
and commuting to reporting assignments. Amazingly, I’ve never
actually had a collision, or even a bad spill. Still, my own
near-misses with motorists at perfectly safe speeds on level
roads makes me think I’ve just been very lucky.
Why aren’t there more cyclists in Albany? At any given time,
I’m often the sole cyclist I see on city streets. I used to
teach a course on the University at Albany campus, which by
size and setup is a natural for getting around on a bike,
but I rarely passed another cyclist there.
Jesse Day, executive director of the New York Bicycling Coalition,
says bicyling—especially bicycle commuting—has never caught
on big in Albany. But the commonly blamed six-month winters
in the Capital Region aren’t the reason, Day says; after all,
more bikes are sold in Minneapolis than in Atlanta. Day blames
a lack of cycle-friendly amenities, such as bike lanes and
the facilities were there, I think you’d see more folks riding,”
Day says. “There’s so much fear. I talk to people, and they’re
like, ‘Oh, you ride on the road?’ They just can’t fathom doing
The people tracking bike trends in the Capital Region count
their victories in very small numbers. The Capital District
Transportation Authority, for example, considers it a good
day if eight to 10 people put bikes on any of the 60 buses
equipped with racks. In the summer, that number might go up
to a couple dozen, says Carm Basile, a CDTA spokesman. This,
despite all the ads urging commuters to “catch a bikeable
The CDTA is philosophical about the usage of the bus bike
another step toward intermodalism—seamless transmission between
different transportation modes,” says Basile. (Learning the
lingo of the transportation world makes learning to ride a
two-wheeler look easy.) “And that really is our intent. .
. . It’s not a program where we’re trying to achieve certain
Cyclists in the region have long had to make do when it comes
to securing their bikes. Trees, stair rails and signposts
are often the only options. But parking a bike has recently
gotten easier in Albany, thanks to a couple dozen new galvanized
steel bike racks that the city acquired last year with a $7,000
federal transportation grant. The city kicked in an additional
$1,750 for installation, said Monique Wahba, senior planner
in the city’s Department of Development and Planning.
But to park your bike, you need a way to safely ride it around
the city, and narrow streets—especially in an old city like
Albany—don’t lend themselves to bike lanes, says Bill Bruce,
Albany’s commissioner of general services. “There just isn’t
room. You’re dealing with older roads that have limited widths
for the entire right of way,” he says.
Bruce, an avid cyclist, offers his own assessment of traveling
on two wheels through Albany. “I think the biggest issue is
drivers not being sensitive to the fact that bicyclists have
the same rights as they do,” he says.
Even if a city like Albany could put in a bike lane, the idea
of a bike lane that crosses municipal boundaries, connecting
towns and cities along a main route, is more of a challenge.
Individual municipalities are responsible for the maintenance
and alterations of roads that pass through their territory,
explains Day of the New York Bicycling Coalition, and so projects
like bike lanes that require shared funds and regional thinking
get set aside as unimportant.
Yet, the same city or town that spurns bike lanes will often
build recreational bike paths, Day notes, even though it might
be cheaper to build a bike lane on an existing roadway.
can do a lot more, and create much more mileage, with bike
lanes,” Day said. “Bike paths are great—we support bike paths—but
bike lanes are a much more viable solution in getting something
built in the near term.”
Do All the Buses Go?
Emma Kramer-Wheeler moved to Albany last summer, she was a
public-transit veteran. A native of New York City, coming
by way of Madison, Wis. (where all the buses run only every
half-hour), she was pleased with the size of Albany’s bus
system. “I’m impressed with the system, I’m impressed with
its coverage, I’m impressed with its daytime frequency,” she
says. But when she tried to get enough information to actually
use the system, she was not so thrilled.
She first went in search of a systemwide map, something that
has been easy to find in other cities she’s lived in or visited.
Her search took her from the New Scotland Avenue library to
the main library to the Web, to the Capital District Transportation
Authority headquarters, which is the only place to get the
5-year-old, out-of-date maps.
And the map she got was confusing: With only one color, it’s
nearly impossible to pick one route and actually trace it
from beginning to end. The route maps by themselves were of
little use because they were all in different scales, and
“none of them had any reference to where they were in space”
or in relation to each other, she says. Eventually she gathered
one of each route map and has figured out some of what she
needs, but she doubts that anyone not as map-literate and
strongly motivated to use public transit as she is would go
to that effort.
we have one, yes we need to update it,” says CDTA’s chief
of staff and director of marketing, Carm Basile. “System maps
tend to run in cycles. When we did that one, the trend was
away from technical, to-scale maps to a more PR-friendly [kind].
. . . I’ve talked to many people who said that those technical
maps are intimidating and hard to use.” He says the next revision
will try to strike a middle ground.
CDTA is currently investing a lot of money—almost $9 million—in
having more information to share. The program, Mobile Data
Communication Systems, is using satellite-based Global Positioning
Systems on the buses to identify their location at any time.
Among other communications improvements, this will allow new
electronic schedule boards at major stops to say when the
next bus will actually arrive, based on real-time information
from the bus itself, not just when the schedule says it should
These real-time boards will be tested at four pilot stops,
probably two in downtown Albany, one at Crossgates, and one
at UAlbany, says Basile, and CDTA expects to have them in
operation within six to eight months. If all goes well, they
will expand the program to other major transfer points.
This will be very valuable to people who have already decided
to take the bus, but will it help people decide to take the
bus in the first place? Pairing the high-tech with some low-tech
comprehensive information and advertising could be a winning
people who take the bus to work don’t know how to get to their
friends’ houses [on it],” says Kramer-Wheeler. “If I could
look at a map and see where buses went, or wander by a bus
stop and know where that bus was going and when, I would take
the bus at least twice as often.”
CDTA has approximately 2,000 stops. Basile estimates that
150 have some sort of printed schedule and route map. Many
are years out of date. The expense of posting them, maintaining
them (they fade dramatically in direct sunlight), and updating
them whenever there’s a schedule change is steep, says Basile,
and it would not be worth the effort to put them at more stops.
Chris Zimmerman, a member of the county board in Arlington,
Va., disagrees. When Arlington County took over a Metrobus
route last fall, one of its first acts was to install schedules
and route maps—overlaid on a street grid, not abstract—at
22 stops. Ridership jumped 30 percent, though nothing else
had changed. “We had people stopping to read the schedules
while we were putting them up,” he told the Washington
Post. The goal, he says, was to make it so that “if you’ve
never been on it before you could walk up and use it.”
Arlington is working toward installing the signs at every
one of the hundreds of stops in the county. At $76 each, the
initial cost for CDTA to do something similar would run about
Zimmerman, whose agency is also investing in the high-tech
end of bus technology, agrees that maintenance is a hassle,
but says that as with rail service, taking care of the “stations”
is an essential job. “Why isn’t that part of what you’re doing
all the time?” he says. “[That stops aren’t maintained] is
part of why bus service is so poor and looked down on. . .
. If you want it to be something people are going to choose,
you have to treat it that way.”
Kramer-Wheeler agrees. “In Madison they were really gung-ho
about their crappy bus system,” she says. “If we were gung-ho
about our good bus system, more people would use it.”