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We Get Around
Ideas for enhancing alternatives to driving in the Capital Region

It’s 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 parking problem.)

Get on the Bus

It 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.

—Shawn Stone

Someday My Rail Will Come

What does Sacramento have that we don’t have?

State 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.

Making the Region Friendlier to Non-Drivers

More ideas—from simple to pie-in-the-sky—for moving away from car culture

  • Allow bicycles in drive-though lanes.
  • Switch to clean-fuel buses: not only are they better for the environment, they will draw new riders who currently get headaches from the diesel fumes.
  • Bus 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. It’s under consideration right now for the Route 5 corridor, and the Capital District Transportation Committee hopes that will be a prototype for other routes.
  • Have 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?”
  • Get the state to sponsor walk/bus-to-work homeownership programs for downtown workers who want to live within the city of Albany.
  • Make sure buses accept Swiper cards of students who stay late after school.
  • Sidewalks, on every road, and into and between all shopping centers.
  • Have employers offer non-driving commuters the cash equivalent of a parking space.
  • Encourage property owners to allow bike parking on their railings for an hour at a time, or during daylight hours, much like curb parking.
  • Organize “walking school buses” where one parent leads a group of kids from the neighborhood to school on foot.
  • Coordinate bus schedules with special events, and offer discounts for those who arrive by bus

Which 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 transit system.

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 football games.

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 view.

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.

“The 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 ours?

So, what does Sacramento have that we don’t have? Perhaps now we’ll find out.

—Stephen Leon

One Step at a Time

It’s 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 crosswalk.

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.

“I’d 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).

“The 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.

“What 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.”

—John Rodat

Is There Room on This Road for Two More Wheels?

Here’s 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 lookedand 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 bike racks.

“If 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 that.”

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 bus.”

The CDTA is philosophical about the usage of the bus bike racks.

“It’s 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 numbers.”

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.

“You 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.”

—Darryl McGrath

Where Do All the Buses Go?

When 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.

“Yes 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 arrive.

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 combination.

“Even 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 $152,000.

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.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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