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April 22, 2007


A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

April 22, 2007

Albany Needs Bike Lanes Now

Time for the politicians and planners to wake up and
smell the bicycle grease

This Earth Day weekend, on Saturday, The Wife finally hauled my sorry butt onto a bicycle. It was an exemplary Spring day, and the day of cycling that she had planned involved no major hills. Thus, I had no viable excuse for avoiding this ordeal. My grumbling was ineffective.

That woman has turned into an urban radical bicycle advocate, much to the annoyance of local politicians and planners who are used to her endless activism on behalf of these Karner Blue Butterflies out in the Pine Bush. That’s how it started for her some thirty years ago. One thing led to another, and now she wants all major routes in the City of Albany to have bicycle lanes on both sides of the street, separated from the auto lanes by curbs.

My Underused Bicycle
My Underused Bicycle

You see, it's like this. The pretty blue butterflies can’t survive without the sand dunes and wild blue lupines on which they live. So that meant stopping “developers” and corrupt City officials from destroying the Pine Bush for profit. To do this, she became deeply embroiled in State environmental law and policy. It also meant plunging head first in the toilet of Albany City electoral politics.

But people have to live and shop somewhere, while “developers” and politicians have to make money somehow. So The Wife developed the idea, “If we want to preserve our green spaces (and put an end to sprawl) then we have to make our urban areas livable.” So, next thing you know she’s showing up uninvited to City planning sessions and demanding livable neighborhoods.

In short order she’d realized that all planning in Albany, up to this point, has been centered around automobiles. The results of auto-centrism have been undeniably disastrous, thus it must end. It became clear to her that in order for Albany to survive, the City has to become a walkable and bikable community.

Can This Bug Ride A Bike?
Can This Bug Ride A Bike?

So now she has become a hardcore supporter of public transit. And at the same time she has started to use her bicycle for more daily tasks, even in lousy weather. She’s saving the blue butterflies by riding her bike. And that’s why she browbeat me onto my bicycle, a transportation device which I had successfully avoided using since last August.

It takes courage to ride a bike in City traffic, especially in un-bike-friendly Albany. The City currently has about 100 feet of bike lane on it’s streets, beneath the underpass at the bottom of Madison Avenue. That’s it. Yet more and more people are using bicycles to get around town, even in the dead of winter.

Sitting here glancing out the window at Ultraviolet Cafe on Delaware Avenue, I’m astounded at how many bicycles are going by. Some are kids on the sidewalk, some are “Class A” bicyclists with helmets and all the latest gear speeding by with the auto traffic. I’ve noticed that people of every sort and economic class use bikes in Albany. Without a doubt, more people are biking in Albany than ever before.

Our first stop on Saturday was noontime breakfast sandwiches at Scratch Bakery on Madison. (We got started a little late that morning.) As we sat outside at the iron tables eating and reading the papers, The Wife wouldn’t shut up. “See? There goes another bicyclist. There’s two more. He should be wearing a helmet. See how many there are? There’s another one...”

One morning several years ago, The Wife got nailed by a hit and run driver near Giffen School at Green and Rensellaer Streets. I’d had breakfast all ready for her, and I was starting to wonder why she hadn’t come back from her ride on the bike path down by the river. That’s when the doorbell rang.

Albany police officer Glen Asher, who happens to be son-in-law to the folks who live across the street from us, stood at my door holding The Wife’s mangled bicycle. Before I could say anything, he said “She’s OK. Her leg is a little banged up. They’re taking her up to Albany Med.”

When I found her sitting on an examining table at the emergency room she started bawling on my shoulder. Her knee was hurting, but she was over it in a week. Compared to some of the other people I saw in that emergency room, including two grim parents holding a baby that showed no visible signs of life... I tell you, she was just fine.

She did manage to catch the plate number of the car that hit her. But naturally, no surprise, the Albany Police bureaucracy had no interest in tracking down the perpetrator. I guess it was her own fault that she was riding a bicycle on the streets.

Claire Nolan Interacts With Another Bicyclist
Claire Nolan Interacts With Another Bicyclist

The accident may have been minor, but for two years she was afraid to ride on City avenues. But eventually her sense of responsibility made her venture out into the hostile streets to brave the suburbanite SUVs. That, and a lot of peer pressure from her new found friends at the Albany Bicycle Coalition (ABC,) particularly her bright eyed friend Claire Nolan, who is willing to bicycle anywhere.

So here I was pedaling around town with The Wife. I have to admit that it was an easy and quick way to get around. But of course, this was a sunny Saturday. The real test would be how well I would survive self-absorbed suburbanite traffic on a weekday in cold, slippery rain. I’m not sure I want to risk my life fighting for space on the crowded “rush hour” roadways.

It is for precisely that reason The Wife is demanding that the current roadway projects in Albany incorporate bike lanes. It’s a chicken and egg thing: which comes first, the bike lanes or the bicyclists? From what I’m seeing, the demand for safe avenues for bicycling is already there. Install the bike lanes, and people who have never bicycled before will be out on the streets.

Why not? Imagine every major thoroughfare with bike lanes five feet wide on either side of the street, separated by curbs, between the sidewalk and parked cars. Washington, Western, Clinton, Morton/Holland, Second Avenue, Hackett, Manning, New Scotland, all should be easily bikable. And that’s just for starters.

Right now, The Wife is agitating for bike lanes to be incorporated into the Delaware Avenue reconstruction plan. The space for the lanes would come partly from narrowing the auto lanes slightly, which would slow auto traffic. As far as I've heard, everyone along Delaware wants slower traffic. The rest of the space for the bike lanes would come by taking a few feet from the lawns on the north side of the street. Most sidewalks would retain the same width. On street auto parking would not be cut back.

I am delighted at how many people who live, work or travel on or around Delaware are enthusiastic about her idea. Indeed, the idea of bikable neighborhoods seems to have caught on all over the City. I am continually astounded at how community activists routinely include bikability in wish-lists for their own neighborhoods.

Of course, that view is not shared by our elected officials. Most of our “representatives” want fast driving and parking at any cost. Nor are bikable communities conceivable to planners and consultants, who want to do hair-brained things like replace intersections with deadly roundabouts. These people understand nothing other than suburbanization and sprawl. They are badly out of touch with urban voters and taxpayers.

But what we want or don’t want may soon become secondary to what we need. The price of gasoline has gone up sharply in the last month, and despite attempts by government officials to deny reality, analysts say it will continue to rise this summer. The era of cheap gas is about to end.

This means that we are all going to have to learn how to get around Albany more often without internal combustion engines. That is, if we all don’t want to go broke. Ethanol can never be produced in enough quantity to replace gasoline. Electric car technology has been effectively suppressed for the near future. As for the hype about hydrogen powered fuel cell cars, don't hold your breath.

So what are the alternatives to driving autos? Walking is pleasant and healthy, but it sure is slow. Local busses are usually inconvenient, and in most parts of Albany dismal or nonexistent. As for trains and streetcars, we only have ghosts.

That leaves bicycles, which are cheap, easy and very flexible. They can go almost anywhere at a moment’s notice. Anyone in reasonable health can operate one. Indeed, operating a bike is an excellent way to maintain reasonable health.

The Wife's Beloved Bike, Unmangled
The Wife's Beloved Bike, Unmangled

As gas prices rise, middle class suburbanites will start trickling back into the City, raising Albany’s population. (Actually, they've already begun.) These financially squeezed immigrants will be looking for alternatives to spending money for gasoline. It is not hard to see that demand will continue to steadily rise for City streets that are safe for bicycling. Current planning initiatives that do not include bicycle lanes will prove inadequate a few years from now.

If Albany wants to prosper in the foreseeable future, then we need to accommodate expanding bicycle traffic. This is the beginning of the decline of the automobile, and the dawn of the age of bicycles.

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