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May 8, 2012


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.

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May 8, 2012

Now We Can Ride The 100 Bus

The regional transit authorities are pushed into doing the right thing, and a local hero goes national

A month or so back my neighborhood made national news, this time for something worth talking about. This outstanding development merited a National Public Radio (NPR) segment that was picked up by local corporate media outlets across the nation and was distributed to print media via the Associated Press (AP.) This is a story that started, and now stops over and over almost in front of my house every single day.

What is this amazing bit of news? It seems that the Capital District Transportation Agency (CDTA,) the regional overseers of bus service for our region, felt compelled by public opinion to break with long tradition and tentatively provide bus service where it was needed the most, on Morton Avenue. And now for the first time we have a useful bus, one that encircles downtown Albany, connects neighborhoods and links to outgoing routes.

According to CDTA the new 100 Mid-City Belt, which was introduced this past November, has been picking up an average of eight new riders per day. Apparently this was completely unexpected. Today the 100 is the single most successful route in the entire regional system. Last I’ve heard the CDTA board members are still in a state of shock.

Commuters Catch The 100 Bus On A Rainy Morning In May, Morton Avenue
Commuters Catch The 100 Bus On A Rainy Morning In May, Morton Avenue

With all this positive national publicity about my neighborhood, I decided it’s time I rode the bus just to see where it goes and to say I did it. So on a fine spring morning with the apple blossoms blooming I caught the new bus at the corner of Morton Avenue and South Swan Street just to go for a ride.

I have to admit that I hadn’t ridden a CDTA bus in many years. When I first settled in my house in the mid 1980s I tried to use the nearby available busses. So did The Wife, who at the time was holding down a regular nine to five job out in the suburbs. For me using the bus was a necessity and a habit from having lived in other Cities, while The Wife wanted to ride the bus so that she didn’t have to navigate bad weather in our one vehicle.

Apple Blossoms Blooming At The South Swan And Morton Avenue Bus Stop, April 2012
Apple Blossoms Blooming At The South Swan And Morton Avenue Bus Stop, April 2012

Eventually we both gave up. The Wife’s half hour driving commute was, at best, an hour and forty five minute public transit nightmare involving three transfers and prolonged exposure to the elements waiting for busses that didn’t necessarily show up. As for me, I was jobbing around at various locations and quickly found that CDTA busses were almost useless for what I needed.

As the years passed bus service in downtown Albany continued to get worse. Routes were eliminated, and more devastatingly the frequency of busses plying these routes were steadily cut back, so that the downtown routes eventually become nearly useless for working commuters. Service became rare and often nonexistent on Sundays, holidays and evenings, and as a result ridership declined.

By the turn of the century people in my neighborhood had become all too aware that CDTA was engaging in a kind of Demolition by Neglect. That is, by deliberately providing lousy bus service which inevitably lost bus riders they could justify the eventual cessation of bus service in downtown Albany altogether. They came close to their goal.

Exiting At The Bottom Of Morton Avenue
Exiting At The Bottom Of Morton Avenue

I caught the new 100 Mid-City Belt a block from my house at 9:30 on a Monday morning. Since I was playing tourist I didn’t want to get in the way of serious commuters, so I chose what I figured to be the slow time. But even at midmorning the bus was comfortably full.

This was one of the new hybrid busses which are standard on this new route. They use an electric motor to supplement the engine, which uses ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) as now required by law. I’ve been worrying about increased diesel emissions from improved bus service, this pollution shows up as fine black dirt coating the neighborhood buildings and collecting in windowsills. Perhaps these new busses that meet the new standards will mitigate the problem, we’ll see during high summer.

The new busses feel small on the inside, but can actually pack in the bodies. The passengers sit higher in the back than in the front, on the outside you can see the raised roof in the rear. From the low humming that I felt I would guess the engines are back there beneath the floor. My one complaint is that the seats are oddly small, I’m glad I didn’t have to squeeze in next to a fat person.

We rolled down the Morton Avenue hill much more quietly than the old diesel busses did, stopping at every corner that required a stop or pickup. Hearst hack Paul Grondahl, who often lavishly expresses in print his utter contempt for the South End, reported in the Times Union that the 100 bus made only eight stops on its entire route! Later I noticed the CDTA schedule listed arrival times for only eight stops, Grondahl’s laziness explains that foolishness.

Guy With The Motorized Wheelchair Gets On
Guy With The Motorized Wheelchair Gets On

At the bottom of the hill we dropped off several guys who were “going to work at Green Street” and then we made a left on to South Pearl Street. At the first stop in front of the Department of Motor Vehicles we picked up a fellow in a motorized wheelchair. At the front door the hydraulic lift brought him up smoothly while a mechanical voice advised caution. (Our neighborhood now hears that voice all day long.)

The seats in the very front of the bus are sideways, several people got up from them and moved elsewhere without being asked. Driver 1699, who later wouldn’t let me snap her photo, gladly lifted the three seats on one side so the guy could park there. Then she fastened straps to each corner of the wheelchair and dropped a safety bar. The whole process took about a minute.

We followed South Pearl Street across downtown to North Pearl. Along this narrow corridor there are fewer designated stops, but I didn’t see any of those brand new bus shelters with solar powered lights. This is a smart fiscal idea that I hope shows up along the 100 route. For those who don’t know, putting a solar collector next to your lights is almost magically efficient, after the installation is paid for all electricity used is utterly and completely free of charge and lasts all night long.

The Bus Empties Out
The Bus Empties Out

While we were crossing downtown and had finally turned left on Lark Drive the bus was pretty full. But at Whitney Young Medical Center most everyone got off, including the guy in the wheelchair. We continued mostly empty, winding uphill past newer houses and we didn’t pick up anybody until we turned right at Livingston Avenue.

We turned left onto Quail Street and traveled a ways, and soon pulled up to a stop right behind the Linda Norris Auditorium on Central Avenue. This was the end of the line. A CDTA supervisor lady with a clipboard (yes, a dead tree device) engaged the attention of Driver 1699 and everybody had to exit the bus.

Quite a few of us waited out the ten or fifteen minute break, some smoking butts or poking at devices. Several people stalked off to get coffee, as did the driver after the supervisor was gone. But first she shut down the bus, I was happy to note that she didn’t leave it idling as is often done with older diesel busses and trucks. I’ve never understood the compelling justification for that, all I can say is thank you.

Waiting On Quail Street Near Central Avenue
Waiting On Quail Street Near Central Avenue

Driver 1699 came back with a coffee and a small bag of goodies and we all got on again. Since I hadn’t bought a $4 day pass I had to pay another $1.50 for the second half of the trip. Tourism can get expensive.

We continued on Quail across Central. At Western Avenue the same guy in the motorized wheelchair got back on! Apparently he had outraced us while we were waiting to get going again. We continued on Quail filling up with passengers again, crossed Madison Avenue and finally turned left at New Scotland Avenue.

Of course we had a big stop at Albany Medical Center, and then turned right onto Holland Avenue making frequent stops. Soon Holland turned into Morton Avenue and here I was getting off where I started, at the corner of South Swan Street. At 10:30 AM the bus was moderately full. The whole trip, including the break, took a little less than an hour. I thanked Driver 1699.

Mr. Willie White On Morton Avenue
Mr. Willie White On Morton Avenue

It’s important to note that this wonderful new bus didn’t happen by accident, and it sure didn’t happen because of the farseeing benevolence of our public officials, elected or otherwise. I would be remiss and totally lame if I did not give prime credit to dynamic neighborhood activist Willie White, who saw the opportunity and organized effectively around this issue. Mr. White, of course, is the star of the NPR segment. Yet others have fought for decades to create this bus route, but without success.

Back in July 2008 I sat in a meeting where I watched my Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro confront Kristina Younger, who at the time was the Director of Planning at CDTA. Eventually she was promoted to Vice President of Business Development but resigned from CDTA in February. (I took extensive notes of the meeting.)

Ms. Younger was totally dismissive of a bus that ran all the way from the bottom of Morton Avenue up to Albany Medical Center at New Scotland Avenue. Indeed, she loudly repeated the same tired justifications for anti-urban ideology. I realize she was merely conveying the prevailing attitude at CDTA toward my neighborhood... but still.

First. in reply to Dominick’s entirely correct observation that CDTA was serving suburban municipalities at the expense of urban communities like the South End, Ms. Younger proclaimed that the majority of bus riders in dense urban areas are already getting the most service. “I believe you are misaligning a suburban bias to CDTA that does not exist,” she shouted at Dom. Yes shouted, although to be fair Dominick was raising his voice.

Kristina Younger At A Public Meeting Last Year (Best Photo I Could Find)
Kristina Younger At A Public Meeting Last Year
(Best Photo I Could Find)

That’s not all she said. “CDTA does not have the staff or funding to implement a rerouting plan like you want. Besides,” she added triumphantly, “we can’t implement a bus on Morton Avenue because the revenue is simply not there to justify the expense.”

The Revenue Is Not There. That’s what CEO David Brown of the Capital District YMCA said to us when he shut down our YMCA building on Washington Avenue. That’s what the Postal Corporation bureaucrats sneered at us when they started closing our Albany post offices and told us to drive a half hour or more to their suburbs if we wanted to buy a stamp or mail a package. The phrase is actually code for “You People Are Not Worth The Trouble So Screw You.”

Good Old Dominick Calsolaro
Good Old Dominick Calsolaro

Dominick was giving voice to his constituents, this was the highest level meeting to date between the neighborhood and CDTA. What prompted our request and generated this official rebuff was the recent implementation of the “Walmart Bus,” probably the first new public transit route to serve the South End in at least half a century. Probably more like a century.

A new Walmart had just been built down Route 9W in Selkirk, several miles south of the City of Albany. The problem was that hardly anybody in Selkirk needed Walmart’s low paid exploitative jobs. To this day the majority of people who work at that Walmart live in the South End and most had no reliable way to get back and forth to work. This problem was affecting Walmart’s bottom line.

So Walmart asked CDTA for a bus and instantly they got one. And instantly the new 7 bus became one of the most heavily used. So some of us folks in the neighborhood thought that maybe if we got Albany Medical Center to ask for a bus then CDTA would at least listen.

Kristina Younger was dismissive of the notion. “We’ve been trying to get Albany Med into the transit system,” she told us but so far they had refused. Other hospitals such as St. Peter’s, she told us, were enthusiastic about encouraging their personnel to take public transit, but supposedly Albany Med refused their “outreach.” Ms. Younger suggested that perhaps we who were present could help CDTA talk to Albany Med. Hmph.

"Downtown" Clifton Park, N.Y.
"Downtown" Clifton Park, N.Y.

CDTA had big plans, but not for us in the South End. In May of 2009 they acquired a $1 million grant, which they used to implement a new bus on Route 9 in Clifton Park. One year later they reluctantly felt compelled to eliminate this new route. Surprise. It seems that there was no demand for busses in this suburban wasteland, so what were they thinking? The Daily Gazette reported on a CDTA board meeting in September, 2010:

The Route 409 pilot was an effort to increase service in Saratoga County, which has less service than Albany, Schenectady and Rensellaer Counties... The hope was to attract an average of 15 riders per hour, but [CDTA Executive Director Carm] Basile said the actual average has been about two riders. “It just doesn’t appear there is a critical mass in Clifton Park,” he said. However, he said the pilot service has raised awareness in the Clifton Park - Halfmoon area about the availability of public transit, which could lead to success at some point in the future.

I think I sputtered and cursed for an hour after reading that. A few months later (this is late 2010) I got an opportunity to badger a CDTA bureaucrat at some public meeting. I read the above quote out loud and said, “How about spending a million dollars to raise public transit awareness on Morton Avenue?” His reply was not much different than Ms. Younger’s.

The rest of the 2010 Gazette article was about how CDTA was running a big deficit even though overall ridership was up, but ridership was up only in urban areas. So much for Ms. Younger’s claims of fairness. Obviously the board members of CDTA have such a deep anti-urban bias that they are incapable of recognizing real markets for their product, even to the point of running their operation into insolvency.

Willie White On The 100 Bus, Photo From The NPR Article
Willie White On The 100 Bus, Photo From The NPR Article

None of this essential background, naturally, made it into the NPR segment that aired nationally, other than to mention in passing that us locals have been asking for a bus for years. This is why I call NPR “Fox for the upper middle class.” They took a story about a community struggle against a moribund public agency that is run like a predatory corporation and turned that story into a light, feelgood tale of one man’s personal accomplishment against the odds.

But it is a plain fact that Willie White took a leadership role that no one else was willing to take and accomplished something important. People like me have been hollering about a bus on Morton Avenue for many years, annoying the authorities. Not that this sort of thing is pointless, that’s what it takes to get these people to take us seriously. But hollering is not enough.

Mr. White did the basic organizing that the rest of us talked about doing but never did. With help from a core group of community members, he circulated a petition door to door and in a very short time gathered over 3000 signatures. Most of the signatures were local to the South End, but lots of people who lived beyond the South End signed the petition, they too wanted to have a Morton Avenue bus that they could use.

By circulating this petition Mr. White rediscovered and proved again something about the South End that has mostly been forgotten. There is a lot of potential power in the South End. If you go door to door and inform people of their own self interest then people will act decisively on behalf of their own community, and the results can be stunning.

New Solar Powered Bus Shelter Outside A Mall In Colonie
New Solar Powered Bus Shelter Outside A Mall In Colonie

I consider this new 100 Mid-City Belt to be a major turning point in the life of our South End community. For the first time in living memory we have reliable public transportation that we can use when we need it. The implications of this new mobility for economic development of my neighborhood are so staggering that I am reluctant to start listing them. This article is already too long.

As for that elusive creature “quality of life,” people of all economic classes now have a very good reason to settle in and invest in the South End. Every neighborhood survey conducted in Albany in the last twenty years has repeatedly generated the astonishing news that reliable public transit is one of the most important considerations for taxpaying citizens. But the Old Boy politicians in Albany and out of touch suburban-based agencies like CDTA have consistently dismissed such data as irrelevant.

But these bureaucrats and politicians are now forced to acknowledge that the South End, indeed all of the downtown neighborhoods are an under served mostly untapped market that can no longer be ignored. As the price of fuel continues to rise and the US economy continues to be systematically looted by foreign corporations we will continue to see suburbanites move back into the urban centers. The expensive orgy of expanding sprawl is almost over, the suburban markets are already mostly played out.

New Solar Powered Bus Shelter Outside A Mall In Colonie
Rainy Day In May, Bus Stop On Morton Avenue

CDTA found this out the hard way. They couldn’t pay people to ride the bus in Clifton Park, but by merely offering a useful bus in the urban heart of Albany they encountered demand that they had never imagined. But from my own long experience dealing with such people, I seriously doubt that the board of CDTA has learned this lesson and taken it to heart. How could they? They are too far removed from reality to see these things for themselves.

The CDTA board doesn’t appear to understand that busses (and streetcars) are vehicles most appropriate for urban communities, while automobiles are basically adaptations to suburbia. What I’m saying here is that nothing has changed at the top, we will always need to fight the power for the things we need. Necessary things like bus service improve only because we choose to fight to make these things better.

As Willie White was quoted in the NPR article, "Believe me, Morton Avenue wasn't in the plans. We put Morton Avenue in their plans." All I can say is, thank you Mr. White. I hope you stick around the neighborhood for a while. We still could use your help.

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Posted by:cek
Posted on:05/15/2012
Great article -- and a good primer for civic action. Thanks, Mr. White, and thanks, Dan.

Posted by:Roger Green
Posted on:05/16/2012
Oddly, I've not yet taken the #100. Some day, I'm going to pull a Dan and ride it for the sake of riding it.

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