Can the Capital District’s Central Avenue Return to its Multimodal Glory Days?

The Central Avenue corridor connecting Albany and Schenectady has been in the news lately after four-year-old Ashiqur Rahman was killed by a turning garbage truck at the intersection with Quail Street in Albany. Pedestrian deaths and injuries are nothing new to Central Avenue, long known as one of the Capital District’s most dangerous roads for pedestrians. And although efforts are underway to make this urban arterial more friendly to users of all types, it seems that opportunities to transform it into a truly multimodal corridor are being ignored.

Central Avenue, originally known as the Albany Schenectady Turnpike, once had a streetcar line, making it a truly multimodal corridor. But when the streetcars were removed in 1946, the renamed Central Avenue was expanded to its current auto-centric format, with two travel lanes in each direction and a center turn lane for much of its length.

AlbanyMuskrat

The same scene today.

The same scene today.

Today, in Albany and Schenectady, Central Avenue runs through dense urban neighborhoods with significant pedestrian traffic, while in Colonie and Niskayuna, it runs through areas that were originally built out as streetcar suburbs. And in other locations, Central Avenue carries traffic generated by regional shopping destinations. And yet, the mobility solutions applied the New York State Department of Transportation and local jurisdictions have been essentially uniform and largely unchanged since the roadway’s auto-centric postwar conversion. Predictably, that single-minded focus on vehicular throughput has led to poor outcomes for other users.

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Technology Can Help, but Transit and Walkability Are Keys to Reducing Automobile Dependence

A new report from USPIRG, The Innovative Transportation Index: Cities Where New Technologies and Tools Can Reduce Your Need to Own a Car, examines “technology-enabled transportation services” which, its authors suggest, “make it easier to conveniently get around without owning a car.” The report’s Executive Summary begins

“Rapid technological advances have enabled the creation of new transportation tools that make it possible for more Americans to live full and engaged lives without owning a car.”

There’s no doubt that car ownership isn’t required for living a “full and engaged” life. In fact, in some cities car ownership can be more of a hassle than a convenience. But are these tools, like Uber, Zipcar, bike share, and apps like NextBus really what makes a car-free lifestyle possible, or are there other factors at work?

To get a better understanding, we looked up the numbers on zero-car households for the top 20 (of 70) cities included in the Innovative Transportation Index (percentage of households that don’t own cars in parentheses):

pirg-tech-report

  1. Austin  (6.5)
  2. San Francisco  (31.4)
  3. Washington  (37.9)
  4. Boston  (36.9)
  5. Los Angeles  (13.6)
  6. New York  (56.5)
  7. Portland  (15.3)
  8. Denver  (11.7)
  9. Minneapolis  (19.7)
  10. San Diego  (7.4)
  11. Seattle  (16.6)
  12. Dallas  (10.1)
  13. Columbus  (10)
  14. Chicago  (27.9)
  15. Houston  (10.1)
  16. Miami  (26.7)
  17. Milwaukee  (19.9)
  18. Tampa (6.6*)
  19. Nashville  (8.5)
  20. Orlando  (4.9**)

The result is a mixed bag. While cities like New York, Washington and Boston, where more than a third of households are car-free, appear in the Innovative Transportation Index’s top 20, so do cities like Austin, Nashville and San Diego, where fewer than 10 percent of households do not own cars. It’s not clear that new transportation technology is having much of an impact in reducing car ownership.

Given that many of these new technologies are only a few years old, we thought we’d also look to see what direction these cities are headed in. Austin, Columbus and Dallas, for example, may not be leading the pack of cities with the most zero-car households , but could they be headed in that direction?

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New Camden Development Must Prioritize Transit and Active Transportation

Subaru plans to move its U.S. headquarters to the Gateway Office Park site in Camden, NJ. Image Source: Philadelphia Business Journal

Subaru plans to move its U.S. headquarters to the Gateway Office Park site in Camden, NJ. Image Source: Philadelphia Business Journal

It was recently reported that car maker Subaru of America will be moving its national headquarters to Camden, New Jersey, bringing along 500 of its employees who currently work in Cherry Hill and Pennsauken, NJ. The company has also pledged to add 100 new jobs to the new headquarters in the next two years. Subaru will become the anchor tenant of a vast tract of land known as the “Gateway Office Park” owned by Campbell’s Soup, which is based adjacent to the site.

With such significant new development in this section of the city, it is imperative that the City of Camden continues to work with developer Brandywine Realty Trust, and with Subaru and Campbell’s, to promote access to nearby transit and active transportation amenities. The development site is just over half a mile from the Walter Rand Transportation Center, which houses the Broadway PATCO High Speed Line station, NJ Transit RiverLINE and 25 NJ Transit bus lines – not to mention the planned Glassboro-Camden light rail and South Jersey Bus Rapid Transit lines. The new offices will also be adjacent to existing and planned Circuit walking and biking trails. By using transit and trails, employees can quickly and easily travel to and from downtown Camden, Philadelphia, Trenton and the surrounding South Jersey suburbs.

The development is also adjacent to two major highways, so it will be essential for the site and surrounding area to be designed in a way that promotes transit usage and active transportation. In order for this to be successful, the following must occur:

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Groundbreaking TransitCenter Survey: Americans Want More Compact, Mixed-Use Neighborhoods

It’s widely accepted at this point that Americans are driving less and the country overall is shifting towards transit to get around — but you may be surprised to learn that it’s not just due to young people favoring transit or a recovering economy. A recent study by TransitCenter, “Who’s On Board: 2014 Mobility Attitudes Survey,” goes beyond previous studies that only look at commuting trends and ridership figures by including travel attitudes and behaviors.

The big takeaway from this groundbreaking report is that transit-oriented development plays a big role. The type of neighborhood is the top predictor of whether or not people in that neighborhood prefer transit: suburban, residential neighborhoods are the most common types of neighborhoods that respondents live in, but many reportedly prefer to live in mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods. The report states that “the attractiveness of mixed-use neighborhoods is a major part of what drives people onto transit.”

Respondents across all age groups largely desire suburban, mixed-use neighborhoods. | Chart: TransitCenter

Respondents across all age groups largely desire mixed-use neighborhoods. | Chart: TransitCenter

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A Renewed Focus on Downtown Stamford’s Streets

Mixed-use development in downtown Stamford with street-level commercial space is an essential element of an attractive, walkable downtown, but Washington Boulevard -- seven lanes wide here -- is designed for vehicular throughput. | Photo: Joseph Cutrufo/TSTC

Mixed-use development in downtown Stamford with street-level commercial space is an essential element of an attractive, walkable downtown, but Washington Boulevard — a wide, multi-lane arterial — is designed to maximize vehicular throughput. | Photo: Joseph Cutrufo/TSTC

Stamford is one of the fastest-growing cities in Connecticut, and a big part of that growth has been concentrated in mixed-use, multi-family developments built in and around downtown Stamford in the last decade.

Along with new residents, downtown Stamford has also attracted jobs. Unlike many stops along the Metro North New Haven Line, Stamford is not a bedroom community, but “an edge city with corporate and media spillover from New York”  that draws an ever-increasing share of reverse commuters to downtown job centers within walking distance of the McKinney Transportation Center.

But being within walking distance only takes you so far. Downtown Stamford is a short walk from the Transportation Center, but that doesn’t mean it’s a safe or attractive walk. Walking between the train station and major employment hubs like Landmark Center and office buildings along Tresser Boulevard requires passing under Interstate 95, crossing wide, multi-lane arterials, and walking along streets lined with blank walls and parking garages (more examples in photo gallery below).

With all the new mixed-use development happening downtown, it’s clear that Stamford has figured out the land use side of smart growth. What’s needed now is a renewed focus on downtown streets, especially in light of two recent pedestrian fatalities and the fact that Stamford has the highest per capita pedestrian crash rate in Fairfield County with 240 people struck by vehicles between 2010 and 2012. On Monday, Tri-State partnered with Stamford’s Downtown Special Services District to conduct a walking audit of the east-west Main Street corridor and identified plenty of streets and pedestrian crossings in need of improvements; future audits will focus on other areas downtown, including the streets around the Transportation Center.

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Land Banking: A Tool to Facilitate Equitable TOD

Vacant and abandoned properties present a variety of challenges to municipalities: they degrade the aesthetic appeal of neighborhoods, pose safety risks and lower the value of surrounding properties. Communities burdened by vacant property also miss out on considerable revenue — while local governments face increased maintenance costs. And more often than not, attempts to redevelop these properties are thwarted by complicated tax foreclosure processes.

To help alleviate these headaches, some communities are enacting legislation to create land banks, which would acquire and manage abandoned properties so they can be saved for development and returned to productive uses.

One such productive use that land banks can help cities achieve is equitable transit-oriented development (ETOD). When municipalities establish land banks with the goal of creating ETOD, they’re not simply collecting underutilized land; they’re taking the first steps toward improving access to economic opportunity and housing choice for low-income people.

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Advocates Tour CTfastrak Bus Rapid Transit System

ctfastrak-tour-6

Representatives from transportation and environmental advocacy organizations (including Tri-State) joined the Connecticut Department of Transportation for a tour of the CTfastrak bus rapid transit (BRT) system on Thursday. The tour was organized by Transit for Connecticut and led by ConnDOT’s Mike Sanders and Maureen Lawrence.

Here are a few photos from Thursday’s tour:

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NACTO State Transportation Departments Walk the Walk

State transportation departments in Massachusetts and California -- which have adopted NACTO's Urban Street Design Guide -- happen to be located in highly walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible locations. | Image: WalkScore

State DOTs in Massachusetts and California — which have adopted NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide — happen to be located in highly walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible locations. | Image: WalkScore

As MTR reported earlier this week, Tennessee became the sixth state to formally endorse the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) Urban Street Design Guide.

The NACTO Guide is considered “a blueprint for safe, multi-modal streets,” but 44 states (including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) still rely on the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ (AASHTO) less progressive design guidelines for urban streets.

That got us thinking: What, if anything do the states that have endorsed the NACTO guide (California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Tennessee, Utah and Washington) have in common?

Back in March of 2013, we used Walk Score to see if there was any correlation between a state transportation department’s priorities and where the people who staff those departments go to work each day.

Tri-State looked to see if — and to what extent — state departments of transportation lead by example. Specifically, how walkable are the locations of state department of transportation (DOT) headquarters, and what does this tell us about that state’s transportation priorities?

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Groups Call on New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation to Reconsider Tappan Zee Bridge Loan

UPDATE: EFC Board of Directors approves loan with 5-0 vote. Yesterday, Tri-State and eight other environmental and good government groups sent a letter to New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation Board of Directors calling upon them to reject, or at least postpone a vote on, a $511 million no-interest and low-interest loan for the New NY Bridge construction project. The […]

How to Convert New York’s Urban Freeways

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner | Photo: @SBRWA/Twitter

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner | Photo: @SBRWA/Twitter

Non-profit leaders, agency employees, elected officials and their representatives came together in Albany this week to discuss the experience of four cities trying to convert urban freeways to more city-friendly boulevards.

The Urban Freeways to Boulevards Summit, co-hosted be the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance (SBRWA), of which Tri-State is a member, and Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, brought together the cities of Albany, New York, Rochester and Syracuse to talk about lessons learned and possible strategies for making urban freeway conversion projects a reality.

Assemblyman Crespo kicked off the meeting by talking about the importance of the urban freeway conversion project in his district – the Sheridan Expressway – to improve health, quality of life and the economic vitality of the area. He was followed by representatives from each of the four cities:

The discussion that followed covered several points centered on the idea that New York State needs a new paradigm for how transportation projects are planned and evaluated:

New York State needs a process or protocol for the conversion of underutilized urban freeways: Cities across the state are re-imagining existing transportation infrastructure and exploring the ways to address changing mobility needs, lack of green space, housing needs and economic development. Yet, despite five cities (Buffalo’s Skyway/Route 5 is also exploring a conversion) exploring the conversion of freeways to boulevards, there is no clear state guidance on how to proceed with a planning process, what data to gather, the funding commitments needed, nor the tools available. Participants expressed a desire to remain connected to other cities to share information and to have a strong partnership with regional and central DOTs to advance such concepts.

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