At some point in the near future the city of Albany will be releasing its plan for the Madison Ave Road Diet, an effort to reshape the traffic flow a long a large portion of the Madison Ave corridor.
Bike lanes are expected to be part of the plan, and exactly what sort of bike lane has become a hot topic -- "regular" bike lanes separated from car traffic by a stripe on the road, or "protected" bike lanes that are separated by some sort of barrier (such as parked cars or vertial pylons).
Listening between the lines this past summer when the city and its consultants presented the options for the road diet, it sounded like the city might be leaning toward regular bike lanes because of concerns about the impact on the number of parking spaces and the costs associated with clearing snow. And ahead of a meeting that had been scheduled for last week (and was then canceled) to release the plan, word was circulating that the city would be heading in that direction.
Perhaps in an attempt to make a pre-emptive case, a group called the Albany Protected Bicycle Lane Coaltion released a report today that attempts to head off some of the arguments against protected lanes.
So, let's have a quick look.
The report is built around the coalition's review of the five options on the table for Madison Ave. As you'd guess, the coalition supports to the two that include protected lanes. And it takes on some of the arguments against those options.
Adding protected bike lanes is going to eat up some parking spaces, especially near intersections. And people always get a little wound up about parking. So the report tries to address concerns that adding the protected lanes would result in a parking crunch:
The Protected Bicycle Lane Coalition survey of available parking places in the four-block stretch of Madison Ave. between West Lawrence and Quail Sts shows that even during peak weekday hours of 9am, noon, and 4pm, almost 50 percent of the on-street parking places are unoccupied and available. This survey, based on the actual number of cars taking up spaces rather than on a 20' space for each car, and not including availability of spaces on adjacent side streets, indicates that the impact of estimated loss of parking maybe exaggerated.
(Using survey data makes for a stronger argument, but it'd be even stronger if the report included details about when the survey was conducted and across how many days.)
The report also argues the city could create more spaces by reducing the length of each space from 20 feet to 18 feet.
The report acknowledges there will be higher costs for snow removal, and presents two options. One is for the city to basically just deal with it over the short term:
Experts tell us that this is the option most cities choose. The incremental costs are not high unless the city purchases specialized equipment. Many cities that are making a serious commitment to building out their bike networks are updating their fleet with smaller plows and sweepers to handle the changing needs. Protected Bike Lanes increase property values and profits for local business -- thus increasing the taxes for the City. This increase, over time, will offset maintenance costs.
It also presents the option of raising money from private sources -- maybe those same local businesses that are projected to see increased activity -- to help cover the increased costs.
This could be a tough obstacle to get past. The city is in a seemingly constant budget crunch (the mayor's proposed budget relies on $12.5 million from the state that's not guaranteed, yet). And at the public presentation of the Madison Ave Road Diet options this past July a consultant for the city said the cost of acquiring the necessary equipment for clearing snow from the lanes -- and then clearing them -- could total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And to say that higher property values -- and eventually higher tax revenue -- will cover those costs is a bit of a leap.
But maybe there are ways around the problem. For example: What if the barriers were removable and were taken out at the beginning of each winter, so that full-size plows could operate the full width of the street. Or what if the city just said something to the effect of, yeah, during the winter the bike lanes will get cleared when they get cleared. The city could graduate its maintenance of the lanes as use or cost allow.
illustration: Jim Maximowicz/APBLC
A third concern that arose during that that public meeting was how the road diet would affect the ability of emergency vehicles to move through the corridor. The Protected Bicycle Lane Coalition took up this issue, too, arguing that both federal standards and the city's experience with other streets indicate the preferred options would leave enough space.
The whole report is worth reading if you're interested in this topic. And, of course, it was produced by a group with an end goal in mind, so it's important to keep in mind that things are being viewed throught that lense. But it's good to see people engaged and willing to argue their case like this.
Should the city of Albany to give protected bike lanes along this corridor a chance? Your answer to that question is going to come down what sort of vision you have for the city (does the future include more people walking and cycling instead of driving) and what sort of tradeoffs you're willing to make (is the financial cost worth it). There's evidence from other cities' experiences that the lanes can have a significant impact. But, really, the city isn't going to know until it tries. And given that it already has Madison Ave on the drawing board, this might be its best chance.
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