Back in November the city of Albany was set to present the much-awaited plan for the Madison Ave Road Diet. And then, just a few days before the public meeting to announce plan, the city canceled the announcement and there's been no public word since then about what's up.
There are a bunch of interesting ideas wrapped up in the road diet, among them that the city can reduce the number of travel lanes to slow speeding vehicles while at the same time maintaining overall volume and flow of the corridor. But the idea that's gotten the most attention is the possible inclusion of protected bike lanes -- both from advocates who say the lanes would be a big step forward in the city's effort to become friendlier to cyclists, and from skeptics who worry about the cost of maintaining the lanes and their effects on the number of parking spaces.
It's hard to say what exactly is holding things up. A spokesman for mayor Kathy Sheehan told us this week that the city is still gathering info from its consultants on the project and there weren't any new developments. But there's a sense among cycling advocates that the bike lanes are probably a sticking point.
So now those advocates have a new pitch that is, essentially, the city should do an experiment.
"On our side we have a lot of evidence, statistics [of the benefits of protected bike lanes], but they're all from other cities. And Albany is not yet a great biking city, so we don't whether or not the lessons of other cities will apply to Albany," said Jason D'Cruz, a member of the Albany Protected Bike Lane Coalition, to us this week. "On the other hand, the people who are opposed have common sense conjectures about what might happen if you reduce the number of travel lanes, what might happen in the winter. But they don't really have any evidence about what will happen."
The Madison Ave Road Diet is slated to be implemented in three segments along the corridor from the Madison Ave/Western Ave merge heading downtown to Madison and Lark. So the coalition is proposing that city use the implementation of the first segment -- from South Allen to Partridge -- as an explicit pilot test of the protected bike lane idea.
"People can try it for themselves, see what they think about it, see whether it works, and then voice their opinions after they've tried it," said D'Cruz.
The coalition backs up its pitch with the argument that laying out the protected bike lanes isn't a large portion of the overall cost of the road diet. (New traffic signals make up the bulk of the cost.) It's essentially just some lines painted on the road, which is relatively easy and cheap to apply -- and to undo.
The downside to the pilot is that implementing the idea on a half-mile stretch might not be enough to truly understand the effects of the bike lanes along the important uptown-downtown corridor. In a way, the lanes would be like a bridge that stops before reaching the other side. But D'Cruz argues the segment should still allow the city to gather data and experience on how the lanes affect things like parking and people riding bikes on the sidewalks.
"If anything, the danger is that it will undersell the benefits of the protected bike lanes," he said.
Other cities have used piloting to test these sorts of ideas. New York City's efforts over the last decade to redesign some of the city's busiest corridors -- such as Broadway through the heart of Manhattan -- involved pilot projects that could be quickly implemented, tested, and adjusted.
So, in some sense, piloting protected bike lanes on Madison Ave in Albany would also be like a test of piloting such ideas for the city. Maybe other ideas could also be up for systematic testing -- like adjusting the shape of sidewalks and corners.
"There's just tons of possible, reasonable things that people could say [about plans] that end up being false," D'Cruz said to us toward the end of our conversation. "Why don't we have A/B testing for cities? Apply different treatments for streets or areas and see what works best?"
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