Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cracks in Albany's Car Culture; Carmageddon in L.A.


The first cracks appeared in Albany's car culture last week as highway personnel worked to repair the cracks in the ill-advised South Mall Arterial.  As part of the deal, the highway, as well as the Dunn Memorial Bridge to Rensselaer, will be closed until the end of the month.

The highway was originally built to connect I-787 along the Hudson River (a bad enough idea in itself) to the Mid-Crosstown Arterial (a potentially catastrophic idea).  Currently, it connects to Empire State Plaza (also a bad idea) before turning around and returning to I-787.  (You read that correctly: the highway turns around and goes back...)

The response to a fairly major highway connection closure, in the most likely place for it, the local blogs?  Barely a peep.  The main blog that covers this stuff, Getting There, had a total of three comments on the subject: one wondering about a sign and possible congestion at one particular exit; another supporting state workers facing layoffs; another calling this an opportunity to take the highway down.  I like that last one.

The comments on another blog post on the topic, from the East Greenbush blog (a town affected heavily by the closure, connected to Albany by the Dunn Memorial Bridge) ranged from figuring out the best alternate routes to the possibility of catapults and $5 helicopter flights by Jet Blue.  (Or you could take the bus? Just a thought.)

Closures are shown in orange. (Times Union)
Construction workers examine cracks in the system.  (Times Union)
As part of this closure, I will be doing a full post later this week about the South Mall Arterial, including its current state and original plan.  It's a pretty sordid tale.
It looks like a sordid tale, too.  This is a city of 98,000 people.  What purpose is this crap really serving?  If this is what it takes to keep civilization running, let's just give up. (Times Union)

In contrast, a highway in Los Angeles was closed last weekend, and it was termed carmageddon.  (Personally, I think the actual carmageddon is a few years off.)

Poor things. (From the Internets)
Nice! I'd prefer wilderness of course, but this is the first step.  It's a preview of the future. (From the Internets)
Apparently, carmageddon "brought out the best in people" and turned out not to be a big deal at all.  Funny house that works.

To be fair, Los Angeles is about 38 times larger than Albany, with a metropolitan area roughly 20 times larger and with a car culture that was present for almost entirety of its development.  It is one of the few areas of an over-sprawled nation that symbolizes suburban sprawl, joining other regions like Phoenix, Atlanta and Houston.  This isn't the city with some parasitic suburbs and an abandoned core; these places epitomize and define the extreme limits of suburbanization and car dependency.  The cores are doing well, but it still helps to have a car in them.  These areas are also facing hypergrowth and, by most accounts, are mis-managing it. 

So why would I compare the two?  Simple.  They're comparable, as long as you adjust for scale.  In L.A., such a closure really is carmaggedon, but Albany's closure would normally warrant more of a peep than is being made.

And then there's the car culture.

Many Northeastern cities pride themselves on walkability, old architecture and accessible urban design layout.  Albany, having developed via water transportation (the Hudson River and then the Erie Canal) and rail (home to the nation's first steam-powered passenger train (and one of the country's first rail lines) and an early hub for rail transportation, as well as intermodal (water/rail) transportation, should be no exception.

Silhouette by artist William Brown of the train that left The Point in Albany (the intersection of Madison, Western and Allen today) to Schenectady in 1831.  This was history in the making.
Yet, as we will see when we visit the history of the various highways, this is not the case.  We could spend the next few weeks doing nothing but examining the areas of Albany devoted strictly to the car.  Central Avenue (west of Allen), Washington Avenue (west of Brevator), the 'medical area' (Albany Med, Hackett Blvd, etc), Empire State Plaza, 787, South Mall Arterial, Northern Blvd, the Harriman State Office Complex, Patroon Creek and the University at Albany are just the examples of extreme car dependent development that I can name off the top of my head.  With our rich history of transportation innovation here, it is easy to see that large portions of the city have been demolished to favor machines over people.

While the relative absence of angry blog comments as the first cracks in Albany's car culture may be grasping at straws, it does strike me as unusual for the city that I have come to know.  If you even make the suggestion that there are more valuable uses for urban land than parking lots, you are told to move to Europe, as I learned.  That, combined with growing (but still bus) transit service, a comprehensive bike plan for the city and the desire to reconnect the city to its waterfront (currently blocked by a highway) are things that I take as positive signs for the region.

Or maybe I'm being overly optimistic.  Still, I'll take it.

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