Launch the run so riders will come

The chief executive officer of the Capital District Transportation Authority, Carm Basile, came to the Voorheesville firehouse last week with some of his senior staff to listen.

Listening is a good place to start in trying to solve any problem. We’d like to add to the information the CDTA is considering. And we’d like our readers to think about the role each of us can play in saving ourselves and the rest of the world from more fires, floods, droughts, and hurricanes.

For years, we’ve written about the bus routes that come from Albany to our coverage area — there are no routes to the rural Helderberg Hilltowns. There used to be a route that went through Voorheesville, in the town of New Scotland, and to Altamont, in the town of Guilderland.

That route, 719, was developed in 2012 when two earlier routes were combined.

The pandemic had a dramatic effect on bus ridership, making it plunge between 66 and 75 percent we were told by the CDTA in 2020 as many businesses were forced to shut down.

 Even after those restrictions were lifted, regular bus riders with cars tended to eschew buses where COVID-19 might spread, despite all the deep-cleaning efforts the CDTA went through.

By the summer of 2021 when many state workers, like others, were expected to return to their offices rather than working remotely, one Guilderland resident, Marie Irving, gathered 241 signatures on a petition, calling for Route 719 to be reinstated.

Irving cited equity issues of underserved rural and suburban areas. She herself used to travel for 45 minutes to an hour every weekday to her job at the State Education Building in downtown Albany. Her husband, who has multiple sclerosis, she said, worked in Albany, too, and “telecommutes from noon to the end of the day.”

The family had just one car, Irving told us as she was circulating the petition, and her husband needed the car to keep his schedule.

Irving described other regular riders on Route 719: a woman who rode from Albany to work at the Stewart’s Shop in New Scotland, a man who worked at Atlas Copco in Voorheesville; a woman in Guilderland Center who rode the bus to get to work; an “an older gentleman that lives in the apartment across from the gazebo in Altamont and works at the transportation department.” People also used the route, she said, to get from the city to the Altamont Fair and back home again.

Carm Basile emphasized that the CDTA is a business. We understand that. The CDTA employs 700 workers and runs over 200 buses.

People need to ride those buses in order for the CDTA to pay for them and to pay the people who drive and maintain them. Enterprise reporter Sean Mulkerrin, in his story this week on the listening session at the Voorheesville firehouse, looked up five years of data on the number of riders per hour for Route 719. 

For the five years before the start of the pandemic, the numbers ranged from 6.5 to 10.3 — all below the “productivity target” for a commuter route of over 12 riders per hour.

As a spokeswoman told us when we wrote about last year’s petition with 241 names, “If there were 241 riders, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“We can’t build service for people who are interested,” the director of planning for the CDTA told us at the time. The CDTA needs regular riders and can’t provide routes for people who may want to ride a bus “just in case,” he said. “We’re a steward of the public dollar.”

Precisely. But the flip side of that public dollar — the taxpayer funds that subsidize the CDTA — is to serve the public good.

We, as a society need a major shift in our thinking if we are to stop the climate change that is wreaking havoc with our world.

A dozen years ago, the United States Department of Transportation did research that made it clear a massive move to public transportation is essential. Transportation accounts for 29 percent of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

That is well more than residential, commercial, and agricultural gas emissions combined. It is second only to the greenhouse gas emissions from the electric power industry, at 33 percent.

And, of the emissions caused by transportation, cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks make up the majority — at 57 percent. Freight trucks account for 20 percent and airlines for 12 percent.

“National averages demonstrate that public transportation produces significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile than private vehicles,” the report says. “Leading the way is heavy rail transit, such as subways and metros, which produce 76% less in greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile than an average single-occupancy vehicle. Light rail systems produce 62% less and bus transit produces 33% less.”

The report is clear on what individual Americans should do to ease climate change: “Switching to riding public transportation is one of the most effective actions individuals can take to reduce their carbon footprint.”

Car transportation alone accounts for 47 percent of the carbon footprint of a typical American family with two cars — by far the largest source of household emissions, the report says.

“If just one driver per household switched to taking public transportation for a daily commute of 10 miles each way, this would save 4,627 pounds of carbon dioxide per household per year — equivalent to an 8.1% reduction in the annual carbon footprint of a typical American household.”

The report notes that this change would have a much greater impact for good than, say, replacing light bulbs, for a 1.6 percent reduction, or adding R-40 insulation, for a 1.2 percent reduction.

In the last dozen years of course the need has grown more urgent. Fortunately, our current administration has made reducing our nation’s carbon footprint a priority

Last year, President Joe Biden announced a new target for the United States to achieve a 50 to 52 percent reduction from 2005 levels in economy-wide net greenhouse gas pollution in 2030. This year, the Democrats in Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which is to invest $369 billion in climate solutions and environmental justice, putting the United States on a path to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030.

Spread out over a decade, the IRA calls for spending under $37 billion a year to quell climate change. As we’ve noted on this page before, that number pales compared to the billions and billions spent each year in the United States on aid after disasters spurred by climate change.

We’ll cite the old adage once more: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — or more.

We have commended on this page local efforts to adopt town codes that inspire the building of walkable communities or that create districts where people live close to public transportation.

But a widespread change in attitude is needed.

One of the attendees at the recent Voorheesville meeting on the future of Route 719 embodied an attitude that many of us have. He grew up in Voorheesville and works in Albany at a state job.

“Voorheesville has always been known as a bedroom community. It doesn’t have much to offer because everyone comes home at night, eats dinner, goes to bed, wakes up in the morning, and goes to Albany to work ….,” he said. “We’re used to having our own independence, we have children, we have to go to sporting events. There’s all sorts of reasons why the bus doesn’t work for us.”

We realize this is a chicken-or-egg situation. The CDTA doesn’t want to provide a bus route that few people ride. But without that route, we can’t begin to make the change we need to save our planet.

We need to stop thinking of how things have always been and create habits and ways of life that will lead to a sustainable future. We need to envision a community where independence isn’t equated with driving a car.

Last year, when we talked to some of the regular riders on Route 719, we heard from one about the pleasure of having time to read on the trip home; we heard from another of the relaxing transition from home to work, talking with fellow riders and enjoying the scenery.

Let’s consider for a moment the possibilities of change.

Could we, for instance, enjoy the independence of thought that comes in letting someone else do the driving as we pursue our own activities — reading for fun, getting work underway, watching passing scenery, talking to another rider — whatever best suits us?

Could we think of our “bedroom community” as a place where we do more than eat and sleep at home by creating a “shared community” with activities that would enrich us and link us?

Change is inevitable. We can see that if we look at the villages of Altamont and Voorheesville. Both of them were once rural farming communities that got built into villages because of the passenger trains running from Albany.  Men commuted to work by taking the train to the city. Albany residents rode out to the villages for recreation and summer stays.

Because the villages were built around their train stations — with houses close together not spread out in the suburban sprawl engendered by the automobile — Altamont and Voorheesville remain walkable communities today.

At its listening session last week, the CDTA leaders floated the idea of a bus run that would make similar stops in Voorheesville and Altamont as the now-defunct 719 bus had but, instead of going all the way into Albany, would take riders instead to Guilderland’s Crossgates Mall, a hub where they could then take a bus to their destination.

We urge CDTA to launch this run and, most importantly, we urge residents to use it. 

Change can be hard. But if individuals commit to it and then work with local leaders as well as tapping into state and national initiatives, we can make a better world.

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