I am an enthusiastic supporter of bicycling in our city.
In 2014 the Saratoga Springs City Council approved a feasibility study for the construction of a 24-mile shared-use path that would form a continuous loop through the city and connect with other biking and walking trails throughout Saratoga County. Since 2014 the city has constructed a number of segments of what is called the Saratoga Greenbelt Trail.
As spring has started to arrive, the city has begun to move forward with the construction of new segments that include a section of Union Avenue and High Rock giving rise to some concerns about the efficacy and safety of these lanes as they extend through the city. I have observed, for instance, that there seems to be little use of the bike lanes on Lake Avenue and North Broadway. Others have raised concerns about the safety of constructing lanes on heavily traveled avenues like Union and Lake. There is an especially high accident rate at the corner of Union and Nelson Avenue for instance. I recall that as Public Safety Commissioner, Chris Mathiesen had proposed directing bikers to less heavily trafficked parallel side streets rather than constructing bike lanes on Lake Avenue.
I sent an email raising these issues to Bikeatoga, a local group that promotes bicycling.
I received the following thoughtful statement from Ed Lindner who is with the group. I think that Ed makes a convincing case that only through the establishment of extensive bike lanes that provide continuous routes for traveling in the city, can an effective program be established.
Statement From Ed Lindner On Behalf Of Bikeatoga
With respect to bike lanes, Bikeatoga’s primary focus is to get the City to build out the complete, functional, and connected bike route network laid out in the 2016 Complete Streets plan and the 2014 Saratoga Greenbelt Trail plan.
It’s well-established that creating a fully connected network of bike routes increases ridership and safety. That’s one reason why the Federal Highway Administration’s Strategic Agenda for bike and pedestrian infrastructure identified creating connected multimodal (meaning bike/ped) networks as its number 1 goal.
This People for Bikes info sheet provides multiple real world examples of cities that saw increased ridership when they built out their connected network. And the 2016 Pucher & Buehler study, 2014 Schoner and Levinson study, and 2020 Portland State University study all reached the same conclusion – building out a connected bike route network results in increased ridership. It’s just common sense, really. When deciding whether and when to ride, cyclists are no different from motorists – we choose routes if they can safely and directly take us to where we want to go. If the car lanes on Lake Avenue ended at East Harrison Street, how many would choose that as a route to drive from the East Side Rec to the West Side?
Sadly, as you know from experience, Saratoga Springs is a long way from having a functional and connected bike route network. People for Bikes uses sophisticated data analysis using open source street mapping to create City Ratings for bicycle networks in communities around the country. Our rating is not good. Saratoga Springs ranks in the 21st percentile of small cities, largely because our network score is 7 out of 100. This is the data that cycling journalists see when they write articles suggesting the best places for cycling tourists to visit. It’s not something the Chamber of Commerce is likely touting in our own tourism promotions.
So, in answer to your questions, Bikeatoga supports bike lanes on Union, Lake and N Broadway because those routes are an important part of our overall network as laid out in the Complete Streets and Greenbelt Trail plan. And the best way to increase ridership on those routes, and throughout the entire city, is to create a safe, functional and connected network that allows riders access to every part of town. This is particularly important for those who ride out of economic necessity to get to work or bring home groceries. The FHWA publication and PSU study both suggest that connected bike networks promote economic equity. Because we live in a community where many of our workers can’t afford to live in the city, making cycling a viable transportation option for workers traveling from neighboring communities benefits our small businesses as well.
There is some reason for cautious optimism. Last summer Bikeatoga reps met with Mayor Kelly and each Commissioner seeking support for re-energizing the Complete Streets and Greenbelt Trail plans. We recognized the good work of those who came before us. And we happily acknowledged that there have been some successes – the Geyser Road trail was a significant achievement, and the Downtown Connector is finally out for construction bids this year. As you point out, there are also partial bike lanes on Lake and North Broadway (and ¼ mile of Excelsior BTW). But the bulk of the bike routes envisioned in the City’s own plans remain unbuilt. There is no network.
In September 2021, Commissioner Madigan put us on her agenda for a presentation and as a result of our advocacy, the Council passed a resolution committing to building bike lanes on priority streets identified by the Complete Streets Advisory Board in the next 3 years. FYI, Bikeatoga heard independently from nearly all the candidates running for council last November and we were pleased to hear that there was broad, bipartisan support for the resolution. We hope and expect that the support of the current council translates into additional bike lanes beyond the Downtown Connector being built this year.
With respect to Union Avenue specifically, a bit of background. Union Avenue is a marked city bike route and, besides being home to the racetrack, it’s the principal route coming back into the city for road cyclists who ride the beautiful country above Saratoga Lake. The State right of way on Union Avenue extends from points east (Route 9P) up to East Avenue and NYSDOT is responsible for paving and maintaining that stretch of road. The section of Union from East to Circular is the City’s responsibility.
In 2019, at the urging of bike advocates, Assemblymember Carrie Woerner convened a meeting between NYSDOT and city officials to address the unsafe condition of the “bike lane” on Union from Henning to East. I put “bike lane” in quotes because the paved shoulder narrows quickly past Henning and then disappears into rubble. It hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years and it’s still unrideable. This past year, the city put up a sign warning motorists that cyclists have the right to ride in the car lane, but if you’ve ever ridden Union on a race day in August you have a sense of how problematic that is for most riders.
Carrie Woerner’s involvement did lead to an ongoing dialogue between the city and state about Union Avenue. Bikeatoga was not part of those early discussions, but we’ve heard anecdotally that NYSDOT was initially amenable to creating some kind of separated bike lane on Union and that the proposal withered due to lack of interest on the part of the City. Last fall we reached out to the Assemblymember again and, following the City Council’s September ‘21 complete streets resolution, Commissioner Madigan also got involved. Bikeatoga was present at a meeting in the Commissioner’s office with NYSDOT and city officials in which the State reps indicated that they are paving Union Ave up to East this Fall (2022) and that their preliminary engineering studies showed that they could create a 5’ wide painted bike lane. While less ideal than a separated bike lane, a five-foot painted lane will permit safe cycling. As I write this, Bikeatoga is unsure of the status of this project – we’ve heard that it’s been held up because NYSDOT, DPW and NYRA cannot agree on who will be responsible for mowing the medians. We are attempting to find out if that issue has been resolved.
Commissioner Madigan also attempted to address the city portion of Union Avenue from East to Circular. During meetings in the Commissioner’s office involving Deputy Commissioner Deirdre Ladd, Bikeatoga, members of the Complete Streets Advisory Board and city departments, it was agreed that the city should put out an RFP for engineering, surveying and design of a bike lane from East to Circular, so that the city and state projects together would create a connected bike route lane from Saratoga Lake to Congress Park. Work on the RFP has continued under the current City Council and it’s our understanding that the RPF for engineering and design has either just gone out or is just about to go out.
Bikeatoga has had several discussions with Mayor Kim and individual Commissioners and we’re heartened by their expressions of support for finally building out our Complete Streets and Greenbelt Trail plans. We will see if that support leads to concrete results. We are hopeful that the current Council will fund actual construction of the East to Circular bike route on the city portion of Union Avenue after the preliminary engineering and design has been done. We have also asked the city’s Infrastructure Task Force to seek federal funding to connect Railroad Run to the Downtown connector, which would create a link between the Empire State Trail and downtown for bicycle tourists and create a safe route for locals from Exit 15 to Congress Park and to the West Side. Just today the Times Union has an article reporting that Outside Magazine has named the Empire State Trail as the top cycling rail trail in the United States.
With respect to safety, we have the bike crash data from 2014 to 2020 and we don’t see cause for concern on Union. In that seven-year period there were no bike/car accidents on Union Avenue itself (there were 2 on side roads where Union was the closest cross street). The lack of accidents on Union is particularly hopeful because, although our data on bike usage is far from perfect or complete, the data we do have confirms our anecdotal experience that Union Avenue is a well-traveled bike route for trackworkers, track-goers and road bikers.
As for your question about whether it’s better to have a bike lane on Lake Avenue or use side streets, the Complete Streets plan has already answered that. The answer is “both.” The 2016 Complete Streets plan calls for a bike lane on Lake Ave, part of which has been built, and a “bicycle boulevard” running roughly parallel on Caroline Street. Bike boulevards are routes on low-volume streets that have signage and street markings to alert motorists that bikes use the roadway. Ideally, they have traffic-calming features, but there is no separate lane for bike travel.
The Complete Streets plan wisely proposed creating both these routes because they connect different locations and different kinds of riders. If you’re riding to and from downtown to Weibel Avenue (which will eventually have its own bike lane), Lake Ave is the fastest and most direct route. Can you do it from Caroline? Sure, but the kind of rider who’s uncomfortable riding on Lake Avenue is unlikely to want to ride to the end of Caroline, make a left turn crossing a busy Henning Road and then cross Lake to ride on Weibel itself. But Caroline is a wonderful route for connecting to East Side neighborhoods, and signage and paint are relatively inexpensive. So, both routes make sense.
As for safety, I understand why people think that the side streets are safer than Lake, but the limited crash data we have and my own experience as a rider doesn’t support that. The Lake Avenue bike lane was built in 2019. In 2019 and 2020, there was one bike/car accident on Lake Avenue, near Henry Street, on the part of Lake with no bike lane. In that same period there was one accident on Caroline, near Schuyler Drive.
My own experience as a rider is that streets like Lake and Caroline present different challenges. It’s true that cars travel faster on Lake Ave and that’s definitely a concern. But it’s also true that Lake has good sight lines, and the pavement markings make it clear where cars and bikes are supposed to travel. On side streets like Caroline, cars travel more slowly (most of the time), but parked cars push cyclists into the middle of the roadway, expose riders to the risk of getting “doored,” and create poor sight lines to see cars coming out of intersections and driveways. In 2017 I was flattened by a car backing out of a driveway between two parked cars on York Avenue. The driver couldn’t see me and I was on the ground before I knew what hit me.
The bottom line is that there is seldom a perfect bike route in a built-up city. Reasonable people can disagree about the best route. But the city hired professional consultants to create the Complete Streets plan, which they did with significant input from all relevant city departments and considerable public comment. We have a Complete Streets Advisory Board that works to guide what bike/pedestrian infrastructure gets built. And any new bike lane, like the one we hope to see soon on Union Avenue, will have the benefit of professional engineering and design consultants to ensure that it is safe.
So, as I said earlier, when deciding whether and when to ride, cyclists are no different from motorists – we choose routes that safely and directly take us to where we want to go. At Bikeatoga we want to ride to every part of the city – Eastside and West, downtown, West Ave, out Grand, to the Spa Park, Skidmore College, the racetrack, and back home. The city has a plan in place to do that. We just need to commit the resources to build it.