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COVID Is Changing Capital Region Traffic — But Will It Last?

Central Ave
Jesse King
Central Avenue in Albany. The CDTC says overall travel in the Capital Region has recovered since last March, but urban areas are still seeing less traffic.

Whether you’ve traded the Northway for a home office, biking, or hitting the trails, the coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on transportation in the Capital Region. But will it last? Michael Franchini is the executive director of the Capital District Transportation Committee, which has been monitoring vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, data throughout the pandemic. Franchini says the overall volume of traffic in the Capital Region has bounced back since last spring’s shutdown – but with many people still working from home, the time of travel has changed.

"What we've seen is a decrease in what we call the 'morning rush hour,' the morning peak, and more cars travelling during the midday."

“What we’ve seen is a decrease in what we call the ‘morning rush hour,’ the morning peak, and more cars travelling during the midday. We think that shift is really the result of people running errands, and an increase in home deliveries from e-commerce," he notes. "And then the evening peak is about the same right now.”

Furthermore, Franchini says the way people are travelling has changed. While public transit has somewhat recovered since coming to a near halt last spring, Franchini says the CDTA is still down to about 62 percent of its usual ridership. Meanwhile, bicycling is up anywhere from 25 to 50 percent across the region – as is walking, which is good news for hikers and transportation planners.  

Lindsay Zefting Vera is with Alta Planning + Design in Troy, which recently helped New York state develop its new 750-mile Empire State Trail – thought to be the longest mixed-use trail in the nation. Zefting Vera says demand for hiking and bicycle trails has skyrocketed during the pandemic, as many look for a safe way to get out of the house. She says New York is ripe with opportunity.

“There’s so many unused corridors, whether they be old rail corridors or utility lines – the Albany-Hudson Electric Trail is a good example that is a utility corridor, an active utility corridor," says Zefting Vera. "We’re working on the Genesee Valley Greenway, which is an existing New York state linear park that connects Rochester down to Olean. And with the Empire State Trail that would be a 200-plus mile loop around the western part of the state.”

Other groups hope the pandemic has a lasting impact on street use and pedestrian safety. Andrew Neidhardt, with Walkable Albany, says the city was pretty creative in the way it used its streets last year: over the summer, Mayor Kathy Sheehan closed some roads and parking lanes to expand outdoor dining at restaurants, and give kids a place to play during the pandemic.

Considering roughly 25 percent of city residents don’t have a vehicle, Walkable Albany has been promoting some creative ideas of its own, particularly in Washington Park, where drivers often neglect the 20 mph speed limit.

“We have the ability to change street designs, to make it so that the most comfortable speed for a driver is closer to 25 mph than it is to 40 mph," says Neidhardt. "And so things like bumping out the curb at an intersection...What that does is it narrows the roadway, which means shorter crossing distances for pedestrians — but also a narrower roadway, so that cars feel safer at a slower speed.” 

Neidhardt adds the pandemic has highlighted a need for more residential and mixed-use buildings downtown, where closed offices and businesses have resulted in an overall drop in traffic. Franchini says retail hubs like Colonie’s Wolf Road have been similarly less vibrant, while travel to suburbs and rural areas has recovered, if not increased, since the spring.

"We're not back to normal yet...We don't want to base our study on data that is gonna change in a few months."

Whether city planners and business owners should put stock in any of these trends, however, remains to be seen. Franchini says it’s too soon to tell. 

“We’re not back to normal yet...You know, we’re holding off on our traffic studies because we’re just not confident that the data is permanent at this point," he explains. "We don’t want to base our study on data that is gonna change in a few months.” 

What the CDTC is putting stock in is climate change, and New York’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. In its long-range transportation plan for the Capital Region, called “New Visions,” the CDTC anticipates a major shift toward electric and even self-driving vehicles. Franchini says building new infrastructure, like charging stations, is crucial — as is maintaining and replacing the state’s already-crumbling roads and bridges.

So what’s keeping planners from getting the green light? 

Zefting Vera laughs. “Funding, funding, funding." 

“I think the biggest obstacle is resources," says Neidhardt. 

“I'm talking billions," adds Franchini. "On a local level, you’re probably talking hundreds of billions.” 

…Which cities, counties, and even the state don’t have right now, thanks to COVID-19. Franchini notes these entities usually rely on funding from the federal government, which recently extended its last round of transportation funding, the FAST Act, for 2021. But whether the new Congress will provide sufficient funding for cities and states to achieve their dreams remains up in the air. Franchini says, odds are, every level of government will have to make some tough choices on transportation.

“I always use the analogy of a roof on a residential home. You can only repair it so many times before you have to replace it," he explains. "The same occurs for a road or a bridge — you can only repair it so many times before you have to replace it. And that's the cost.” 

Collecting input for its New Visions plan, the CDTC has a poll where you can voice your top priorities for future transportation funding online. 

Jesse King is the host of "51%" and a producer for WAMC's afternoon news programs. She also produces the WAMC podcast, "A New York Minute In History."
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