Down to Business: Suburban bus route finds few riders

On the face, it seemed like a reasonable experiment: string together a handful of Route 9 communitie

On the face, it seemed like a reasonable experiment: string together a handful of Route 9 communities in Saratoga County and see whether public transit could get a toehold there. After all, a similar city-suburban bus run along Route 50 in Schenectady and Saratoga counties has been growing since its 2007 debut.

Despite high hopes, however, the weekday service on Route 9 between Clifton Park and Saratoga Springs hasn’t met the ridership goals set by the Capital District Transportation Authority, and so will be discontinued by summer’s end.

The so-called No. 409 bus, running nearly hourly, was inaugurated in May 2010 using a $1 million federal transportation grant. Some four dozen stops were designated in Clifton Park, Halfmoon, Round Lake, Malta and Saratoga Springs, and CDTA had identified some 100 businesses and social and health services providers as potential users. Commuters could take the bus to get to their jobs, officials reasoned, and shoppers could access downtown and suburban stores.

But while the bus needed 15 riders per hour, it averaged just two an hour, said CDTA’s chief executive, Carm Basile.

Going in, the agency knew “that it wasn’t a transit-supportive environment,” Basile said of the route, explaining there wasn’t the typical urban infrastructure — sidewalks and crosswalks in particular — that deliver potential passengers to a bus. And Route 9 is a major five-lane highway where the speed limit often is 55 mph — not ideal for frequent bus stops.

But the corridor was fixed by the terms of the federal grant, which had been sought by the town of Malta several years ago, Basile said. So the 409 bus exited Route 9 at times for places where riders might be — looping through the village of Round Lake for instance, and a mobile-home park and apartment complex in Malta. That meant the trip — generally 20 minutes by car — lasted an hour.

And in an area like Saratoga County, where the mean travel time to work is 25 minutes, an hour is an eternity. Census data show that Saratoga County commuters are more likely than their counterparts in Albany, Schenectady or Rensselaer counties to drive to work alone. In fact, they’re the least likely commuters in any of the four counties to take public transit, according to the data.

The Brookings Institution, in a survey released this month on transit accessibility in the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, ranked the Albany-Schenectady-Troy metro fairly well: at No. 29. But the report concluded that commuters in U.S. cities generally have more options on transit and jobs than their counterparts in the suburbs — which for the Albany area meant that 55 percent of all jobs were reachable via transit within 90 minutes by city residents, vs. 31 percent of the jobs by suburbanites.

In a separate study, Brookings said the country’s transit networks still mirror 1950s commuting patterns, with cities at the hub, even though jobs and people have spread to the suburbs.

While Malta has sought CDTA bus service from time to time, Supervisor Paul Sausville said he understands that without the necessary density of people and jobs, suburban buses are “not economically viable.” But, he asked, what is the plan for the suburbs if urban areas no longer are the draw they once were and growth continues to spread farther afield, to places like Clifton Park and Malta, which then never reach the critical mass that makes bus service practical?

“At the end of the day, the car is with us,” he said, essentially answering his own question.

Categories: Business

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