Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Geography of Saratoga

Streetsblog linked today to an interesting blog post by James Howard Kunstler. I have to confess from the beginning that I haven't read any of Kunstler's books, only a few articles.

In general, however, I agree with his positions that suburban sprawl is unsustainable (and generally feh), subsidizing car infrastructure is a waste of money, and we should be improving our trains and pedestrian facilities. I also agree, in general, with his critique of the transportation politics of his own hometown of Saratoga Springs. It's a critique that applies around the country, including in my own neck of the woods.

Given all that, I was surprised to discover that I know more than Kunstler about rail service to Saratoga. He claims that there is one train a day in each direction, that they're "invariably late, and not just a little late, but hours late," and that there is "no awareness among the public here, or our leaders, that we would benefit from improving the passenger railroad service, and around the state of New York generally there is no conversation about fixing the railroads."

I visited Saratoga four years ago by train, and in some ways the picture is worse than Kunstler paints it. Back when most people arrived at Saratoga by train, the train station was a block from Main Street. They tore up those tracks years ago, and now the trains stop a mile and a half out of town. It's not a particularly nice walk, and neither is the walk to the spa or to Yaddo. Bus service is infrequent, indirect and not tourist-oriented. The Convention and Tourism Bureau and Chamber of Commerce websites give extensive driving directions, but don't mention bus or train service.

In many ways, though, Kunstler's view of train service is inaccurate. There are two trains a day passing through Saratoga in either direction: one from New York City to Montreal and one to Rutland, Vermont, with relatively convenient schedules for tourists. Lateness is a problem on Amtrak, but the trains through Saratoga aren't as late as often as he suggests. Once you get downtown, it's very walkable. When we were there, the city was just building a new station, which subsequently opened with fanfare. There is a conversation about fixing the railroads in New York State; just read the back issues of the ESPA newsletter to find out about it. Based on this, it seems clear that Kunstler rarely, if ever, takes the train.

Okay, so big whoop. Two trains a day! And they're not as late as you think they are! People are talking about railroads, just not enough! I know, I know. There's no question that more could be done to improve transit service and pedestrian infrastructure in Saratoga. The number one thing would be for the city to run a free shuttle bus - with room for luggage - from the train station to downtown every day. There are only four trains; how hard can it be to meet each of them?

The second would be for the state to finally double-track the rail line between Albany and Schenectady. The third would be to extend the double-tracking to Saratoga, and replace the jointed track with continuous welded rail as is used south of Albany.

The City of Saratoga Springs should make a list of the top tourist destinations (ours were the spa, the racetrack/museum and Yaddo; SPAC is right near the spa) and try walking to them (and the train station) from downtown. Most of the walks were fine, but in each case there were a few blocks that were extremely unpleasant. It wouldn't take much to add a few blocks of sidewalks and/or trails.

Finally, I have to add: why no love for the springs themselves? We tasted all the waters, and it was fun! As far as I know, we were the only ones doing that. And the spa was about as elegant and relaxing as taking a hot bath in your high school locker room. Compare that to Karlovy Vary, or even Truth or Consequences, New Mexico!

With all that said, I'd still go back to Saratoga, and I think you should too. If you're not big on horses, go when the races are over for cheaper rates. Stay in one of the awesome Victorian hotels. Drink the waters. Admire the architecture. Shop at the Price Chopper supermarket where the train station used to be. And go by train - it's not that difficult!

Here's a list of bus routes in Saratoga with links to schedules; Routes 471 and 472 connect the train station with Downtown. They leave on the hour and at five minutes after the hour - never mind that the trains don't get there anywhere near that time.

Here are Amtrak timetables in PDF format for the Adirondack and the Ethan Allen Express.

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