September 21, 2017

Albany Public Library Partners with Transportation Authority

Members of library staff, board, and partners celebrate the unveiling of Albany Public Library’s Bike Fixit Stations with a cross-city ride.
Photo credit: Dana Willbanks, APL

New York’s Albany Public Library (APL) has partnered with Hudson Valley Community College; the city’s public school system; Youth FX, a filmmaking program for teens in Albany’s underserved areas; and local musicians for its “Reading Music” challenge. But over the past couple of years, APL has also formed an alliance with a city agency that isn’t often associated with the library—the Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA)—on several innovative programs designed to bring library workers and patrons to its branches by bus and bike.

In addition to establishing a series of bike repair stations partially funded by the Capital District Transportation Committee (CDTC)—the designated Metropolitan Planning Organization for the Albany-Schenectady-Troy and Saratoga Springs metropolitan areas, which writes policy and disburses grants—and an upcoming bike share program in which the library is a partner, APL helped CDTA pilot its new Navigator smart cards and became a vendor of the cards once they were instituted. Together, APL and CDTA subsidize cards for library staff members so they can ride the bus to work free of charge.

NAVIGATING THE NAVIGATOR

In 2010, seven-branch APL completed its $29.1 million Branch Improvement Plan, renovating three buildings and constructing two new branches. For all five buildings, access to public transportation was a critical part of the planning process. Every branch currently has a bus stop in front of it, and a significant portion of cardholders and staff are bus riders.

Shortly before former APL librarian Scott Jarzombek returned as executive director in 2014, the library had applied for a grant to redo the sidewalk leading up to its main library, the Washington Avenue Branch. At the same time, CDTA was discussing relocating the bus stop serving the library—at one of the city’s busiest and most dangerous intersections—to the front of the building. CDTA was holding a series of public forum meetings about recent work and asked to hold them at the library.

“And that started the conversation,” Jarzombek recalled. As it turned out, he had known CDTA director of planning Ross Farrell for years, and the two started talking—not only about the bus stop but also about other ways the library and CDTA could work together.

“People may not think immediately of transportation and libraries coming together as a partnership, but for us it makes good sense,” CDTA communications manager Jaime Watson told LJ. “The main branch is on one of our main routes…. A lot of our customers are their customers. But also they’re just a great partner to have in the community, because they share the same values that we do when it comes to community partnerships, they understand the value of it.”

One of the authority’s projects in development at the time was the Navigator, a multiuse prepayment bus pass that lets customers load cash onto cards either online or at a register, then tap the card on a reader in the bus to pay their fare. CDTA was looking for a few organizations to pilot the program before it went live, and Jarzombek pointed out that library staff would be ideal test run subjects: many of them commute by bus, and librarians are comfortable rolling out new technology.

Library staff beta tested the Navigator card for several months beginning in November 2015, providing CDTA with detailed feedback—most of it positive. All pilot participants, including those from other organizations, were sent to APL locations to “recharge” their Navigator cards at library service desks.

The Navigator card program was successfully launched in January. Library workers have continued to use their cards at no cost as part of a “Universal Access” partnership between the library and CDTA: APL covers the cost of the passes, which CDTA offers at a reduced rate. The library sees 300–400 bus pass uses a month, said Jarzombek.

“As an urban library, we have a lot of issues with parking, and we know specifically at our Washington Avenue branch that most of our parking is taken up by administrative and front line staff,” he told LJ. “We saw this as a great way to give staff a perk…[and] to get our staff to start using mass transportation.”

For those without cars, the pass is more than just a perk. “Having gone straight from school (where I got a free student pass) to working at the library (where I get a free employee pass), [I’ve found the pass] really convenient and [it] saved me a lot of money,” noted Pine Hills Branch clerk Claudia McGrew. “I don’t have a car, but I find that I can get pretty much everywhere I need to go by taking the bus.”

APL is not only a user of Navigator passes but also a vendor. Cards can be purchased at all branches, as well as at local supermarkets and retail stores. APL receives a four percent cut—“Not a huge amount,” noted Jarzombek, “but it’s revenue.”

Some staff members were concerned about introducing a new item into the circulation process, he said, but for the most part the integration has gone well. “Our patrons are very appreciative that we have [Navigator] available for them,” said Howe Branch clerk Ray Bono. “They say it’s very convenient to be able to stop by the library and pick up a pass, especially since most of our locations are right on or near a bus line.”

“Libraries are all about the sharing economy,” Jarzombek said. “More and more, people are challenging their governments and community organizations to work together to deliver the services they need in a cost effective and collaborative environment. By partnering with CDTA to sell Navigator passes to bus riders and giving Universal Access to our staff, the library is fostering social good while having a positive economic and environmental impact on our community.”

The Washington Avenue Branch building will see some of the positive effects of the partnership as well. The library is using CDTA’s bus stop relocation as an opportunity to repair, repaint, and generally spruce up the building’s facade.

BICYCLE RIDERS ARE COMING TO TOWN

APL was already ahead of the curve when it comes to Albany’s bicycle riders. In May 2016, the library partnered with the Albany Bicycle Coalition to install a series of bike repair stations at library branches. Manufactured by the Dero bike rack company, the Bike Fixit Stations carry all the tools riders need to do basic maintenance on their bicycles—such as changing a flat or adjusting brakes and gears. Tools and air pump are securely attached to the stands with stainless steel cables, and the stands have hanger arms that allow users to raise the bicycles so the wheels can spin freely.

Currently five of the seven APL libraries have repair stations—three paid for by CDTC and two by Capital Roots, a community gardening organization. By the end of the summer, a sixth location will be up and running.

But CDTA had its own bicycle plans in the works: a partnership with the Capital District Physicians’ Health Plan (CDPHP) to establish CDPHP Cycle!, a bike-share program throughout Albany, Schenectady, Troy, and Saratoga Springs. CDPHP Cycle! launched on July 27; users can deploy a bike from 41 rental stations across the four-county service area.

The program’s headquarters are right in the center of Albany, operating out of the third floor of APL’s Washington Avenue branch. CDPHP Cycle! rents office space from the library, as well as storage space in the building’s large basement, where it will store, maintain, and repair its fleet of 160 bicycles—expected to expand to 300 by next summer.

“When I came on the job, one of my goals was to find alternative means of income,” explained Jarzombek. “We’re a taxing district and that’s fantastic. However, we knew that we needed to find new ways to make money.” The library’s footprint and location—near one of CDTA’s most popular transit routes—combined to make it an ideal place to host a project like CDPHP Cycle!

The bike share partnership, added Watson, “started out as casual conversations, but then as we continued those conversations, we finally said, ‘You know what, this makes perfect sense for both CDTA and [its] customers and for the library and [its] customers…. Let’s make this happen.’”

“OUT THERE SHAKING HANDS”

Constantly finding new organizations to partner with is a matter of networking, Jarzombek told LJ. The library is “always out in the community; we table at a lot of events, we sit on some citywide committees, and we make sure that we reach out to them. We’re a very out-facing organization, we always have been. So people look to us a lot.”

The library often offers space to local nonprofit organizations, added Jarzombek, and he, his assistant director, or his head of outreach are almost always present at these events. “We’re out there shaking hands and having conversations. We try to be as accommodating as possible, and I think that’s really appreciated by these organizations. One thing I’ve always been told is that when they partner with us, we’re the easiest partners. We’re the most professional partners. And because of that, that makes other organizations want to work with us in the future, and also want to grow their programs with us.”

Watson agrees. “The library is such a critical partner for us, not only because we share the same community values, but they’re so easy to work with, they’re so progressive, they think outside the box, and CDTA prides themselves on that as well.” She added, “I just can’t say enough about Scott and his team at the library, how great they are to work with.” Not only has CDTA brought public transit to the library but this summer it will also bring the library into public transit, promoting APL’s summer reading program with advertisements inside city buses.

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Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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