University Students and Public Transportation

In 2015 when Centro thought it would have to cut late-night and weekend service, plenty of people turned out for a Syracuse Common Council meeting to tell about how those changes would make their lives harder. The people who got up to speak at that meeting talked about things like working the third shift at hospitals and nursing homes, relying on the bus to overcome physical disability, greenhouse gases, and getting to church on the South Side. Those people represented the political coalition between workers, the disabled, environmentalists, and the poor that supports public transportation in Syracuse today.

University students would be natural members of that coalition. Nationally, students make of 24% of all transit users in urban areas with populations between 200,000 and 999,999. In Syracuse, people living in student neighborhoods like University Hill and the Near Eastside are less likely to own a car and more likely to commute by bus or by foot than people living in other Syracuse neighborhoods of comparable wealth. Syracuse University students ride Centro in huge numbers, particularly to get between South Campus, University Hill, and Downtown. Despite all that, no students got up at that meeting to voice their support for Centro.

Even though no students spoke, the University was a topic of discussion at the meeting. Councilor Khalid Bey asked Centro’s CEO, Frank Kobliski, whether or not Syracuse University paid Centro enough money to cover the operating costs of all those buses that run between University Hill and South Campus. That question got a lot of people grumbling, and one person shouted out, “they have more money than god!” Once Mr. Kobliski had the opportunity to respond, though, he surprised everyone by letting them know that the University overpays for the bus service it gets from Centro.

Syracuse University overpays for its buses because it treats Centro not as a public service, but as a charter bus company. It contracts with Centro to provide free service to its students as they travel between South Campus, University Hill, and Downtown. This means that students ride Centro buses in huge numbers, but they’re not riding truly public transportation.

This dampens student support for Centro. When reporting on Centro, the Daily Orange always distinguishes those special student buses from Centro’s public service. So in 2015 when Centro was considering those late-night and weekend service cuts, the Daily Orange wrote “the direct effect on SU students would remain small,” and no students turned out to advocate on Centro’s behalf. Later that year, when Congress voted to cut Centro’s funding by $12 million, the Daily Orange made the students’ position even more explicit:

“If the mass budget cuts currently facing Centro continue and affect on-campus busing, Syracuse University must take a firm stance to oppose the cuts and defend transportation resources for the university community… However, the university should only offer its support if cuts would directly impact bus service on the SU campus. The university’s priority should be to ensure these resources remain available to those on campus, and it does not have a financial responsibility nor obligation to ensure the bill prevents wide-scale change, affecting the city of Syracuse.”

That’s Centro’s political problem. As long as Syracuse University students receive specialized bus service from the University, they will think of it as a private good to be secured by paying tuition. That stance divides students from the majority of Centro riders who use the bus as a public good that must be secured by political action and advocacy. These opposing stances divide Centro’s natural base of political support and keep a large and powerful bloc of people who rely on transit in Syracuse from acting collectively on its behalf.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Bus riders in Syracuse don’t need to resent University students, and students don’t have to think of their interests as separate from the Syracuse community. Both groups rely on public services like Centro buses, and if they could be a potent political force in Upstate New York if they acted cooperatively.

Intercity transit service could change that status quo by providing a service that’s highly beneficial to Syracuse University and its students, but impossible for the University to build or pay for all on its own. A truly public transportation service connecting Hancock International Airport, the Regional Transportation Center, Centro’s Bus Hub, Syracuse University, Cortland, Cornell University, and Ithaca would benefit both students and transit riders, it would put them both in the same vehicle, and it would give them common cause to advocate for that service.

Both Centro riders and Syracuse University students depend on the presence of public or quasi-public services in a region where the middle and upper classes pride themselves on being entirely independent of such services. The travesty is that the University provides its students with those services at high but hidden cost, and that by segregating those services, the University divides what should be a natural alliance and kills support for truly public services. It will take a lot of work to overcome the institutional barriers that segregate students from City residents, but Chancellor Nancy Cantor took a first step with the Connective Corridor and her Scholarship In Action philosophy. Chancellor Kent Syverud plans to go further by moving student housing from South Campus to the City’s center. A truly public intercity transit service can do more of that same work, strengthening the whole City by aligning the interests of the people who live in it.

This is part of a series about a potential transit service serving Syracuse, Cortland and Ithaca. Here are links to the rest of the series:
Transit Service Between the Airport, Syracuse, Cortland, and Ithaca
Learning from OnTrack
Uniting Communities through Transit