Writing ReZone for Better Bus Service

Buses work best where there are lots of people, businesses, and institutions all within walking distance of each other. Zoning laws that allow a mix of people, businesses, and institutions work best in places with good bus service. Transportation planning and land use planning go hand in hand.

In Syracuse, the left hand doesn’t seem to know what the right hand is doing. Take ReZone, City Hall’s once-in-a-generation rewrite of the City’s zoning ordinance. It grants a 30% reduction in off-street parking requirements for lots within .25 miles of a public ‘transportation terminal,’ but it doesn’t define what a transportation terminal is. The 2012 Land Use & Development Plan—upon which ReZone is based—suggests that ReZone is talking about stations on a Bus Rapid Transit network:

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The 2014 Syracuse Transit System Analysis identified six “major transportation corridors” for improved bus service, but it did not identify any “fixed stations” along them. The Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council’s SMART1 report does identify station locations, but only for two BRT lines.


It’s anyone’s guess, though, when and if Centro will actually run that BRT service. The fixed stations identified in the SMART1 report don’t actually exist yet, and if the Common Council turned ReZone into law tomorrow, there would be no clear ‘transportation terminals’ in the City to trigger the ordinance’s 30% parking requirement reduction.


In the meantime, City Hall’s very reluctance to zone for transit is affecting Centro’s ability to offer the service. Centro is going to need money from the Federal Transportation Administration in order to build out this BRT network, and the FTA takes a city’s land use policies into account when it decides whether or not to fund a project there. According to the STSA, Syracuse’s current zoning policies hurt its chances of getting funding from the FTA.

Even worse, City Hall keeps revising ReZone in ways that will make Centro’s life harder. One glaring example is the area around the Regional Transportation Center. The RTC is supposed to be the last stop on one of SMART1’s BRT lines. The first ReZone draft would have allowed housing and businesses on all of the parking lots around there, but the current draft actually bans new housing in the area—how’s that for TOD?

Less obviously, each new draft of ReZone has reduced housing opportunity along the corridors that the STSA picked out for BRT service. Around N Salina, Solar, W Fayette, and W Genesee Streets, City Hall has amended its zoning map to either ban or minimize residential development in the very areas where SMTC and Centro are planning to provide better bus service.


The idea of a TOD-overlay makes sense, but it’s impossible to implement while planning for that BRT service is independent from the ReZone project—the overlay won’t come into effect until the BRT service starts running, and the BRT service is difficult to plan until the overlay comes into effect. It’s a catch-22.

City Hall, Centro, and SMTC can fix this with a little cooperation. All three organizations need to get together and narrow the STSA’s transportation corridors to specific streets. City Hall has already said that it wants the eastern half of the Camillus-Fayetteville corridor to run along Erie Boulevard. It shouldn’t be so hard to make similar decisions for the rest of the corridors—will that line’s western half run on Fayette or W Genesee? Will the Northside-Western Lights line run on Gifford or Onondaga? Where will the buses stop?

Once they’ve agreed on specific streets where BRT service would run, the ReZone project team will have enough information to write transit-supportive zoning policies into the new ordinance without relying on an unnecessarily complicated mechanism like the ‘proximity to transit’ parking reduction. That means making all lots within .25 miles of the planned BRT stations MX-4 or R-4—zoning classifications that allow enough housing to mix with businesses and institutions so that people can meet their daily needs on foot.

The project team should also eliminate all minimum parking requirements from ReZone.

These changes won’t cost a penny, they will make land more valuable, and they will lay the groundwork for better bus service in the future.