Smart City, SMART Buses

City Hall plans to buy all of Syracuse’s streetlights. That will save about $2 million every year, so it’s a no-brainer for a city government staring down bankruptcy. But City Hall will get more than just savings—it will also get control of a network of electrical outlets and poles that stretches across the entire City. City Hall can use this new resource to install a smart city technology called ‘signal priority’ that will improve Centro’s bus service. 

Signal priority lets a traffic light know when a bus is coming. Then, the traffic light can respond to that real-time information by making a minor adjustment to its cycle—staying green a few seconds longer, say, so that the bus can make it through the intersection—so that buses spend less time stuck at red lights.

This means a bus can get across town faster. Minneapolis started using signal priority, and its buses increased their average speed by 4-15%. In Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles the buses got 8-10% faster. That allows riders to spend less time sitting on the bus and more time doing whatever it is they’re on their way to do.

Faster buses are also more frequent buses. Take the 168 bus. Its first run leaves Shoppingtown at 6:02 am and arrives at the Hub at 6:35 am before continuing on as the 364 bus. That’s a 33 minute trip, but with signal priority it might only take 30 minutes. Then, that same bus and driver can leave the Hub three minutes earlier to start the 364 run. If that run is 10% faster too, then the driver can turn around and come back to the Hub even earlier to start a new 168 run.

All that saved time means that the driver and bus are free to make more runs in a single shift. Since the biggest cost of any run is the driver’s pay, that means Centro can run more buses without spending hardly any extra money.

This isn’t to say that Centro should have to pay for all of its service improvements by scrimping and saving the money it’s already got. It—and every other public transportation authority in New York State—needs better dedicated funding in order to offer people the freedom to live without a car, to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and to build stronger communities.

But that’s up to New York State and the federal government. Transit signal priority is something that City Hall can do on its own to improve life in Syracuse now. It’s an innovative use of this new municipal resource, and it should be one of the very first acts that this new smart city takes.