What Are Buses For?

During a March 22 hearing on public transportation in Syracuse, local legislators asked over and over again why Centro isn’t doing more to get people to work. Assemblymember Pam Hunter asked how more frequent service would help her constituents if it didn’t give them access to jobs in the suburbs, State Senator Rachel May asked why Centro doesn’t use smaller vehicles to provide tailored service for specific employers, and Assemblymember Bill Magnarelli went so far as to suggest that employers should pay Centro directly to get better service for their employees. Through the entire hearing, these legislators assumed that the point of public transportation is to get workers to their jobs—an assumption that Rick Lee, Centro’s CEO, affirmed when he described public transportation as a series of routes that get people to and from work.

That’s an understandable assumption and an understandable focus. The issue at top of so many people’s minds is getting and keeping a job, and a lot of people need Centro in order to do that. One third of people living in Syracuse do not own a car, and two out of every three people who responded to SMTC’s 2018 survey ride the bus to get to work.

But that’s not all the bus is for. That same survey showed that one of every two people ride the bus to go shopping, one of every two use it to keep appointments, one of every four ride Centro to get to school, and one of every four ride the bus for ‘recreation.’

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People in Syracuse who commute by bus choose to do so because, for them, it is the best option—in many cases, the only real option—for traveling any kind of distance in the City. People who ride the bus to work also ride the bus to get around the City to do the various things they do every day, and Centro needs to meet all those needs.

That survey also showed that one third of people who ride the bus do not use it to get to work at all. These might be people who walk, bike, or carpool to work. It might be people who are retired or who are too young to have a job. It might be people who work from home or who do necessary work in the home even if nobody pays them for it. It doesn’t matter why they’re not commuting by bus, what matters is that the bus is still an important part of their daily lives, those lives have value, and Centro needs to meet their needs too.

It’s never a bad thing to ask about how any government service can fight poverty in Syracuse. People in the City need paying jobs, and they need to be able to get to those jobs. But that narrow focus on commuting misses the full and necessary role that Centro plays in so many people’s daily lives.

Buses need to run where people will ride them—sometimes for work, but also for school, for groceries, for appointments, for church, or whatever else it is that some person needs to get done in their day. When Centro provides reliable frequent service to those neighborhoods, then businesses and people seriously concerned about bus access will choose to locate in them. Buses-for-commuting will be the same as buses-for-shopping and buses-for-visiting-family, because the bus will be a viable means to living daily life. After all, that’s what buses are for.