In Syracuse, local politicians are doing all they can to expand economic opportunity. At the same time, politicians in the State government are working to eliminate New York’s carbon footprint by 2050. These two groups of politicians—along with the activists and organizations that support them—should partner to advocate for better public transportation in Syracuse. A high-quality regional-wide service would expand economic opportunity by making more jobs more accessible to more people, and it would fight climate change by taking cars off the road. Working together as a pro-transit coalition, groups interested in each of these outcomes would provide Centro with the political support it needs in order to make this kind of service a reality.
The Status Quo
As it stands, Centro has very little political support. Nobody at the City, County, State, or Federal level values bus service enough to shift money from highways to public transportation, so every year Centro has to go begging for the money just to keep its buses running. That gets enough people riled up that Albany will push a couple million dollars Centro’s way—just enough to fill the deficit—and then the exact same thing happens all over again the next year
Without the political power to fund service improvements, Centro has crafted its planning process to make them impossible. SMART1—the most recent proposal to improve public transportation in Syracuse—focused almost exclusively on service within the City. That’s because when Centro plans transit service, it uses demand models that look like this:
According to this model, enough people live and work in the blue areas to justify improved transit service. The light blue areas can justify rapid buses, the medium areas can justify light rail, and the dark blue areas can justify heavy rail.
But this demand model assumes that any new transit service has to justify its existence by first attracting a certain number of riders. That means that good service can only run where lots of people already ride the bus, ignoring the fact that people choose to ride the bus in those areas because Centro runs relatively good service there. It also means that the areas where people don’t use public transportation can’t get better service even though low ridership is caused, at least in part, by how bad the service is right now. By ignoring the effect that the quality of service has on ridership, Centro is able to justify its barely passable service, and it avoids politically impossible requests for more funding. The result is too little economic opportunity and too many cars on the road.
A coalition of economic opportunity and environmental advocates could turn that logic on its head. When you recognize transit as a necessary tool in the twin fights against poverty and climate change, low ridership is a challenge to overcome rather than a sign to give up. The emerging pro-transit coalition should respond to low ridership by improving service in order to make more jobs more accessible and to better compete with car travel. Those improvements would attract more ridership, getting more people to work and taking more cars off the road.
Transit for the Whole Region
It’s not easy to run attractive transit service in suburbs where people and jobs are spread thinly over a very large area, but in the book Transport for Suburbia, Paul Mees describes how Zurich’s network of city rail lines and suburban bus routes accomplishes the task by making connections between the trains and buses simple, convenient, and cheap. Easy connections integrate each line into the larger network. That allows public transportation to cover the entire metropolitan area, and it gives riders the same freedom that they’d have in a private car.
For Centro, that could start with a fast frequent regional rail system connecting Syracuse to Auburn, Fulton, Oswego, and Cortland. Much of the infrastructure already exists parallel to the slow infrequent coach buses that Centro already runs.
Complemented by well-timed connecting bus lines—extending to Ithaca, say, or linking suburban communities and job centers along major roads like Route 31 and Taft Road—this service would open the entire region to travel without a car, increasing economic opportunity and reducing carbon emissions at the same time.
Political Support is Fundamental
This service—or something like it designed by actual transportation planners—won’t come cheap. It will cost money to acquire new rights of way, to buy new buses and trains, to hire enough operators to run them frequently, to time them precisely.
For Centro’s entire history, that kind of spending has been unthinkable. The money will have to come from the State or from the Federal Government, and that means that it will have to come at the expense of some other government program—highways, maybe. Good public transportation is a political choice, and it can’t come about unless people with power value it more than they value the other things that also require government funding.
That may finally have changed. Now that the environment and economic opportunity have moved up to the top of the agenda in Syracuse and in New York State, there may finally be a coalition broad enough and powerful enough to make public transportation a priority in this City. We can finally stop treating public transportation like a ‘program’ that’s only funded grudgingly, when all other options are exhausted and only at the bare minimum. Can we finally stop spending billions on highway expansion while ignoring million dollar plans for better bus service. We can finally take public transportation seriously as an opportunity to achieve New York’s loftiest goals.