The Promise of the 20-Minute City

Ask some people, and they’ll tell you that the best thing about Syracuse is that it’s a ‘20-Minute City.’ They mean that you can get between any two points in Onondaga County—from Fayetteville to Fairmount, from Liverpool to Lafayette—in 20 minutes or less. This was part of Syracuse’s pitch to get Amazon’s HQ2, it’s part of how the City’s suburbs keep making ‘Best Places to Live’ lists, it’s a big part of the debate around the Downtown I81 viaduct.

Because it’s quick and easy to get to anywhere from anywhere, the 20-Minute City provides people with opportunity. No matter where you work, you can choose to live in any neighborhood. No matter where your live, you can attend any church, your kids can go to any school that will take them, you can visit any attraction. In the 20-Minute City, distance can’t constrain people making those kinds of decisions.

But—and this rarely ever gets acknowledged—all of that is only true if you own a car. Syracuse has been sprawling out for decades, and now everything is so spread out that a lot of people travel twenty or thirty miles just to run their daily errands. No one could reasonably walk or bike those distances, and buses don’t even run to much of the County. In the 20-minute City, opportunity requires a car.

And that means that the 20-minute City doesn’t offer equal access to opportunity. Kids don’t own cars, and as a result are totally dependent on their parents for rides to school, practice, friends’ houses. Plenty of adults don’t own cars either—they don’t have a license, they don’t want the expense, they can’t drive. There are thousands of people in Syracuse in the same situation for all kinds of different reasons, and none of them are free to fully participate in the 20-minute City.

For years, local government has responded to this problem in two different ways. The first—and most direct—response has been to get those people into cars. Onondaga County’s Rides-to-Work program subsidized cab fare for people commuting to work, and its Wheels-for-Work program actually bought cars for people who couldn’t bus, bike, or walk to work in the 20-Minute City. The same idea motivated the County’s support for Providence Services, it inspired a pilot program to subsidize Lyft rides for certain commuters, and it lurks behind the Post-Standard’s position that app-taxis should replace Centro.

All of these ideas have had some success—some people did get to own a car, some people do ride to work with Providence Services, and some people do use Uber to get around town—but none of them has ever been able to provide everybody with the car-dependent-opportunity that the 20-minute City promises. Onondaga County cancelled it’s direct car-subsidy programs because of cost, Providence Services gives rides to 45 people, and Uber is simply too expensive for the poorest people to use everyday (even with billions of dollars of private subsidy from venture capitalists).

The second and more widespread response has been to shoehorn pedestrians, bikes, and buses into spaces designed exclusively for cars. That’s how you get a new crosswalk at the intersection of 57 and John Glenn, bike lanes on the shoulders of the Onondaga Lake Parkway, and buses that loop through the parking lots of strip malls in the suburbs.

 

None of the new pedestrian or bike infrastructure is any good. That John Glenn crosswalk doesn’t connect to a sidewalk on one side, and bikers on the Parkway have no real protection from speeding cars.

More to the point, that infrastructure does nothing to change the land-use patterns that make life so difficult for people who get around without a car. In the 20-Minute City, homes, schools, churches, and workplaces in a community can all be miles away from each other—separated by distances that no person could cover on a bike, much less on foot, even with the very best bike lane or sidewalk.

It’s not any better for buses. Centro’s system map makes it seem like just about the whole County is accessible by bus, but just try to actually get to Jordan, or Central Square, or Lafayette. Those places only see a couple of buses a day, so it’s not actually practical to reach them except at a few very specific times. That constraint means that people often can’t actually get to work from those places, and so they don’t really have the opportunity to live in those places.

 

At the same time, the very fact that Centro is running buses all the way out to those little villages means that there are fewer buses running on the lines where people could actually use them. Even Centro’s best bus lines stop running for about an hour during the middle of the day. The vast majority see that kind of service gap all the time. Centro’s existing insufficient budget just can’t buy enough vehicles and pay enough operators to run buses all over the County and to provide quality service in the neighborhoods where lots of people really do ride the bus. People rely on this barely passable service, and starving it of resources robs them of opportunity.

The 20-minute City fails to actually provide the opportunity that it promises. Opportunity, but only if you own a car. Anybody who can’t or won’t accept that ridiculous condition is stuck in a city that ignores their needs, that treats them like a problem to be fixed, that asks why they can’t just get with the program and start driving around like everybody else.

Syracuse needs a better idea of what opportunity should look like and what that means for the 20-minute city. Instead of a place that can get a car anywhere in the county in 20 minutes or less, Syracuse needs to be a place where everybody is within 20 minutes of all their daily needs, no matter how they choose to travel.

This new orientation emphasizes location, distance, and variety where the current 20-minute city ignores all of that in favor of parking lots and wide roads. It’s the difference between a neighborhood like Eastwood where people can walk to the drug store, post-office, and library, bike to the grocery store and school, and catch a bus to work, and a neighborhood like Radisson where all of those same things are perfectly accessible, but only after a 5, 10, or 20 minute drive.

If Syracuse is really going to be a City where everybody has equal opportunity, then it needs more neighborhoods like Eastwood and fewer like Radisson. More neighborhoods where businesses mix with homes, more neighborhoods where small lots and apartment buildings make it so lots of people can live within walking distance of those businesses and the bus stop, more neighborhoods where lots of buses actually serve that bus stop all day, and more neighborhoods where it’s safe, convenient, and pleasant to walk or bike around at all.

 

None of this should be controversial. It’s what so many people want for their neighborhoods already. We just have to actually make it happen. That means zoning reform, road redesign, and better bus service in those neighborhoods where the new 20-minute City is possible. It also means that when Syracuse builds new neighborhoods—like it’s trying to do at the Inner Harbor, under the viaduct, and at Pioneer Homes—those places need to be places of opportunity for all people from the very beginning.

The promise of the old 20-minute City dominates a lot of people’s hopes for Syracuse. It’s a place where people enjoy boundless opportunity, boundless choice—where no one decision about where to live or where to work or where to shop has any effect on any other decision because all things and all places are equally accessible from anywhere. But that version of the 20-minute City is, at its root, exclusionary. It only works for people who have achieved or accepted car-dependency, and so it only works for some of the people who actually live in Syracuse. The new 20-minute City modifies that promise and makes it equally accessible to all people—no matter where you are and no matter how you get around, you will have the opportunity to make a full life in Syracuse.