You arrive in Syracuse on a brand new high speed train. The trip back from Buffalo was less than 90 minutes—way faster than the 2 and a quarter hours it used to take before New York State built high speed rail. You caught up on some tv on the ride and are ready to get home for dinner.
Getting home’s the problem though. Obviously, you don’t live within walking distance of the train station—no one does. The woman next to you is waving down a cab, the student visiting home from UB is waiting for his Mom to come pick him up from Auburn, and you’re staring down a 45 minute bus ride with transfer. The three mile trip to your house will take half as long at the 150 trip from Buffalo.
High speed rail could transform intercity transportation in New York, giving people a faster, more comfortable, and more frequent option to get across the State. But for people to actually ride those trains, it’s going to have to be a whole lot easier to get to the station in the first place. Right now, too many Upstate Amtrak stations are in no-man’s land, surrounded by acres of asphalt and empty lots. At the same time, too few Amtrak stations are connected to the cities they serve by robust public transportation. New York State and its cities have to fix both problems if high speed rail is really going to live up to its promise.
More Housing around Stations
Syracuse’s Amtrak station is in the middle of a sea of asphalt, under the shadow of a highway, next to a cold storage warehouse, and half a mile from the nearest house. The situation’s not much better at any of Upstate’s other train stations: rivers separate Albany and Rome from their stations, Buffalo’s is underneath 190, and Amsterdam’s is almost in the country. Only Rochester, Utica, and Schenectady have stations within walking distance of a lot of people’s homes.
These maps (from UVA's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service) show people's homes as black dots and Amtrak stations as red dots. Too many stations are in places where no one lives.
Since every single train trip starts and ends on foot, it would be better if more people could live within walking distance of all of these train stations. Syracuse’s City Hall thinks so too, which is why the 2012 Land Use & Development Plan cited the potential for high speed rail as a reason to encourage development on all the “vacant or underutilized property” around the train station, and it’s why the ReZone project is going to allow new housing to be built in that area.
In other cities, Amtrak could accomplish the same thing by just moving its stations to places where people already live. In Amsterdam, shifting the station about a mile East would put it in the middle of town instead of the City’s outskirts. In Albany, a similarly short move would get the station across the Hudson River and within walking distance of downtown.
Better Public Transportation at Stations
But not every place worth going can be within walking distance of a train station, so people arriving in any city by train will also need options to get around the city itself. Mainly, they need high quality public transportation.
Every Upstate train station (except Amsterdam) is served by passable public transportation. It’s not frequent enough, not connected enough, and not fast enough, and it needs to be better. At the very least, that means actually linking the new Amtrak station to Metro Rail in Buffalo, adopting something like the Reimagine RTS plan in Rochester, building the three proposed bus rapid transit lines in Syracuse, and building the Blue and Purple BusPlus lines in Albany.
But why settle for the very least? Every single city in New York—from NYC to Buffalo—needs better public transportation. They all need more buses and more drivers serving more riders in more neighborhoods, some cities even need more trains, and that simply means that the State needs to put more money into the STOA and MTOA. It’s one of the most effective things that the Governor could do to make high speed rail successful, and it’s one of the best things that he could do to make New York State a better place to live.
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When people travel between Upstate’s cities, they’re going home, or visiting a friend, or getting to work—no one is just trying to get between train stations. So while faster, more frequent, more reliable rail service would make it a lot easier for people to travel between Upstate’s cities, we also need to make sure that it’s easy to get from any train station to all the different places that those people actually want to go. That means more housing and more destinations within walking distance of those stations, and it means better local transit service connecting entire cities to their train stations.