Free to Choose the Bus

People ride Centro when it’s the most practical option for getting where they want to go. Problem is, Centro’s not a very practical option for getting to work in a lot of the County, so a lot of people who don’t own cars miss out on a lot of opportunities for employment.

Instead of just making Centro better so that it’s a more practical option for more people to go more places, Onondaga County, Centerstate CEO and New York State are teaming up to offer yet another commuter/vanpool program. Like the Rides-to-Work, Wheels-for-Work, Providence, Lyft programs that came before it, this program is designed to allow employers who are nowhere near a bus stop to hire people who don’t own cars so that those workers can make enough money to purchase a car and keep that job. It’s not a program to help people get to work without a car—it’s a program to get people to buy more cars.

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The thinking behind these programs goes something like this: people are poor because they don’t have jobs, unemployed people can’t get jobs because they don’t have cars, and people don’t have cars because they’re poor. In this vicious circle, poverty, unemployment, and bus ridership all hang together, and the solution is to break that circle by giving people a ride to work just long enough so that they can save up to buy a car. At that point, the car enables employment which creates wealth—the virtuous circle of middle class car-ownership.

But you can’t turn a man from a poor-unemployed-bus-rider into a middle class-working-car-owner just by giving him a ride to work for a few weeks. There just are no necessary connections between class, employment, and transportation. Plenty of employed workers are still poor and still ride the bus (for that matter, a good number of rich workers do too). Buying a car is an economic decision that rational people make after weighing the upfront cost and $3000 annual expense against the opportunities the car can provide. A lot of people in Syracuse have decided that there are better uses for their paychecks than paying down the interest on a car loan.

These programs that give people a ride “until they’re up on their feet” all ultimately fail because they deny working people that choice. They try to make car ownership the only option for full participation in Syracuse’s economic and cultural life—to put a $3000 tax on getting a job in this town. They mistake people’s rational decision to ride the bus for a mark of deviance that has to be removed.

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When too many people can’t find work without a car, when there are too many gaps in bus service, and when too many jobs hide in those gaps, the best way to fix the problem fast is to invest in Centro. Running buses to more of the County and running more buses running on the lines that already exist—making the bus a more practical option for more people to get more places—would expand economic opportunity immediately. In the long term, a County Executive who’s interested in this kind of thing would steer economic development to those places where lots of buses already run—not to an empty business park on Route 31.

Better bus service is the real key to making more jobs more accessible to more people while preserving the freedom of choice that enables people to live car-free. And, by expanding economic opportunity and increasing access to employment, better bus service also gives more people the option to buy their own cars if they want. People in Syracuse need more options so that they can choose for themselves how to get around town, and the bus is best way to provide that freedom.