Coronavirus and the Bus

Crises reveal what really matters. Work that used to be forgotten is now understood to be essential. Workers who used to be taken for granted are now recognized as heroes—fighting on the frontlines against this global pandemic—the hospitals, the nursing homes, the garbage routes, the checkout counters.

Renewed appreciation for these people and the work that they do is shaking up Syracuse’s ideas about what makes the City work. When Syracuse started social distancing, a lot of people expected Centro to cut its service. After all, demand was bound to go down, and anyways, no one really rides the bus, right?

Instead, the entire community is learning just how much Syracuse needs the bus. While big cities like Chicago and Boston have seen 75% drops in transit use, Centro’s ridership has only dropped 55%. And the people who are still on the bus are the ones getting Syracuse through this crisis. As Centro spokesman Steve Koegel pointed out, the remaining bus riders are often in uniform: “A lot of people are wearing hospital garb. It’s visible those are the people using our service. They are critical-need workers.”

So while the buses remained full of heroes riding to work in the hospitals, and highway interchanges went empty, our transportation priorities shifted. The federal stimulus included $21.5 million for Centro, a necessary lifeline for a perennially underfunded service. After years of getting cut out of budget deals, left to languish with declining local, state, and federal support, this crisis shook people up and made them realize that Syracuse needs a functioning public transportation system to survive.

But the risk is that once this crisis is over, once we’ve moved from dealing with a global pandemic to managing its economic aftershock, the people in power will forget that lesson and go back to business as usual—back to neglecting the basic necessities that made it possible for the City to get through this, back to starving the bus.

We can’t let it happen. We need to come out of this smarter than when we went in, with a greater appreciation for what makes life in Syracuse livable. That means a new commitment to the services that support the people who do Syracuse’s most essential work—it means better bus service.