Centro’s new CEO, Brain Schultz, wants to start running a “Downtown Circulator.” That could mean two different things—one good, one bad—and what form this plan takes will say a lot about whether or not this new CEO is up to the task of building the kind of public transit system that Syracuse needs and deserves.
Centro hasn’t provided many details, but it sounds like they’re considering a new bus route like what they run for Winterfest and the Downtown Living Tour—one that will run in a rough circle and provide door-to-door service for several specific destinations.
“Mr. Schultz’s ambitious vision includes a Downtown Circulator bus to help the growing number of Syracuse residents easily move from one end of the city to the other, including service to the soon-to-be-opened Salt City Market.”
This kind of service is almost never useful because very few people will wait for the circulator to show up. If only one bus is running the loop, then time spent waiting for it to pick you up will account for more than half of the length of most trips. That makes a circulator extremely unhelpful for the kinds of short trips that are supposed to be its focus. Want to get from the Clinton Square tree lighting to Armory Square for a drink? Waiting for the circulator could take anywhere from 0 to 13 minutes, but it’s just 7 minutes by foot. Why wait when it’s faster to just walk?
The essential problem is that a bus route designed to serve a single neighborhood as small as Downtown is necessarily very short, but a route like that is too short to be useful to the people in that neighborhood. Centro was clear, they want a bus route that’s useful for people trying to move around Downtown, but if they try to do that by targeting the service too exclusively on Downtown they’ll end up with something that’s not even useful for that narrow purpose.
A better model is the Chicago Loop (a piece of transit infrastructure so iconic that they call the central part of the city The Loop instead of Downtown). There, multiple elevated rail lines meet and run along a set of common tracks that loop around the city’s center, all serving the same 8 stops. If you’re in the Loop and trying to catch any one of these trains, any station will do. That means less walking for riders, it means that businesses that want access to transit can locate anywhere in the Loop, and it means that the trains don’t get overwhelmed by people all trying to board at a single downtown stop.
All those benefits improve service for everyone who rides any of these trains—most of whom are travelling to or from a station outside the Loop—but they’re structured in a way that also creates specific benefits for people who are riding between stations within the Loop. All those lines serving the same stops means that a train is never more than a couple of minutes away. That’s the kind of frequency that makes the Loop useful for people just making short trips between its closely-spaced stations.
The Chicago Loop is a good model for running useful transit in Syracuse’s compact city center. It would be simple to modify existing plans for a Bus Rapid Transit network so that every line serves multiple common Downtown stations—Clinton Square, Salina/Jefferson, and the Hub, say. This would put all of Downtown within easy walking distance of every single BRT line, and it would allow riders to access any BRT line from any Downtown station.
This would also create a Downtown corridor with extremely frequent service. Say there are 6 BRT lines and each runs every 12 minutes. That means service every 2 minutes. With such short wait times, it actually would actually make sense to ride the half mile from Clinton Square to the Hub, especially if it were cold or rainy and the short wait for a bus could happen in a safe, climate controlled station.
The difference between these two models is that the downtown circulator tries to do one extremely specific thing for a very small group of people and fails, while the Chicago Loop is about improving the entire transit network in such a way that it works for everybody, including that small group of people that the downtown circulator was supposed to serve.
The way that Centro hired Brian Schultz has raised a lot of questions. Is he fully focused on Centro? Does he have the qualifications to run a transit agency? Is he the right person for the job? How he chooses between these two models as he implements this new Downtown service—and, hopefully, a lot of other service improvements as well—will go a long way to answering those questions.