The high costs of low-frequency bus service

Low-frequency bus service entails enormous costs—both economic and social—and those costs go unaccounted for in too many conversations about the place of public transportation in our City and in our public budgets. Whenever Centro’s service gets cut, we’re told it’s because we can’t afford it. But rarely does anybody ask whether worse service is really a better deal. 

Let’s say you take the bus to the grocery store. You’ve got to check the schedule and pick one of the handful of times a day when the bus actually goes from your house to the store. Then you’ve got to time your shopping so that you can finish, pay, and get out to the stop in time to catch another bus home. Miss it, and you’re stuck waiting for the next bus, and on a low-frequency line, the next bus is never just around the corner.

With all the scheduling and all the waiting, that trip can easily take hours out of your day. It crowds out other uses of your time, so it’s not possible to get groceries and go to the doctor, or to go to the doctor and babysit your goddaughter, or to babysit your goddaughter and go to bible study—not if all of those trips require a bus ride. There’s just not enough time to go many places because the infrequent service shortens the day.

So when the bus takes up so much of your time, it costs you the opportunity to do everything that you need to get done.

But it’s not as if you’re really willing to give up on eating, family, and church just because the bus doesn’t run often enough. So you try to accomplish as many of those tasks without the bus as possible. Maybe that means going to church with your car-owning neighbor or getting food from the corner store sometimes instead of going all the way to the supermarket. Maybe it means picking an apartment within walking distance of family. All of those strategies to cope with impractical bus service constrain your other choices—you can’t buy just any food but what’s available at the corner store. You can’t pick any apartment but the one that’s within walking distance of your daily needs.

So when the bus is such an impractical method of travelling across the City, it costs the freedom to choose between different places to live, schools to attend, food to eat.

And if those choices are insufficient—if you can’t force your family and friends to live within walking distance or if you move to a new neighborhood for a better apartment and are justifiably unwilling to change churches just for that—then the bus is simply insufficient and you’ll need a different way to get around. Maybe that’s biking, maybe that’s taking a cab, but probably—aspirationally—it’s buying a car.

And what a cost that is. AAA puts the annual price of owning, operating, and maintaining a new car at $9,282. That’s 24% of Syracuse’s median household income, and it’s way more than what anyone would spend on bus fare over the course of the year. Between 2010 and 2019, the total number of 2-car households in Syracuse increased by 25% while the number of car-free households decreased by 2%, meaning that several thousand families took on that new onerous expense because Centro couldn’t get them where they needed to go.

So when the bus service is insufficient to let you live your life, it costs you thousands of dollars.

There’s a lot of focus on the cost of making Centro better. How much money to buy more buses, to build better shelters, to pay more operators.

But there are costs to leaving Centro as it is. Trips not taken, opportunities forgone, connections missed, household budgets broken. Tally all that up, and it’s clear we can’t afford not to invest in better bus service.