Syracuse needs more people riding the bus. Increased ridership is good for Centro, obviously, because it provides increased fare revenue and a broader base of political support for public transportation. But increased ridership would also indicate that Centro is serving Syracuse better, because more people are choosing to ride.
So how do we do it?
Here’s a breakdown of Centro’s commuter ridership by income. People making less than $25,000 a year account for 84% of Centro’s Syracuse-based commuter ridership. People making more than $50,000 a year account for less than 5% of workers who live in Syracuse and commute by bus.
One approach to building ridership—the ‘captive-choice’ approach—tries to even out the pieces of that pie. 84%(!) of riders are poor—so the thinking goes—because low income correlates with other factors—like lack of access to a car—that constrain people’s transportation options and force them to ride the bus. People making less than $25,000 a year are “captive” riders, and so Centro can count on their ridership no matter what.
High income earners, on this theory, are “choice” riders—they have lots of options for getting around and will only choose the bus if it’s the most attractive option. Current bus service is obviously not an attractive option because high income workers don’t ride, so the answer is to cater service specifically to them. That’s the SYRculator: a high-frequency route that loops around Downtown’s high-priced apartments and office buildings while avoiding all the “captive” riders who pass through the Hub.
Centro serves 38% of workers in its “captive” market—those who make less than $25,000 and commute by some means other than a car. If Centro ‘evened out’ its performance by capturing 38% of the non-car-commuting population across all incomes, it would increase the total number of people who commute by bus by 43%.
But even in this extremely unlikely scenario (quintupling the number of bus commuters earning more than $50,000), workers making less than $25,000 would still account for 59% of regular bus commuters. There just aren’t that many people making lots of money for whom it would make sense to ride the bus. In part, that’s because there aren’t that many people making lots of money, period. And in part, it’s because the people who do make that much money own multiple cars, and for the foreseeable future driving a car will never be less convenient than riding the bus.
But to even frame the question in terms of individuals making choices shows what’s wrong with the entire captive-choice analysis: every person has a choice, there are no ‘captive’ riders, and there are lots of low income people who currently choose not to ride the bus but who would if it met their needs better.
Here’s a graph showing the total number of workers living in Syracuse according to income. Within each bar, the different colors show how different riders commute. Blue is current bus commuters, and red is commuters who drive and are extremely unlikely to switch to riding the bus. Yellow is people who commute on foot, on bike, by taxi, or by sharing a ride, and it represents Centro’s best chance at ridership growth
Workers earning less than $25,000 make up about half of all workers in that yellow area, and so although that population already accounts for 84% of Centro’s current commuter ridership, it also is the portion of the working population with the greatest potential for ridership growth.
‘Evening out’ ridership across all incomes increased the share of non-car commuters who make between $25,000 and$50,000 by about 26 percentage points. If Centro improved service and enticed enough riders to see a proportional increase in ridership across all incomes, it would increase overall ridership by 96% (twice as much as ‘evening out’ performance among high earners).
57% of that increase would come from workers making less than $25,000. There are just so many low income workers, and so many of them have limited access to a car, that Centro could see huge ridership gains if it simply focused on serving the City’s poorest neighborhoods better.
And the best part is that we already have a plan to do that. It’s Bus Rapid Transit, and for all of the branding and the technology and the hype, the core of the idea is that Centro should spend every extra dollar improving service on the lines that already carry lots of people. Those lines run through neighborhoods with lots of potential bus riders, they connect to places with lots of jobs, and if they ran faster, more frequently, and more reliably, more people in those neighborhoods would use them. That’s how you build ridership.