Building out BRT

Bus Rapid Transit—a set of service and infrastructure improvements that makes buses run faster and more frequently—is Syracuse’s best opportunity to improve the City’s public transportation network because it’s much simpler and easier to expand BRT than either rail or traditional bus service.

To see why, look at Syracuse’s planned BRT system. Right now, it’s just two lines—Eastwood to OCC along James and South Ave, and SU to the Regional Transportation Center along Adams and North Salina Streets. That’s a good start, but obviously this city needs quality transit in more places than just those two corridors, so the BRT network will have to expand over time.

That expansion can take two forms. First, Syracuse could add more lines. South Salina Street, for example, obviously needs better transit service, so the 10 bus should be upgraded to BRT. Second, BRT lines can be extended further out. New development along Old Liverpool Road might make it worthwhile to extended the SU-RTC line all the way to the Village of Liverpool.

But that kind of expansion is almost impossible under Centro’s current, traditional pulse-timed service model, and it’d be incredibly difficult if Syracuse was committing to some sort of rail-based transit service.

The problem with expanding rail service is pretty straightforward—it costs a bunch of money and takes forever to build. And since you can’t run a train until the tracks are in the ground, service improvements get delayed for decades. Just ask Buffalo, where plans to extend the subway have been in the works for four decades without any new service to show for it.

The difficulty of expanding traditional pulse-timed bus service is less intuitive. Centro time’s its buses so that they meet all at once at the hub every forty minutes, or so. It’s called a lineup, and it helps riders transfer between different bus lines that don’t run very often. Since the buses are all timed in relation to each other, it’s impossible to change any line’s schedule without throwing the whole system out of whack. Any significant improvement in service requires a full network redesign—like the one that Rochester is rolling out next week—and that also takes years.

BRT avoids these problems because it’s so much cheaper to implement than rail, and because its frequent service doesn’t require a lineup to facilitate transfers between lines. If Syracuse wanted to extend service to Liverpool or add BRT to South Salina, we could just do it without taking 10 years to lay down rails or rejigger the rest of the bus network. That’s what’s happening in Albany, where the Capital District Transit Authority is building out a full BRT network one line at a time.

There are a lot of reasons that BRT is the best option for improving public transportation in Syracuse, but this is the most compelling one. It’s iterative—we can build the network in manageable pieces—we can get started now, and we can keep expanding the system into the future.