All posts by inthesaltcity

BRT and the Suburbs

Bus Rapid Transit—a service model that makes the buses run faster and more frequently—works best when lots of people can live within walking distance of just a few bus stations. That’s why SMTC’s plan for two BRT lines stays pretty much within the City of Syracuse—City neighborhoods have the necessary population density to support quality transit. But even though Syracuse’s first two BRT lines will be confined almost entirely within the City, they will improve bus service in the suburbs too.

To see why, look at current service in the northern suburbs. Say you want to get from North Syracuse to the Amazon warehouse in Liverpool—a distance of about 5 miles if you were to walk it. It’s possible to make that trip on a bus, but you have to go all the way Downtown to make a connection at the Hub. That more than triples the length of the trip, and an easy 10 minute drive stretches into an hour-long bus ride.

BRT fixes this problem by making better connections between lines. It achieves higher service frequencies in the City—in part—by consolidating the city-portions of those suburban routes. Right now, the lines to North Syracuse and Liverpool run roughly parallel through the Northside, but they don’t ever connect until they reach Downtown.

With BRT, both routes would run on the same streets and serve the same stops all the way from Downtown, through the Northside, to the RTC. It will be possible to connect between the two lines at any of those stops, and that could shave 30 minutes off the trip between North Syracuse and Liverpool.

BRT service from University Hill to the Regional Transportation Center would stay entirely within the City limits, but it would still improve bus service in the northern suburbs. It would turn the RTC into a transit hub where people traveling between suburbs could easily transfer between suburban lines, and that would make it possible to get between suburbs without having to ride all the way Downtown.

Missing Links in the Bike Network

Syracuse’s many hills funnel most car traffic onto the few streets that follow level routes across town. Genesee, Geddes, Salina, Erie—these major streets knit the city together. That works fine for people driving cars, but it’s terrible for people riding bikes because the huge amount of car traffic on those streets makes them dangerous for anyone not in a car. A comprehensive bike plan should create new routes that parallel these major streets so that people can safely bike across town.

One obvious solution is to modify the existing streets by adding a fully protected bike lane. That’s what we’ve got in the Empire State Trail on Erie Boulevard East, and it’s great. Where space permits, this is the best way to provide people on bikes with safe crosstown routes.

But most of Syracuse’s major streets aren’t as large as Erie Boulevard and none have a wide strip of unused land where the State can just plop a protected bike lane without inconveniencing any car drivers. On those corridors, City Hall needs to create an alternative path for bike riders.

Take Geddes Street. It ranges between 40 and 55 feet wide. Certain sections could easily accommodate the highly protected infrastructure that would be necessary to make that street safe for biking, but other areas—particularly the wildly dangerous section that dips beneath the train tracks—could not. Good bike infrastructure won’t fit, and slim painted lanes would be insufficient, so City Hall should look for a parallel path for bike riders to use.

Right now, there is no one unbroken path that fits the bill, but there could be if City Hall negotiated for an easement between West Fayette and West Erie to connect Van Rensselaer and Oswego Streets. That would create a clear path along low-traffic streets from Strathmore all the way to the Inner Harbor. Add a few bits of bike infrastructure, and Syracuse would have a very good, very useful neighborhood greenway connecting several neighborhoods on the Westside.

Or look at Eastwood. The three streets that lead to it—Grant, James, and Burnet—are too dangerous for comfortable biking, and there’s no other obvious way to get across Teall Avenue and into or out of the neighborhood.

Connect a couple of minor streets, and it’s easy. City Hall should ensure bike movement through the East Woods Skate Plaza to connect two stretches of Caleb Avenue, and they should do the same through Sunnycrest Park to connect Caleb to Robinson Street. Bike riders could then cross Teall Avenue at Robinson’s signalized intersection, and they would be able to take the tough climb into Eastwood on relatively low-traffic Hawley Avenue.

Syracuse relies on a few major streets to handle all crosstown traffic. That makes it hard to bike in this town, because most people don’t want to ride beside all those cars. Forge a few missing links, and City Hall could build a high-quality, low-stress, crosstown bike network that would allow people to bike around the City in peace and comfort.

Updating Syracuse’s Bike Plan

The Syracuse Bicycle Plan has been collecting dust since it was published in 2012. The 109-page document is part of City Hall’s comprehensive plan, and it includes specific recommendations for a citywide network of infrastructure improvements that would make it safer, easier, and more comfortable to ride a bike across town.

There’s been some progress on turning those recommendations into reality—especially when the County, State, or Federal governments have been able to pick up the tab—but mostly, City Hall’s Bike Plan remains unbuilt.

This is disappointing, but it might be an opportunity in disguise. The original plan was written before Syracuse had any real experience with this kind of infrastructure, and it includes a lot of recommendations that really wouldn’t do much to improve the experience of biking on the City’s streets. Particularly, the Bike Plan relies heavily on sharrows and unprotected bike lanes for high-speed, high-traffic streets like James, Genesee, and Geddes Streets. This might have seemed acceptable in 2012, but we know better now, and it’s a good thing that we’re not stuck with sharrows on Seneca Turnpike.

City Hall should amend the Bike Plan to bring it in line with today’s best practices. We can keep the very useful analysis of where bike infrastructure should go, but we need to update the plan for what that infrastructure should be.

Drop sharrows entirely—anyone who’s ridden over them knows they’re useless, and research suggests they may actually make streets more dangerous for cyclists.

Unprotected bike lanes have no business on streets with lots of fast-moving traffic. They might be useful as part of a comprehensive road diet—a treatment that reduces the number and width of car lanes in order to get cars to drive more slowly—but they should not just be tacked onto deadly streets like West Genesee or James. That’s insanity.

In place of these insufficient measures, City Hall should double down on two types of infrastructure that have proven effective both locally and across the county: protected bike routes and neighborhood greenways. When bike lanes are protected from cars—by a curb, plastic posts, or because the path is totally separate from the street grid like the Creekwalk—people can use them with the peace of mind that comes from being safe from cars. Protected bike lanes are perfect for allowing people to bike safely on the City’s major, too-wide, too-fast streets. The Empire State Trail along Erie Boulevard East is a great example. So is the protected bike lane on South West Street. Protected bike lanes of that same quality should go on all of Syracuse’s major cross-town streets.

Neighborhood greenways offer a similar level of comfort and peace of mind on smaller streets where there’s not enough room to add a full protected bike lane. They reduce car speeds and traffic volumes with design features like narrowed lanes, roundabouts, alternating one-way blocks, and pierced cul-de-sacs. This all makes biking safer, and it also makes the street safer overall—something we should be doing anyway in every neighborhood.

In the years since it published the Bike Plan, City Hall has done very little to actually implement it. Higher levels of government have funded and built some really good bike infrastructure in Syracuse, but the City as a whole remains largely disconnected. City Hall should draw on the example of successful local projects like the Empire State Trail and national best practices like Seattle’s neighborhood greenways to update its Bike Plan and build a network that will allow people to bike across the entire City safely, easily, and comfortably.

Dirt Bikes and Traffic Violence

City Hall’s “crackdown” on dirt bikes and ATVs demonstrates how an overreliance on policing can crowd out more effective methods of achieving public safety. The crackdown—an annual Spring event—includes more officers patrolling city neighborhoods trying to ticket or tow dirt bikes and ATVs.

Why this specific class of vehicles? As Mayor Walsh put it, “The return of warmer weather is bringing back behaviors that make our streets unsafe and create disturbances to quality of life… dirt bikes and ATVs are dangerous.”

Clearly, Syracuse does have a problem with traffic violence, and it does make us all less safe. Ask anybody who gets around on foot or on a bike or in a wheelchair and they’ll tell you—it’s dangerous just moving around town. Every day brings close calls, and the only reason more people aren’t injured and killed is that so many have been scared from even trying to navigate the streets in the first place.

Look at this problem through the lens of policing, and the solution is to stop rule breakers from doing illegal things. There are laws against driving dirt bikes on city streets, so a police-driven city government will fixate on that rule breaking and try to stop it. They’ll bring out helicopters and raise fines and issue press releases and announce that they’ve taken important steps to improve public safety by dealing with illegal behavior.

This is a campaign against deviance. Dirt bikes don’t fit into the way the streets are supposed to work, so they’re illegal, so the police department will try to remove them and restore traffic to its normal equilibrium.

But anyone who’s experienced traffic violence knows that the normal equilibrium is really unsafe. Too large cars travelling at too fast speeds on too wide streets—it’s all extremely dangerous and it’s all perfectly legal. James Street is so deadly that City Hall’s official advice to cyclists is to avoid it, but when a car driver hit 13-year-old Zyere Jackson out front of Lincoln Middle School in 2019, SPD determined that no traffic laws had been broken.

The real problem is that the streets themselves are built to be dangerous. Engineering standards governing intersection design, lane width, and signal timing all prioritize vehicle speed. The entire street network is designed and built to maximize traffic throughput at unsafe speeds, and that’s what makes the streets unsafe.

All of which is why the cities that have had the best success reducing traffic violence have focused on street design rather than law enforcement. It’s a relatively simple thing to make a street safer with curbing, textured pavement, street trees, or any other of a number of small physical alterations that lower traffic speeds and encourage everybody who uses the street to look out for each other. Those kinds of design changes make the street itself safer, and they would do more the minimize the danger from dirt bikes than increased policing can.

When the only tool you’ve got is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. Syracuse turns to the SPD to solve a lot of problems, and so those problems get reduced to law-breaking. But Syracuse’s problems are more complicated than that, and they will require more comprehensive solutions. We need to invest more in municipal departments like DPW, NBD, and Parks so that they have the capacity to offer these comprehensive solutions. City Hall needs more tools to make Syracuse safer.

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.

Food Deserts and Parking Lots

Too many people living in too many neighborhoods have too hard a time getting fresh food. In part, this problem has to do with the fact that grocery stores won’t open in poor neighborhoods—so-called ‘food deserts.’ But, because food deserts are only ‘deserts’ for people without cars, it also has to do with how accessible  grocery stores are to pedestrians.

If food deserts were just about the presence or absence of a grocery store in any particular neighborhood, then just about every suburban subdivision would warrant the name. Fairway East in Clay is not a food desert even though the nearest grocery store is 2 miles away because the people who live in Fairway East have easy access to food. They own cars and can easily drive to any number of grocery stores.

A food desert isn’t just a neighborhood without a grocery store. It’s also a neighborhood where people don’t have cars. That’s why, last summer, Last Chance For Change walked to Green Hills Grocery to show how hard it is for a lot of people on the Southside to get to fresh food. Driving from the Southside to Green Hills (or to the Nottingham Tops, or to the Western Lights Wegmans, or to the South Ave Price Rite, etc) is easy—walking there is hard, and that’s what matters.

And if the goal is to get more grocery stores within walking distance of more people, then not all grocery stores are created equal. Some—like the Route 31 Wegmans out near Fairway East—are designed to be driven to. They’re huge buildings that sit back behind huge parking lots, and they have to draw a huge number of customers from a huge area in order to survive.

This kind of design is bad for pedestrians because it’s unpleasant to walk across parking lots, but it’s also bad for food deserts because those huge parking lots could be full of housing for people who need to live within easy walking distance of a grocery store.

Take the Pond Street Tops on the Northside. It’s a 32,000 square foot store with a 85,000 square foot parking lot. Its front door is about 50 feet from the sidewalk on Pond Street and about 500 feet from the sidewalk on 1st North. That means the closest houses are actually pretty far away from the front door, and it means that fewer houses are within walking distance of the fresh food for sale in this store.

Compare that to the Co-op in Westcott. It has no parking lot, and it’s front door is right at the sidewalk. The nearest houses are just next door. In fact, if you tally up all of the street frontage around these two stores, the Co-op is within walking distance of 22% more land than is the Pond Street Tops.

Neighborhood-scale grocery stores—like the Co-op or Dominick’s in Hawley-Green—are highly accessible to people who get around on foot. That makes them really effective at putting fresh food within walking distance of lots of people. If more grocery stores in Syracuse were like them—if less land around the grocery stores we already have was wasted on parking—more people in more neighborhoods would have an easier time getting fresh food.

A police contract from the past

Mayor Walsh’s deal with the PBA pretends that 2020 never happened. It pretends that the City’s situation right now is that same as it was in 2019. It pretends that nobody marched for reform or said anything worth hearing about policing last year.

Headed into arbitration over the police contract, City Hall just wants to get the same terms that they negotiated back at the end of 2019—terms that would add millions of dollars to the police budget for years to come. As the Walsh administration’s lead negotiator put it: “There really, in our mind, wasn’t any reason to go back to the drawing board and start all over again.”

I would think it’d be obvious to anyone who lived through 2020 why a huge increase to the police budget isn’t appropriate in 2021. I would think it’d be obvious why today is different from a year ago and why City Hall had a mandate to go back to the drawing board and get a new deal.

There was a national popular uprising against the common practice of policing in American cities. The Syracuse community participated in that movement and clearly communicated that the problems with modern American policing are problems in this City too.

One of the biggest problems the movement identified is the overwhelming size of police budgets. In Syracuse—a city perennially on the brink of fiscal collapse—20 cents of every dollar goes to the SPD. This extravagance makes it impossible to provide the municipal programs and services the City really needs, and so it is necessary for City Hall to rebalance its budget by committing more resources to the community.

This was a specific, explicit criticism that Syracuse activists repeated for months. Mayor Walsh heard it, but it’s clear he did not listen. It will be impossible to invest in community programs and services if police are taking an ever larger slice of the municipal pie.

The voices that explained all this last year were powerful and eloquent. City Hall needs to pay them heed and negotiate a new agreement with the PBA.

Corporate Governance

When OCIDA gave Amazon $71 million in tax breaks, a lot of us were left wondering what Jeff Bezos—the wealthiest man on the planet—could possibly need all that money for. Now we have 2.5% of the answer. He’s going to give $1.75 million of that money back to the public as a donation to the new countywide STEAM school that will soon be operating out of the old Central High building.

But that money comes with strings attached. It’s for “robotics and computer science programs” because Amazon’s new warehouse “will depend heavily on robotics for fulfilling orders and Amazon wants to help train the next generation of workers.” And Amazon very pointedly left the A (for Arts) out of STEAM in its statement on the donation:

“We want to inspire the next generation of innovators to explore opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, so we’re proud to partner with Onondaga County—which we will soon call home—to increase access to STEM education for thousands of local students for years to come. We hope they’ll join our team at Amazon one day and teach us a thing or two as they build their careers here.”

We’re outsourcing curriculum design to a private corporation that is explicitly and primarily interested in bending public education to serve its own interests. And all it cost Amazon was $1.75 million that we had already given them in the first place.

It’s not hard to imagine this pattern repeating in other areas of local government. Amazon paying for improved bus service to its warehouse even when that money would have a greater impact increasing service on high-ridership lines, say.

The STEAM school is still worth getting excited about, and it’s better that Amazon spends $1.75 million there than on stock dividends or whatever. But in a more just world, Amazon would have just paid its whole tax bill (like the rest of us), that would have covered almost the entire $74 million cost of building the STEAM school, and educators would have retained control over the school’s curriculum.

Fare Capping

Fare capping is a public transit payment reform that boosts ridership and minimizes inequality by making transit passes more affordable for people without a lot of money. Centro should implement fare capping in Syracuse.

Time-based transit passes allow riders to take as many trips as they like within a given amount of time—a day, a week, a month, a year. This rewards frequent riders who use transit often, and it encourages people to take more trips by making the marginal cost of each trip $0.

Centro sells two types of time-based passes—a daily pass and a weekly pass. The $5 day pass is a good deal for anyone making more than two trips in a day, and the $20 week pass saves money for anyone riding more than 10 times a week. Before 2015, Centro also sold a monthly pass for $60—a good investment for anyone riding more than 30 times a month, so any regular commuter with a full-time job.

However, these time passes are often unaffordable for the poorest riders. It’s one thing to come up with $2 for a single bus ride, but a lot of people have a harder time scraping together $20 to buy a weekly pass—let alone $60 for a monthly pass—even if they ride the bus often enough that the time-based pass would save them money in the long run. This is a real problem for Centro’s riders who are very likely to have very low incomes.

Fare capping makes time-based passes more affordable by allowing riders to buy them in installments. Each time a rider pays the individual fare, it goes towards the cost of purchasing an unlimited pass. This ‘caps’ the total cost that any rider pays in a given amount of time at the total cost of an unlimited pass for that same amount of time. So a rider would never pay more than $5 in a single day or $20 in a single week to ride Centro.

This will require new fare payment technology. Installments only work if there’s a way to track them, so riders will need to have payment accounts. This might mean account-connected payment cards that riders keep from month to month, or it might mean upgrading the mobile payment system that Centro piloted in 2019.

All of this will be even more important when Centro begins running Bus Rapid Transit. High frequency service will allow people to make more trips by bus, and that will only make time-based passes more attractive to riders. Centro should implement fare capping in order to make unlimited passes accessible to everyone who needs them.

Public Parks and Climate Change

Climate change is here, and Syracuse is already feeling it. The last several summers have been some of the hottest on record, and new weather patterns are scrambling all our seasons. We need to do everything we can to stop climate change, of course—driving less, greening the grid—but in the meantime we also have to mitigate the negative effects of climate change that are already here. City parks are some of our best tools to do that. 

In a map of average temperature variation across the City, parks pop out as islands of cool. They are 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the rest of the city on average. This is because of their ample tree cover and the lack of heat retaining buildings, and it’s a big part of why people flock to parks in June, July, and August. In a town built for harsh winters where many houses have never had air conditioning, parks offer a respite in increasingly hot summers.

Public pools are a super-charged version of this same phenomenon. Many families and children build their summers around the public pool because it’s a fun, safe, affordable, guaranteed way to beat the heat. That’s why kids were so insistent that City Hall find a way to open up the pools last summer—we had a historically hot summer and there wasn’t anything else to do.

Climate change isn’t just about rising temperatures—it will also cause more rainfall. Parks can act as ‘green infrastructure’ that protects neighborhoods from flooding. On the Eastside, the Barry Park Detention Basin is a constructed wetland designed to keep Meadowbrook from flooding, and it’s worked. City Hall should construct a similar pond along Onondaga Creek to minimize flooding there too. And as an added bonus, people actually like living near Barry Park pond.

This is all wrapped up with racial segregation and economic inequality. Homes in richer whiter census tracts and more likely to have private backyard pools than homes in poorer blacker neighborhoods. Barry Park protects home values in a richer whiter area while the lack of similar protection has made it impossible to build wealth through homeownership in a poorer blacker neighborhood. This is environmental racism, It’s up to City Hall to combat it.

. . .

Parks are not just amenities. They are not just . In the 21st century, in a warming world, they are necessary community infrastructure. It’s time we started acting like it.