Syracuse needs better bike storage. It’s no good biking somewhere if there’s nowhere to put the bike once you get there. Right now, there’s almost no place in Syracuse with dedicated bike storage for more than one or two people at a time. Bike riders make it work by locking to street signs, fences, benches, etc., but this isn’t a scalable solution. If Syracuse is going to see a meaningful shift to biking, we need better places to store all the bikes.
University Hill shows how impactful this can be. There’s simply not enough room for every student, professor, and staff member to bring a car onto Syracuse University’s and ESF’s campuses without demolishing half the academic buildings (compare University Hill to Downtown, which did demolish half its buildings to make space for car storage). Bikes (along with quality transit to campus and abundant housing within walking distance of campus) let people get to work or class without needing to bring along a 2-ton steel box that they need to stash somewhere.
ESF handles bike storage better than SU. To see how, look at the north side of Illick Hall. It’s ‘shark fin’ bike racks are more secure than the traditional racks that SU uses, and they pack more bikes into a smaller space. ESF also placed these racks beneath the building’s overhang to keep bikes out of the elements, and there is a publicly available bike pump and tool set to handle minor repairs.
Here are three lessons from ESF and SU’s bike storage facilities. First, they are abundant. Although many people bike to campus, there’s almost always enough space for another person to lock up their bike.
Second, they are secure. The bike racks on University Hill are sturdy and designed to be locked to a bike’s frame (rather than just the wheel, like the sorry schoolyard-style bike rack outside of City Hall). ESF’s ‘shark fin’ racks are particularly well-designed in that they make it easy to use a single lock to secure both the frame and the front wheel while fitting more bikes into less space.
Third, they are out of the way. These bike racks have their own dedicated space where they don’t get in the way of pedestrians. That’s a much better situation than you find Downtown, where a bike locked to a street sign can easily fall over and block the sidewalk.
City Hall can learn these lessons and implement similar bike storage strategies in other parts of Syracuse where a shift to bike transportation would yield similar benefits.
A simple, easily implemented, scalable solution is to build bike corrals below the curb at crosswalks. Bike corrals are just a set of closely-spaced bike racks (enough for 4-8 bikes) protected by bollards or planters. By placing them along the curb at crosswalks, City Hall would improve street safety by reducing the effective length of the crosswalk and by ‘daylighting’ these intersections so that pedestrians and car drivers can see each other. In this way, bike corrals work like curb extensions, but they’re significantly less expensive to construct and they bring the added benefit of quality bike storage.
This simple intervention could make a big impact in places like Downtown and neighborhood centers where lots of people tend to congregate and excessive car storage wastes valuable space that could be put to better use.
There are monuments in Syracuse City Parks that commemorate an act of genocide carried out by the United States Government against the Onondaga Nation in April of 1779. These monuments memorialize the Van Schaik Expedition—a part of the infamous Sullivan-Clinton campaign—which passed from Fort Stanwix, through the present-day City of Syracuse, on its way to destroy Onondaga settlements to the south. Colonial soldiers killed or captured Onondaga men, women, and children and destroyed their crops and homes.
The Van Schaick Expedition was despicable, it does not deserve our veneration, and City Hall should remove these monuments from its parks.
The Sullivan-Clinton campaign was a series of military expeditions in which professional soldiers from the Continental Army destroyed Haudenosaunee settlements across the state. In George Washington’s words, the purpose of the campaign was to “chastise and intimidate” the Haudenosaunee. In the words of another officer involved with the campaign, the purpose was “to extirpate those hell hounds from off the face of the earth.” Because of its scorched-earth tactics designed to eliminate entire communities, experts consider the Sullivan-Clinton campaign an act of genocide.
Colonel Goose Van Schaick led the campaign’s raid against the Onondaga. Here is a first person account of that raid, written by Lieutenant E. Beatty of the Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment and quoted from Onondaga’s Centennial by Dwight H. Bruce:
“21st, this morning set of about Day Break, on the same line of march and west about 6 Miles when we halted, Capt. Graham with his Compy. Was sent forward as an advance party, then proceeded on to the Onandaga lake, about 8 Miles in length and 4 in Breadth, waded an arm of it, about 4 foot deep, and 200 yards wide, and came to Onandaga creek, small but deep, had to cross it on a log.
Capt. Graham’s Co., Just as he had crossed the creek, caught an Indian who was shooting Pidgeons, and made him prisoner. And we got some Information from him, then proceeded on till we come within about one Mile of the Town, when we Rec’d. word from Capt. Graham that he had caught on Squaw and killed one, and he taken two or three children and one White man, and one or two made their escape and alarmed the town.
The Col. Immediately sent me forward to order him on as quick as possible, and make as many prisoners as he could, and he would support him with the main body. I overtook him at the first town, and delivered my orders, and he Immediately pushed on about two miles to the Next town, where he made a small halt and took a great many prisoners, soon after Major Cochran with Capt. Gray’s Compy. came up and ordered me to stay with the prisoners and their two Compys. to push on to the next town, about one mile forward, which they did, and made more prisoners and killed some, particularly a Negro who was their Dr. they then plundered the middle town where I was.
Capt. Bleekers Compy. had come up by this time, and left the main body at their first town; we then collected all our prisoners, plundered this town and set fire to it, then marched of to the main body, which lay at the first town; we stayed there about 8 hours and killed some five horses and a Number of Hogs, & plundered their houses, and set fire to them, and Marched of about 4 o’clock, in the same line of march as we came, only the front changed. and a Compy. to guard the prisrs. Who was to march between they two colums;
marched on about 2 Miles from the town down the Onand’ga creek, when about 20 Indians who Lay concealed on the opposite side of the Creek fird upon us, but the Rifle Men soon Dispersed them, killing one of them, we then marched on and crossed the Onandaga Creek in two places, for fear the enemy should attack us, but we met with no interruption, crossed the arm of the lake, and encamped by the side of the lake about 8 Miles from the town. We killed about 15, took 34 Prisoners, Burned about 30 or 40 houses, took 2 stand of Coulors, and we had not one man killed or wounded—”
This account of events comes from one of the perpetrators of genocide. Other accounts contain more graphic details of the soldiers’ violence. By the 1800’s, white settlers in Syracuse telling the story of the raid would specify that the soldiers killed “large numbers” of Onondagas in the creek as they tried to swim to safety, and that the soldiers “hung and quartered” the Black man they found living with the Onondaga. According to the Peace Council, Onondaga oral histories tell that the soldiers also raped Onondaga women.
Clark’s Onondaga reports when the white settlers came to this part of the County for the first time in 1789, they took over the remnants of an “extensive Indian orchard” that was still abandoned 10 years after Van Schaick had burned part of it. The settlers learned this history from the Onondaga still living in the area who provided them with shelter when they first arrived.
New York State erected Syracuse’s first monument to the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign in 1929. That was the 150th anniversary of the campaign, and identical monuments were placed across the state. The monument depicts the Campaign’s multiple expeditions on a map of New York State. The Van Schaick Expedition is clearly marked and is shown passing through present-day Syracuse to “Onondaga Castle.”
This monument sits on a large privately owned piece of land on Valley Drive across from Onondaga Valley Cemetery.
When New York State built its monument, people in Syracuse understood that this was not an event worth commemorating. There had been some preparations for a celebration of the “Raid” on Sunday April 21, 1929, but the Syracuse Herald reported “lack of interest and delay in attempting to bring about the celebration are given as reasons for its postponement.” The Herald also noted that:
“The celebration has never been encouraged by the Onondaga Historical Association. Officers of that organization contend that the attack on the Onondagans was unjust. The Indians who are now part of the Onondaga community have had traditions handed down to them telling of the barbarity of the American troops. Officers of the historical association urge that there is nothing to celebrate and that the anniversary might better be forgotten.”
Unfortunately, the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution did not take this advice, and the very next year they erected two monuments to Van Schaick’s raid on City-owned parkland. One is on West Colvin Street between Onondaga Creek Parkway and Hunt Avenue. It reads:
Col. Van Schaick crossed Onondaga Creek here on way to Indian villages to the south, April 21, 1779
The metal plaque has recently been replaced, so someone (likely unaware of the history) is actually maintaining this monument to genocide.
The second monument is nearby in Onondaga Park along the east side of Onondaga Avenue across from the City’s greenhouses. The plaque on this monument used to read:
Site of Indian Attack on Col. Van Schaick’s Expedition against the Onondagas April 21, 1779
Thankfully, someone stole the plaque many years ago. All that’s left now is a bare stone.
These two monuments tell an incredibly misleading story. The one on Colvin makes no mention at all of Van Schaick’s violent purpose, and the one that used to be on Onondaga makes it seem as if the ‘expedition’ only fought back after they were initially attacked. So in addition to being a grave insult to the Onondaga Nation, these monuments are also bring us out of right relation with our community’s true history.
It is inexplicable that these monuments still stand in City-owned parkland, and they should be removed. This isn’t applying modern sensibilities to past events—the Onondaga Historical Association thought this was a bad idea when the monuments were put up in 1929. It’s remained a bad idea for 92 years, and leaving them up one day longer is also a bad idea. Take these monuments down.
In the early 1800’s, there were several distinct villages within Syracuse’s present city limits. Each had its own small business district, meeting hall, and churches, and many were built around a public square or village green. As Syracuse grew to encompass these small villages, their central public spaces became less important, and while some—such as Washington Square, the old green of the Village of Salina—remained central to their neighborhoods others—like Onondaga Hollow’s village green, Geddes’ St. Mark’s Square, and Lodi’s Lock Square—faded away and are barely recognizable as public spaces anymore.
These historic public spaces still matter for two reasons. First, because many of these early villages still retain their identity as distinct city neighborhoods and the public spaces at their centers should be sources of local pride. Second, these squares are great places to foster commercial activity, build new housing, and promote transit-oriented development in Syracuse’s neighborhoods so that the conditions of Downtown’s recent successes can bring prosperity to more of the City.
The oldest part of Syracuse is deep in the Valley where Seneca Turnpike crosses Valley Drive. There, the houses of Syracuse’s first settlers sit between newer bungalows and ranches. Onondaga Hollow was settled in 1784—before Onondaga County even existed—and when Seneca Turnpike provided the best route across the state, this little village was one of the most important spots in Central New York.
But when the Erie Canal replaced the turnpikes as New York’s primary intercity highway, Syracuse replaced Onondaga Hollow as the center of Onondaga County.
Onondaga Hollow’s village green is a 51’ wide strip of land along the northern side of Seneca Turnpike between Valley Drive and Onondaga Creek. Today, it’s carved up by the driveways of all the houses that line it, but you can trace its outline by following the sidewalk’s irregular path here.
Luckily, the Parks Department still owns and maintains the land. City Hall should restore the Onondaga Hollow village green by opening a new lane along its northern edge between Valley Drive and Onondaga Creek. This would create access to the properties that border the green and eliminate the need for center turning lanes on that part of Seneca Turnpike. City Hall could then remove the driveways from the green itself and extend the green south by narrowing the road to two lanes. That would allow the Parks Department to add amenities like benches, chess tables, and flower beds, and the historic Onondaga Hollow village green would once again be a place for the community.
The Village of Geddes—built along the Erie Canal where it crossed under West Genesee Street—was another early site of salt production. This municipality encompassed much of what is now Syracuse’s Westside including Tipperary Hill and the West End.
Geddes’ ‘downtown’ was near the Canal where Bridge, Exchange, and Furnace Streets (now St. Mark’s, Williams, and Fayette Streets) intersected. There are still several canal-era buildings in this spot.
Bridge Street connected that commercial center to the Village’s public square. St. Mark’s Square was located where the Genesee Road curves to hug the base of Tipperary Hill. For most of its history there has been a school on its north side, and Porter Elementary fills that spot now.
The square itself, though, is gone. Small urban squares had fallen out of favor during the urban renewal era, and City Hall constructed a new building for Hazard Branch Library on St Mark’s Square in 1968. Bridge Street has been cut up into sections, and the little portion that ran past Geddes’ village green is now called St. Mark’s Avenue.
After decades of disuse, this little village center is getting new life. Three large canal-era buildings have recently been converted to housing, a jazz club, and a planned food co-op. At St. Mark’s Square, the pandemic pushed some of Hazard Branch’s summer programming outside to the old public space.
Hazard Branch only really fills about half of the square. The library shields the other half—between the building and the school—from traffic noise on West Genesee Street, and that could be a great spot for community events. City Hall should move those parking spaces somewhere else and turn the lot back into a public green space.
The short-lived Village of Lodi was a gamble. In the 1830’s, three men from Syracuse—Oliver Teall, Harvey Baldwin, and Aaron Burt—bet that the area around where Beech Street crosses Erie Boulevard (then the Erie Canal) would be a better place to build a city. The ground there was more elevated than swampy Syracuse, and that mattered a lot before roads were paved and when people still thought disease came from ‘miasmas.’
The speculators bought up a huge area of land—basically everything north of Genesee and south of the Canal between Beech and Almond Streets—and tried to build a city. They established a school, built a mill, and set up a small village center on Beech Street near where there were two locks on the canal. Beech Street was lined with small shops and a hotel, and the open space on the Canal’s northern bank between Beech and Pine Streets was called Lock Square.
Lodi never came close to overtaking Syracuse in importance. Syracuse paved its streets, drained its swamp, and absorbed Lodi in 1835. Lock Square remained a convenient trading place for a while after that, but by the early 1900’s it had lost its usefulness, and New York State built a canal maintenance facility on the spot. Today the City’s Water Department occupies the space, and almost all that’s left of this early village is Lodi Street—the road from Lock Square to the old Village of Salina.
It’s unlikely City Hall will move the Water Department anytime soon, but there is a great opportunity to leverage the new Empire State Trail and existing public space on the other side of Erie Boulevard to recall Lodi’s old Lock Square. The I81 DEIS includes plans to build bike lanes from Lodi Street to the Empire State Trail on Water Street. But Lodi and Water don’t intersect, so NYSDOT’s plans to connect those streets with bike lanes along Canal and Walnut Streets. This unfortunate route would force bike riders heading north to make a dangerous left-turn onto Lodi with terrible visibility in both directions.
Better to build a bike/pedestrian path across the narrow strip of grass between Water Street and Erie Boulevard so that people on bike and on foot can cross from Water Street to Lodi there. City Hall could help ‘enclose’ the space by allowing mixed-use development on the western portion of this median. Add a sculptural fountain east of the path to recall the masonry locks buried beneath Erie Boulevard, and this new public space would be a mirror of Lodi’s old Lock Square.
Syracuse needs more good public spaces. They’re where we meet each other, pass time among our neighbors, and participate in community life. These three village centers were good public spaces, but they are almost invisible today. With a little effort, City Hall could bring them back again and make Syracuse a better place.
Centro has had a rough go of it the last few months, but the transit agency is poised to transform its service and serve the City better. Covid has shaken up service patterns and freed Centro to explore new service strategies, and the federal government’s infrastructure bill will provide the resources to implement those strategies effectively. Public transportation’s future is bright, and that’s a very good thing for Syracuse.
To see how Centro is changing its service to improve transit for the people who use it most, look at the 52 bus that runs through the Northside and Lyncourt. This has consistently been one of Centro’s busiest lines, but ridership is not spread evenly over the entire route. The bus picks up and drops off a lot of people between Butternut Street and Grant Boulevard, but it gets less use as it runs along Court Street.
That makes sense since the Northside is significantly more densely populated than Lyncount, it has a better mix of homes, institutions, and businesses than Lyncourt, and because households on the Northside are much less likely to own cars than are those in Lyncourt.
So as Centro is hiring new operators and adding service back to the 52 line , it’s targeting that service to the Northside. Eight times a day, a new variation—the 252 bus, blue on the maps above—will run between the Northside and Downtown without continuing out Court Street to Lyncourt. This truncated route will still serve all of the 52 bus’s busiest stops, and—because it’s so much shorter than the full 52 line—it will allow for much more frequency where people need it most.
Centro is calling this an “urban centric” strategy, and it’s a very good idea—in order to truly connect people to opportunity, the bus needs to run frequently. Centro should use its limited resources to achieve meaningful frequency in neighborhoods like the Northside where many people ride the bus. Similar changes can and should be made to many of Centro’s other routes.
The recently passed federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework will supercharge this process. It contains $74 million for Centro to finally build and run BRT in Syracuse. As a start, this means two high-frequency bus lines—one from Eastwood to OCC along James Street and South Avenue, one from University Hill to the Regional Transportation Center along Adams and Salina Streets—with buses running no more than 15 minutes apart all day.
At root, BRT is nothing more than applying Centro’s ‘urban centric’ strategy to its highest ridership lines. The two corridors identified in the 2017 SMART1 plan are really just the best performing sections of four of Centro’s best performing lines. Investing in increased frequency on those high-ridership corridors will multiply the gains from Centro’s new service strategy.
So, if this experiment with the new 252 line goes well—if more people ride it because it targets better service where it’s most useful—then that line might be a candidate for conversion to BRT service in the future. These are the kind of iterative, data-driven service changes that will make BRT such an effective tool for continuously improving public transportation in Syracuse.
Eventually—as routes like the 252 and new service designs like BRT prove themselves—we should see similar improvements to lines like the 68 (Fayette and Erie Boulevard), 10 (South Salina), and 64 (Onondaga Avenue). Uplift Syracuse estimates that BRT service on those corridors would put 125,000 people and 80,000 jobs within walking distance of useful, reliable bus service. That’s the kind of transformational public transit this City needs and deserves.
Last week, Onondaga County Democrats and Republicans each released their own proposals for new County Legislative districts. Both parties recommended big changes to the current map, but they disagreed on several major details. These disagreements show that we need to slow this process down and apply New York State’s newly enacted non-partisan standards to achieve a fair outcome.
Take the dispute over the district encompassing the rural southeastern portion of the County. The Democrats’ map groups the southeastern towns of Lafayette, Fabius, Pompey, and Tully with the southwestern towns of Skaneateles, Otisco, and Spafford. But David Knapp, Chairman of the County Legislature, insists that this would “disenfranchise rural voters” because “the needs of someone in the lakeside community of Skaneateles are not the same as those of a resident in agrarian Lafayette.” Instead, the Republicans grouped those southeastern towns (Lafayette, Fabius, Pompey, and Tully) with small portions of DeWitt, Onondaga, and Manlius.
But it’s not exactly clear what that fixes. The needs of the suburban residents of the Village of Manlius aren’t obviously closely aligned with Apple Valley either. The point seems to be that the southeastern towns should have their own district, and if that means padding their small population with densely settled slivers of the Towns of Manlius, DeWitt, and Onondaga, then so be it. Nevermind that this also ‘disenfranchises’ the people living in those communities, to use Mr. Knapp’s definition of the word.
Or look at the disagreement about how to draw districts in the growing northwestern towns of Lysander, Clay, Camillus, and Van Buren. The Democrats’ map covers those towns with five legislative districts, but Kevin Hulslander, the Republican Chair of the Reapportionment Commission, claims that underestimates the rate at which those towns will grow over the next decade: “We’re establishing seven districts in the towns where the growth is to accommodate for the growth. Map number one [the Democrats’ proposal] includes only five districts. So, at the very core of what our job is here, map number one fails.”
But again, this is not an obvious solution. Demographic trends in Onondaga County are in such flux that it’s very difficult to predict exactly which towns will grow (or shrink!) over the next ten years. The census bureau predicted that the City would lose population between 2010 and 2020, and they were wrong. Cicero had—for decades—been the county’s fastest growing town, but it’s not anymore. If the Census Bureau cannot accurately predict which parts of Onondaga County will grow and how, then it’s very doubtful Mr. Hulslander can either.
Of course, decisions about who deserves representation—Lafayette or Manlius—and which parts of the County are most likely to grow—Van Buren or Syracuse—have partisan implications. The City and several inner ring suburbs are home to more registered Democrats than Republicans, and the opposite is true in the exurbs and rural parts of the county.
What Onondaga County needs are non-partisan guidelines that can ensure a fair process for drawing these legislative districts. Luckily, New York State has provided just that. New legislation directs all counties to draw districts according to existing population figures—not anticipated ones. The new legislation also says that legislative district lines should follow pre existing, broadly understood, meaningful boundaries such as town lines or school district catchments rather than trying to group people based on any individual politician’s idea of which communities are more deserving of representation.
Onondaga County’s Reapportionment Commission and Legislature should take the time to properly review this new law before deciding on any redistricting proposal. We need a fair and transparent process. There’s no rush. Let’s get this right.
NYSDOT’s idea for a “canal-themed district”—a combination of fountains, public art, and parklets centered around the spot where Oswego and Erie Canals used to intersect—is a good one. It would create a new public space in the center of town, and it would restore the canal’s place in people’s lived experience of the City. However, the DEIS’ designs for this space would scatter it around the edges of a high-traffic highway where very few people will ever want to be.
The City of Corning’s experience with a similar project shows how Syracuse could take advantage of new traffic patterns by extending the Canal District west to cover Erie Boulevard between Clinton and Montgomery Streets and create a public space where people will want to be.
The main problem with the current design for the Canal District is its location. The DEIS shows a new fountain, sculptures, benches, and park space lining Pearl Street and Oswego Boulevard near their intersections with Erie Boulevard. These streets are going to be de facto off- and on-ramps—like Harrison and Adams today—and they are going to carry a lot of car traffic, and 690 will still be running by just a block away. These intersections are going to be noisy and difficult to navigate on foot, and that won’t make for a pleasant place to hang out and look at a fountain.
Corning’s Centerway Square shows a better way to reclaim public space made available by changes in transportation infrastructure. In the late 19th century, the square was a civic gateway—it was the site of the New York Central Station, and it was many travelers’ first impression of the city. Corning built a monumental clock tower in the square, and capitalists surrounded it with the city’s most impressive commercial buildings.
In 1921 when it became clear that the city needed a new bridge to handle all of the new traffic travelling across the Chemung River, Corning built the Centerway Bridge to bring car traffic through the square for the first time. Within a short time, the city’s main civic square got turned into a parking lot.
By 1981, though, all that car traffic had overwhelmed the Centerway Bridge, and Corning needed yet another crossing over the Chemung River. The new Bisco Bridge could handle far more car traffic, and it was designed to avoid the busy public square with the confusing clock tower in the middle of its intersection. Car traffic left the Centerway Bridge, and Centerway Square was once again a primarily pedestrian space.
Today, the Centerway Bridge is an award-winning example of adaptive reuse, and the fully pedestrianized Centerway Square has regained its function as a public space. It’s the gateway to the Market Street Historic District for people walking from the Museum of Glass. It’s a place for rallies and public performances. It’s a place where people can just sit and enjoy the city.
The key to Centerway’s success is that new transportation infrastructure diverted car traffic away from the square and made space for people instead. When NYSDOT built the Bisco Bridge to accommodate lots of car traffic, they didn’t try to make its entrance to downtown Corning into a new public place—they revived the already existing space that the new bridge freed from car traffic.
The lesson for Syracuse and the Canal District is clear: don’t try to make BL-81’s new off- and on-ramps into pleasant public spaces—that’s impossible. Instead, look at where that new infrastructure will remove cars, and make those places into good public spaces.
Start thinking that way, and it’s pretty obvious where the Canal District can work best: Erie Boulevard between Clinton and Montgomery Streets. That’s the canal’s original path through the middle of town, and it would be a great place to replicate something like Buffalo’s Canalside or Providence’s Waterfire by rewatering the canal from Clinton Square all the way to the new fountain being planned as part of the Canal District. It’s also a space that will see a lot less car traffic after the Community Grid removes the I-81 offramp from Salina Street, the onramps from State Street, and after the Pearl Street extension provides a new route for getting to the onramp at Belden.
Syracuse should seize this opportunity to create a new public space that will celebrate the City’s history and give people a new way to enjoy Downtown. Here’s how:
Bring the canal back to Erie Boulevard by running fountains down the center of the street. The fountains should connect to the “turning basin” water feature that NYSDOT has planned for the intersection of Erie and Oswego Boulevards. The surface of the water should be below street level to capture the feeling of the canal, and the street surface should be textured to slow what little car traffic does still use the street.
Convert Warren Street to two-way traffic and make it narrower north of Erie Boulevard. Give Salina a road diet so that there is only one lane of traffic travelling in either direction. Put in raised intersections where these two streets cross Erie, and install metal fences reminiscent of period-correct truss bridges to prevent cars from turning into the fountains.
NYSDOT’s plan to create a new canal-themed public space downtown is good, but their plan to center it on a busy highway offramp is bad. NYSDOT should extend the Canal District concept to rewater the canal along Erie Boulevard between Clinton and Montgomery Streets. Instead of trying to create a new public space in a place where it’s doomed to fail, this would center the Canal District where it has the best chance to succeed. This area is directly adjacent to two of Downtown’s most successful pedestrian spaces—Clinton Square and Hanover Square. There is clearly already the demand for this kind of public space in this part of the City, and when the Community Grid removes highway-bound traffic from these streets, people will flock to well-designed pedestrian places.
In Sync’s short history, it’s always been a City-centric service, but bikeshare could make its biggest impact in the suburbs. That’s because Sync’s ebikes are particularly useful for travelling long distances, and—with a growing network of intermunicipal trails—they could remake the way people get around Onondaga County.
The Empire State Trail, Onondaga Creekwalk, and Loop the Lake Trail are three interconnected trail systems that pass through or near Onondaga County’s main job centers and its most highly populated neighborhoods. They are also the kind of high-quality, low-stress biking infrastructure where lots of people feel comfortable riding a bike, even if they’re not ‘avid cyclists.’ These trail systems could allow people the freedom to travel across the county by bike.
But it’s not entirely practical for many people to use these trails in this way for the simple reason that many people live very far away from the places they work or shop or go to school. Most people who already bike to work live within 2 miles of all the jobs Downtown and on University Hill because that’s about as far as a lot of people are willing to pedal to get to work. Even though a person living in Elmcrest could bike all the way Downtown almost entirely on separated bike trails, that’s a 10-mile trip with a couple of hills, and it’s too difficult and time-consuming on a regular road bike.
But Sync doesn’t use regular road bikes. Its ebikes contain motors that make it much easier and quicker to bike over long distances and steep hills. This ease and speed means that people will be able to travel much further by bike without getting tired and sweaty and without wasting too much time, and it will greatly expand the distance that people are willing to travel by bike.
This is why Sync should look to expand its service area along the Empire State and Loop the Lake Trails. These are areas where it can provide a new and competitive service that will reduce both traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions while also making more suburban jobs accessible to City residents. It is also why City Hall, Onondaga County, and New York State should continue to expand the trail system to connect more neighborhoods and employment centers across the metro area.
Taken together, the countywide system of interconnected trails and Sync’s ebikes have the potential to meaningfully change the way people get around Central New York. High-quality, low-stress biking infrastructure makes biking comfortable for people who are just getting used to it, and motorized ebikes make biking long distances easy even for casual riders. Taken together, the countywide system of interconnected trails and Sync’s ebikes have the potential to meaningfully change the way people get around Central New York.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better metaphor for the sorry state of our bike infrastructure than the Mayor announcing the return of bikeshare by riding an e-scooter over the barely visible remains of a sharrow worn away by car traffic. So—as someone who enjoys metaphors and is often very angry about how dangerous it is for me and my family to bike around Syracuse—I took dark pleasure when that exact thing happened last week.
Here’s the Mayor riding down Westcott Street, and if you squint hard enough you can just make out two parallel lines of worn white paint right in front of him. Those faded painted lines are what pass for bike infrastructure in the neighborhood with the highest rate of bike commuting in the entire City.
That’s not going to cut it. For bikeshare to live up to its promise, City Hall needs to build out the infrastructure that can keep people safe as they make their way across town.
Adding e-scooters is also good. They were already growing in popularity as a cheap, easy way to get around, and they will make the program accessible to people who might be intimidated by bkeshare’s heavier, more physically demanding e-bikes.
But, for many people, bikeshare won’t eliminate the main barrier that’s keeping them from getting around Syracuse by bike: Syracuse’s streets are too dangerous for people on bikes! Almost necessarily, bikeshare is for people who don’t bike much now and probably aren’t very comfortable riding on city streets. It’s scary riding a bike and getting buzzed by a 2-ton truck because the driver is on their phone or maybe just pissed at you for being on the street. People who bike often out of necessity know this and develop strategies to avoid these kinds of situations, but it’s not reasonable to expect that most people will tolerate that level of danger and discomfort.
Just putting bikes and scooters out on the street isn’t enough. In order for bikeshare to truly be a new practical transportation option, people need to feel safe riding bikes and scooters on Syracuse’s streets.
This means Syracuse needs bike infrastructure specifically designed to be inviting to new riders who aren’t necessarily used to riding in cities. Low-stress cycling is an infrastructure design approach that’s become national best practice because it increases access to city biking by making the experience safe and comfortable. You don’t have to be particularly comfortable on a bike, you don’t have to have planned your route out in painstaking detail beforehand, you don’t have to maintain total alertness the entire ride in order to get where you’re going safely. This is infrastructure that welcomes novices, forgives mistakes, and generally treats biking as the legitimate activity for anybody rather than a specialized hobby for hardcore enthusiasts.
In other words, low-stress cycling infrastructure is the perfect complement to a bikeshare program designed to increase the number of people getting around by bike.
There’s a lot that goes into low-stress cycling infrastructure, but here are two main points: riders need to be protected from the stress of travelling near heavy vehicular traffic, and riders need easy access to a citywide network that can get them where they need to go without long detours.
In practice that means a lot more bike lanes and paths protected from vehicular traffic with some physical object like bollards or a curb—not paint—and laid across the City so that people can easily move within and between neighborhoods. The Creekwalk and Empire State Trail are very good examples of this kind of low-stress infrastructure, and they should form the backbone of a larger citywide network.
This should not be hard to implement. The Mayor has expressed interest in better bike infrastructure, but he often says the problem is money. Well, the American Rescue Plan gave City Hall $123 million to spend on Covid recovery, and Centro is running skeleton service because Covid caused structural changes in the nature of work that are making it hard for them to hire bus operators. City Hall is well within its rights to use that money to improve transportation infrastructure for people without reliable access to a car, and they should do so immediately to complement the return of bikeshare.
Bikeshare has the potential to expand access to a cheap, convenient, sustainable method of transportation. That’s good because people need better options for getting around in this town, now more than ever. But in order for the program to live up to its potential, City Hall has to make Syracuse’s streets safer. That’s going to require an investment in low-stress cycling infrastructure like protected bike lanes and multi-use trails. People need to feel comfortable using bikeshare even if they’ve never ridden in a city before, even if they haven’t been on a bike in years. That’s the only way for bikeshare to succeed.
The I-81 Draft Environmental Impact Statement put a lot of effort into explaining exactly how many minutes it would take to drive a car between different points in the County depending on what NYSDOT ultimately decides to do with the I-81 viaduct. NYSDOT estimates, for instance, that in 2056 during the morning rush it’ll take 27 minutes to get from Cicero to Lafayette if they leave the viaduct as it is, 23 minutes if they build a brand new viaduct, and 27 minutes if they build the Community Grid.
But the I-81 project’s biggest transportation impact won’t have anything to do with how long it takes to drive a car between Cicero and Lafayette. Instead, the I-81 project is going to decrease the number of car trips between such far flung locations and replace them with much shorter carless trips by changing the geography of where people can live in Onondaga County.
In general, if you were to walk from the edge of the Syracuse metropolitan area to its center at Clinton Square, each area you passed through would be more densely populated than the one you saw last. Onondaga County is more densely populated than predominantly rural Madison and Oswego Counties. Onondaga County’s inner ring suburbs are more densely populated than its newly built exurbs. The City’s neighborhoods are more densely populated than most all of its suburbs. The City’s older closer-in neighborhoods are more densely populated than the more recently developed neighborhoods at its edge.
And this makes a good deal of sense because it’s good to live near the center of things, so that’s where lots of people choose to live. It’s good to have ready access to hospitals and schools and places to work and places to socialize and lots of people to socialize with. Syracuse is the only place in all of Central New York where a person could step out their front door and be within walking distance of 50,000 jobs.
But once you reached the very center of the city, this pattern of increasing population density would all of a sudden reverse. Downtown Syracuse and the area that immediately surrounds it is significantly less densely populated than neighborhoods like the Northside and the Southside.
This is a real paradox, because the City’s center is one of the best places to live in order to enjoy the benefits that cities bring—being near stuff—and it’s obvious that people want to live in this area since the few that are pay exorbitant rents for the privilege.
People want to live near the center of town, but they can’t because the highway takes up too much space. The highway makes it so that the most desirable areas to live instead are on the exurban fringe. So people move out to the exurban fringe, but everybody’s moving to a different part of that fringe whether it’s Camillus or Lysander or Clay or Manlius. The community gets dispersed over an enormous area, and that’s how people find themselves in situations where they regularly need to get from Cicero to Lafayette for book club or work or their kid’s soccer game.
Tearing down the I-81 viaduct is a huge step towards fixing this transportation failure. The viaduct covers 18 acres of land, and tearing it down will free up a lot of space where people could find a good place to live. It will also make a lot of currently vacant land much more suitable for housing because there won’t be a big ugly polluting noisy highway right nearby anymore.
With more people living closer together, more of the places they need to go and the things they need to do will be located in a smaller area, so the post office and the pharmacy will be a 5 minute walk from home rather than a 5 minute car ride. As more people move to the center of town, there will be less need for all that parking and all those arterials, and there will be even more room for more people.
This trend is already underway. The five census tracts that surround the I-81 viaduct grew by 26% between 2010 and 2020. The people who accounted for that growth are not going to have to drive nearly as often or nearly as far as they would if they had instead moved to someplace like Fabius. When NYSDOT tears down the viaduct and replaces it with the Grid, they will make it more possible for more people to live similarly. That’s going to be the Grid’s biggest transportation impact.
Syracuse should reconnect with its waterfront. This City was built around water, and we have miles and miles of creeks, canals, and lakefront where people can get in touch with Syracuse’s maritime side.
But Syracuse should go farther and actually get people out on the water. We need more boats in this town.
Syracuse’s small waterways are perfect for kayaking. The Creekrats—a very good volunteer organization that helps clean and care for Onondaga Creek—know this, which is why they host Fun Floats where anybody can show up, borrow a kayak or canoe, and take a trip down the Creek the entire length of the City.
This is great, and we need more of it. In addition to kayaks and canoes, people should be tubing down the Creek. In addition to the Creekrats volunteer efforts, the City Parks department should be providing the public with small boats.
As Syracuse’s summers get hotter, people are going to need new ways to keep cool. Getting them floating down Onondaga Creek is a great place to start.
Car traffic to the State Fair and the Lake Amphitheater is famously terrible. That’s what happens when tens of thousands of people all try to drive to the same location. The only way to fix it is to give people more options for getting to those popular destinations.
Ferries would relieve that congestion, and they’d get people out onto Onondaga Lake. People going to concerts and the Fair could catch a ferry at the Inner Harbor, the Village of Liverpool, and Longbranch Park. They’d trade the hassle of traffic and parking for a leisurely sunset trip across the Lake.
The ice rink at Clinton Square is great because it recreates a traditional recreational use of the canal. The people who redesigned the square in 2001 had that iconic photograph in mind when they planned the public skating program. They wanted to give people “a sense of the canal.”
That’s fantastic—let’s do more.
One of the other ways that Syracuse residents used to interact with the canal was by boarding the floating attractions, museums, and shops that travelled from town to town along the canal. If we make more of NYSDOT’s planned ‘canal district’ and actually rewater the canal between Franklin and Montgomery Streets, there should absolutely be boats in that water for people to board.
The Erie Canal Museum could run a historic packet boat, restaurants could put outdoor seating on a stationary barge, local artists could set up pop up retail shops. There are plenty of attractions that would get people onto boats, and that would reconnect them with the canal.
In order to really activate Syracuse’s waterfront, we need more programming. Kayaking, tubing, ferries, floating attractions, whatever. Just provide people with ways to get out on the water, and they will do it.