All posts by inthesalt.city

Bike Lanes in Winter

A lot of people are concerned that Syracuse is wasting its time making the streets safe for bikes. ‘It snows here,’ they say, ‘three months of the year no one’s going to be on a bike.’ This do-nothing stance treats bikes as recreation, and it treats all the people who ride them as fitness buffs. It fails to address the reality in Syracuse, which is a lot of people don’t have access to a car, and bikes can and should be a safe, convenient way for them to get around town.

First, let’s get over this ‘no biking in winter’ thing. If we all just stopped using a transportation option because snow made it harder, then no one would drive in the winter either. The slick roads, white outs, and potholes make driving in the winter miserable, but people keep on doing it anyway. It’s not so fun biking in that weather either, but if that’s how you get to work, then you’re going to keep on biking regardless of the weather. Plenty of people on bikes aren’t out there for fun—they ride because it’s the most practical economical way to get around town. It’s more dangerous for them to do that in winter, sure, but that’s exactly why Syracuse needs more bike lanes to keep them safe.

There are people who won’t bike in winter—they weigh all their options and decide that it’s not worth the extra danger to keep biking through winter with all that snow, ice, and all those lousy drivers. How do they get around town during the winter? Not in their own personal cars, that’s for sure. If these people had a spare car lying around, it’s how they’d travel all year. No, they’ve either got to walk or ride the bus when they put the bike up.

But if there are so many bike riders making this decision, then how come we’re not doing more to make walking or riding the bus safer and more convenient in winter? Why did it take so long to plow even a few sidewalks? Why aren’t there more buses? Why aren’t the people so concerned that we not waste money on bike lanes because of ‘winter’ asking these same questions too?

It’s because they don’t really see who uses bikes and what for. These people are car drivers who might understand the idea of taking a Saturday bike ride for fun or whatever, but they’d never mix that up with the real business of getting to work or buying groceries or taking a child to school. They think Syracuse is for people in cars because everybody has one.

But plenty of people don’t have a car, and Syracuse is for them too. Those people need wider sidewalks, they need better bus service, and they also need more bike lanes—especially in the winter

The Promise of the 20-Minute City

Ask some people, and they’ll tell you that the best thing about Syracuse is that it’s a ‘20-Minute City.’ They mean that you can get between any two points in Onondaga County—from Fayetteville to Fairmount, from Liverpool to Lafayette—in 20 minutes or less. This was part of Syracuse’s pitch to get Amazon’s HQ2, it’s part of how the City’s suburbs keep making ‘Best Places to Live’ lists, it’s a big part of the debate around the Downtown I81 viaduct.

Because it’s quick and easy to get to anywhere from anywhere, the 20-Minute City provides people with opportunity. No matter where you work, you can choose to live in any neighborhood. No matter where your live, you can attend any church, your kids can go to any school that will take them, you can visit any attraction. In the 20-Minute City, distance can’t constrain people making those kinds of decisions.

But—and this rarely ever gets acknowledged—all of that is only true if you own a car. Syracuse has been sprawling out for decades, and now everything is so spread out that a lot of people travel twenty or thirty miles just to run their daily errands. No one could reasonably walk or bike those distances, and buses don’t even run to much of the County. In the 20-minute City, opportunity requires a car.

And that means that the 20-minute City doesn’t offer equal access to opportunity. Kids don’t own cars, and as a result are totally dependent on their parents for rides to school, practice, friends’ houses. Plenty of adults don’t own cars either—they don’t have a license, they don’t want the expense, they can’t drive. There are thousands of people in Syracuse in the same situation for all kinds of different reasons, and none of them are free to fully participate in the 20-minute City.

For years, local government has responded to this problem in two different ways. The first—and most direct—response has been to get those people into cars. Onondaga County’s Rides-to-Work program subsidized cab fare for people commuting to work, and its Wheels-for-Work program actually bought cars for people who couldn’t bus, bike, or walk to work in the 20-Minute City. The same idea motivated the County’s support for Providence Services, it inspired a pilot program to subsidize Lyft rides for certain commuters, and it lurks behind the Post-Standard’s position that app-taxis should replace Centro.

All of these ideas have had some success—some people did get to own a car, some people do ride to work with Providence Services, and some people do use Uber to get around town—but none of them has ever been able to provide everybody with the car-dependent-opportunity that the 20-minute City promises. Onondaga County cancelled it’s direct car-subsidy programs because of cost, Providence Services gives rides to 45 people, and Uber is simply too expensive for the poorest people to use everyday (even with billions of dollars of private subsidy from venture capitalists).

The second and more widespread response has been to shoehorn pedestrians, bikes, and buses into spaces designed exclusively for cars. That’s how you get a new crosswalk at the intersection of 57 and John Glenn, bike lanes on the shoulders of the Onondaga Lake Parkway, and buses that loop through the parking lots of strip malls in the suburbs.

 

None of the new pedestrian or bike infrastructure is any good. That John Glenn crosswalk doesn’t connect to a sidewalk on one side, and bikers on the Parkway have no real protection from speeding cars.

More to the point, that infrastructure does nothing to change the land-use patterns that make life so difficult for people who get around without a car. In the 20-Minute City, homes, schools, churches, and workplaces in a community can all be miles away from each other—separated by distances that no person could cover on a bike, much less on foot, even with the very best bike lane or sidewalk.

It’s not any better for buses. Centro’s system map makes it seem like just about the whole County is accessible by bus, but just try to actually get to Jordan, or Central Square, or Lafayette. Those places only see a couple of buses a day, so it’s not actually practical to reach them except at a few very specific times. That constraint means that people often can’t actually get to work from those places, and so they don’t really have the opportunity to live in those places.

 

At the same time, the very fact that Centro is running buses all the way out to those little villages means that there are fewer buses running on the lines where people could actually use them. Even Centro’s best bus lines stop running for about an hour during the middle of the day. The vast majority see that kind of service gap all the time. Centro’s existing insufficient budget just can’t buy enough vehicles and pay enough operators to run buses all over the County and to provide quality service in the neighborhoods where lots of people really do ride the bus. People rely on this barely passable service, and starving it of resources robs them of opportunity.

The 20-minute City fails to actually provide the opportunity that it promises. Opportunity, but only if you own a car. Anybody who can’t or won’t accept that ridiculous condition is stuck in a city that ignores their needs, that treats them like a problem to be fixed, that asks why they can’t just get with the program and start driving around like everybody else.

Syracuse needs a better idea of what opportunity should look like and what that means for the 20-minute city. Instead of a place that can get a car anywhere in the county in 20 minutes or less, Syracuse needs to be a place where everybody is within 20 minutes of all their daily needs, no matter how they choose to travel.

This new orientation emphasizes location, distance, and variety where the current 20-minute city ignores all of that in favor of parking lots and wide roads. It’s the difference between a neighborhood like Eastwood where people can walk to the drug store, post-office, and library, bike to the grocery store and school, and catch a bus to work, and a neighborhood like Radisson where all of those same things are perfectly accessible, but only after a 5, 10, or 20 minute drive.

If Syracuse is really going to be a City where everybody has equal opportunity, then it needs more neighborhoods like Eastwood and fewer like Radisson. More neighborhoods where businesses mix with homes, more neighborhoods where small lots and apartment buildings make it so lots of people can live within walking distance of those businesses and the bus stop, more neighborhoods where lots of buses actually serve that bus stop all day, and more neighborhoods where it’s safe, convenient, and pleasant to walk or bike around at all.

 

None of this should be controversial. It’s what so many people want for their neighborhoods already. We just have to actually make it happen. That means zoning reform, road redesign, and better bus service in those neighborhoods where the new 20-minute City is possible. It also means that when Syracuse builds new neighborhoods—like it’s trying to do at the Inner Harbor, under the viaduct, and at Pioneer Homes—those places need to be places of opportunity for all people from the very beginning.

The promise of the old 20-minute City dominates a lot of people’s hopes for Syracuse. It’s a place where people enjoy boundless opportunity, boundless choice—where no one decision about where to live or where to work or where to shop has any effect on any other decision because all things and all places are equally accessible from anywhere. But that version of the 20-minute City is, at its root, exclusionary. It only works for people who have achieved or accepted car-dependency, and so it only works for some of the people who actually live in Syracuse. The new 20-minute City modifies that promise and makes it equally accessible to all people—no matter where you are and no matter how you get around, you will have the opportunity to make a full life in Syracuse.

Working with Students for a Better City

University students and people living in Syracuse long-term face a lot of the same problems and should be natural political allies, but some structural barriers keep them from working together to make the City a better place to live.

Take this garbage pickup proposal. City Hall collects trash from small residential properties but not from big apartment buildings. Right now, the cut-off between ‘small’ and ‘big’ is 10 apartments—they’ll pick up the trash from a 10-unit buildings but not from an 11-unit building. City Hall was talking about moving that cut-off to 4 apartments—any building with 4 or fewer units would still get free trash pickup, but now buildings with between 5 and 10 units would need to pay a private company to haul away their trash.

It’s pretty obvious that the result of this would have been to raise the rents on people living in buildings with between 5 and 10 apartments. Contracting out trash pickup would have cost those buildings’ owners money, and landlords would have passed that cost along to their tenants in the form of higher rents.

You can find those buildings (outlined in red) in most parts of the City, but they’re concentrated in Syracuse’s poorest neighborhoods (mapped in yellow). On the face of it, this is a bad policy that would take money out of the pockets of the people who can least afford it.

 

But a lot of people will look at this map, see that a lot of the affected properties are on University Hill and say something like ‘well that’s student housing, they’re not really poor, they can afford it, screw them.’

A lot of students, if they even ever see this map, will probably ignore it.

Both responses are short sighted. Students really are affected by what happens in the City—this law really would have raised their rent—and for that very reason, they are potential allies in the fight for a better Syracuse. 

But there are structural obstacles that stand in the way of that alliance. The most obvious is students’ transiency. Say this change to garbage pickup had gone through, and several thousand people ended up paying more in rent. Give it a few years, and no university students will be around who would remember the change. Longer term residents can help students understand the small histories, like this one, that have shaped Syracuse over decades.

Another obstacle is the University’s ability to do for students what government should do for everybody. A lot of the time it’s easier for students to get the University to fix a problem than to go through local government—that’s how Syracuse has ended up with parallel segregated quasi-public services like the University’s transit system and police force. These services are insufficient, though, and ultimately fail to protect students from the same threats that people face throughout the rest of the City everyday. Students can improve their own lives by working with the rest of Syracuse to advocate for the kinds of positive change that the entire City needs.

Syracuse’s problems affect every single person living in the City. They are the result of an inequitable distribution of power that can only exist when the people most affected by those problems are kept from working together to solve them. So people in Syracuse hate on students, students ignore people in Syracuse, and both groups continue to face the same pressures day in and day out. If they organized together, they would have the power to make the entire City a better place to live.

Centro at the Fair: 2019

Public transportation allows a lot of people to all get together in one place at one time. That’s a good thing, like when Centro carried a quarter of this year’s record breaking crowd to the New York State Fair. It can also be a good thing in Syracuse every day by getting enough people together to create the kinds of places the City needs.

People ride Centro to the Fair for the convenience—not because it’s cheaper (it’s not), not because they don’t own cars (they do), and not because it’s the environmentally conscious thing to do (no one cares).

People ride the bus because there’s simply not enough room for 150,000 people and their cars to all fit at the fairgrounds. On Saturday August 31 when the Fair set its all-time daily attendance record, the parking lots were totally full by 3pm. At that point there was plenty of room left for more people, but no more room for cars. Centro squared that circle by getting thousands more people to the Fair without needing any room to store all of their personal vehicles.

The Fair could take a different tack. It could demand that everybody come in their own car, and it could increase attendance by clearing out more space for all those extra cars. The problem there, though, is that when you make more space for cars that means less space for people. The Fair already parks cars on just about all the extra land it’s got, so at this point bigger parking lots would have to take space from the Fair itself—kicking out the RVs or paving over the amphitheater or the midway. That obviously defeats the purpose, though, because then fewer people would want to come to the Fair in the first place.

Compare that to the City itself. A lot of those same people riding the bus to the Fair would never take Centro around town. Syracuse has empty highways and plenty of parking—more than enough to accommodate everybody trying to get there, so why not just drive?

The Fair’s example shows just how damaging that is. Every surface lot, every highway interchange, every parking lane, every driveway is space where someone could run a business, go to school, or make a home. The reason that there’s enough space to accommodate all the cars of all the people who want to be in the City is that excess pavement has crowded out all of the other possibilities that could make enough people want to come to Syracuse to actually fill its space.

So Blueprint 15 will displace people because of parking minimums, Walton Street is going to be a walker’s paradise that you have to drive to, and we can’t get enough space to walk or bike because so much of the street is wasted on car storage. City Hall, developers, everybody plans for cars first, makes enough room for them, and then doesn’t leave enough to accommodate people. The predictable result is empty places without enough neighbors, businesses, or institutions to thrive.

The alternative is to rebalance the City’s transportation options to look more like the Fair’s. Sure it’s possible to drive to the Fair—it’s just a hassle. Anybody who doesn’t want to deal with that can take Centro’s frequent, predictable, convenient buses. Imagine that in Syracuse. Parking lots and interchanges turned into parks, homes, schools, stores, and libraries, curbside parking lanes turned into wider sidewalks, bike lanes, outdoor cafes, and gardens, and bus service that makes it easy to get around town so that people don’t even miss all that empty pavement.

OnTrack’s Shadow

Sometimes it feels like this City can’t get past OnTrack. When Centro is working to run better bus service, people just say ‘bring back OnTrack.’ When I81 is making Syracuse totally rethink what kind of city it wants to be and what that means for public transportation, people just say ‘bring back OnTrack.’ That rail service was a great experiment, but Syracuse needs to move on if public transportation is ever going to do what it needs to do in this town.
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Syracuse needs better public transportation between the University, Downtown, and the Mall. That’s common sense, and it’s one of the big recommendations from the Syracuse Transit System Analysis. After weighing all the options, the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council drew up a plan to serve that corridor with a new high-frequency bus line.

OnTrack used to do that same job, but a bus could do it better for the simple reason that a bus could do it faster. OnTrack ran on rails that zigged and zagged through the City, tracing a 4.5-mile squiggle from the University to the Mall. Trains took 20 minutes to make that trip. That’s no faster than what Centro’s buses already do running on 3.75 miles of city streets, and SMTC’s plan includes a few tricks that will make those buses go even faster.

Despite that simple fact, people still ask why Syracuse should settle for a fast bus when it could have a slow train instead. That mindset—trains or nothing—deprives bus service of its natural political allies, and it keeps Centro from making even incremental changes to improve the state of public transportation in Syracuse.

At the same time, OnTrack is a poor model if you’re trying to imagine what a truly transformational transit system would look like. It was a half-hearted budget-minded proposal that barely even tried to improve the lives of people who actually rely on public transportation.

Train tracks criss cross Syracuse and its suburbs. The rail lines left over from the City’s pre-car period still run through the walkable villages and neighborhoods where public transit works best, and they extend to major regional population centers like Oswego, Auburn, and Cortland. A true regional rail service could connect all those places, making it possible to get around the entire metropolitan area quickly and conveniently without ever having to step foot in a car.

Existing rail infrastructure

And that’s not the only way to liberate people from automotive dependency. Syracuse has ceded its streets entirely to cars. Take just a fraction of that space back, and the City could have a true rapid transit network with buses running in dedicated transitways through villages and neighborhoods, and in separated lanes on the highways that connect those population centers.

Despite these possibilities, too many ideas about what’s possible in this town start and end with OnTrack—a solitary, short, single-tracked rail line that served too few destinations too slowly and too infrequently. If Syracuse ever builds the political will to spend the money necessary to build a transformational public transportation system, we’ll need to think bigger than that.

OnTrack was a bold experiment. The City needed better public transportation, and instead of tinkering with bus routes Syracuse went big and built an El. As a passenger train service OnTrack failed, but as an experiment it succeeded in showing the City what wouldn’t work and in suggesting new possibilities that could work. That should be OnTrack’s legacy—a visionary investment in public transportation that points the way towards a better future Syracuse.

The Canal in the City

The Erie Canal is maybe the most important thing that ever happened to Syracuse, but there’s hardly any trace of it left in the City. That’s bad—it makes it harder for people to tell their City’s story, and that makes it harder for them to place themselves within that story. Anything that restores the canal’s place in people’s lived experience of the City also strengthens the community by making that shared story more accessible.

Where the canal has been obliterated, symbols can refer to its place in the City. Brickwork on J Ryan’s patio shows where canal boats used to wait to enter the weighlock across the street, the Arterie project painted part of Erie Boulevard blue to mimic water, and Erie Boulevard’s name itself refers to the canal that used to run in its place. The best of these symbols is the fountain in Clinton Square—look at it from certain angles, and it actually looks like the canal still runs through Downtown.

But there are also places where parts of the canal still exist, and we don’t need symbols to mediate our experience of it. Just outside the City in Camillus and Dewitt, the canal itself still runs through public parks. In Syracuse itself, the old weighlock building is now the Erie Canal Museum, and City Hall recently carefully restored the aqueduct that used to carry the canal over Onondaga Creek.

Right now, Syracuse has an opportunity to do more of all of this. NYSDOT’s DEIS includes a plan for a ‘Canal District’ around the intersection of Oswego and Erie Boulevards. That plan is not very ambitious At the same time, the Reimagine the Canal’s taskforce is working to make the canal more culturally relevant to Upstate communities. Syracuse can harness that energy to do something big to restore the Erie Canal’s place in the heart of Downtown.renderingconfluence

That could take a lot of different forms, but here’s one suggestion. Close Erie Boulevard from Clinton Square to Oswego Boulevard—those blocks are basically a parking lot anyway. Excavate the original canal walls—the Clinton Square fountain revealed a small section of the wall, but without context it’s turned into a trash pit. Fill that entire two-block section with water, extending to the wide area where the Erie Canal intersected with the Oswego.

This would essentially extend the idea of the Clinton Square fountain over three full blocks, creating an artificial body of water that’s more recognizable as a canal because of its length. It’s an idea that works in Buffalo, where Canalside recreates a portion of the piers and slips that made that city into an artificial archipelago.

Syracuse doesn’t make sense without the canal. By obliterating it so totally, we have scrambled our relationship with the past and thus with each other, unable to answer the community’s existential question ‘why are we all here?”

An enormous part of the answer to that question is ‘the canal.’ Restoring it, bringing it to the surface, making it a familiar part of people’s daily lived experience in the City is a good thing.

 

Buses Without Traffic

You’re riding the bus when a mother with her two kids rings the bell. The bus pulls over, they get off, and the operator waits for a few cars to pass before he can get back into the travel lane. During those few seconds the light turns yellow and then red. The bus rolls up to the light, and then you sit there, waiting for it to turn green, hoping to avoid a similar delay at the next intersection.

The problem is traffic. The cars running parallel to the bus keep it from pulling away from the curb, and the cars running on the cross street keep it stuck at the intersection. The only sure way for the bus to avoid that kind of delay is to get it out of traffic.

Bus lanes can fix half the problem. They clear a straight path down the street so that buses can pickup, transport, and drop off passengers in a single unobstructed line.

Transit signal priority deals with the other half of the traffic problem. Smart stop lights sense approaching buses, holding a green or shortening a red so that all those riders can get through the intersection quickly.

Bus lanes Downtown and signal priority at key intersections like Park and Harborside Drive would immediately relieve choke points where buses get slowed down now. Expanding those smart technologies throughout the City would improve service across the system, allowing for faster frequent service everywhere.

Eventually, Centro could build a true bus rapid transit line of crosstown bus-only streets with transit signal priority. Imagine riding Downtown on a street reserved for buses. There aren’t any cars, so the lanes are narrower, the sidewalks are wider, and the bus runs right at the curb. When someone has to get off, the bus only pauses long enough for them to step out before it continues down the block, and you never get stuck at a red light.

Tourism’s Trap

The Reimagine the Canals Initiative—a statewide brainstorming session that asks ‘how can we make more money off the Erie Canal?’—threatens to reduce one of Upstate’s most valuable pieces of infrastructure into a tourist attraction.

The initiative follows last year’s Reimagine the Canals Competition. The judges of that competition thought that the Canal was most useful as a site for waterfront development and beer festivals. It also follows the Governor’s other big ideas for Upstate communities like Syracuse: amphitheaters, gondolas, year-round fairs—all schemes to attract tourists.

Tourism is a seductive economic development strategy. It could work literally anywhere, it gets out-of-towners to pay local sales and hotel taxes, and it flatters consultants and politicians from outside of the community by assuming that a place like Syracuse would be better off if it would just cater to their upper-class tastes.

But the Erie Canal isn’t just sitting there, useless, waiting for us to reimagine a reason that tourists might want to visit it. The Canal is a statewide flood control system. It’s necessary to the survival of dozens of Upstate villages, towns, and cities, and it will become even more necessary as climate change makes the flooding up here more frequent and more destructive.

The people who actually run the Canal understand this. Thankfully, they’re at least getting the initiative’s leaders to consider flood mitigation, irrigation, and environmental remediation alongside the flashier tourism proposals. Help them out by telling the Initiative that you value the Canal for what it actually does for the state. You can submit your comments at this link.

An Ugly Idea

Ever since NYSDOT came out in favor of the Grid, Town of Clay Supervisor Damian Ulatowski has been spreading a real ugly idea around Onondaga County. He’s been telling anyone who will listen that the suburbs’ “voices are not being heard.”

When Ulatowski says that, he doesn’t mean that all the communities along I81 should have a say over what happens to the viaduct—he’s never lifted up voices from Binghamton, Harrisburg, Roanoke, or Knoxville. And he also doesn’t mean that all the different governments in Onondaga County should be working more closely together—he opposed Consensus in 2016. And clearly he doesn’t mean that decisions made in any one community should account for their effects on other communities—he’s never cared one bit how Clay’s sprawl reduces opportunity for people living in the City.

What Ulatowski means when he says “our voices are not being heard” is that the suburbs should have control over what happens in Syracuse. He believes that the City exists for the benefit of the suburbs, and that the people living in Syracuse can only be trusted to make decisions as long as they accept that fact.

It’s an ugly idea—laced with racism and paternalism—and it’s been hiding behind bland words like “compromise” and “cooperation.” We need to call it out. When people living in Manlius say that I81’s future should be decided by public referendum, ask why they think they should get to participate in that vote. When hotel owners in Salina say that the needs of the suburbs outweigh the needs of the City, ask what kind of messed up scale they’re using. When Damian Ulatowski says that his voice isn’t being heard, tell him you can hear him fine, it’s just that he’s not saying anything worth listening to.

Congressman Katko’s Party Loyalty

As the Republican Party digs in to defend the President, Congressman John Katko is losing control of his carefully crafted image as a ‘moderate.’

It used to be that Paul Ryan would help Katko maintain that image by allowing him to cast meaningless protest votes against unpopular Republican legislation. That’s what happened in 2017 when Katko’s party tried to repeal Obamacare. Republicans had a big enough majority to make it happen even though Katko voted against them. Ryan let him—and 19 other vulnerable Republican representatives—cast that symbolic vote so that Katko could come off looking like he was defying his party without actually doing anything to protect his constituents’ health insurance.

That’s all changed now that the Republican Party has decided to defend the President at all costs. Just last week the President told four congresswomen—one an immigrant, three native-born, all American citizens—to “go back” to the countries that they “originally came from.” Katko should have condemned that statement immediately because it’s the right thing to do, because he represents the 40,000 immigrants and refugees that live in his district, and because it would have been an easy way to maintain his image as a ‘moderate’ without actually opposing any of the Republicans’ disgusting immigration policies. Instead, Katko rallied to the Republican flag—putting out a statement that disagreed with the President’s style but not the substance of what he said. When the House voted to call that racism out, Katko fell into line behind the President.

Katko won’t actually challenge the National Republican Party on any issue, so he’s needed their help to cultivate a ‘moderate’ image in Central New York. That help isn’t coming anymore, and it’s getting harder and harder for him to disguise party loyalty as ‘moderation.’ Sooner or later, he’s going to have to make a real choice.