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Coronavirus and the Bus

Crises reveal what really matters. Work that used to be forgotten is now understood to be essential. Workers who used to be taken for granted are now recognized as heroes—fighting on the frontlines against this global pandemic—the hospitals, the nursing homes, the garbage routes, the checkout counters.

Renewed appreciation for these people and the work that they do is shaking up Syracuse’s ideas about what makes the City work. When Syracuse started social distancing, a lot of people expected Centro to cut its service. After all, demand was bound to go down, and anyways, no one really rides the bus, right?

Instead, the entire community is learning just how much Syracuse needs the bus. While big cities like Chicago and Boston have seen 75% drops in transit use, Centro’s ridership has only dropped 55%. And the people who are still on the bus are the ones getting Syracuse through this crisis. As Centro spokesman Steve Koegel pointed out, the remaining bus riders are often in uniform: “A lot of people are wearing hospital garb. It’s visible those are the people using our service. They are critical-need workers.”

So while the buses remained full of heroes riding to work in the hospitals, and highway interchanges went empty, our transportation priorities shifted. The federal stimulus included $21.5 million for Centro, a necessary lifeline for a perennially underfunded service. After years of getting cut out of budget deals, left to languish with declining local, state, and federal support, this crisis shook people up and made them realize that Syracuse needs a functioning public transportation system to survive.

But the risk is that once this crisis is over, once we’ve moved from dealing with a global pandemic to managing its economic aftershock, the people in power will forget that lesson and go back to business as usual—back to neglecting the basic necessities that made it possible for the City to get through this, back to starving the bus.

We can’t let it happen. We need to come out of this smarter than when we went in, with a greater appreciation for what makes life in Syracuse livable. That means a new commitment to the services that support the people who do Syracuse’s most essential work—it means better bus service.

What if Liverpool had merged with Salina and Syracuse in 1848?

In 1848 the villages of Salina (the area around Washington Square) and Syracuse (the area around Clinton Square) merged to form the City of Syracuse. According to Dennis Connor’s book Crossroads in Time, local leaders also considered including the villages of Geddes and Liverpool in the new city. Geddes (the area around St Mark’s Square on West Genesee Street) eventually joined the City in 1886, but Liverpool never did. In fact, the City never annexed any land between Salina and Liverpool.

What if Liverpool had joined Salina and Syracuse to form a new City in 1848?

When Salina and Syracuse merged in 1848, there was still a lot of empty land between them. In 1830, Onondaga County moved its courthouse from Onondaga Hill to the corner of Salina and Division Streets in an attempt to stimulate development there so that the two villages would grow into each other. That didn’t happen. An 1838 map shows the courthouse sitting all alone, Salina only extending as far south as Court Street, and Syracuse only reaching as far north as Hickory Street. When that courthouse burned in 1856, its location was still so out of the way that the County built its third courthouse on Clinton Square.

Screenshot 2020-03-19 at 1.22.32 PM

But in 1860, the City’s very first streetcar line began service between Washington and Clinton Squares, and by 1868, Syracuse and Salina had grown together. A bird’s-eye-view from that year shows houses and businesses lining Salina, State, and Lodi Streets between the two former villages. A similar print from 1874 shows even more development and less open land on the blocks surrounding North Salina Street.

Meanwhile, the land between Liverpool and Salina stayed empty. Developers built a few new blocks of housing at the intersection of Old Liverpool and Buckley Roads in the early 20th century, but a lack of fresh water and public transportation limited development there, It wasn’t until after World War II that a new municipal water source and higher rates of car ownership made Galeville’s subdivisions possible.

Let’s assume that if Liverpool had merged with Salina and Syracuse in 1848, this would have extended the new City’s boundaries to include the present Village of Liverpool and all of the land between it, Ley Creek, 7th North Street, and Onondaga Lake—Galeville, basically. As part of the new City of Syracuse, anyone living there would have had access to municipal services like fresh water in the 1860’s and fire protection in the 1870’s. They could have walked to work at the Galeville Salt Works, and streetcar service would have connected Liverpool to Syracuse before 1903.

All of which is to say that if Liverpool had joined the City of Syracuse in 1848, then Galeville would have developed in the late 1800s rather than the late 1900s.

Different neighborhoods built at the same time follow a similar pattern. The Northside neighborhoods that grew up in the 1850s look like the oldest parts of the Near Westside—Scottholm looks and feels like Sedgwick and Strathmore because they were all built in the 1910s and 1920s when curving streets, big lots, single-family zoning, and eclectic architecture were in style. Galeville looks a lot like Pitcher Hill and Franklin Park because developers built all three neighborhoods at the same time.

So we can imagine how different Galeville might look if it were built 100 or 80 or 60 years earlier. Galeville’s distance from Downtown, its topography, and the nearby railroad, canal, and salt works all make it very similar to Tipperary Hill. It’s just a guess, but if Galeville had been part of Syracuse from 1848, then people might have started moving there in the 1870s—about the time that people moved to Tipp Hill. Then, like that older city neighborhood, Galeville would be covered in taller houses on smaller lots along narrower streets with businesses, churches, and schools scattered throughout the neighborhood so that people could buy groceries, get a haircut, or go to the bar without having to catch a trolley.

Of course, if the Village of Liverpool had merged with Salina and Syracuse in 1848, it would be a different place too. The Village already had ready access to municipal services like water, schools, and fire protection in the 1800s, and it had lots of jobs in salt making, boat repair, and basket weaving—none of those factors constrained Liverpool the way they did Galeville, and the Village would probably have grown just as it actually did.

With one big difference. The postwar suburban boom hit Liverpool hard—people wanted to pass through the Village to get from their new subdivisions to Downtown, and NYSDOT responded by widening Oswego Street to more than 60 feet across. That wide road made it easy for all of northern Onondaga County to drive though Liverpool on their way to Syracuse, but it also made it unnecessarily hard for anybody to walk from one side of the Village to the other.

There are roads that wide in other County suburbs—West Genesee in Fairmount, Route 5 in Fayetteville, Erie Boulevard in Dewitt—but there are none in Syracuse. City neighborhoods didn’t want their walkable streets widened into dangerous roads, and they had collective political power to keep it from happening. If Liverpool were a city neighborhood, Oswego Street would be a reasonable size.

Picture that: Liverpool, a lakeside city neighborhood with its mix of apartments and 1-family homes, neighborhood businesses, and walkable streets. Take a bus into Downtown, and you’d pass through Galeville—a tight-knit community on a bluff overlooking Onondaga Lake Park. What if, right?



(aerial photographs from Cornell University Library. Black and white photographs of Liverpool from the Liverpool Public Library.)

Three Reasons to Free Streets From Cars

As Syracuse plans to reserve more of its streets for buses, bikers, and people on foot, it’s important to be clear about why that’s a good idea. There are at least three different reasons to keep cars off a city street.

To make an intersection safer

Intersections where lots of streets meet at odd angles can be hard to navigate. All the different traffic lights are confusing, and it’s hard to time them well. Traffic backs up, and no one’s sure when they’re supposed to go. People get frustrated, and that’s dangerous when so many of them are operating 2-ton steel motor vehicles.

Sometimes, cities can make these kinds of intersections simpler—and safer—by closing part of a street to car traffic. That’s what New York City did at Times Square, it’s what Boston has proposed for Kenmore Square, and it’s what Syracuse has done at Onondaga Circle, Columbus Circle, and is planning to do at Butternut Circle.

To create a destination

New York City’s Times Square redo also created a brand new public space in the middle of Manhattan—a place where people came to hang out, rest, and enjoy the city.

Plenty of other cities have closed small sections of central streets to create similar destinations: Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace, Ithaca’s Commons, Boston’s Faneuil Hall. These ‘pedestrian malls’ are all at the center of their Downtowns—they’re all designed to draw people from across the metropolitan area, to act as commercial/cultural hubs for their regions.

But many tried to do this and failed. For every Ithaca Commons there’s a lifeless Buffalo Main Street. Arian Horbovetz recently argued that pedestrian malls are likely to fail in smaller cities, and that traffic calming is a better option. The reason is that, in Upstate’s car-dominated cities, most people could only reach these car-free destinations by car. Pedestrian malls will only work when people can walk, or bike, or bus to them.

To make it easier to get around

Cities can make it a lot easier for people to walk, bike, or bus by setting aside entire streets for those means of transportation. That was the idea behind taking cars off 14th Street in New York City and Market Street in San Francisco—buses running on those streets are now free from car traffic, and bikers on those streets don’t have to worry about getting run over anymore.

Syracuse can do the same. It was built to house and move a much higher mid-century population, and now it’s got plenty of extra streets that cars don’t need. Already, Onondaga Creek Boulevard is just for bikes and walkers. City Hall should do the same thing on Water Street between Erie Boulevard and Townsend Street, creating a safe, convenient, flat connection between Downtown and the Eastside.

Screenshot 2020-03-15 at 11.25.21 PM

The good news is that Syracuse doesn’t have to pick just one of these reasons for keeping cars off some of its streets. Simplifying an intersection can create a new public square where people can sit and enjoy the city. Turning a regular street into a bikeway can bring more people to a city’s public squares. Reserving one street for buses can simplify a whole bunch of intersections. All of these different reasons can work together to create a safer, simpler, happier city.

Judging the Mayor’s Next Two Years

Ben Walsh just announced that he’s going to run for reelection in 2021. That gives the Mayor two years to convince you to vote for him. Here are four things to watch over that time to help inform your decision.


It wasn’t a big deal when Ben-Walsh-the-candidate said he’d do something about Syracuse’s snow-covered sidewalks. Everyone knows it’s a problem, everyone wants it fixed, but no one has ever been able to make it happen.

So it was a big deal when Ben-Walsh-the-mayor actually rolled out a sidewalk plowing program in his first winter in office. That pilot program was small, but it was more than any other mayor had done, and year later City Hall doubled the size of the program.

But that pilot program pales in comparison to the Mayor’s most recent sidewalk proposal. In his 2020 State of the City, Mayor Walsh promised to plow all the City’s sidewalks and he promised to actually keep them in good repair. This would be a very very big deal, and we’ll see if the Mayor can make it happen before he runs for reelection.


Similarly, Ben-Walsh-the-candidate’s vague support for public transportation was hard to take very seriously—everybody says they like the bus, but very few politicians actually do anything to make the service better—but a City where people use the sidewalks also has to be a City where people ride the bus because Syracuse is too big for people to be able to walk everywhere worth going.

Mayor-elect Walsh’s transition team made his support for Centro a little more specific. They endorsed SMTC’s SMART1 plan, and they prioritized better service on the Eastside.

But we haven’t heard anything about the Mayor’s plans for Centro since then. For too long, Syracuse’s City Hall has pled poverty when the City’s people have demanded better bus service. That’s left public transportation to the County and the State, and both are failing City residents. It’s time for the Mayor to make Centro a priority and bring better bus service to Syracuse.



Ben Walsh’s stance on I81 is the best example of his political approach. He turned this City-Suburb wedge issue on its head by arguing forcefully and credibly that the Grid plan was the best for the entire County. Contrast that idealistic appeal for consensus with the cynical ‘compromise’ floated by the Grid’s opponents: a tunnel that would recreate all the viaduct’s worst problems at twice the cost.

Walsh’s commitment to doing the smart thing on I81 paid off. Since he claimed that space in the debate, County Executive Ryan McMahon has remained neutral and Governor Andrew Cuomo has released a DEIS that supports the Grid.

But now we’ve gone back into limbo waiting for the final EIS and Record of Decision. In the meantime, the Grid plan has morphed into a highway widening project, and other interests have started making claims on the money that should go towards mitigating the  project’s impacts on City residents.

Before Mayor Walsh’s term is out, this process needs to end. We need final word that the viaduct is coming down, and we need to know that the project will actually benefit people in the City by bringing construction jobs in, getting smog out, and making it easier for people to actually get around.

Blueprint 15

I81 is about way more than what to do with the viaduct—it’s also going to mean big changes for the neighborhoods that surround the highway. It won’t be worth the effort to tear down the viaduct if we don’t end up with a healthier, better housed, more integrated City.

Blueprint 15 is Mayor Walsh’s plan to make that dream a reality. The plan would demolish Pioneer Homes and Central Village, it would replace them with all new mixed-income housing, it would bring businesses and community services into the neighborhood, it would improve MLK Elementary, and it would put more people within walking distance of the region’s two main job centers.

That initial proposal had all the right words, but all the wrong numbers. Tearing down 1000 old affordable apartments in order to build 700 new ones and 700 new market-rate apartments is the definition of displacement. There’s no need to do that, especially when there’s plenty of room in the project area to build more homes. Before we actually get around to tearing down the viaduct, Mayor Walsh’s Blueprint 15 plan needs to change.

Ben Walsh has made a lot of his first two years as Syracuse’s mayor. He’ll need to do just as much and more over the next two if he’s going to earn a second term. These are four of the biggest things to watch to judge for yourself whether he should get your vote.

The Captive Rider Myth

Centro likes to divide its riders into two groups—‘captive’ riders that have to use the bus because it’s their only option, and ‘choice’ that choose to use the bus because it’s the best option available to them.

But the idea that anybody has to ride the bus—that people are ‘captive’ to transit—is a myth. It’s a myth because people always have options, and it’s a myth because bus riders choose to build their life in such a way that the bus is their best option.

A couple weeks ago I was waiting at a bus stop with seven other people. I had my bike, but it was cold, the bus was due, and I wanted to ride home in heated comfort.

We waited, fidgeting with impatience and to stay warm, making halting small talk—mostly grumbling about the bus—as the scheduled arrival time came and went. My phone was dead so I asked a kid to check when the next bus was due. He did, and we found out that our bus wasn’t coming at all, and we’d have to wait for the next run. One man called a cab, the kid called his Mom for a ride, and I got on my bike and left. Just like that, three people without ready access to a car found another way to get around when the bus became a worse option.

We made that decision in the moment, but thousands of other people make similar decisions every single day—they decide to walk, or bike, or hail a cab, or bum a ride to get around town. When SMTC asked how people on the Northside get to work, they learned that plenty bike as far as Liverpool and Baldwinsville because that’s the best option available to them. If Syracuse had better bus service, any of these people might choose to use public transportation instead, but Centro would call them ‘captive’ riders because they’re poor and don’t own cars. 

But what about those other five people who stayed to wait for the bus even though it wouldn’t show for another 40 minutes? People who simply couldn’t walk to where they were going, didn’t have anyone to give them a ride, and couldn’t afford cab fare. Weren’t they truly captive?

Maybe. Maybe the only reason they were at that bus stop was because none of them owned a car, maybe none of them could afford to fill up a gas tank, and maybe terrible experiences like that have convinced them that the second they get enough money they’ll spend it on a car.

But there are plenty of people who put up with situations like that on a regular basis, who wouldn’t mind having a car, and who can technically afford a to buy one, but still choose to ride the bus.

Think of it this way: you may want a car, but it’s not at the top of your list of best ways to use your money. Maybe it matters less to you than buying healthy food, than living in the right neighborhood, than paying medical bills, than sending money to your mother, than saving up for your son’s college tuition. Maybe you would buy a car if you made more money, but you don’t, and right now a car just isn’t the best use of what money you’ve got.

In a City where the median household income is about $35,000, this is the situation that a lot of people find themselves in. There are many pressing needs competing for that finite amount of money, and the $9,282 a year it costs to own a car just isn’t worth it when Centro provides a viable alternative for getting around town. People in that situation have made an informed decision not to waste their money on a car, and so they appear dependent on the bus—‘captive’ riders—but in fact the bus has enabled them to set their minds on more important things by freeing them from dependence on a car.

The caricature of the captive rider is someone who rides the bus, but only under duress—a person who doesn’t own a car, but desperately wants one and would buy one the minute that was possible—a person who can’t afford to take a cab everywhere, but would if they had the money.

There may be some riders like that, but they are not the majority. Most people ride the bus because it’s the best option for them to get around. They complain about the service, wish it went more places, wish the buses came more often, wish they didn’t get stuck in traffic, but they choose to ride because the bus makes their lives better.

Free to Choose the Bus

People ride Centro when it’s the most practical option for getting where they want to go. Problem is, Centro’s not a very practical option for getting to work in a lot of the County, so a lot of people who don’t own cars miss out on a lot of opportunities for employment.

Instead of just making Centro better so that it’s a more practical option for more people to go more places, Onondaga County, Centerstate CEO and New York State are teaming up to offer yet another commuter/vanpool program. Like the Rides-to-Work, Wheels-for-Work, Providence, Lyft programs that came before it, this program is designed to allow employers who are nowhere near a bus stop to hire people who don’t own cars so that those workers can make enough money to purchase a car and keep that job. It’s not a program to help people get to work without a car—it’s a program to get people to buy more cars.


The thinking behind these programs goes something like this: people are poor because they don’t have jobs, unemployed people can’t get jobs because they don’t have cars, and people don’t have cars because they’re poor. In this vicious circle, poverty, unemployment, and bus ridership all hang together, and the solution is to break that circle by giving people a ride to work just long enough so that they can save up to buy a car. At that point, the car enables employment which creates wealth—the virtuous circle of middle class car-ownership.

But you can’t turn a man from a poor-unemployed-bus-rider into a middle class-working-car-owner just by giving him a ride to work for a few weeks. There just are no necessary connections between class, employment, and transportation. Plenty of employed workers are still poor and still ride the bus (for that matter, a good number of rich workers do too). Buying a car is an economic decision that rational people make after weighing the upfront cost and $3000 annual expense against the opportunities the car can provide. A lot of people in Syracuse have decided that there are better uses for their paychecks than paying down the interest on a car loan.

These programs that give people a ride “until they’re up on their feet” all ultimately fail because they deny working people that choice. They try to make car ownership the only option for full participation in Syracuse’s economic and cultural life—to put a $3000 tax on getting a job in this town. They mistake people’s rational decision to ride the bus for a mark of deviance that has to be removed.


When too many people can’t find work without a car, when there are too many gaps in bus service, and when too many jobs hide in those gaps, the best way to fix the problem fast is to invest in Centro. Running buses to more of the County and running more buses running on the lines that already exist—making the bus a more practical option for more people to get more places—would expand economic opportunity immediately. In the long term, a County Executive who’s interested in this kind of thing would steer economic development to those places where lots of buses already run—not to an empty business park on Route 31.

Better bus service is the real key to making more jobs more accessible to more people while preserving the freedom of choice that enables people to live car-free. And, by expanding economic opportunity and increasing access to employment, better bus service also gives more people the option to buy their own cars if they want. People in Syracuse need more options so that they can choose for themselves how to get around town, and the bus is best way to provide that freedom.

Walking to the Market

It was 5 degrees Saturday morning, but people still walked to the Farmers Market. They put up with the cold, the unsafe streets, and the snow-covered sidewalks because the Market provides access to good cheap food, and because Saturday’s weather was too common to change anybody’s weekly routine.

And if people were willing to walk there on Saturday, then you know they’re willing to walk there in just about any weather. People walk to the Market because that’s how they get around town.

So it’s a mess that walking to the Market is so dangerous. There aren’t sidewalks between Hiawatha Boulevard and the Market. That’s a problem all year, but especially when it snows. No sidewalks mean no one has to shovel a path for people to walk, and so no one does. That forces some people to walk through the snow, and it pushes others onto the streets.

Even where there are sidewalks, they don’t go where people need them. The streets around the Market and RTC are all designed for cars not people. They’re too long and too circuitous, taking people way out of their way to get where they’re going. That’s not much of a problem when you’re driving a car, but it’s a huge hassle on foot—why walk an extra hundred feet along a curving driveway when it’s a straight line from the bus stop to the bus station? There’s no good reason, so people don’t, and so they end up having to walk through more snow because no one ever gave serious thought to making life easier for people who get around on foot.

So it’s a very good thing that SMTC and City Hall are working on plans to make it safer and easier for people to walk, bike, and bus in this area. The RTC/Market Area Mobility Study catalogs many of the ways that this part of the City fails people who live car-free, and it proposes some simple fixes: paving the gravel path at Carbon Street, adding crosswalks, a separated bike path, SIDEWALKS.

Tens of thousands of people in Syracuse get around on foot, but too much of the City ignores their needs. The Market and the RTC need to be more accessible to more people, and SMTC’s ideas are a good starting point to make that happen.

The Case for Regional Rail

Central New York’s villages and cities are all places where people can live cheaply and easily without the need for a car. They are places where daily necessities are within walking distance, places with a variety of kinds of housing, places where full participation in the community’s economic and social life is possible for people who get around by rolling, walking, biking, or riding the bus.

But all these places—Cortland, Liverpool, Fulton, Auburn, Baldwinsville, Oswego, Oneida, Phoenix, Syracuse—are disconnected. Long distances and infrequent (or nonexistent) transit prevent people from travelling between them without a car, making it impossible for a car-free resident of Cortland to take a job in Auburn, or for a plant in Syracuse to hire someone living car-free in Oneida. The result is that the places with the most jobs are also home to most of the region’s jobless workers.

Better intercity public transportation would right this wrong, linking Central New York’s urban centers, connecting people to jobs, and uniting a 5-county 800,000 person region.

Density of car-free households by census tract

Car-free households cluster in Central New York’s cities and villages. Syracuse, Cortland, Auburn, Fulton, Oswego, and Oneida are home to many people who live car-free. So are smaller villages like Phoenix, Baldwinsville, and Liverpool. These are all places where people can meet their daily needs—buying groceries, attending school, getting to work—on foot, bike, or bus.

Density of jobs by census tract

These are all also places where there are lots of jobs. The shaded areas on this map contain 86% of all jobs in Central New York. They’re heavily concentrated in Downtown Syracuse and on University Hill, but many jobs are available across the rest of the city and its suburbs. Outside of Syracuse, jobs cluster around smaller cities like Oswego, Auburn, Fulton, Cortland, and Oneida, and around villages like Canastota, Oneida, Skaneateles, and Chittenango.

But even though all of these job opportunities are accessible to many people who get around without a car, any given person living car-free can only access a small fraction of the total. People living in Downtown Syracuse can walk to the jobs available there, but not to any of those available in Downtown Cortland or Oneida. Some people heroically bike from the Northside to work in Salina, but they can’t very well ride all the way to Fulton. Centro runs limited service between Oswego, Syracuse, and Auburn, but it’s barely adequate for making jobs in any of those urban centers accessible to people living in any other.

Compare that limited situation to the options available to a car-owner in Clay. The region’s multi-billion dollar highway network puts every single job within an hour’s drive of that remote location—bringing economic opportunity to the relatively affluent residents of a sparsely populated area while that same level of choice is denied to those who for whatever reason do not own a car.

Density of unemployed workers by census tract

The result is that urban centers like Oswego, Phoenix, Syracuse, Auburn, Liverpool, and Cortland—places that account for just third of the region’s workforce but 88% of its car-free households—are home to more than half of all unemployed workers in Central New York.

But what if each urban center was not just the place where nearby car-free households could find work, but also a portal to every other urban center in the region? A person could walk from Syracuse’s Westside to a transit station and ride to work in Canastota. Someone else could bike to the Fulton station and access opportunities to work in any one of Central New York’s major employment centers.

Here are those same maps—car-free households, jobs, and people looking for work—overlaid with blue lines showing some of the rail lines that already run across Central New York. Trains running on these tracks could open new opportunities to the Central New Yorkers who need them most. Or forget rail—buses running on the interstates could do the same thing. The kind of vehicle doesn’t really matter so long as the service connects these places and runs fast enough and often enough to make it a real option for daily commuting.

Central New Yorkers who live car-free cluster in urban centers. These places are also where most of the region’s jobs are. But because there are no reliable connections between those centers, people who do not own cars can only apply to work at a very small percentage of the jobs available to car-owners. Better intercity transit service could be that reliable connection between employment and population centers—it could make the economic opportunity that already exists in Central New York more equally accessible to everybody who lives here, whether or not they own a car.

Apartments Go Up and Rents Come Down

Two new residential projects planned for Downtown’s eastern edge indicate that developers may have finally run out of tenants willing and able to pay $2,000 a month to live in the city center, and now they’re building more affordable apartments.

For a full decade, this didn’t feel possible. Every single new apartment project got a front page story in the Post-Standard, they all filled up immediately, and they all charged ridiculous rents.

But for all of the noise it made, Downtown’s population boom wasn’t actually all that big. Downtown’s boosters estimate that about 1,500 more people live there now than did in 2010. That was a big increase for a small part of town, but it only accounts for 0.22% of the metro area’s total population. There just weren’t that many new apartments getting built, and so there weren’t that many people moving Downtown.

Developers understood that they were only building enough new housing to accommodate .22% of potential tenants, so they priced their apartments to attract the richest .22% of the metro area that they could get. $2,000 a month is an affordable rent for people making at least $75,000 a year. In 2010, only 71 Downtown households made that much. In 2018, 290 did. Households making at least $75,000 a year accounted for 83% of Downtown’s population growth over that period.

But there are only so many people willing and able to pay that much to live in the city center, and at least two developers think that part of the market is pretty much tapped-out. Grazi Zazzara (who previously turned the Blue Cross Blue Shield building into $2,000 a month apartments) and Matthew Paulus (who previously turned the Dietz Lantern factory into $2,000 a month apartments) have both recently announced separate projects to renovate Downtown buildings, and both developers will only charge people $1,000 a month to live in them. These guys are capitalists—they’re not lowering their rents out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re doing it because they don’t think they can get enough people to agree to pay $2,000 to live in these new apartments, and that’s because most people willing and able to pay that much already have a $2,000 apartment to live in.

Syracuse has a housing shortage. Too many people can’t make their rent, too many houses are poisoning the people who live in them, there are too few section 8 vouchers for everybody who needs them. These are the most pressing housing problems that City Hall, HUD, and all of the housing non-profits need to address.

But while all of those actors are attacking those problems, it’s good to see private developers building so much new housing that they’re forced to lower the rent in order to attract tenants who make a little less than the people living in Downtown’s penthouses. Those new tenants will still be richer than the City as a whole, those developers will still call the apartments ‘luxury,’ there’s still a lot more work to do to make Syracuse’s housing market equitable, but this is a sure step in the right direction.

Getting to the Train Station

You arrive in Syracuse on a brand new high speed train. The trip back from Buffalo was less than 90 minutes—way faster than the 2 and a quarter hours it used to take before New York State built high speed rail. You caught up on some tv on the ride and are ready to get home for dinner.

Getting home’s the problem though. Obviously, you don’t live within walking distance of the train station—no one does. The woman next to you is waving down a cab, the student visiting home from UB is waiting for his Mom to come pick him up from Auburn, and you’re staring down a 45 minute bus ride with transfer. The three mile trip to your house will take half as long at the 150 trip from Buffalo.

High speed rail could transform intercity transportation in New York, giving people a faster, more comfortable, and more frequent option to get across the State. But for people to actually ride those trains, it’s going to have to be a whole lot easier to get to the station in the first place. Right now, too many Upstate Amtrak stations are in no-man’s land, surrounded by acres of asphalt and empty lots. At the same time, too few Amtrak stations are connected to the cities they serve by robust public transportation. New York State and its cities have to fix both problems if high speed rail is really going to live up to its promise.


More Housing around Stations

Syracuse’s Amtrak station is in the middle of a sea of asphalt, under the shadow of a highway, next to a cold storage warehouse, and half a mile from the nearest house. The situation’s not much better at any of Upstate’s other train stations: rivers separate Albany and Rome from their stations, Buffalo’s is underneath 190, and Amsterdam’s is almost in the country. Only Rochester, Utica, and Schenectady have stations within walking distance of a lot of people’s homes.

These maps (from UVA's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service) show people's homes as black dots and Amtrak stations as red dots. Too many stations are in places where no one lives.

Since every single train trip starts and ends on foot, it would be better if more people could live within walking distance of all of these train stations. Syracuse’s City Hall thinks so too, which is why the 2012 Land Use & Development Plan cited the potential for high speed rail as a reason to encourage development on all the “vacant or underutilized property” around the train station, and it’s why the ReZone project is going to allow new housing to be built in that area.

In other cities, Amtrak could accomplish the same thing by just moving its stations to places where people already live. In Amsterdam, shifting the station about a mile East would put it in the middle of town instead of the City’s outskirts. In Albany, a similarly short move would get the station across the Hudson River and within walking distance of downtown.

Proposal to move Amsterdam’s train station downtown


Better Public Transportation at Stations

But not every place worth going can be within walking distance of a train station, so people arriving in any city by train will also need options to get around the city itself. Mainly, they need high quality public transportation.

Every Upstate train station (except Amsterdam) is served by passable public transportation. It’s not frequent enough, not connected enough, and not fast enough, and it needs to be better. At the very least, that means actually linking the new Amtrak station to Metro Rail in Buffalo, adopting something like the Reimagine RTS plan in Rochester, building the three proposed bus rapid transit lines in Syracuse, and building the Blue and Purple BusPlus lines in Albany.

But why settle for the very least? Every single city in New York—from NYC to Buffalo—needs better public transportation. They all need more buses and more drivers serving more riders in more neighborhoods, some cities even need more trains, and that simply means that the State needs to put more money into the STOA and MTOA. It’s one of the most effective things that the Governor could do to make high speed rail successful, and it’s one of the best things that he could do to make New York State a better place to live. 

When people travel between Upstate’s cities, they’re going home, or visiting a friend, or getting to work—no one is just trying to get between train stations. So while faster, more frequent, more reliable rail service would make it a lot easier for people to travel between Upstate’s cities, we also need to make sure that it’s easy to get from any train station to all the different places that those people actually want to go. That means more housing and more destinations within walking distance of those stations, and it means better local transit service connecting entire cities to their train stations.