All posts by inthesalt.city

Trains Handle Snow Better Than Cars Do

This snow storm kept people off the highways and local roads, it grounded planes at the airport, and it stopped all Greyhound buses from coming Upstate, but Amtrak kept its schedule just fine.

Trains can handle snow. Their steel wheels cut through ice and slush, so trains can keep chugging even when winter weather makes cars, trucks, and buses useless. Back in November 2014 when Buffalo got 5 feet of snow in 3 days, almost nobody could get anywhere, but the Metro Light Rail—”old reliable”—ran on schedule.

Syracuse would handle winter better with if it had more trains. When snow blocks roads, people could still get where they’re going safely without having to dig their car out or crawl along slick roads with their hazards blinking. While buses have to detour around steep hills, and they often get stuck when people park on both sides of the street, trains can keep running on a level unobstructed right of way in all but the worst snow storms.

New passenger rail service could take many different forms, from a single local line, to a metro system, to a regional intercity service, to nationwide high-speed rail. Anything, though, is better than what Syracuse has now—near total reliance on rubber tires in a part of the country where the weather reliably renders them useless for several months a year. Trains can do better.

Affordable Housing and the City Line

Matthew Paulus, one of several developers with plans to build new housing at the eastern edge of Downtown, is trying to get goodwill and tax breaks by putting ‘affordable’ apartments in his newest project, but the rents don’t match the rhetoric—tenants will pay $1,050 a month, not including utilities. This is clearly not a good faith effort to engage with poverty or housing as those crises actually exist in the City, and it shows the need for City Hall to take a more active role in securing meaningfully affordable housing in Syracuse.

It takes some slick thinking to claim that $1,050 is an affordable rent in a city this poor. The first step is to side-step the City by talking about the Syracuse Area. Median household income in Onondaga County is about $55,000. These apartments are supposed to be affordable for households making “no greater than 80%” of that number, so $44,000. ‘Affordable’ housing shouldn’t take up more than 30% of a family’s income, so a family making $44,000 a year could ‘afford’ pay as much as $1,100 a month in rent.

But if Paulus ran those same calculations with the City’s median household income (about $35,000) instead of the County’s, then he’d get a definition of ‘affordable’ that would require him to set the monthly rent at something more like $650—that sounds a lot more like what someone might expect to pay live in Syracuse. Paulus can only claim that $1,050 a month is ‘affordable’ if he ignores the stark disparity between the economic situation on either side of the City line.

So the City line disappeared when Paulus was figuring out what is means for one of his apartments to be ‘affordable,’ but it will snap back into focus if he gets the tax breaks he’s asking for. If SIDA grants them, then that municipal boundary will shield suburban schools from the cost of that lost tax revenue, and it will put that burden on City kids.

City Hall has the power to flip this dynamic on its head and make the City line work for people living in the City. Developers want to build in Syracuse after all, and the Common Council has the power to enact affordable housing legislation that could apply to any development in Syracuse. City Hall also has control over permitting, zoning, tax assessments, and SIDA—an entire regulatory apparatus that can determine the success of failure of any given development. Syracuse’s government needs to use all of these tools to make sure that new housing is affordable in a way that really means something to the people living in the City now.

There’s going to be a lot of new housing built in the next few years. Developers, non-profits, and state and local governments are all looking to rebuild the eastern and southern edges of Downtown once I81 comes down. They’re all going to pay lip service to ‘affordability’ and ‘inclusion,’ but, if this project is any indication, it will just be empty talk. That’s not good enough. We need to be clear about what words like ‘affordable’ really mean for people living in Syracuse, and we need a City Hall willing to use its power to enforce those definitions and secure a better future for the entire City.

Safe Streets without Traffic Law Enforcement

Car-drivers break the law all the time. They speed, they roll through stop signs, they run red lights, they drive over crosswalks while people are trying to cross them on foot. They do all that because it’s accepted and expected behavior, even though it’s also dangerous and illegal behavior.

In a better world, this is a problem the police could solve by enforcing existing laws more strictly. If police actually ticketed anyone who broke one of those laws, people would break them less often, and the City would be safer for everyone.

But in the world as it is, we know that the police won’t ticket just anyone for breaking these laws. Traffic enforcement often falls hardest in certain neighborhoods on certain kinds of people, and it often results in gross injustice. This Summer the police beat Shaolin Moore after accosting him because his car stereo was too loud. In October 2017, the police sexually assaulted Torrence Jackson after stopping him because he signaled a turn in his car too close to the intersection. Pretext stops like these make Syracuse more dangerous and unjust, and we can’t give the police even more latitude to perpetrate that injustice.

What the City needs instead is to make its streets into places where people don’t want to break the traffic laws—places where it’s hard drive recklessly.

Right now, the travel lanes on most streets are 10’ wide even though a Honda CRV is only 6’ wide. All that extra room means that someone driving an SUV can go real fast without worrying too much about hitting any other cars. Narrow those lanes, and car-drivers will take notice and slow down all on their own without the need for police officers with speed cameras.

Right now, street corners are curved so that cars can round them without slowing down much at all. This lets car-drivers turn at speed, so they rarely slow down enough to notice if someone’s trying to walk across the street. Straighten those corners out, and car-drivers will have to turn more slowly, giving people on foot a better chance to actually cross the street.

The City’s streets aren’t safe because people drive on them recklessly and illegally. Too often, when the police do actually enforce basic traffic laws, it has nothing to do with safety and it leads to injustice. A better way to make Syracuse safer is to reconstruct the streets themselves so that people choose to drive more carefully all on their own.

Making James Street Better

When a car ran over 13-year-old Zyere Jackson on James Street his mother called it a ‘freak accident.’ It wasn’t. Cars regularly run into things and people on that street, and every day sees dozens of near-misses. People keep trying to walk across it, bike along it, and drive on it, though, because it’s the easiest route through several of the most populous neighborhoods in the City. James Street needs to be safer for everybody who uses it.

The first thing to do is slow down the cars. No one needs to drive 35 miles an hour on any city street. That’s obvious, and it’s why so many people talked about reducing the speed limit after that car hit Zyere Jackson. It’s a good idea, and City Hall should do it and put up speed-cameras to enforce the new limit effectively and fairly.

But the feel of driving down James Street also need to change so that people in cars are comfortable at 20 mph instead of 35 (or 45). Right now the street feels like a race track, and drivers treat it that way. Take it down to two lanes, and people will choose to drive more slowly all on their own.

That will also open up new space for bus lanes. More buses run down James Street than any other street outside of Downtown. There should be even more buses, and they shouldn’t get stuck in traffic. The SMART1 study predicted that 23% more people would ride the bus on James Street if the bus came more often and if it ran in its own lane. That’s hundreds more people using the street to get where they’re going safely, without holding up traffic, and without polluting the air in their neighborhoods.

That number could be even higher if the new BRT service ran out to the East Syracuse Wegmans (that’s less than ½ mile past where SMTC suggested the line end). Starting the line at a park-and-ride there would give more drivers the option to avoid James Street entirely, and it would mean that bus riders had one more place where they could buy groceries or get a job.
Capture

But gas-powered vehicles aren’t the only ways to get up and down James Street. People also bike it, and the street needs to be safer for them too. Back in 2011, City Hall said that unprotected bike lanes were part of its ‘near-term’ plans for James Street. Well it’s 2019 and people are still riding on the sidewalks to try and stay safe from cars. Now City Hall takes a different tack and points to this bike ‘suitability map’ that says people shouldn’t even try riding on James Street at all.

That’s nonsense—there should be space for people to bike along James Street without risking their lives. There’s more than enough room for a bike lane above the curb between the street and the sidewalk (there’s so much room there that the STSA even suggested running street cars in that grass). Putting a bike lane above the curb keeps people safe from cars, and City Hall could plow it and the sidewalk at the same time.

This would also make James Street better for the people who walk it. Right now, the too narrow, uneven sidewalks have to handle both foot and bike traffic because they’re the only place safe from cars. Putting bikes in their own space would give the sidewalks back to pedestrians—the people who are really supposed to be using them in the first place.

James Street wasn’t always a death trap. It used to be so beautiful that people put it on postcards. This serene tree-lined avenue where people took walks for the joy of it is nothing like the congested traffic sewer we have now, and it shows that the way things are isn’t the way things have to be. James Street could be better. It could be a street that gets people to their destinations quickly and safely, no matter how they’re traveling. It could link the neighborhoods that line it, rather than a barrier that separates them. It could be so much better, if only we had the will to make it happen.

Transit is not a Tool of Social Control

At its best, public transportation expands access to opportunity, but recent local examples show how it can also be used to do the exact opposite. Instead of creating a transit system that gives its riders more choices, options, and freedom, people with power have tried to use transit as a tool of social control.

Take the video that just came out of kids fighting at the Hub. After it made the news, Centro CEO Rick Lee promised to “put and end to this.” His simplest option is to run more buses. All those kids end up stuck at the Hub at the same time because they all have to wait a pretty long time between each run. If buses left the Hub more often, fewer kids would be there at any given time, and they wouldn’t have to waste so much time just waiting around bored.

And this wouldn’t just solve the ‘problem’ of having so many high school students at the Hub at any time—it would actually make the bus work better for those students and for everybody else who rides it.

But that’s not what anybody’s talking about doing. Instead, Centro is looking to run buses directly to the schools without ever going through the Hub. Never mind that this would cut students off from the rest of Centro’s network and limit their opportunities to work, participate in community activities, or access childcare after school. Concerns like that don’t matter when what you really want is to use the buses to make kids behave.

Or look at the perennial problem of the spatial mismatch—the fact that many employers looking to hire are only accessible by car while many people looking to work don’t own cars.

The most obvious solution is to run better bus service. In the short run, that’d make more jobs accessible by bus. In the long run, it would build Centro’s ridership and attract more employers to the places with the best bus service where they’d be accessible to all those potential bus-riding customers and employees.

The County could also use its economic development powers to encourage employers to locate along bus lines or within walking distance of communities with low rates of car ownership.

Instead, Onondaga County came up with a plan to subsidize Lyft rides for people who find work through a specific employment agency, don’t have access to a car, and can’t get to their jobs on the bus. The workers themselves will have no control over their rides—the employment agency “will monitor employees’ work schedules and pay Lyft each month for the transportation.” Eventually the County hopes that employers themselves will pay Lyft directly, giving managers direct control over workers’ transportation to and from work.

That will give employers just one more piece of leverage over their workers, one more pressure point to press, one more method of exploitation. But of course none of that matters when you think, like a manager, that workers should just be happy to have any job at all and you can’t imagine how it would be a good thing for them to have the ability to travel to places other than the worksite at sometime other than the beginning of the shift.

The proposed solutions in both cases use transportation to constrain people’s choices so that they do what they’re supposed to and nothing else. Students are supposed to just go directly home at the end of the school day—they’re not supposed to hang out somewhere they could get into trouble. Workers are supposed to just travel between their homes and their current jobs—they’re not supposed to have the opportunity to travel to some other job that might offer better pay or working conditions.

Transit should do the exact opposite. It should expand people’s choices. It should give them the ability to go where they want when they want. It should make people more free.

We Shouldn’t Widen Highways in the Suburbs Either

This week it came out that NYSDOT wants to take land away from people living in Cicero and the outskirts Syracuse in order to widen 481 as part of the plan to get the viaduct out of Downtown.

That’s bad. Highways are loud, they’re ugly, and they blacken people’s lungs. People who live next to the highway out in Cicero know this. That’s why a lot of them plant a thicket trees at their property’s edge to shelter their homes from the highway. Now that’s the very land where NYSDOT wants to build a bunch of drainage ditches so that it can make the highway even wider and more noxious.

It’s not so different from NYSDOT’s original plans to rebuild the viaduct Downtown. They were going to make it wider and straighter so that more cars could fit on it and so they could make even more noise. NYSDOT was going to knock over dozens of buildings and put the highway even closer to so many people’s homes.

For what? To double down on 1965’s idea of the future? To attract more cars, accidents, and congestion? We don’t need any of that. We don’t need it in the middle of Syracuse, which is why we’re getting rid of the viaduct there. We also do not need it in Cicero, which is why we shouldn’t be widening the highway out there.

The Very Idea of a New Neighborhood

Tired of taking on Syracuse’s seemingly intractable problems, a lot of people in positions of power throw their hands up and say ‘let’s just start over.’ Segregation, poverty, and exclusion are all so systemic in so much of the City, and depopulation and deindustrialization have combined to leave so much cheap empty land, that it seems easier to just build new neighborhoods than to try and make life better in the ones where people already live. But those very conditions mean that building a ‘new neighborhood’ entails a lot of those same systemic problems in ways that are rarely confronted.

Take the Inner Harbor. The plans call for all different kinds of housing within walking distance of businesses and institutions where people can work, run their errands, and socialize.

But it’s hard to build that from scratch. The whole idea relies on there being lots of different things to do and lots of different places to live, so it won’t work until it’s mostly finished. All of the buildings will be new, so their owners will have to charge high rents to cover the initial construction costs. There aren’t so many people and businesses moving into Syracuse, so there’s not a whole lot of demand for all of those new expensive apartments and storefronts. The result is a place with a few buildings designed to be totally self-sufficient and separated by surface parking lots. An exclusive place where only few can afford to live, and no one can make a full life.

None of that is a problem in Syracuse’s older neighborhoods—places where there is already a supportive mix of businesses and residents, where a variety of buildings offer housing options at a variety of price points, where even a little population growth would be enough to fill whatever brand new high end building a developer might find room to put up. 

 

How much simpler, then, to focus on the places where people already live, to ask what people need to make life in those places better, and to make those things happen. That’s what’s going on on the Northside, where a range of non-profits, religious institutions, and commercial developers are building on the variety and strength that already exists in the neighborhood with new housing, adult education, and small business support. The same approach would put more a greater variety of housing types in Westcott, bring fresh groceries to the Southside, and renovate Blodgett on the Near Westside—all things that would cost so much less and do so much more than any ‘new neighborhood’ ever could.

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.