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It’s time for an Independent Republican Conference

The New York State Senate will look a little different next year. Democrats will keep the majority, but Upstate will play a bigger role in that conference after key wins in Buffalo, Rochester, and another potential pickup in Syracuse. That’s got people asking whether there’s a way for Upstate to advocate for itself more effectively in Albany. There is: Upstate Republican State Senators need to form an Independent Republican Conference and caucus with the Democrats.

Republican State Senators are already familiar with the logic of this idea. From 2013-14 and 2015-16, they were this close to having a majority in the State Senate. They couldn’t control the chamber all on their own, so they allied with a few broad-minded Democrats (the Independent Democratic Conference) who were willing to provide the necessary votes to get over that important threshold in exchange for special favors and privileges.

Now the shoe’s on the other foot. There are still a lot of votes left to be counted, but it looks like progressive victories in a few key Upstate districts have will bring the Democrats this close to having a supermajority in the State Senate. With just a few extra votes, they (and the Assembly’s Democratic supermajority) could override the Governor’s veto and actually do the work that New Yorkers are calling on them to do. As it stands though, the Governor has the power to block a lot of that necessary legislation with a simple veto.

Even with their diminished numbers, there are enough Upstate Republican State Senators to provide that supermajority and override that veto. If they caucus with the Democrats and provide the crucial votes to reach that threshold, the legislature will be able to pass the laws that New York State needs without interference from the Governor.

And if those Republicans make it explicit that they’re providing their votes as Upstaters, they’ll be in a great position to secure all kinds of investment and legislation to meet Upstate’s specific regional needs: rural and urban broadband, high-speed rail, investment in the NYS Canals as a flood control system, enhanced public transportation for Upstate’s many small and mid-sized cities, residency requirements for police… the list goes on.

So there’s something to all of this talk about bipartisanship and Upstate’s growing political power. The best way to really act on it is for Upstate Republican State Senators to form an Independent Republican Conference, caucus with the Democrats, and provide the necessary votes to override the Governor’s veto in exchange for legislation that benefits Upstate.

National Elections are Local Too

The City of Syracuse is governed by City Hall, Onondaga County, New York State, and the Federal Government. Each level of government has jurisdiction here, and each one owes a responsibility to this community that goes beyond their duty to its residents as individual voters. National elections are local elections too.

Syracuse’s population loss is such a mammoth problem and is the result of so many different factors that it’s often hard to pin on any one cause, but if the 2020 Census declares that fewer than 145,270 people live in the City, it will be Donald Trump’s fault.

First, because he intentionally sabotaged the census count in a transparent effort to deny places like Syracuse the federal funding and political representation that they deserve.

Second—and more importantly—because this racist, xenophobic President and his congressional enablers have made it almost impossible to immigrate to America. For more than 200 years, Syracuse has grown and prospered because people have moved here from somewhere else. For the last 20 years, those people have been moving here from Burma, Bhutan, Somalia, Sudan. Keeping people from coming to America is keeping them from coming to Syracuse, and it’s killing the City.

Coronavirus destroyed the local economy, and—because local governments fund themselves with a direct tax on local economic activity—it has destroyed City Hall’s and Onondaga County’s municipal budgets. The Federal Government at least tried to help the economy, but—for purely ideological reasons—it has ignored local governments. Congressional Republicans—including Syracuse’s representative, John Katko—are denying City Hall the relief that it so obviously needs.

This is an ongoing disaster for Syracuse. It’s crippled the city libraries (but not the suburban ones), it closed the pools during a record-breaking heatwave, it’s making it even harder and more dangerous to walk anywhere in a town where more than 1 in 4 families don’t own a car.

I could go on. There are so many ways that local issues depend primarily on the action of the Federal Government, and so if you care about this community you have to care about national politics too. Syracuse depends on it.

Will the Inner Harbor become the new Central Business District?

White collar companies are building new office space at the Inner Harbor instead of Downtown. This could be the start of a tectonic shift that remakes the City’s economic and social geography.

Equitable’s plan to move from its landmark office building on Madison to a brand new building on Clinton Street is just the most recent (and most dramatic) example of this trend. BHG is building a brand new office to consolidate its workers in one facility at the Inner Harbor. Rapid Response Monitoring built a $22 million addition to its Inner Harbor office in 2018.

This is not what City Hall had planned when it hired Cor to redevelop the Inner Harbor. The plan was for a totally new neighborhood of mixed use buildings with retail at street level and apartments above, densely built townhomes, a college satellite campus—a ‘24-hour neighborhood.’ Instead, the Inner Harbor is getting huge office buildings sharing their enormous parcels with gigantic surface parking lots while Cor plans to build even more surface parking and even fewer apartments on the land that it controls.

Syracuse has realized City Hall’s 1965 vision for a Downtown ringed by surface parking lots

In some ways, this is a real triumph for Syracuse. For 70 years, City Hall has been trying to figure out how to get companies that want new buildings and huge parking lots to stay Downtown. For most of that time, the plan has been to demolish enough of Downtown to provide parking spaces for everybody whose building was left standing. That policy failed to retain office jobs, and it turned a lot of Downtown into a moonscape. It was also one of the longer strands in the tangle of public policies that have made Syracuse one of the most economically and racially segregated cities in the nation.

In the Inner Harbor, City Hall has found a collection of empty building sites that it can pitch to companies like Equitable that might otherwise move to the suburbs and to those like BHG who might never consider moving Downtown. This is a good thing because it maintains the City’s property tax base while also keeping thousands of opportunities for employment centrally located where they are more accessible to more people.

But it can only work so many times. Companies moving to the Inner Harbor are gobbling up land pretty fast. Equitable’s new building and parking lot will occupy 6.9 acres all on their own. Downtown, that company was just one tenant among many in a high-rise tower that sat on a 4.7 acre block. There simply isn’t enough room to give every company a spot in the semi-suburban office park that’s getting built at the Inner Harbor.

It also poses some real challenges to Downtown’s small businesses. Downtown’s residential population is not nearly big enough to support all of the businesses in the neighborhood. Those restaurants and shops thrive because so many non-residents come Downtown every day for work, and while they’re there they eat lunch, buy clothes, grab drinks. Every time a company moves a few hundred employees out of the neighborhood, it reduces that customer base and makes it harder for those small businesses to succeed.

Spreading all of those jobs out over a larger area will also make it harder for people to get to work by bus. Centro’s bus lines are all designed to terminate Downtown so that it never takes more than one bus to get to work there. Only one bus line runs up Solar Street, though, so anybody with a job at the Inner Harbor will have to take two buses to get to work.

BHG’s new building will take up less space than its parking lot, and it won’t have a door facing the sidewalk.

The big question is whether or not continued development will be the result of new jobs moving into Syracuse or existing jobs moving around within the City. BHG is bringing new jobs, but Equitable is just moving them from Downtown. If the Inner Harbor just leeches people and jobs from Downtown, then its development is best understood as more of the same sad story of Syracuse’s decentralization. But if instead it’s all new growth, then the conversion of the Inner Harbor into a sort of urban office park—the ‘Central Business District’ that mid-century city planners tried so hard to build—is a remarkable and welcome innovation in Syracuse’s development.

Two ways to do a downtown circulator

Centro’s new CEO, Brain Schultz, wants to start running a “Downtown Circulator.” That could mean two different things—one good, one bad—and what form this plan takes will say a lot about whether or not this new CEO is up to the task of building the kind of public transit system that Syracuse needs and deserves.

Centro hasn’t provided many details, but it sounds like they’re considering a new bus route like what they run for Winterfest and the Downtown Living Tour—one that will run in a rough circle and provide door-to-door service for several specific destinations.

“Mr. Schultz’s ambitious vision includes a Downtown Circulator bus to help the growing number of Syracuse residents easily move from one end of the city to the other, including service to the soon-to-be-opened Salt City Market.”

This kind of service is almost never useful because very few people will wait for the circulator to show up. If only one bus is running the loop, then time spent waiting for it to pick you up will account for more than half of the length of most trips. That makes a circulator extremely unhelpful for the kinds of short trips that are supposed to be its focus. Want to get from the Clinton Square tree lighting to Armory Square for a drink? Waiting for the circulator could take anywhere from 0 to 13 minutes, but it’s just 7 minutes by foot. Why wait when it’s faster to just walk?

The essential problem is that a bus route designed to serve a single neighborhood as small as Downtown is necessarily very short, but a route like that is too short to be useful to the people in that neighborhood. Centro was clear, they want a bus route that’s useful for people trying to move around Downtown, but if they try to do that by targeting the service too exclusively on Downtown they’ll end up with something that’s not even useful for that narrow purpose.

A better model is the Chicago Loop (a piece of transit infrastructure so iconic that they call the central part of the city The Loop instead of Downtown). There, multiple elevated rail lines meet and run along a set of common tracks that loop around the city’s center, all serving the same 8 stops. If you’re in the Loop and trying to catch any one of these trains, any station will do. That means less walking for riders, it means that businesses that want access to transit can locate anywhere in the Loop, and it means that the trains don’t get overwhelmed by people all trying to board at a single downtown stop.

All those benefits improve service for everyone who rides any of these trains—most of whom are travelling to or from a station outside the Loop—but they’re structured in a way that also creates specific benefits for people who are riding between stations within the Loop. All those lines serving the same stops means that a train is never more than a couple of minutes away. That’s the kind of frequency that makes the Loop useful for people just making short trips between its closely-spaced stations.

6 BRT lines converge to create a high-frequency Downtown corridor where the next bus is never more than a couple minutes away

The Chicago Loop is a good model for running useful transit in Syracuse’s compact city center. It would be simple to modify existing plans for a Bus Rapid Transit network so that every line serves multiple common Downtown stations—Clinton Square, Salina/Jefferson, and the Hub, say. This would put all of Downtown within easy walking distance of every single BRT line, and it would allow riders to access any BRT line from any Downtown station.

This would also create a Downtown corridor with extremely frequent service. Say there are 6 BRT lines and each runs every 12 minutes. That means service every 2 minutes. With such short wait times, it actually would actually make sense to ride the half mile from Clinton Square to the Hub, especially if it were cold or rainy and the short wait for a bus could happen in a safe, climate controlled station.

BRT station in Rio de Janeiro

The difference between these two models is that the downtown circulator tries to do one extremely specific thing for a very small group of people and fails, while the Chicago Loop is about improving the entire transit network in such a way that it works for everybody, including that small group of people that the downtown circulator was supposed to serve.

The way that Centro hired Brian Schultz has raised a lot of questions. Is he fully focused on Centro? Does he have the qualifications to run a transit agency? Is he the right person for the job? How he chooses between these two models as he implements this new Downtown service—and, hopefully, a lot of other service improvements as well—will go a long way to answering those questions.

Treating riders with respect

Public transportation is a public service—like libraries and municipal water—and riding the bus shouldn’t feel any more degrading than checking out a book or drinking from the tap. Too often, it is. There are so many small things that make riding the bus unpleasant—things that are unnecessary, that don’t really save any money or make the service and more useful—things that would get fixed if people with power took riders’ time, comfort, and convenience seriously.

Centro doesn’t value its riders’ time. The system is designed to be able to get a person from anywhere in the urbanized area to anywhere else, but it’s not designed to do that within any set period of time. Buses are routinely late and for no good reason. Operators watch riders while they pay the fare instead of pulling away from the curb once a rider gets on board, buses don’t go fast enough between stops, bunched buses rumble along as a pair. All of those little delays could just go away if Centro’s culture prioritized speed, but it doesn’t, and that’s because Centro does not prioritize riders’ time. The schedule might say that you can get to your sister’s house by 2:00 so that she can leave the kids with you and get to her meeting at 2:30 on time, but the schedule’s no guarantee. The schedule might tell you to drop what you’re doing and get to the bus stop at 7:47, but you could end up waiting there until 7:59 and that’s just how it goes.

And if a bus is going to be 12 minutes late, Centro should let you know. They have the technology to know where every bus is on its run and to predict how far away it is from any point. In other cities, the transit authority uses that technology to display real-time arrival info at the bus stop so that riders know when to expect their ride. This makes the waiting less stressful because you know that a bus really is coming, and you know when to expect it. Putting real-time arrival displays at bus stops wouldn’t do a thing to make the buses show up sooner, but it would make waiting at the stop less stressful for riders, so Centro should do it.

And while you’re waiting, you should at least be comfortable. Why are so many bus stops such unpleasant places to spend time? So many are just a sign in the ground with no protection from the sun or rain, nowhere to sit, and no easy place to stand when there’s snow on the ground (and forget rolling up to most of Centro’s ‘handicap accessible’ stops in a wheelchair). If the bus is the best way for you to get where you’re going, then this is just one of the things you have to deal with, but you shouldn’t have to, and Centro should care enough to do something about it.

Centro can get away with ignoring this stuff because none of it is likely to change the material considerations that make public transportation a practical or impractical means of getting around town for any particular person, so none of it is likely to make someone change their decision about whether or not to ride the bus. But that really shouldn’t matter because these are the kinds of things that make a person feel respected or not, and no one deserves to be disrespected just because they’re riding the bus.

Who will ride BRT?

Talk to non-bus-riders about Centro, and eventually they’ll say something to the effect of “you know a specific challenge that we have in Syracuse is that bus ridership is associated with socio-economic class, and so the question is how do we get people of all classes to ride the bus. How does Centro get me to leave my car at home?”

That question comes from a good place. Public transportation is a public service, and it should be no more stigmatized than checking out a library book or drinking water from the tap. Asking where that stigma comes from and how to eliminate it is good.

But instead of asking how better bus service will work out for me specifically, it’s better to work from the other end and think about who is most likely to benefit from improvements to Syracuse’s public transportation system.

Getting around on Centro takes time. Slow buses meander through City neighborhoods, and they run so infrequently that getting to and from anywhere includes a lot of wait time—you might only need a half an hour to shop for groceries, but if there’s an hour gap between runs, then an hour is how long you’re going to be spending at Tops.

This depresses ridership because it limits the number of places that any bus rider has time to get to in a day. Riding Centro to and from Tops takes so much time and effort that it’s often practically impossible to then ride Centro to and from the doctors office, a PTA meeting, your aunt’s house. Forget trying to run an errand by bus after getting off from work.

Run faster, more frequent service, and ridership will increase immediately because the people who have to plan their whole entire day around running one errand by bus would all of a sudden have the time to ride the bus two or three or four places.


Some people can’t or won’t abide Centro’s current inconvenient service, and they avoid it at all costs by walking and or biking around town. That’s not always convenient either, especially if you’re going very far, the sidewalks are busted up, and it’s snowing. Or maybe they bought a car, but can’t really afford to fill the tank or to keep it fixed up.

BRT can offer these people a better option: a service that’s safer, more convenient, and more economical than what they’re doing now.

Run faster, more frequent service, and ridership will increase because more people will start riding the bus instead of walking 3 miles to work.


In the long term, better bus service builds its own ridership by making it possible for more people to build lives that include the bus.

Imagine a person moving to Syracuse from Boston to start a new job. They might make enough to be able to comfortably afford a car and a house with a garage, but they didn’t drive in Boston and would be happy to use public transportation in Syracuse if it was convenient enough. BRT can offer that convenience, and it can precipitate a series of major decisions—apartment or house, city or suburb, car payment or no—that lead that person to ride the bus because they have built a life where riding the bus makes sense.

Or imagine a kid moving out from their parents’ house into their first apartment and needing to provide their own transportation for the first time in their life. Right now, that might mean getting a place with a parking spot and buying a crappy used car. With BRT, it could mean finding an apartment near a station.

Run faster, more frequent service, and ridership will increase in the long term because more people will choose to build lives that account for and rely on the bus.

So to go back to that original question—”how will BRT get me to leave my car at home?”—the answer is that it might not. If your family owns multiple cars, if you don’t live within a short safe walk of a bus stop, if your neighborhood is so spread out that it can’t support good bus service, then there’s not a lot that Centro can do to create a service that will work for you. 

But there is so much that Centro can do to create a service that works for so many more people. Faster, more frequent service will get more people riding the bus more often. Better bus service will get current bus riders riding more often, it will get new people to ride the bus, it will make life better for people who rely on the bus in their daily lives, and it will come from making that way of living more attractive to more people.

A Countywide Bike Network

Syracuse is getting a huge improvement to its transportation system. Three interlocking projects pursued by three different levels of government are making it safe, easy, and convenient to travel by bike around the metro area. The Creekwalk, Loop the Lake Trail, and Erie Canalway are fantastic projects that will make Syracuse a better place to live.

Syracuse’s topography poses unique challenges to people trying to get around town by bike. It’s a hilly city, and the easiest route between any two points follows the level valleys that criss cross town. Those routes are flat, so they’re good for biking.

But, paradoxically, these routes are also often very bad for biking because they see so much car traffic. These streets have often been widened to accommodate 4 lanes of car traffic (but not enough for two lanes of bike traffic), and cars whiz along them at unsafe speeds that repel people who aren’t travelling with the protection of a 2-ton steel cage.

There’s no good way around this. You can’t just bike on a quieter street that’s parallel to Erie—there isn’t one! Bikers have to choose between exposing themselves to bodily harm on dangerous streets, riding on busted up sidewalks (when they exist and are clear of snow), or pedaling up and down extremely steep hills. This basic logic applies to major crosstown corridors across the City, and it’s a major barrier to mobility.

The Canalway, Loop the Lake Trail, and Creekwalk combine to form a single protected biking and walking trail that stretches across the Couny

The Creekwalk, Loop the Lake Trail, and Erie Canalway remove that barrier by putting dedicated bike (and foot!) paths along those major routes. These paths are almost fully separated from car traffic, so they’re safe, and they follow level water routes, so they’re easy to bike on.

And what’s more, they’re connected! Anyone who can get to any of these trails can get to all of them. That puts so much of the region within safe and easy biking distance of so many people.

This is a transportation game changer. Where biking across town used to require strong legs and a high tolerance for physical danger, now it will be safe and convenient. That’s good for people who already bike around (like the workers who ride from the Northside to Baldwinsville at night), and it will open up a new option for people who might have been put off of biking before. The result is a better City that offers more options for everybody.

There’s more than one kind of police misconduct

The Syracuse Police Department’s misconduct takes many forms. This week we learned that the SPD wasted a bunch of public money by mismanaging staff scheduling early in the coronavirus pandemic, and we learned that the DA’s office finally dropped charges against the innocent man that SPD had coerced into confessing to a crime that he didn’t commit.

Fiscal irresponsibility matters. City Hall can’t afford to pay for all of the public services that Syracuse needs, so when SPD wastes money like that, they’re necessarily taking a necessary public service from someone who needs it. And, since 95% of officers live in the suburbs, every dollar spent on SPD’s payroll is a direct transfer of wealth from city families to suburban ones.

It also matters that SPD is locking up innocent people while murderers go free. Someone killed Charles Jones. It’s SPD’s job to find out who. Instead, they picked up the first black man that they found, Robert Adams, and got him to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. He spent 8 months in jail. This is the exact opposite of justice.

These are two different problems—fixing one won’t necessarily fix the other. City Hall is very concerned with the first problem because it’s connected to the municipal budget. So they’ve taken concrete steps to rein in police overtime, to get cops to live in the City.

The trap here is thinking that fixing SPD’s money problems or getting officers to live in the City will make law enforcement more just—it won’t. It’s going to take a different set of actions to enforce laws fairly in Syracuse—demilitarizing the police, reducing their interactions with the public, treating mental health and addiction as the medical problems that they are. And we haven’t seen City Hall take any concrete steps to make any of that happen.

So as City Hall pursues police reform, keep in mind all of the different ways that SPD needs reforming. Yes, the police department needs to be a better steward of public money. And yes, its payroll should help build wealth in City neighborhoods. But it’s also true that the SPD needs to change its entire approach to policing if law enforcement is really going to make Syracuse a safer better place, and no amount of budget trimming or personnel policies can make that happen all on their own.

Sidewalks: Necessity or Amenity?

How can City Hall say that it’s preserving municipal services that “impact public health and safety” at the same time that it’s cutting the sidewalk plowing program? On the face of it, this makes absolutely no sense. Leaving snow on the sidewalks pushes pedestrians into the way of oversized vehicles that predictably kill and maim unprotected human bodies. Clearly, clearing the sidewalks has a positive impact on public health and safety.

And it makes even less sense when you know that City Hall has left its car-lane plowing program intact. So even my tiny redundant street will get plowed before the sidewalks on Geddes, even though way more people walk on those sidewalks than drive on my street.

The only way this can make sense is if City Hall doesn’t think people really need to use the sidewalks as much as they need to drive cars. If sidewalks are for recreation, maybe, a good way to ‘get your steps in,’ but not for the real business of transportation. If that’s true, then the people walking with cars on slick streets in winter are taking an unnecessary risk, and City Hall can’t take responsibility for that.

That’s probably a pretty good description of how City Hall’s leaders use sidewalks, but it doesn’t apply to the City at large. More than a quarter or all Syracuse households do not own even one single motor vehicle. Syracuse ranks 12th nationally for highest pedestrian commute share. The Syracuse urban ranks 55th nationally for per capita transit use. People use the sidewalks because they have to, and in the winter people walk in the street because City Hall pushes them there.

And so—like libraries, pools, and bike lanes—sidewalk maintenance gets treated like an ‘amenity’ because the people who control it have insulated themselves from the conditions that make that service a necessity for tens of thousands of people living in the City. That’s how City Hall can cut its plowing program and still pretend that it’s preserved all of the services that people ‘really need.’

Frequency and Speed

In public transportation, service frequency depends on bus speed. The faster buses go, the more times one operator can make a run in a single shift. Since the vast majority of operating cost is taken up by operator salary, that means higher service frequencies for little to no extra money. And since higher frequencies are the best way to make public transportation more useful to more people, Syracuse should be doing everything it can to make Centro’s buses go faster.

Nationwide, transit buses travel an average of 12 mph. Buses go so slow because they spend so much of their time not going at all—between sitting at red lights and pickup up/dropping off riders, buses in NYC only spend half their time actually moving. Reduce time spent stuck at reds and time spent letting people on and off the bus, and Syracuse can have faster—more frequent, better—public transportation.

Transit Signal Priority lets traffic lights know when a bus is approaching

There are a few ways to do this. The most obvious is bus lanes. Give buses their own space on the street, and cars won’t get in their way. That means no waiting for traffic to pass before pulling away from the bus stop, no getting stuck behind somebody illegally parked at the curb. All this requires is some paint, and it will speed buses up immediately.

Transit signal priority is another way to speed up buses. That technology lets traffic lights know when a bus is approaching, and it adjusts the light cycle to speed up bus travel times—either turning green a little faster or staying green a little longer to let the bus through. City Hall has talked about implementing this technology with its newly acquired streetlight grid, and it would be a perfect smart city technology to deploy as part of the Syracuse Surge.

New payment technologies can also speed the bus up. Paying the fare on the bus takes a couple seconds, and that time really adds up when a lot of people get on the bus all at the same time. Riders have to look for exact change, they have to request a transfer, they have to wait for the fare box to spit their pass back out. While they’re doing all that, the operator has to monitor them, and the bus isn’t moving. Other cities have much faster payment methods—like touchless RFID cards, mobile pay, and offboard fare collection—that let people board much faster so that the bus can spend less time hanging out at the curb.

All of these infrastructure and policy improvements complement network redesign strategies that will also increase service frequency with little to no added operating cost. Take the lineup: it confines service to infrequent bunches throughout the day. That’s bad for frequency from a scheduling standpoint (spreading the service out evenly over the course of the day would yield better frequencies), and it causes traffic that slows buses down (putting 20 buses on the street all at one time creates way more traffic congestion than Downtown normally sees, and those buses get in each other’s way and slow each other down). Getting rid of the lineup would improve frequency in both cases.

Or take spines: the idea of running multiple bus lines on a single street near the center of the network. That multiplies the service frequency on the spine, and it makes all of that speed-boosting infrastructure more effective because improvements to a single street benefit multiple bus lines. Running all of the northbound lines as a spine up North Salina would give that street frequent service and it would make it easier to build this kind of speed-boosting infrastructure.

If Centro is going to improve its service, it’s going to have to find ways to make the buses go faster. That will mean working with City Hall to build infrastructure like bus lanes and transit signal priority, and it will mean adopting innovative technology like mobile fare payment. Combine improvements like those with a redesigned network and schedule, and Syracuse will have more frequent service that gives more people more access to more opportunity.