Category Archives: Transportation

Fare Capping

Fare capping is a public transit payment reform that boosts ridership and minimizes inequality by making transit passes more affordable for people without a lot of money. Centro should implement fare capping in Syracuse.

Time-based transit passes allow riders to take as many trips as they like within a given amount of time—a day, a week, a month, a year. This rewards frequent riders who use transit often, and it encourages people to take more trips by making the marginal cost of each trip $0.

Centro sells two types of time-based passes—a daily pass and a weekly pass. The $5 day pass is a good deal for anyone making more than two trips in a day, and the $20 week pass saves money for anyone riding more than 10 times a week. Before 2015, Centro also sold a monthly pass for $60—a good investment for anyone riding more than 30 times a month, so any regular commuter with a full-time job.

However, these time passes are often unaffordable for the poorest riders. It’s one thing to come up with $2 for a single bus ride, but a lot of people have a harder time scraping together $20 to buy a weekly pass—let alone $60 for a monthly pass—even if they ride the bus often enough that the time-based pass would save them money in the long run. This is a real problem for Centro’s riders who are very likely to have very low incomes.

Fare capping makes time-based passes more affordable by allowing riders to buy them in installments. Each time a rider pays the individual fare, it goes towards the cost of purchasing an unlimited pass. This ‘caps’ the total cost that any rider pays in a given amount of time at the total cost of an unlimited pass for that same amount of time. So a rider would never pay more than $5 in a single day or $20 in a single week to ride Centro.

This will require new fare payment technology. Installments only work if there’s a way to track them, so riders will need to have payment accounts. This might mean account-connected payment cards that riders keep from month to month, or it might mean upgrading the mobile payment system that Centro piloted in 2019.

All of this will be even more important when Centro begins running Bus Rapid Transit. High frequency service will allow people to make more trips by bus, and that will only make time-based passes more attractive to riders. Centro should implement fare capping in order to make unlimited passes accessible to everyone who needs them.

How to build bus ridership

Syracuse needs more people riding the bus. Increased ridership is good for Centro, obviously, because it provides increased fare revenue and a broader base of political support for public transportation. But increased ridership would also indicate that Centro is serving Syracuse better, because more people are choosing to ride.

So how do we do it?

Here’s a breakdown of Centro’s commuter ridership by income. People making less than $25,000 a year account for 84% of Centro’s Syracuse-based commuter ridership. People making more than $50,000 a year account for less than 5% of workers who live in Syracuse and commute by bus.

One approach to building ridership—the ‘captive-choice’ approach—tries to even out the pieces of that pie. 84%(!) of riders are poor—so the thinking goes—because low income correlates with other factors—like lack of access to a car—that constrain people’s transportation options and force them to ride the bus. People making less than $25,000 a year are “captive” riders, and so Centro can count on their ridership no matter what.

High income earners, on this theory, are “choice” riders—they have lots of options for getting around and will only choose the bus if it’s the most attractive option. Current bus service is obviously not an attractive option because high income workers don’t ride, so the answer is to cater service specifically to them. That’s the SYRculator: a high-frequency route that loops around Downtown’s high-priced apartments and office buildings while avoiding all the “captive” riders who pass through the Hub.

Centro serves 38% of workers in its “captive” market—those who make less than $25,000 and commute by some means other than a car. If Centro ‘evened out’ its performance by capturing 38% of the non-car-commuting population across all incomes, it would increase the total number of people who commute by bus by 43%. 

But even in this extremely unlikely scenario (quintupling the number of bus commuters earning more than $50,000), workers making less than $25,000 would still account for 59% of regular bus commuters. There just aren’t that many people making lots of money for whom it would make sense to ride the bus. In part, that’s because there aren’t that many people making lots of money, period. And in part, it’s because the people who do make that much money own multiple cars, and for the foreseeable future driving a car will never be less convenient than riding the bus.

But to even frame the question in terms of individuals making choices shows what’s wrong with the entire captive-choice analysis: every person has a choice, there are no ‘captive’ riders, and there are lots of low income people who currently choose not to ride the bus but who would if it met their needs better.

Here’s a graph showing the total number of workers living in Syracuse according to income. Within each bar, the different colors show how different riders commute. Blue is current bus commuters, and red is commuters who drive and are extremely unlikely to switch to riding the bus. Yellow is people who commute on foot, on bike, by taxi, or by sharing a ride, and it represents Centro’s best chance at ridership growth

Workers earning less than $25,000 make up about half of all workers in that yellow area, and so although that population already accounts for 84% of Centro’s current commuter ridership, it also is the portion of the working population with the greatest potential for ridership growth.

‘Evening out’ ridership across all incomes increased the share of non-car commuters who make between $25,000 and$50,000 by about 26 percentage points. If Centro improved service and enticed enough riders to see a proportional increase in ridership across all incomes, it would increase overall ridership by 96% (twice as much as ‘evening out’ performance among high earners).

57% of that increase would come from workers making less than $25,000. There are just so many low income workers, and so many of them have limited access to a car, that Centro could see huge ridership gains if it simply focused on serving the City’s poorest neighborhoods better.

And the best part is that we already have a plan to do that. It’s Bus Rapid Transit, and for all of the branding and the technology and the hype, the core of the idea is that Centro should spend every extra dollar improving service on the lines that already carry lots of people. Those lines run through neighborhoods with lots of potential bus riders, they connect to places with lots of jobs, and if they ran faster, more frequently, and more reliably, more people in those neighborhoods would use them. That’s how you build ridership.

A bus line for no one

It’s unclear exactly who is supposed to ride Centro’s new Downtown circulator route—a 2-mile figure-8 loop that winds its way from the Tech Garden to Dinosaur BBQ and back.

It can’t be people who live Downtown. The residential population is growing because the neighborhood is so famously easy to walk around. There’s no need to get in the car or wait for the bus to get from Hanover Square to Salt City Market—you can just walk there. A potentially actually useful bus service for Downtown residents would connect them to the City’s other neighborhoods, but this circulator route doesn’t do that because it never leaves Downtown.

It can’t be Centro’s regular riders. The circulator very pointedly avoids interacting with the Hub, and anyway, anybody who rides a bus into Downtown already has ample options for getting themselves around Downtown using Centro’s existing bus lines. This circulator route doesn’t add any new options for regular bus riders.

It can’t be people who drive into Downtown for entertainment. Anybody who shows up in a car has to put it someplace, and they might as well park it where they’re going. Even if they plan to move around Downtown—drinks at Hanover Square and then a hockey game at the War Memorial, maybe—the bus still isn’t much help because after riding from the restaurant to the theater, they’d have to ride back to pick up the car, and this bus doesn’t run past 7pm.

It can’t be commuters. The route doesn’t even start running until 11am.

It’s hard to imagine who would have a transportation problem that this circulator could possibly solve. But to even ask that question you’d have to think like a bus rider, and not many people in positions of power think like that because not many people in positions of power ride the bus. The officials who pushed this new service do not, in their daily personal lives, have to worry about what it would take for a bus line to make life easier, and so their reasoning on this issue is not much more sophisticated than this: “Downtown is booming, Downtown is success, a Downtown bus will succeed!”

If anyone involved had taken a moment to consider the service from the point of view of someone who might actually ride it, then they would have seen that the Downtown circulator will not serve a need, that it is a waste of money, and—because Centro’s budget is not unlimited—wasted money means worse service on the lines that people actually ride. Syracuse will never get the public transportation system that this City needs and deserves until someone with the power to make decisions at Centro takes the perspective of a bus rider.

The highways are walls

81, 690, and the West Street Arterial are designed to make Downtown more accessible from the suburbs, but they’re also designed to make Downtown less accessible to city residents.

They do this in two ways. The first is to cut off local streets that connect adjacent neighborhoods. 81—and the urban renewal projects that went with it—closed Jefferson, Cedar, Madison, Montgomery, and McBride Streets. The interchange with 690 closed Oswego Boulevard and Pearl and Canal Streets. The West Street Arterial closed Belden Avenue and Walton Street, and it severed Marcellus, Otisco, and Tully Streets from their connection to Downtown too.

The second is to funnel so much vehicular traffic onto the remaining streets that they become unusable to anybody not in a car. This is the state of Harrison and Adams most obviously, but it’s also a problem on Fayette, Genesee, and Erie Boulevard. A car driver approaching from the East used to have 11 different options for entering Downtown—now there are only 6. These remaining swollen streets are awful to walk along, difficult to cross, and impossible to bike in, so they crowd out local foot traffic between adjacent neighborhoods.

Any plan to fix that damage has to do more than just remove the highway—it also has to break down the barriers that segregate neighborhoods by establishing new connections between them.

NYSDOT’s plan for the Grid does this a little bit. It reopens streets like Pearl and Oswego Boulevard,  expands the Creekwalk, adds a few blocks of bike lanes, and shortens crosswalks at major intersections.

But those are just starts. Syracuse needs a more comprehensive plan to reconnect Downtown to the City. That will mean adding low-traffic pedestrian-friendly connections—like a bridge over Onondaga Creek at Fabius or opening footpaths through Presidential Plaza. It will mean narrowing West and Adams so that people can walk across them safely. It will mean building a functional public transportation system.

It should not be easier, cheaper, and more convenient for a person from Van Buren to drive Downtown than it is for someone from Park Avenue to walk Downtown. It shouldn’t be that way for no other reason than that Van Buren is 10 miles from Clinton Square while Park Avenue is less than a mile away. We’ve successfully warped the County’s geography so that 10 miles seems like less than 1, but we did it by building a wall between Downtown and the surrounding City neighborhoods. It’s time to tear that wall down and reestablish the City’s connection to its center.

You plow the sidewalks so they’re passable three days after a snow

The morning after a snow storm, when an eight inch snowfall blankets the neighborhood, it’s really obvious that we need a better way to clear the sidewalks.

But a municipal sidewalk snow removal program might not make a huge difference in that moment. For one, it’s going to take a while for city sidewalk plows to hit every sidewalk. It can take a day or more for plows to get to minor streets, and the same would be true for sidewalks too.

And it’s hard to get all the snow off a sidewalk even when the plow does come by. Broken pavement makes nooks and crannies where snow can hide from plows, so they’re probably going to leave some snow on the sidewalk.

But even imperfect plowing can make all the difference a few days after a big snow if the temperature gets above freezing.

These pictures show the sidewalk along Roosevelt Avenue on either side of Kensington Road. These blocks lead to Barry Park and the Co-op, and get a lot of foot traffic even when the sidewalks are covered in snow.

These pictures are from February 26th—three days after the last snowfall. Each of those three days the sun came out, the temperature got up above freezing, and a lot of snow melted.

On the block north of Kensington, those three days were enough to clear the sidewalks completely. That sidewalk got shoveled a few times during the month, so there wasn’t much snow sitting on the pavement to begin with, and it didn’t take much for what was left to melt away.

But south of Kensington, warm temperatures hadn’t worked the same magic. That block never got shoveled, so three days of warm weather wasn’t enough to melt the snow away. Instead the snow melted and refroze, melted and refroze, so that it turned into a thick unshovelable layer of ice.

If City Hall could make sure that every sidewalk gets cleared a least once or twice while the snow is falling, it will make a huge difference when temperatures rise and melt off the snow that’s left, leaving pristine pavement so people can walk around town safely.

The high costs of low-frequency bus service

Low-frequency bus service entails enormous costs—both economic and social—and those costs go unaccounted for in too many conversations about the place of public transportation in our City and in our public budgets. Whenever Centro’s service gets cut, we’re told it’s because we can’t afford it. But rarely does anybody ask whether worse service is really a better deal. 

Let’s say you take the bus to the grocery store. You’ve got to check the schedule and pick one of the handful of times a day when the bus actually goes from your house to the store. Then you’ve got to time your shopping so that you can finish, pay, and get out to the stop in time to catch another bus home. Miss it, and you’re stuck waiting for the next bus, and on a low-frequency line, the next bus is never just around the corner.

With all the scheduling and all the waiting, that trip can easily take hours out of your day. It crowds out other uses of your time, so it’s not possible to get groceries and go to the doctor, or to go to the doctor and babysit your goddaughter, or to babysit your goddaughter and go to bible study—not if all of those trips require a bus ride. There’s just not enough time to go many places because the infrequent service shortens the day.

So when the bus takes up so much of your time, it costs you the opportunity to do everything that you need to get done.

But it’s not as if you’re really willing to give up on eating, family, and church just because the bus doesn’t run often enough. So you try to accomplish as many of those tasks without the bus as possible. Maybe that means going to church with your car-owning neighbor or getting food from the corner store sometimes instead of going all the way to the supermarket. Maybe it means picking an apartment within walking distance of family. All of those strategies to cope with impractical bus service constrain your other choices—you can’t buy just any food but what’s available at the corner store. You can’t pick any apartment but the one that’s within walking distance of your daily needs.

So when the bus is such an impractical method of travelling across the City, it costs the freedom to choose between different places to live, schools to attend, food to eat.

And if those choices are insufficient—if you can’t force your family and friends to live within walking distance or if you move to a new neighborhood for a better apartment and are justifiably unwilling to change churches just for that—then the bus is simply insufficient and you’ll need a different way to get around. Maybe that’s biking, maybe that’s taking a cab, but probably—aspirationally—it’s buying a car.

And what a cost that is. AAA puts the annual price of owning, operating, and maintaining a new car at $9,282. That’s 24% of Syracuse’s median household income, and it’s way more than what anyone would spend on bus fare over the course of the year. Between 2010 and 2019, the total number of 2-car households in Syracuse increased by 25% while the number of car-free households decreased by 2%, meaning that several thousand families took on that new onerous expense because Centro couldn’t get them where they needed to go.

So when the bus service is insufficient to let you live your life, it costs you thousands of dollars.

There’s a lot of focus on the cost of making Centro better. How much money to buy more buses, to build better shelters, to pay more operators.

But there are costs to leaving Centro as it is. Trips not taken, opportunities forgone, connections missed, household budgets broken. Tally all that up, and it’s clear we can’t afford not to invest in better bus service.

Who Rides Bikes?

Biking is an activity and transportation mode that cuts across race, class, and gender lines. But spend much time talking about bicycles, the infrastructure they require, and their place in the community, and you’ll quickly find out that a lot of people hold very a specific idea of what a ‘biker’ is, and that fixed image blinds them to the great diversity of people who ride bikes regularly.

The irony is that different people have very different ideas of who bikers really are, but if you combine all of those different stereotypes then you get something like an accurate picture of the different reasons and conditions that lead different people to ride bikes. Here is a short list of different types of bike, the stereotypes associated with them, and—to make them more relatable to those who don’t bike—their closest car-analog.

Old Beater

Any day of the year, you can find dozens of used mountain bikes on craigslist, offer up, and facebook marketplace for less than $25. If what you need is a machine that makes it a little easier to get around town for cheap, this is the obvious option.

Buying a used bike from craigslist is a lot like buying a used car from craigslist. You can’t be picky, you can’t be so upset that it needs a little work to get running or that the front bumper is held on with duct tape, but it does the job.

Hybrid

Bikes built for comfort and adaptability, these are sort of like America’s answer to the opa bikes that are so popular in Amsterdam. Couples ride them together in Onondaga Lake Park, office workers pedal in dress pants and skirts.

Think of the hybrid bike like a Toyota Corolla—a good basic option that works for most people.

Fixie

Bike messengers popularized fixed-gear bikes by using them to weave through gridlocked traffic in big cities in the 1980s. No coasting and no hand breaks means that riders can exercise minute control over their speed, acceleration, and stopping, but it takes a lot of skill and strength to master.

It’s like people who drive cars with manual transmission and can use it to weave through highway traffic at 75 mph.

BMX

These bikes are built to jump in the air and then land hard, which makes them good both for popping wheelies and for rolling over curbs, rough pavement, and potholes. People ride them to get around cities and to have fun doing it.

They’re kind of like the souped up street rods in The Fast and the Furious—flashy, fun to show off, and a source of community for the people who ride them.

Specialty Racer

The people who ride these bikes zip along well-paved streets in packs, each one of them decked out in spandex like they’re on the Tour de Onondaga. The bikes are like something from science fiction—carbon fiber molded into incredible shapes and so light that you can lift it onto a car rack with one hand.

They’re the bike version of a Ferrari. That thing is for going fast, it’s not for getting anywhere specific. And you can be damn sure that it’s not coming out of the garage while there’s salt on the roads.

Different people ride different kinds of bikes for different reasons. There’s no one image of what a real biker is just as there’s no one image of what a car driver is—there are just people who ride bikes. It’s a more complicated picture than imagining that all bikers are Lance Armstrong impersonators or tattooed vegetarians, but it’s also makes biking more normalized because it’s just something that anybody could choose to do without seeming deviant. When more people can learn to see the act of biking like that, we’ll be in a good position to make our transportation system work better for all these different people who use it.

Plowable Bike Lanes

City Hall needs to figure out how to plow its bicycle infrastructure. No one will use even the best bike lane if it’s buried under six inches of snow.

Safe bike lanes aren’t easy to plow, though. The best ones are physically separated from car lanes—by a curb or some other barrier—so a plow can’t clear them at the same time as it clears a street’s car lanes, and the big city-plows are too wide to fit in a bike lane anyway.

The priority routes for City Hall’s (temporarily paused) sidewalk plowing program would make a very good bike network

City Hall’s popular (but paused) sidewalk plowing program is an opportunity to square that circle. It used smaller plows to clear snow off the sidewalks, and that same machinery could easily clear bike lanes too. That’s how SU keeps part of the University Ave cycle track clear.

The trick is to figure out how to do it efficiently. Giving the sidewalk plows entirely new work will make the program much more expensive. The sidewalk plowing pilot got cut to help shore up the municipal budget, so asking to have those small plows make extra runs down protected street-level bike lanes isn’t a great option.

Some parts of the Creekwalk are level with the existing sidewalk

Some of Syracuse’s existing protected bike lanes—like those on Hiawatha where it crosses Onondaga Creek, or Franklin where the Creekwalk connects to the Empire State Trail—already do this. In those places, the bike lane is above the curb and level with the sidewalk. The pavement is wide enough to give pedestrians and bikers enough room, but there’s no physical barrier between their lanes, and so a single plow can clear the entire area at once.

The Franklin and Hiawatha bike lanes should be Syracuse’s preferred model for future bike infrastructure. They’re safer than painted lanes like those on Onondaga St, and they’re easier to plow than fully separated lanes like those on University Ave. And as a bonus, they provide more sidewalk space for people on foot or using a mobility device too. This is a solution that meets Syracuse’s specific needs.

Transit’s Network Effect

Public transportation works best as a network. When riders can transfer between multiple buses to access more of the city, the service is exponentially more useful than if it consisted of just a single line. And since additional service makes existing service even more useful, Centro should build out the biggest BRT network that it can as soon as it can.

To see how this works, just look at the 2 lines that SMTC proposed in the SMART1 study. 3,912 workers live within a 5 minute walk of a station on the SU-RTC line. 512 of them (13%) also work within a 5 minute walk of a station. 7559 workers live within a 5 minute walk of the Eastwood-OCC line, and 1101 of them (15%) also work along that line.

If you account for the 552 workers who live within walking distance of both lines, about 1,500 workers (14%) could use one of these two lines to get to the jobs that they work now.

But good transit doesn’t work as a series of individual lines—it’s a network. These two BRT lines will intersect at both St. Joe’s and at the Hub, so anybody who lives along either line could use those connection points to change buses and access any job that’s located along the other line.

And when you account for that network effect, it turns out 2,407 of the 10,919 workers (22%!) who live within walking distance of a planned BRT station could use the service to get to the jobs that they already have. Some people who live along the SU-RTC work along the Eastwood-OCC line and vice versa, so when the two lines operate as a network, each one is more useful to more people.

Add more lines, and those numbers will climb even higher. Run a line up South Salina and out Erie Boulevard to Shoppingtown, and 4,403 out of the 16,808 workers (26%) living within walking distance of a BRT station could commute to their current jobs by bus. Run another from Shop City to Western Lights through the North and West sides, and the number of potential bus commuters rises to 6,714 out of 23,969 workers (28%). That’s 1 out of every 10 people who work within walking distance of this 4-line BRT network.

And what’s true for commuters is true for people who ride the bus for any other reason too. Someone living just off North Salina might be able to use the SU-RTC line to get to the Mall, but they’d need to connect to the Eastwood-OCC line to get to school at OCC, or the Valley-DeWitt line to visit family in Salt Springs. More lines going more places make the network more useful to more people.

The network effect is what makes transit work. No individual line can be very useful all on its own, but any line gets more useful when it operates in tandem with another line. Every single line in a network gets more useful every time another one gets added to the network. That’s why Centro takes such pains to facilitate transfers at the Hub, and it’s why when Syracuse starts running BRT it should build out as many lines as quickly as possible.

The Syracuse University Bus Network

Walk west on Euclid Avenue, and from the time that SU’s campus comes into view to when you get to Comstock Avenue, you’re guaranteed to see at least a handful of buses pulling in and out of the University. SU operates as a sort of second Hub, and the buses that originate, terminate, and run through there constitute a sort of second bus system nested within Centro’s larger tri-county network.

every bus line that serves SU’s College Place bus stop

Although College Place acts as the hub where every single bus line meets, it’s possible to make transfers at other stops too. Lines that leave that College Place in different directions sometimes meet back up again at important points like the intersection of Genesee and Westcott or the corner of Westcott and Broad. This creates secondary transfer points that riders can use to move between different lines in the system without ever going through the main hub. Low service frequencies make that kind of transfer unlikely, but it is at least possible within the network design.

Every 40 minutes or so, a lot of buses leave the Downtown Hub all at once. One or two buses leave College Place every couple of minutes

And although College Place acts as a Hub, the network doesn’t rely on lineups to help riders transfer between different lines. This is partly because the overwhelming majority of riders are either trying to get to or from SU, so there’s no need for them to transfer. And it’s partly because some lines (like the South Campus/Connective Corridor) run right through College Place, so there’s no need to actually change buses to ‘catch’ that connection.

Ditching the whole concept of the lineup frees Centro to run significantly more useful service for SU. The South Campus line, for instance, makes 138 runs between 7am and 3am. That’s service every 8 to 10 minutes all day long, and it’s so useful that students living at South Campus simply don’t need to own a car in order to get back and forth between their housing and their classes. That kind of service is only possible at SU because they’re not concerned with fitting every single bus run into the rube-goldberg service model that is the lineup.

These are good lessons to apply to Centro’s main network. The Downtown Hub doesn’t have to be the network’s only transfer point—people travelling from Mattydale to Liverpool should be able to change buses at the Mall, say. And it shows that Centro can run both frequent service and pulse service simultaneously—frequent service on high-performance BRT routes, say, while maintaining pulse service for suburban coverage routes. Centro’s SU service offers a model for the kind of public transportation that the rest of the City needs and deserves.