Category Archives: Transportation

BRT and the Suburbs

Bus Rapid Transit—a service model that makes the buses run faster and more frequently—works best when lots of people can live within walking distance of just a few bus stations. That’s why SMTC’s plan for two BRT lines stays pretty much within the City of Syracuse—City neighborhoods have the necessary population density to support quality transit. But even though Syracuse’s first two BRT lines will be confined almost entirely within the City, they will improve bus service in the suburbs too.

To see why, look at current service in the northern suburbs. Say you want to get from North Syracuse to the Amazon warehouse in Liverpool—a distance of about 5 miles if you were to walk it. It’s possible to make that trip on a bus, but you have to go all the way Downtown to make a connection at the Hub. That more than triples the length of the trip, and an easy 10 minute drive stretches into an hour-long bus ride.

BRT fixes this problem by making better connections between lines. It achieves higher service frequencies in the City—in part—by consolidating the city-portions of those suburban routes. Right now, the lines to North Syracuse and Liverpool run roughly parallel through the Northside, but they don’t ever connect until they reach Downtown.

With BRT, both routes would run on the same streets and serve the same stops all the way from Downtown, through the Northside, to the RTC. It will be possible to connect between the two lines at any of those stops, and that could shave 30 minutes off the trip between North Syracuse and Liverpool.

BRT service from University Hill to the Regional Transportation Center would stay entirely within the City limits, but it would still improve bus service in the northern suburbs. It would turn the RTC into a transit hub where people traveling between suburbs could easily transfer between suburban lines, and that would make it possible to get between suburbs without having to ride all the way Downtown.

Missing Links in the Bike Network

Syracuse’s many hills funnel most car traffic onto the few streets that follow level routes across town. Genesee, Geddes, Salina, Erie—these major streets knit the city together. That works fine for people driving cars, but it’s terrible for people riding bikes because the huge amount of car traffic on those streets makes them dangerous for anyone not in a car. A comprehensive bike plan should create new routes that parallel these major streets so that people can safely bike across town.

One obvious solution is to modify the existing streets by adding a fully protected bike lane. That’s what we’ve got in the Empire State Trail on Erie Boulevard East, and it’s great. Where space permits, this is the best way to provide people on bikes with safe crosstown routes.

But most of Syracuse’s major streets aren’t as large as Erie Boulevard and none have a wide strip of unused land where the State can just plop a protected bike lane without inconveniencing any car drivers. On those corridors, City Hall needs to create an alternative path for bike riders.

Take Geddes Street. It ranges between 40 and 55 feet wide. Certain sections could easily accommodate the highly protected infrastructure that would be necessary to make that street safe for biking, but other areas—particularly the wildly dangerous section that dips beneath the train tracks—could not. Good bike infrastructure won’t fit, and slim painted lanes would be insufficient, so City Hall should look for a parallel path for bike riders to use.

Right now, there is no one unbroken path that fits the bill, but there could be if City Hall negotiated for an easement between West Fayette and West Erie to connect Van Rensselaer and Oswego Streets. That would create a clear path along low-traffic streets from Strathmore all the way to the Inner Harbor. Add a few bits of bike infrastructure, and Syracuse would have a very good, very useful neighborhood greenway connecting several neighborhoods on the Westside.

Or look at Eastwood. The three streets that lead to it—Grant, James, and Burnet—are too dangerous for comfortable biking, and there’s no other obvious way to get across Teall Avenue and into or out of the neighborhood.

Connect a couple of minor streets, and it’s easy. City Hall should ensure bike movement through the East Woods Skate Plaza to connect two stretches of Caleb Avenue, and they should do the same through Sunnycrest Park to connect Caleb to Robinson Street. Bike riders could then cross Teall Avenue at Robinson’s signalized intersection, and they would be able to take the tough climb into Eastwood on relatively low-traffic Hawley Avenue.

Syracuse relies on a few major streets to handle all crosstown traffic. That makes it hard to bike in this town, because most people don’t want to ride beside all those cars. Forge a few missing links, and City Hall could build a high-quality, low-stress, crosstown bike network that would allow people to bike around the City in peace and comfort.

Updating Syracuse’s Bike Plan

The Syracuse Bicycle Plan has been collecting dust since it was published in 2012. The 109-page document is part of City Hall’s comprehensive plan, and it includes specific recommendations for a citywide network of infrastructure improvements that would make it safer, easier, and more comfortable to ride a bike across town.

There’s been some progress on turning those recommendations into reality—especially when the County, State, or Federal governments have been able to pick up the tab—but mostly, City Hall’s Bike Plan remains unbuilt.

This is disappointing, but it might be an opportunity in disguise. The original plan was written before Syracuse had any real experience with this kind of infrastructure, and it includes a lot of recommendations that really wouldn’t do much to improve the experience of biking on the City’s streets. Particularly, the Bike Plan relies heavily on sharrows and unprotected bike lanes for high-speed, high-traffic streets like James, Genesee, and Geddes Streets. This might have seemed acceptable in 2012, but we know better now, and it’s a good thing that we’re not stuck with sharrows on Seneca Turnpike.

City Hall should amend the Bike Plan to bring it in line with today’s best practices. We can keep the very useful analysis of where bike infrastructure should go, but we need to update the plan for what that infrastructure should be.

Drop sharrows entirely—anyone who’s ridden over them knows they’re useless, and research suggests they may actually make streets more dangerous for cyclists.

Unprotected bike lanes have no business on streets with lots of fast-moving traffic. They might be useful as part of a comprehensive road diet—a treatment that reduces the number and width of car lanes in order to get cars to drive more slowly—but they should not just be tacked onto deadly streets like West Genesee or James. That’s insanity.

In place of these insufficient measures, City Hall should double down on two types of infrastructure that have proven effective both locally and across the county: protected bike routes and neighborhood greenways. When bike lanes are protected from cars—by a curb, plastic posts, or because the path is totally separate from the street grid like the Creekwalk—people can use them with the peace of mind that comes from being safe from cars. Protected bike lanes are perfect for allowing people to bike safely on the City’s major, too-wide, too-fast streets. The Empire State Trail along Erie Boulevard East is a great example. So is the protected bike lane on South West Street. Protected bike lanes of that same quality should go on all of Syracuse’s major cross-town streets.

Neighborhood greenways offer a similar level of comfort and peace of mind on smaller streets where there’s not enough room to add a full protected bike lane. They reduce car speeds and traffic volumes with design features like narrowed lanes, roundabouts, alternating one-way blocks, and pierced cul-de-sacs. This all makes biking safer, and it also makes the street safer overall—something we should be doing anyway in every neighborhood.

In the years since it published the Bike Plan, City Hall has done very little to actually implement it. Higher levels of government have funded and built some really good bike infrastructure in Syracuse, but the City as a whole remains largely disconnected. City Hall should draw on the example of successful local projects like the Empire State Trail and national best practices like Seattle’s neighborhood greenways to update its Bike Plan and build a network that will allow people to bike across the entire City safely, easily, and comfortably.

Building out BRT

Bus Rapid Transit—a set of service and infrastructure improvements that makes buses run faster and more frequently—is Syracuse’s best opportunity to improve the City’s public transportation network because it’s much simpler and easier to expand BRT than either rail or traditional bus service.

To see why, look at Syracuse’s planned BRT system. Right now, it’s just two lines—Eastwood to OCC along James and South Ave, and SU to the Regional Transportation Center along Adams and North Salina Streets. That’s a good start, but obviously this city needs quality transit in more places than just those two corridors, so the BRT network will have to expand over time.

That expansion can take two forms. First, Syracuse could add more lines. South Salina Street, for example, obviously needs better transit service, so the 10 bus should be upgraded to BRT. Second, BRT lines can be extended further out. New development along Old Liverpool Road might make it worthwhile to extended the SU-RTC line all the way to the Village of Liverpool.

But that kind of expansion is almost impossible under Centro’s current, traditional pulse-timed service model, and it’d be incredibly difficult if Syracuse was committing to some sort of rail-based transit service.

The problem with expanding rail service is pretty straightforward—it costs a bunch of money and takes forever to build. And since you can’t run a train until the tracks are in the ground, service improvements get delayed for decades. Just ask Buffalo, where plans to extend the subway have been in the works for four decades without any new service to show for it.

The difficulty of expanding traditional pulse-timed bus service is less intuitive. Centro time’s its buses so that they meet all at once at the hub every forty minutes, or so. It’s called a lineup, and it helps riders transfer between different bus lines that don’t run very often. Since the buses are all timed in relation to each other, it’s impossible to change any line’s schedule without throwing the whole system out of whack. Any significant improvement in service requires a full network redesign—like the one that Rochester is rolling out next week—and that also takes years.

BRT avoids these problems because it’s so much cheaper to implement than rail, and because its frequent service doesn’t require a lineup to facilitate transfers between lines. If Syracuse wanted to extend service to Liverpool or add BRT to South Salina, we could just do it without taking 10 years to lay down rails or rejigger the rest of the bus network. That’s what’s happening in Albany, where the Capital District Transit Authority is building out a full BRT network one line at a time.

There are a lot of reasons that BRT is the best option for improving public transportation in Syracuse, but this is the most compelling one. It’s iterative—we can build the network in manageable pieces—we can get started now, and we can keep expanding the system into the future.

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.