Syracuse should build bus lanes on specific high-traffic streets as part of the I-81 project. Giving buses dedicated space on city streets makes public transit faster, cheaper, and more reliable, and it’s an important step towards building a transportation system that works for everybody.
But bus lanes weren’t included in NYSDOT’s draft plans for I-81, and they weren’t even part of SMTC’s design of Centro’s planned BRT lines. Even though bus lanes (and preferably, separated bus lanes) are considered necessary for any project to call itself BRT, Centro isn’t asking for any dedicated street space for its buses.
There’s some sense to that. Syracuse doesn’t have the same level of traffic congestion that makes dedicated bus lanes so essential and successful in cities like New York and Boston, and it’s better to focus on other infrastructure improvements—like signal priority and level boarding platforms—that will have a greater impact in Syracuse.
But even though dedicated bus lanes shouldn’t be Centro’s top priority, there are at least three good reasons they should still be part of the I-81 project.
FIrst, Centro buses do get stuck in traffic. It doesn’t happen on every bus route, and it doesn’t happen all hours of the day, but there are plenty of times that buses moving through the middle of town get stuck behind a bunch of cars, and that sucks.
Centro should make it a priority to build bus lanes in the specific places where excessive car traffic slows buses down.
Second, there’s plenty of room for bus lanes already. The places where Centro most needs its own dedicated running lanes just so happen to be overly-wide traffic sewers leading to and from 81’s off and onramps. Parts of James, State, and Adams Streets are 5 lanes and more than 60’ wide. That’s crazy!
These streets have enough room to build dedicated bus lanes without needing to do the costly work of moving a single curb. Just repurpose some of that ample existing street space by painting it bright red with a sign that says “bus only” and call it a day.
These bus lanes would be useful even before BRT is fully implemented, and they should be included in the I81 project.
Third, it’s important to claim that space for public transportation now before doing so becomes politically difficult. Removing the 81 viaduct will temporarily reduce car traffic on these overbuilt streets, but the project will also open up new space for new homes and businesses in the City’s center. When new people move into the center of town, they’ll build their lives around whatever transportation system Syracuse provides. If there’s still mediocre bus service and lots of room for cars, they’ll drive everywhere and create all kinds of new traffic congestion that’ll slow the buses down and make public transportation even less appealing to new residents.
And if Syracuse waits until the buses really are bogged down in terrible traffic, it will be too late to build bus lanes because the drivers bogging down the buses will scream bloody murder at the idea of giving any of ‘their’ space to public transportation. Better to get ahead of that problem now by laying the groundwork for a transportation system that can handle population growth—a transportation system built on high-capacity modes like walking, biking, and public transportation.
This is an opportune moment. Downtown is riven by a few overly wide streets clogged with traffic shunting to and from the highways. When 81 comes down, the excess space on those streets will be immediately—but only temporarily—up for grabs. Syracuse should turn that space into bus lanes as part of the I81 project in order to secure fast reliable public transportation now so that the City’s center can handle population growth in the years ahead.