Category Archives: Transportation

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.

A greenway for the Westside

Soon, the Eastside, Southside, and Northside will all have access to a cross-county network of greenways running through two of the three big valleys that intersect at Downtown Syracuse. That third valley—stretching from the City Center to Split Rock through Syracuse’s Westside—should have it’s own greenway too.

Existing network in dark green, proposed Westside Greenway in light green

Abandoned train bridges, a channelized creek, and public parks all link up to provide a largely level and car-free route through the City’s Westside. Beginning at Fay Road on the northern edge of the Geddes athletic fields, the greenway would run east past Bishop Ludden, the Centers at St. Camillus, and Westhill High School. It would follow Harbor Brook along the north side of Grand Avenue to the back entrance to Western Lights Plaza. There it would cross Grand to continue following Harbor Brook across Velasko Road, past Providence House and the Harbor Brook Wetlands Project, and into the City.

Harbor Brook as it enters Skunk City from the west

The greenway would cut through Skunk City to Grand Avenue, run along the edge of Burnet Park, and link back up with Harbor Brook where it crosses under Grand between Lydell and Herriman Streets. It would follow the brook and Amy Street to Seymour Street and then run across Fowler’s campus all the way to Fayette Street. It would cross Fayette on the existing abandoned train bridges, follow the County-owned abandoned railroad property to Geddes Street, cross that dangerous road on another abandoned train bridge, and then run along the north side of Fayette through Lipe Art Park.

A signalized crosswalk at Oswego Street—like the one on West Street at Otisco—would allow people to access the greenway from the Near Westside. The path would cross Fayette and West Streets with the existing rail viaduct and then come back down to street level on the existing rail siding that leads down into the parking lot behind the MOST. There, the greenway would link up with the Creekwalk and the rest of the metro area’s regional biking/walking network.

This greenway would connect major job centers, populous neighborhoods, three high schools, and three public parks. It would be almost entirely free from cars and almost perfectly level along its entire route. It would pass through one of the region’s most dynamic and least celebrated landscapes. It would be a very good addition to both Syracuse’s park system and its transportation network.

A new way to understand the City

Syracuse can be a hard place to navigate. The City is big, it’s streets intersect at weird angles, and it’s just very easy to get turned around and lost. In a place like this, it’s helpful to have a way of simplifying things—some mental tool that makes the City understandable and makes people feel comfortable and in control as they move around within it. BRT can provide Syracuse with just such a tool—the network diagram.

The highways already do this for car drivers. There are people who understand the City entirely in terms of highway exits.  Name any spot, and they can tell you how to get there from the nearest exit. Ask for directions to any location, and they’ll tell you how to get from where you are to the nearest onramp, how to take the highway from there to the appropriate exit, and then how to get from that exit to wherever you’re going. It may not be the shortest or fastest route, but for someone who understands the City through the highways it will be the most intelligible route.

BRT could give us a similar simplifying diagram based on high frequency transit routes. Here’s an idea of how it could look:

It’s not actually so simple to get from the RTC to SU as this diagram suggests—the bus operator is going to have to make more than three turns—but from the perspective of a passenger on the Blue Line, it’s as easy as boarding and exiting the bus at the correct station stops.

If these transit lines are useful enough that people can ride them as their primary mode of transportation in the City, then knowing your way around town is as easy as remembering the relationships between the network’s different station stops. How to get from Eastwood to Crouse Hospital? Just catch an OCC-bound Orange bus, transfer to an SU-bound Blue bus at either St. Joseph’s or the Hub, and get off at the Hospitals station stop. This simple diagram becomes a key to understanding the City as a whole.

And after these two first lines prove their worth, Centro should extend BRT to more of the City, running new lines to different neighborhoods, making more of the City accessible and intelligible to people through public transit.

Dismantling Syracuse’s Inner Loop

The I81 viaduct is part of the interstate highway system, but it’s also one piece of a high-speed traffic loop that encircles Downtown. Once it’s torn down, that loop won’t function the way that it’s supposed to, and that will give Syracuse a fantastic opportunity to reclaim West, Harrison, and Adams Streets as local streets rather than surface-level highways.

Early plans for Syracuse’s interstates included connecting highways on Townsend, West, and Adams Streets. These would have formed an Inner Loop like the one that Rochester is currently removing.

Syracuse never managed to build that full loop, but it came close. Coming off 690, West St feels one hell of a lot like an interstate until you hit the traffic light at Fayette. No buildings front the new curvaceous block of Shonnard Street that Connect West to Adams. Harrison and Adams are significantly wider than any city street should be—more than twice as wide as 81 in places—and people speed up and down them like they are highways.

In 1955 businesses, factories, and homes lined West Street. In 2020 it’s a barren highway

The thing is, this quasi-loop won’t make much sense after the viaduct’s gone. Harrison and Adams are 4 lanes wide because they handle all of the car traffic going to-and-from 81’s main Downtown exit. Pretty soon, that exit won’t exist, and those streets won’t get nearly enough traffic to justify their width. And if Harrison and Adams aren’t going to feed the interstate anymore, then it doesn’t make very much sense for West Street to feed them either, so it doesn’t need to be 6 lanes wide.

NYSDOT and City Hall both understand this, which is why the DEIS included some big changes to West, Harrison, and Adams Streets. The biggest is that they’re getting rid of the West Street onramps to 690. That will slow traffic on both West and W Genesee, and it will free up space for an extension of the Creekwalk. They’re also going to convert Harrison and Adams from one-way race tracks into two-way streets—an adjustment that will encourage car traffic to obey the speed limit and make those streets safer for people on foot and on bike.

But they should go even further than that. If those streets aren’t going to feed the highways anymore, then there are plenty of other highway-like features that should also go away. West Street doesn’t need its full cloverleaf interchange with Erie Boulevard—one connecting ramp in each direction is plenty for low-speed traffic. West Street also doesn’t need to be a divided highway south of Fayette—it can go back to being a 2-lane street without any problem, and Marcellus, Jefferson, and Tully Streets can all get signalized crosswalks where they intersect.

Harrison and Adams should both be 2-way streets and they should be a lot narrower. And although they won’t lead to a highway onramp anymore, they will still lead to Centro’s Hub, so some of that extra space should go to bus lanes.

Imagine West Street’s extra lanes turned into park space, new buildings along Erie Boulevard where the cloverleaf used to be, a seamless transition from Armory Square to the Near Westside, and bus lanes linking Onondaga Street, Downtown, and University Hill

The highway-ization of Syracuse’s local streets has been a disaster for the City. West, Harrison, and Adams Streets all used to be thriving business districts that linked their neighborhoods to Downtown. Now all are asphalt moonscapes that no one wants to cross. Getting rid of the viaduct will change Syracuse’s street grid in a way that will allow the City to take those streets back, to make them function the way that they used to—connecting the City’s neighborhoods instead of dividing them. 

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.

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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.

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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.