Category Archives: Transportation

The case for bus lanes

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.

Centro buses are often held up by congested car traffic

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.

Adams Street has ample room for bus lanes

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.

More and better bike racks

Syracuse needs better bike storage. It’s no good biking somewhere if there’s nowhere to put the bike once you get there. Right now, there’s almost no place in Syracuse with dedicated bike storage for more than one or two people at a time. Bike riders make it work by locking to street signs, fences, benches, etc., but this isn’t a scalable solution. If Syracuse is going to see a meaningful shift to biking, we need better places to store all the bikes.

This concrete pad has enough racks to store 48 bikes. The same space could fit 3 parked cars

University Hill shows how impactful this can be. There’s simply not enough room for every student, professor, and staff member to bring a car onto Syracuse University’s and ESF’s campuses without demolishing half the academic buildings (compare University Hill to Downtown, which did demolish half its buildings to make space for car storage). Bikes (along with quality transit to campus and abundant housing within walking distance of campus) let people get to work or class without needing to bring along a 2-ton steel box that they need to stash somewhere.

ESF handles bike storage better than SU. To see how, look at the north side of Illick Hall. It’s ‘shark fin’ bike racks are more secure than the traditional racks that SU uses, and they pack more bikes into a smaller space. ESF also placed these racks beneath the building’s overhang to keep bikes out of the elements, and there is a publicly available bike pump and tool set to handle minor repairs.

Here are three lessons from ESF and SU’s bike storage facilities. First, they are abundant. Although many people bike to campus, there’s almost always enough space for another person to lock up their bike.

Second, they are secure. The bike racks on University Hill are sturdy and designed to be locked to a bike’s frame (rather than just the wheel, like the sorry schoolyard-style bike rack outside of City Hall). ESF’s ‘shark fin’ racks are particularly well-designed in that they make it easy to use a single lock to secure both the frame and the front wheel while fitting more bikes into less space.

Third, they are out of the way. These bike racks have their own dedicated space where they don’t get in the way of pedestrians. That’s a much better situation than you find Downtown, where a bike locked to a street sign can easily fall over and block the sidewalk.

this otherwise unusable space is room enough for 7 bikes

City Hall can learn these lessons and implement similar bike storage strategies in other parts of Syracuse where a shift to bike transportation would yield similar benefits.

A simple, easily implemented, scalable solution is to build bike corrals below the curb at crosswalks. Bike corrals are just a set of closely-spaced bike racks (enough for 4-8 bikes) protected by bollards or planters. By placing them along the curb at crosswalks, City Hall would improve street safety by reducing the effective length of the crosswalk and by ‘daylighting’ these intersections so that pedestrians and car drivers can see each other. In this way, bike corrals work like curb extensions, but they’re significantly less expensive to construct and they bring the added benefit of quality bike storage.

This simple intervention could make a big impact in places like Downtown and neighborhood centers where lots of people tend to congregate and excessive car storage wastes valuable space that could be put to better use.

Centro’s new path forward

Centro has had a rough go of it the last few months, but the transit agency is poised to transform its service and serve the City better. Covid has shaken up service patterns and freed Centro to explore new service strategies, and the federal government’s infrastructure bill will provide the resources to implement those strategies effectively. Public transportation’s future is bright, and that’s a very good thing for Syracuse.

To see how Centro is changing its service to improve transit for the people who use it most, look at the 52 bus that runs through the Northside and Lyncourt. This has consistently been one of Centro’s busiest lines, but ridership is not spread evenly over the entire route. The bus picks up and drops off a lot of people between Butternut Street and Grant Boulevard, but it gets less use as it runs along Court Street.

That makes sense since the Northside is significantly more densely populated than Lyncount, it has a better mix of homes, institutions, and businesses than Lyncourt, and because households on the Northside are much less likely to own cars than are those in Lyncourt.

So as Centro is hiring new operators and adding service back to the 52 line , it’s targeting that service to the Northside. Eight times a day, a new variation—the 252 bus, blue on the maps above—will run between the Northside and Downtown without continuing out Court Street to Lyncourt. This truncated route will still serve all of the 52 bus’s busiest stops, and—because it’s so much shorter than the full 52 line—it will allow for much more frequency where people need it most.

Centro is calling this an “urban centric” strategy, and it’s a very good idea—in order to truly connect people to opportunity, the bus needs to run frequently. Centro should use its limited resources to achieve meaningful frequency in neighborhoods like the Northside where many people ride the bus. Similar changes can and should be made to many of Centro’s other routes.

The recently passed federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework will supercharge this process. It contains $74 million for Centro to finally build and run BRT in Syracuse. As a start, this means two high-frequency bus lines—one from Eastwood to OCC along James Street and South Avenue, one from University Hill to the Regional Transportation Center along Adams and Salina Streets—with buses running no more than 15 minutes apart all day.

At root, BRT is nothing more than applying Centro’s ‘urban centric’ strategy to its highest ridership lines. The two corridors identified in the 2017 SMART1 plan are really just the best performing sections of four of Centro’s best performing lines. Investing in increased frequency on those high-ridership corridors will multiply the gains from Centro’s new service strategy.

So, if this experiment with the new 252 line goes well—if more people ride it because it targets better service where it’s most useful—then that line might be a candidate for conversion to BRT service in the future. These are the kind of iterative, data-driven service changes that will make BRT such an effective tool for continuously improving public transportation in Syracuse.

Eventually—as routes like the 252 and new service designs like BRT prove themselves—we should see similar improvements to lines like the 68 (Fayette and Erie Boulevard), 10 (South Salina), and 64 (Onondaga Avenue). Uplift Syracuse estimates that BRT service on those corridors would put 125,000 people and 80,000 jobs within walking distance of useful, reliable bus service. That’s the kind of transformational public transit this City needs and deserves.

Bikeshare and the suburbs

In Sync’s short history, it’s always been a City-centric service, but bikeshare could make its biggest impact in the suburbs. That’s because Sync’s ebikes are particularly useful for travelling long distances, and—with a growing network of intermunicipal trails—they could remake the way people get around Onondaga County.

The Empire State Trail, Onondaga Creekwalk, and Loop the Lake Trail are three interconnected trail systems that pass through or near Onondaga County’s main job centers and its most highly populated neighborhoods. They are also the kind of high-quality, low-stress biking infrastructure where lots of people feel comfortable riding a bike, even if they’re not ‘avid cyclists.’ These trail systems could allow people the freedom to travel across the county by bike.

But it’s not entirely practical for many people to use these trails in this way for the simple reason that many people live very far away from the places they work or shop or go to school. Most people who already bike to work live within 2 miles of all the jobs Downtown and on University Hill because that’s about as far as a lot of people are willing to pedal to get to work. Even though a person living in Elmcrest could bike all the way Downtown almost entirely on separated bike trails, that’s a 10-mile trip with a couple of hills, and it’s too difficult and time-consuming on a regular road bike.

But Sync doesn’t use regular road bikes. Its ebikes contain motors that make it much easier and quicker to bike over long distances and steep hills. This ease and speed means that people will be able to travel much further by bike without getting tired and sweaty and without wasting too much time, and it will greatly expand the distance that people are willing to travel by bike.

This is why Sync should look to expand its service area along the Empire State and Loop the Lake Trails. These are areas where it can provide a new and competitive service that will reduce both traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions while also making more suburban jobs accessible to City residents. It is also why City Hall, Onondaga County, and New York State should continue to expand the trail system to connect more neighborhoods and employment centers across the metro area.

Taken together, the countywide system of interconnected trails and Sync’s ebikes have the potential to meaningfully change the way people get around Central New York. High-quality, low-stress biking infrastructure makes biking comfortable for people who are just getting used to it, and motorized ebikes make biking long distances easy even for casual riders. Taken together, the countywide system of interconnected trails and Sync’s ebikes have the potential to meaningfully change the way people get around Central New York.

Building the infrastructure to make bikeshare succeed

You’d be hard pressed to find a better metaphor for the sorry state of our bike infrastructure than the Mayor announcing the return of bikeshare by riding an e-scooter over the barely visible remains of a sharrow worn away by car traffic. So—as someone who enjoys metaphors and is often very angry about how dangerous it is for me and my family to bike around Syracuse—I took dark pleasure when that exact thing happened last week.

Here’s the Mayor riding down Westcott Street, and if you squint hard enough you can just make out two parallel lines of worn white paint right in front of him. Those faded painted lines are what pass for bike infrastructure in the neighborhood with the highest rate of bike commuting in the entire City.

That’s not going to cut it. For bikeshare to live up to its promise, City Hall needs to build out the infrastructure that can keep people safe as they make their way across town.

the Mayor riding over Syracuse’s woefully insufficient bike infrastructure

Bikeshare’s return to Syracuse is good. Making e-bikes available for minimal upfront cost and without the hassles of storage, security, or maintenance gives a lot of people another good option for getting around town, and that makes people more free.

Adding e-scooters is also good. They were already growing in popularity as a cheap, easy way to get around, and they will make the program accessible to people who might be intimidated by bkeshare’s heavier, more physically demanding e-bikes.

But, for many people, bikeshare won’t eliminate the main barrier that’s keeping them from getting around Syracuse by bike: Syracuse’s streets are too dangerous for people on bikes! Almost necessarily, bikeshare is for people who don’t bike much now and probably aren’t very comfortable riding on city streets. It’s scary riding a bike and getting buzzed by a 2-ton truck because the driver is on their phone or maybe just pissed at you for being on the street. People who bike often out of necessity know this and develop strategies to avoid these kinds of situations, but it’s not reasonable to expect that most people will tolerate that level of danger and discomfort.

Just putting bikes and scooters out on the street isn’t enough. In order for bikeshare to truly be a new practical transportation option, people need to feel safe riding bikes and scooters on Syracuse’s streets.

the only connection between Tipp Hill and Park Avenue runs through this outrageously dangerous intersection

This means Syracuse needs bike infrastructure specifically designed to be inviting to new riders who aren’t necessarily used to riding in cities. Low-stress cycling is an infrastructure design approach that’s become national best practice because it increases access to city biking by making the experience safe and comfortable. You don’t have to be particularly comfortable on a bike, you don’t have to have planned your route out in painstaking detail beforehand, you don’t have to maintain total alertness the entire ride in order to get where you’re going safely. This is infrastructure that welcomes novices, forgives mistakes, and generally treats biking as the legitimate activity for anybody rather than a specialized hobby for hardcore enthusiasts.

In other words, low-stress cycling infrastructure is the perfect complement to a bikeshare program designed to increase the number of people getting around by bike.

There’s a lot that goes into low-stress cycling infrastructure, but here are two main points: riders need to be protected from the stress of travelling near heavy vehicular traffic, and riders need easy access to a citywide network that can get them where they need to go without long detours.

In practice that means a lot more bike lanes and paths protected from vehicular traffic with some physical object like bollards or a curb—not paint—and laid across the City so that people can easily move within and between neighborhoods. The Creekwalk and Empire State Trail are very good examples of this kind of low-stress infrastructure, and they should form the backbone of a larger citywide network.

This should not be hard to implement. The Mayor has expressed interest in better bike infrastructure, but he often says the problem is money. Well, the American Rescue Plan gave City Hall $123 million to spend on Covid recovery, and Centro is running skeleton service because Covid caused structural changes in the nature of work that are making it hard for them to hire bus operators. City Hall is well within its rights to use that money to improve transportation infrastructure for people without reliable access to a car, and they should do so immediately to complement the return of bikeshare.

Bikeshare has the potential to expand access to a cheap, convenient, sustainable method of transportation. That’s good because people need better options for getting around in this town, now more than ever. But in order for the program to live up to its potential, City Hall has to make Syracuse’s streets safer. That’s going to require an investment in low-stress cycling infrastructure like protected bike lanes and multi-use trails. People need to feel comfortable using bikeshare even if they’ve never ridden in a city before, even if they haven’t been on a bike in years. That’s the only way for bikeshare to succeed.

How tearing down I-81 will reduce traffic

The I-81 Draft Environmental Impact Statement put a lot of effort into explaining exactly how many minutes it would take to drive a car between different points in the County depending on what NYSDOT ultimately decides to do with the I-81 viaduct. NYSDOT estimates, for instance, that in 2056 during the morning rush it’ll take 27 minutes to get from Cicero to Lafayette if they leave the viaduct as it is, 23 minutes if they build a brand new viaduct, and 27 minutes if they build the Community Grid.

But the I-81 project’s biggest transportation impact won’t have anything to do with how long it takes to drive a car between Cicero and Lafayette. Instead, the I-81 project is going to decrease the number of car trips between such far flung locations and replace them with much shorter carless trips by changing the geography of where people can live in Onondaga County.

In general, if you were to walk from the edge of the Syracuse metropolitan area to its center at Clinton Square, each area you passed through would be more densely populated than the one you saw last. Onondaga County is more densely populated than predominantly rural Madison and Oswego Counties. Onondaga County’s inner ring suburbs are more densely populated than its newly built exurbs. The City’s neighborhoods are more densely populated than most all of its suburbs. The City’s older closer-in neighborhoods are more densely populated than the more recently developed neighborhoods at its edge.

And this makes a good deal of sense because it’s good to live near the center of things, so that’s where lots of people choose to live. It’s good to have ready access to hospitals and schools and places to work and places to socialize and lots of people to socialize with. Syracuse is the only place in all of Central New York where a person could step out their front door and be within walking distance of 50,000 jobs.

But once you reached the very center of the city, this pattern of increasing population density would all of a sudden reverse. Downtown Syracuse and the area that immediately surrounds it is significantly less densely populated than neighborhoods like the Northside and the Southside.

This is a real paradox, because the City’s center is one of the best places to live in order to enjoy the benefits that cities bring—being near stuff—and it’s obvious that people want to live in this area since the few that are pay exorbitant rents for the privilege.

But very much of the very middle of Syracuse is basically barren because of I-81. Cars promised to provide ready access to everything Syracuse had to offer—the jobs, the institutions, the community—without actually having to live near any of it. All they required was a highway and a parking spot. Syracuse’s leaders happily got to work demolishing housing, schools, businesses, and churches to make space for I-81, its arterial feeders, and the parking lots that surround and sustain them.

All that pavement creates a huge dead zone around the center of town that hurts Syracuse in two ways. First, it prevents people from living in places where people absolutely want to live. Second, it cuts City neighborhoods off from the opportunities available in the City’s center. 

People want to live near the center of town, but they can’t because the highway takes up too much space. The highway makes it so that the most desirable areas to live instead are on the exurban fringe. So people move out to the exurban fringe, but everybody’s moving to a different part of that fringe whether it’s Camillus or Lysander or Clay or Manlius. The community gets dispersed over an enormous area, and that’s how people find themselves in situations where they regularly need to get from Cicero to Lafayette for book club or work or their kid’s soccer game.

Tearing down the I-81 viaduct is a huge step towards fixing this transportation failure. The viaduct covers 18 acres of land, and tearing it down will free up a lot of space where people could find a good place to live. It will also make a lot of currently vacant land much more suitable for housing because there won’t be a big ugly polluting noisy highway right nearby anymore.

With more people living closer together, more of the places they need to go and the things they need to do will be located in a smaller area, so the post office and the pharmacy will be a 5 minute walk from home rather than a 5 minute car ride. As more people move to the center of town, there will be less need for all that parking and all those arterials, and there will be even more room for more people.

This trend is already underway. The five census tracts that surround the I-81 viaduct grew by 26% between 2010 and 2020. The people who accounted for that growth are not going to have to drive nearly as often or nearly as far as they would if they had instead moved to someplace like Fabius. When NYSDOT tears down the viaduct and replaces it with the Grid, they will make it more possible for more people to live similarly. That’s going to be the Grid’s biggest transportation impact.

The price of delay

Now that it’s clear that I-81 is coming down, the viaduct’s supporters have adopted a new tactic: delay. They’re done trying to influence the final outcome of the project—compare the in-depth 2-year tunnel analysis to the half-assed Skyway proposal—and they are instead trying to hold it off as long as possible.

The Mall has hired a lawyer who argues NYSDOT needs to redo all of its economic analyses with newer data. Busybodies from Skaneateles want additional traffic studies for locations 50 miles away from the highway. Congressman John Katko just managed to get NYSDOT to extend the comment period by another 30 days. Expect to see more of this nonsense as we take the final steps towards tearing down the viaduct.

None of these delaying tactics will change the project’s ultimate outcome. The Grid is so obviously the correct choice from an environmental, safety, economic, social justice, cost, and transportation perspective. In the long run, the viaduct will come down, and Syracuse will be better off for it.

But we don’t live in the long run. We live here now, and the interested parties have a lot to gain or lose by dragging this decision out as long as possible.

Take the Delayer-in-Chief, former State Senator John DeFrancisco. He was able to muck up the NEPA process for years. In that time he moved his home and business to the suburbs, and he retired from public life so he no longer needs campaign contributions from viaduct supporters. He couldn’t actually convince NYSDOT to build a tunnel or a new viaduct, but he managed to keep the current viaduct up until it didn’t matter to him, personally, anymore.

Or look at the mall. The long run doesn’t matter to them because structural changes to the world economy is killing their business anyway. But in the short run they sincerely believe they’ll make more money with the viaduct than without it. From that perspective, it’s in their financial interest to keep the viaduct up as long as possible. A 13-year process is better than a 5-year process—even if the viaduct comes down at the end either way—because it means 8 more years of marginally higher profits.

But just as these bad actors benefit from delay, stretching out this process hurts Syracuse. Tearing down the viaduct and building the grid is going to give a lot of people a recession-proof paycheck—it would have been great for that work to have already started before the pandemic caused a recession last year.

The pandemic also caused a huge increase in demand for housing in the Syracuse metro area. Much of that demand matched with supply in the exurbs—places like Clay, Lysander, and Manlius—and furthered sprawl and inter-municipal inequality. If the viaduct had already come down, new housing in the City’s center could have soaked up some of that new demand and made Syracuse a more sustainable, more equitable place.

Most importantly, every single day, the viaduct makes life worse for the people who have to live near it. Noise and air pollution cause chronic illness along the highway’s path, and every day that John DeFrancisco, John Katko, and the Mall delayed construction was another day that kids breathed in exhaust and fell asleep to the sound of speeding cars.

The viaduct will come down. Syracuse will be safer, cleaner, more just, and more pleasant for it. But there are people who want to delay that better future off as long as possible. They talk about caution and making every voice heard and making sure we get this right. But they’re really just interested in running out the clock until they retire, until their business fails, until they move. We don’t need to humor their cynicism for another year.

False hope for the viaduct

Assemblymember Bill Magnarelli just wrote an op-ed arguing that we can’t move forward with the I-81 project until there’s consensus. This is wrong, and we need to move past the false hope that the I-81 project can possibly please everybody.

The Assemblymember pointed to widespread criticism of the recently release Draft Environmental Impact Statement as evidence that NYSDOT should not move forward with the Grid. People living in Pioneer Homes deserve better mitigation during the construction period; car drivers may have to stop at red lights; fewer people may drive directly past the Mall; car exhaust may cause students at Dr. King Elementary to develop chronic respiratory illness. 

From the Assemblymember’s perspective, these criticisms all point to his preferred outcome for this project: the status quo.

“We can have connectivity within the city, including walking and bike trails, and continue to keep the city connected to its suburbs and the rest of the region. These are not mutually exclusive… What we need is a community grid in conjunction with a rebuilt viaduct, tunnel, or new bridge to keep traffic flowing through Syracuse.”

The Assemblymember then implies that this outcome—one which has been opposed by the City’s elected leadership for a decade—would work for everybody:

“I do not believe that a consensus for this project has ever been reached by the city, suburbs and outlying towns in our region. Given the amount of federal monies available, why don’t we have an option that satisfies everyone’s needs?”

There is no option that can possibly meet everyone’s “needs,” and to see why all you have to do is read through the Assemblymember’s list of concerns. A new viaduct would certainly save car drivers from the terror of traffic lights, but it would also increase air pollution at Dr. King Elementary. A tunnel (it’s okay, you can laugh) would definitely keep cars moving past the Mall, but the interchange with 690 would be even bigger than what we have today, and it would create a blackhole in the middle of town where no one would ever have cause to walk or bike.

Assemblyman Magnarelli is wrong: competing interests want mutually exclusive things out of this project. There is no way to reconcile all of the concerns that different members of different communities have expressed about NYSDOT’s current plan for I-81.

In fact, the DEIS has received so much criticism because it is a misguided attempt to find a “consensus” solution. The Grid should resemble a normal city street in order to accommodate local street life while discouraging through traffic from bringing air pollution, noise pollution, and traffic violence into the City. Instead, NYSDOT is offering something no one wants—the West Street Arterial but bigger—in order to appease powerful people like the Assemblymember who have demanded that the Grid accommodate high-speed high-volume car traffic.

There is no possible solution that can please both the Mall and Dr. King Elementary’s community. They simply want mutually exclusive outcomes from the I-81 project. That’s a hard truth because it requires our leaders to make a decision that will be unpopular with some people, but it’s the way things are. Anybody who continues to nurture this false hope—that if we just had more time, if we just thought a little harder about it, if we just spent more money, then everybody could be happy—is ignoring reality.

The Grid and Bus Rapid Transit

The I-81 project can and should help build a Bus Rapid Transit system in Syracuse. BRT will make public transportation much more useful for current riders, it will attract many new riders, and it will reduce traffic congestion and improve traffic safety for everybody who uses Syracuse’s streets.

In the DEIS, NYSDOT lists “maintain[ing] access to existing local bus service and enhanc[ing] transit amenities within the project limits in and near Downtown Syracuse,” as one of the I-81 project’s five objectives. These transit amenities “could include bus stops and shelters, bus turnouts, and layover and turnaround places.”

NYSDOT elaborates:

“Apart from the Downtown transit hub, Centro has few amenities for its customers. Most stops have a sign, but no seating, lighting, or shelters. Syracuse has a temperate climate with cold winters and hot summers, and the city sees substantial snowfall each year. Lacking any amenities, customers must wait for buses outdoors without the protection of shelters. Where practical, enhanced amenities for riders could provide a better experience for transit customers and facilitate their use of existing transit services.”

This is good. It is ridiculous that the snowiest big city in the nation asks its bus riders to stand in the street to catch the bus in the winter. It is ridiculous that a town where the sun sets as early as 4:30 pm doesn’t provide adequate lighting at its bus stops.

But even though better amenities are good, what we really need is better service. Even the most comfortable bus shelter won’t do much if riders have to wait an hour for the bus to show up.

Luckily, Uplift Syracuse just released a new report—“Better Bus Service”—that shows how investing in infrastructure like better bus stops can make more frequent service more possible by speeding up buses and reducing the annual operating cost of providing improved service.

Basically, faster buses cost less to run than slower buses because they allow a single operator to complete more runs in a single shift. Uplift Syracuse estimates that if bus speeds on Centro’s best performing corridors could be increased from roughly 10 mph to 15 mph, then Syracuse could have an 8-line, 28-mile, citywide network of fast and frequent rapid transit service for roughly $8 million per year—that’s significantly cheaper than Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council’s estimate that running a network of just half this size would cost $8.3 million annually.

NYSDOT is willing to build new transit infrastructure anywhere in the I-81 project area shaded red on the map above. This area overlaps with much of the central portion of Uplift’s proposed BRT system. Here are the specific projects NYSDOT should build in order to advance Bus Rapid Transit in Syracuse:

New Stations

potential BRT stations located in the I-81 project area

BRT stations are significantly different from the bus stops Syracuse knows now. They are more than just a place to wait—BRT stations actually increase average bus speeds by minimizing the amount of time that it takes for riders to board and alight from the bus.

BRT stations do this in two ways. First, they are raised up above the sidewalk to sit even with the bus floor. That makes it easier for everybody to get on and off the bus, and it’s especially important for people who use mobility devices. Second, they allow riders to pre-pay their fare while waiting for the bus to arrive. This makes boarding much faster because it eliminates the line at the farebox.

And BRT stations do also have the amenities that every bus station really should have: shelter from the snow, rain, and sun, a nice place to sit, lighting, and real-time information about when the next bus will arrive.

the park at the intersection of Butternut, North Salina, and North State Streets will host a major BRT transfer station

Several potential BRT stations are located within the I-81 project area. One of the most important is the small park at the intersection of Butternut, North Salina, and North State Streets. That’s where two BRT lines will converge, and a station on that park would allow riders to transfer between those lines without the need to cross the street.

Other potential BRT stations are on Fayette near Crouse and Irving, on State Street at Willow, on Adams at McBride, and at the corner of Adams and Irving. Centro needs to finalize its plans for where to locate new stations, and then NYSDOT needs to build the ones that will be in the I-81 project area.

Transit Lanes

potential Transit Lanes located within the I-81 project area

Transit Lanes speed service by letting buses bypass traffic congestion. Syracuse doesn’t have much traffic congestion so transit lanes probably won’t be necessary across most of the City, but Downtown streets do sometimes back up during rush hour. Happily, these same streets are significantly wider than they really need to be, so there’s plenty of room to give BRT buses their own space.

Major streets in the I-81 project area that might also have BRT service are Adams, State, James, Willow, and Salina. In all cases, the I-81 project area does not extend far enough to cover the entire portion of these streets that would need transit lanes, so it will be up to City Hall to complete the work of extending those lanes along State from Erie Boulevard to Harrison Street, say, or along Adams from the Hub to Irving.

These transit lanes will ensure that buses keep their schedules no matter the traffic Downtown, and that will make for faster, cheaper BRT service.

potential Transit Lanes located within the I-81 project area in dark blue with those located outside the project area in light blue

All of these minor transit infrastructure proposals are within the I-81 project area, all would meet one of the five objectives that NYSDOT has set for this project, and all would move Syracuse closer to getting the public transit system that we need and deserve. Let’s make them part of the final I-81 project.

You can let NYSDOT hear about it at this link: I-81 comment form

The Grid and the Northside

The I-81 Draft Environmental Impact Statement showed how NYSDOT’s plans to tear down the viaduct will change Downtown and the Southside, but that document also contained some very good plans for the Northside. By improving access to one highway onramp and removing several others, NYSDOT will make the Northside’s streets safer.

Pearl Street is a major onramp to 81 northbound, and it will become even more important once the Grid gets built. But right now, it’s not very easy to get to Pearl Street. A lot of traffic from Downtown comes up State Streets, crosses James, takes a left onto Willow, and then a quick right onto Pearl and the highway.

To accommodate all those highway-bound cars, traffic engineers turned State Street into a 5-lane 60-foot-wide racetrack between Fayette and Willow. It’s an unpleasant place to walk, a deadly place to bike, and a terrible place to run any kind of street-facing business besides a gas station (there are two on this short ⅓ mile stretch of de facto highway).

When NYSDOT tears down 81, they’re also going to extend Pearl Street two blocks south to Erie Boulevard. Then, car traffic from Downtown to 81 northbound will take Erie to Pearl to the highway, significantly reducing the number of cars on North State Street.

NYSDOT is also putting a fully protected bike lane on State Street from Water Street to James. This will provide a direct connection between the Empire State Trail and one of the flattest routes across the Northside.

The intersection of State, Salina, and Butternut Streets is a major gateway to the Northside, but it’s seen better days. There are some good local businesses hanging on, but many storefronts are vacant and so are a lot of the upper floors of the buildings surrounding the triangular intersection.

Again, a major problem is a nearby highway onramp that attracts too much car traffic. Actually, there are two: the onramp that comes off the Butternut Street bridge and the State Street onramp a block north of that. These two getaway points for suburban commuters draw thousands of cars from Downtown through this square, and they fill what should be a pleasant public space with noise and exhaust.

NYSDOT’s Grid plan will eliminate those two highway onramps. There’s just no need for them with an improved onramp at Pearl Street. NYSDOT also plans to reconstruct the Butternut Street bridge to make it narrower and safer, and they want to give away the land at the northwest corner of State and Butternut that’s currently being wasted with parking and an onramp.

With all those cars gone, new space for a new building that can house people and help ‘enclose’ the square, and a planned future BRT station, this intersection should become a major focal point linking the Northside to Downtown.

NYSDOT will do similar good work further north by removing highway exits at Spencer and Basin Streets. These ramps bring high-speed traffic to neighborhood streets, and they are a barrier between neighborhoods.

Take the Spencer/Catawba exit. There are three brand new Franklin Square apartment buildings within a walking distance of the North Salina Street business district, but the only way to get between the two neighborhoods is the Spencer Street bridge. Because a highway offramp dumps cars travelling 60 mph off right at that bridge, it’s not a very nice place to walk, and very few people do. Removing the Spencer Street offramp will make it much easier for people to walk the short distance between the Northside and Franklin Square, and that will be better for both neighborhoods.

NYSDOT’s plan for the Community Grid will remove 9 of I81’s off and onramps between Hiawatha Boulevard and I690. That will significantly reduce high-speed traffic on the Northside’s local streets, it will make the neighborhood safer and more pleasant, and it will better connect neighborhoods currently divided by the highway.