Category Archives: Transportation

Free to Choose the Bus

People ride Centro when it’s the most practical option for getting where they want to go. Problem is, Centro’s not a very practical option for getting to work in a lot of the County, so a lot of people who don’t own cars miss out on a lot of opportunities for employment.

Instead of just making Centro better so that it’s a more practical option for more people to go more places, Onondaga County, Centerstate CEO and New York State are teaming up to offer yet another commuter/vanpool program. Like the Rides-to-Work, Wheels-for-Work, Providence, Lyft programs that came before it, this program is designed to allow employers who are nowhere near a bus stop to hire people who don’t own cars so that those workers can make enough money to purchase a car and keep that job. It’s not a program to help people get to work without a car—it’s a program to get people to buy more cars.

salinaborden

The thinking behind these programs goes something like this: people are poor because they don’t have jobs, unemployed people can’t get jobs because they don’t have cars, and people don’t have cars because they’re poor. In this vicious circle, poverty, unemployment, and bus ridership all hang together, and the solution is to break that circle by giving people a ride to work just long enough so that they can save up to buy a car. At that point, the car enables employment which creates wealth—the virtuous circle of middle class car-ownership.

But you can’t turn a man from a poor-unemployed-bus-rider into a middle class-working-car-owner just by giving him a ride to work for a few weeks. There just are no necessary connections between class, employment, and transportation. Plenty of employed workers are still poor and still ride the bus (for that matter, a good number of rich workers do too). Buying a car is an economic decision that rational people make after weighing the upfront cost and $3000 annual expense against the opportunities the car can provide. A lot of people in Syracuse have decided that there are better uses for their paychecks than paying down the interest on a car loan.

These programs that give people a ride “until they’re up on their feet” all ultimately fail because they deny working people that choice. They try to make car ownership the only option for full participation in Syracuse’s economic and cultural life—to put a $3000 tax on getting a job in this town. They mistake people’s rational decision to ride the bus for a mark of deviance that has to be removed.

transit-featured

When too many people can’t find work without a car, when there are too many gaps in bus service, and when too many jobs hide in those gaps, the best way to fix the problem fast is to invest in Centro. Running buses to more of the County and running more buses running on the lines that already exist—making the bus a more practical option for more people to get more places—would expand economic opportunity immediately. In the long term, a County Executive who’s interested in this kind of thing would steer economic development to those places where lots of buses already run—not to an empty business park on Route 31.

Better bus service is the real key to making more jobs more accessible to more people while preserving the freedom of choice that enables people to live car-free. And, by expanding economic opportunity and increasing access to employment, better bus service also gives more people the option to buy their own cars if they want. People in Syracuse need more options so that they can choose for themselves how to get around town, and the bus is best way to provide that freedom.

The Case for Regional Rail

Central New York’s villages and cities are all places where people can live cheaply and easily without the need for a car. They are places where daily necessities are within walking distance, places with a variety of kinds of housing, places where full participation in the community’s economic and social life is possible for people who get around by rolling, walking, biking, or riding the bus.

But all these places—Cortland, Liverpool, Fulton, Auburn, Baldwinsville, Oswego, Oneida, Phoenix, Syracuse—are disconnected. Long distances and infrequent (or nonexistent) transit prevent people from travelling between them without a car, making it impossible for a car-free resident of Cortland to take a job in Auburn, or for a plant in Syracuse to hire someone living car-free in Oneida. The result is that the places with the most jobs are also home to most of the region’s jobless workers.

Better intercity public transportation would right this wrong, linking Central New York’s urban centers, connecting people to jobs, and uniting a 5-county 800,000 person region.

Density of car-free households by census tract

Car-free households cluster in Central New York’s cities and villages. Syracuse, Cortland, Auburn, Fulton, Oswego, and Oneida are home to many people who live car-free. So are smaller villages like Phoenix, Baldwinsville, and Liverpool. These are all places where people can meet their daily needs—buying groceries, attending school, getting to work—on foot, bike, or bus.

Density of jobs by census tract

These are all also places where there are lots of jobs. The shaded areas on this map contain 86% of all jobs in Central New York. They’re heavily concentrated in Downtown Syracuse and on University Hill, but many jobs are available across the rest of the city and its suburbs. Outside of Syracuse, jobs cluster around smaller cities like Oswego, Auburn, Fulton, Cortland, and Oneida, and around villages like Canastota, Oneida, Skaneateles, and Chittenango.

But even though all of these job opportunities are accessible to many people who get around without a car, any given person living car-free can only access a small fraction of the total. People living in Downtown Syracuse can walk to the jobs available there, but not to any of those available in Downtown Cortland or Oneida. Some people heroically bike from the Northside to work in Salina, but they can’t very well ride all the way to Fulton. Centro runs limited service between Oswego, Syracuse, and Auburn, but it’s barely adequate for making jobs in any of those urban centers accessible to people living in any other.

Compare that limited situation to the options available to a car-owner in Clay. The region’s multi-billion dollar highway network puts every single job within an hour’s drive of that remote location—bringing economic opportunity to the relatively affluent residents of a sparsely populated area while that same level of choice is denied to those who for whatever reason do not own a car.

Density of unemployed workers by census tract

The result is that urban centers like Oswego, Phoenix, Syracuse, Auburn, Liverpool, and Cortland—places that account for just third of the region’s workforce but 88% of its car-free households—are home to more than half of all unemployed workers in Central New York.

But what if each urban center was not just the place where nearby car-free households could find work, but also a portal to every other urban center in the region? A person could walk from Syracuse’s Westside to a transit station and ride to work in Canastota. Someone else could bike to the Fulton station and access opportunities to work in any one of Central New York’s major employment centers.

Here are those same maps—car-free households, jobs, and people looking for work—overlaid with blue lines showing some of the rail lines that already run across Central New York. Trains running on these tracks could open new opportunities to the Central New Yorkers who need them most. Or forget rail—buses running on the interstates could do the same thing. The kind of vehicle doesn’t really matter so long as the service connects these places and runs fast enough and often enough to make it a real option for daily commuting.

Central New Yorkers who live car-free cluster in urban centers. These places are also where most of the region’s jobs are. But because there are no reliable connections between those centers, people who do not own cars can only apply to work at a very small percentage of the jobs available to car-owners. Better intercity transit service could be that reliable connection between employment and population centers—it could make the economic opportunity that already exists in Central New York more equally accessible to everybody who lives here, whether or not they own a car.

Getting to the Train Station

You arrive in Syracuse on a brand new high speed train. The trip back from Buffalo was less than 90 minutes—way faster than the 2 and a quarter hours it used to take before New York State built high speed rail. You caught up on some tv on the ride and are ready to get home for dinner.

Getting home’s the problem though. Obviously, you don’t live within walking distance of the train station—no one does. The woman next to you is waving down a cab, the student visiting home from UB is waiting for his Mom to come pick him up from Auburn, and you’re staring down a 45 minute bus ride with transfer. The three mile trip to your house will take half as long at the 150 trip from Buffalo.

High speed rail could transform intercity transportation in New York, giving people a faster, more comfortable, and more frequent option to get across the State. But for people to actually ride those trains, it’s going to have to be a whole lot easier to get to the station in the first place. Right now, too many Upstate Amtrak stations are in no-man’s land, surrounded by acres of asphalt and empty lots. At the same time, too few Amtrak stations are connected to the cities they serve by robust public transportation. New York State and its cities have to fix both problems if high speed rail is really going to live up to its promise.

 

More Housing around Stations

Syracuse’s Amtrak station is in the middle of a sea of asphalt, under the shadow of a highway, next to a cold storage warehouse, and half a mile from the nearest house. The situation’s not much better at any of Upstate’s other train stations: rivers separate Albany and Rome from their stations, Buffalo’s is underneath 190, and Amsterdam’s is almost in the country. Only Rochester, Utica, and Schenectady have stations within walking distance of a lot of people’s homes.

These maps (from UVA's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service) show people's homes as black dots and Amtrak stations as red dots. Too many stations are in places where no one lives.

Since every single train trip starts and ends on foot, it would be better if more people could live within walking distance of all of these train stations. Syracuse’s City Hall thinks so too, which is why the 2012 Land Use & Development Plan cited the potential for high speed rail as a reason to encourage development on all the “vacant or underutilized property” around the train station, and it’s why the ReZone project is going to allow new housing to be built in that area.

In other cities, Amtrak could accomplish the same thing by just moving its stations to places where people already live. In Amsterdam, shifting the station about a mile East would put it in the middle of town instead of the City’s outskirts. In Albany, a similarly short move would get the station across the Hudson River and within walking distance of downtown.

Proposal to move Amsterdam’s train station downtown

 

Better Public Transportation at Stations

But not every place worth going can be within walking distance of a train station, so people arriving in any city by train will also need options to get around the city itself. Mainly, they need high quality public transportation.

Every Upstate train station (except Amsterdam) is served by passable public transportation. It’s not frequent enough, not connected enough, and not fast enough, and it needs to be better. At the very least, that means actually linking the new Amtrak station to Metro Rail in Buffalo, adopting something like the Reimagine RTS plan in Rochester, building the three proposed bus rapid transit lines in Syracuse, and building the Blue and Purple BusPlus lines in Albany.

But why settle for the very least? Every single city in New York—from NYC to Buffalo—needs better public transportation. They all need more buses and more drivers serving more riders in more neighborhoods, some cities even need more trains, and that simply means that the State needs to put more money into the STOA and MTOA. It’s one of the most effective things that the Governor could do to make high speed rail successful, and it’s one of the best things that he could do to make New York State a better place to live. 

When people travel between Upstate’s cities, they’re going home, or visiting a friend, or getting to work—no one is just trying to get between train stations. So while faster, more frequent, more reliable rail service would make it a lot easier for people to travel between Upstate’s cities, we also need to make sure that it’s easy to get from any train station to all the different places that those people actually want to go. That means more housing and more destinations within walking distance of those stations, and it means better local transit service connecting entire cities to their train stations.

Trouble with the Curb

In the 2020 State of the City address, Mayor Ben Walsh announced that City Hall is going to try and find a way to take full responsibility for sidewalk maintenance and snow removal, and he announced that City Hall is going to repair a lot more pavement. These two promises have the potential to remake Syracuse’s streets so that they work for everybody in the City.

Streets are the publicly-owned space (all of it) between private property lines. That space contains the paved lanes where cars drive and park, and it also contains the raised concrete area where people walk and wait for the bus, where neighbors stop and chat, where kids set up lemonade stands.

For decades (forever?) City Hall has spent millions of dollars to maintain the portion of that public space below the curb, and it has sheepishly suggested that everybody else could, maybe, if it wasn’t too much trouble, use their own time, money, and energy to maintain the little plot of public space above the curb in front of their property. This local experiment in the Tragedy of the Commons has left Syracuse with broken sidewalks covered in snow, and it’s left people dangerously exposed to car-traffic because the only place they can walk is on the pavement below the curb.

So it’s a big deal that Mayor Walsh is trying to get City Hall to take full responsibility for the full width of the public street instead of confining DPW’s maintenance work to the car-dominated area between the curbs. So many people get around Syracuse some way other than in a car, and they need wide, clear, level, ADA-compliant sidewalks across the City. The Mayor’s commitment sidewalk maintenance can meet that need.

But it would be much better to get past this backwards notion that got Syracuse in this mess in the first place. The notion that the street is made up of two parts—space for cars below the curb, and sidewalks above the curb. One the real street that has to be maintained, and the other a nice amenity if we can afford it.

The Mayor’s commitment to major road reconstruction has the potential to eliminate that division by redesigning city streets to actually accommodate all of the different people who need to use them in different ways.

Bollards that carve out space below the curb for bikes, raised crosswalks that extend the sidewalk past the curb through the intersection, additional curbs that separate bus lanes from all other paved lanes, getting rid of curbs entirely, banning motor vehicles even below the curb—all of these potential changes blow apart the idea that the curb is some special boundary line that marks the edges of the real street. All help people make good use of the whole street—from property line to property line—in a variety of ways, and all make it clear that City Hall has an obvious responsibility to maintain the whole street for all of those uses.

None of this is guaranteed. The Mayor only announced his intention to maintain every sidewalk—City Hall still has to work out the actual details of how to actually do it. And more street paving could actually make Syracuse worse if it’s just a way to reassure car-drivers that City Hall still thinks they’re the most important people on the street.

But the promise is there, the potential is there. In a City where 30% of households don’t have a car, 20% of people are too young to drive, and 13% of workers walk to their jobs, it’s ridiculous that local government has left its sidewalks to deteriorate so badly for so long. This new commitment to sidewalk maintenance can change that, and a new understanding of how people really use our streets can make sure that it never happens again.

Buses for the Suburbs

Route 31 is going to need better bus service. That was obvious in May when Centro had to change its coach service to Oswego after so many people demanded stops at the apartments, businesses, and schools on 31 near 481, and it’s only going to be more true if County Executive Ryan McMahon actually manages to get businesses to move into the empty business park near Clay.

Right now, no bus really serves 31. The 246 hits a few stops between Route 57 and 481, but it’s really a bus for going North and South—between Syracuse and Oswego—and that keeps it from being useful for getting between all of the old villages and new housing and shopping centers that have sprung up in an East-West line along 31. When Centro added that service to the Rt 31 Wegmans, it had to cut service to Great Northern Mall because there just wasn’t enough time to serve many stops on 31 and get back Downtown in time for the 246’s scheduled lineup.

In that way, Rt 31 is a lot like Teall Ave, Geddes Street, and Grant Boulevard in Syracuse—they all need better bus service, but Centro struggles to provide it because all of its buses start and end their runs at the Hub, and those streets don’t lead there.

The solution to this problem is the same on Rt 31 as it is on Teall: Centro needs to get comfortable designing bus lines that never actually do get to the Hub, but that allow people to travel between the other major destinations  that exist outside of Downtown. These lines can still be useful for getting Downtown if they’re scheduled to meet up with Hub-bound service at major transfer points, and they’ll save the 246’s riders from a 20 minute detour along Rt 31 when they’re really just trying to get Downtown.

It’s not hard to imagine what this would mean on the County’s northern border. A new bus line running every 20 minutes along Rt 31 from Baldwinsville, past the Budweiser Plant, past Radisson, linking with the 246 at Rt 57, connecting to all the housing and jobs near 481, serving Clay’s town seat at Euclid (no one could ride a bus to attend the Town hearings on the big new warehouse, and wouldn’t it have been a good thing to have bus riders in that room), the hamlet of Clay, White Pine Commerce Park (once it has tenants), linking with the N. Syracuse/Central Square buses at Rt 11, and ending at CNS High School.

Proposed Rt 31 bus line in Orange, with existing Centro lines in Red, Yellow, and Blue. The green lines are railroads that could be part of a regional rail network.

There are plenty of other places that a line like this could fill a hole in Centro’s suburban service—Taft Rd from Liverpool to Hancock Airpark, for instance. These are the kinds of bus lines that Centro has to offer as the suburbs continue to grow and car ownership in them continues to decline. Head out to Clay, and you’ll see people walking on the shoulder of 5-lane roads as cars roar past at 50 miles an hour. Talk to people looking for work, and they’ll tell you they can’t get the jobs they’re qualified to do because there aren’t enough buses serving suburban employers. People need better options.

Trains Handle Snow Better Than Cars Do

This snow storm kept people off the highways and local roads, it grounded planes at the airport, and it stopped all Greyhound buses from coming Upstate, but Amtrak kept its schedule just fine.

Trains can handle snow. Their steel wheels cut through ice and slush, so trains can keep chugging even when winter weather makes cars, trucks, and buses useless. Back in November 2014 when Buffalo got 5 feet of snow in 3 days, almost nobody could get anywhere, but the Metro Light Rail—”old reliable”—ran on schedule.

Syracuse would handle winter better with if it had more trains. When snow blocks roads, people could still get where they’re going safely without having to dig their car out or crawl along slick roads with their hazards blinking. While buses have to detour around steep hills, and they often get stuck when people park on both sides of the street, trains can keep running on a level unobstructed right of way in all but the worst snow storms.

New passenger rail service could take many different forms, from a single local line, to a metro system, to a regional intercity service, to nationwide high-speed rail. Anything, though, is better than what Syracuse has now—near total reliance on rubber tires in a part of the country where the weather reliably renders them useless for several months a year. Trains can do better.

Making James Street Better

When a car ran over 13-year-old Zyere Jackson on James Street his mother called it a ‘freak accident.’ It wasn’t. Cars regularly run into things and people on that street, and every day sees dozens of near-misses. People keep trying to walk across it, bike along it, and drive on it, though, because it’s the easiest route through several of the most populous neighborhoods in the City. James Street needs to be safer for everybody who uses it.

The first thing to do is slow down the cars. No one needs to drive 35 miles an hour on any city street. That’s obvious, and it’s why so many people talked about reducing the speed limit after that car hit Zyere Jackson. It’s a good idea, and City Hall should do it and put up speed-cameras to enforce the new limit effectively and fairly.

But the feel of driving down James Street also need to change so that people in cars are comfortable at 20 mph instead of 35 (or 45). Right now the street feels like a race track, and drivers treat it that way. Take it down to two lanes, and people will choose to drive more slowly all on their own.

That will also open up new space for bus lanes. More buses run down James Street than any other street outside of Downtown. There should be even more buses, and they shouldn’t get stuck in traffic. The SMART1 study predicted that 23% more people would ride the bus on James Street if the bus came more often and if it ran in its own lane. That’s hundreds more people using the street to get where they’re going safely, without holding up traffic, and without polluting the air in their neighborhoods.

That number could be even higher if the new BRT service ran out to the East Syracuse Wegmans (that’s less than ½ mile past where SMTC suggested the line end). Starting the line at a park-and-ride there would give more drivers the option to avoid James Street entirely, and it would mean that bus riders had one more place where they could buy groceries or get a job.
Capture

But gas-powered vehicles aren’t the only ways to get up and down James Street. People also bike it, and the street needs to be safer for them too. Back in 2011, City Hall said that unprotected bike lanes were part of its ‘near-term’ plans for James Street. Well it’s 2019 and people are still riding on the sidewalks to try and stay safe from cars. Now City Hall takes a different tack and points to this bike ‘suitability map’ that says people shouldn’t even try riding on James Street at all.

That’s nonsense—there should be space for people to bike along James Street without risking their lives. There’s more than enough room for a bike lane above the curb between the street and the sidewalk (there’s so much room there that the STSA even suggested running street cars in that grass). Putting a bike lane above the curb keeps people safe from cars, and City Hall could plow it and the sidewalk at the same time.

This would also make James Street better for the people who walk it. Right now, the too narrow, uneven sidewalks have to handle both foot and bike traffic because they’re the only place safe from cars. Putting bikes in their own space would give the sidewalks back to pedestrians—the people who are really supposed to be using them in the first place.

James Street wasn’t always a death trap. It used to be so beautiful that people put it on postcards. This serene tree-lined avenue where people took walks for the joy of it is nothing like the congested traffic sewer we have now, and it shows that the way things are isn’t the way things have to be. James Street could be better. It could be a street that gets people to their destinations quickly and safely, no matter how they’re traveling. It could link the neighborhoods that line it, rather than a barrier that separates them. It could be so much better, if only we had the will to make it happen.

Transit is not a Tool of Social Control

At its best, public transportation expands access to opportunity, but recent local examples show how it can also be used to do the exact opposite. Instead of creating a transit system that gives its riders more choices, options, and freedom, people with power have tried to use transit as a tool of social control.

Take the video that just came out of kids fighting at the Hub. After it made the news, Centro CEO Rick Lee promised to “put and end to this.” His simplest option is to run more buses. All those kids end up stuck at the Hub at the same time because they all have to wait a pretty long time between each run. If buses left the Hub more often, fewer kids would be there at any given time, and they wouldn’t have to waste so much time just waiting around bored.

And this wouldn’t just solve the ‘problem’ of having so many high school students at the Hub at any time—it would actually make the bus work better for those students and for everybody else who rides it.

But that’s not what anybody’s talking about doing. Instead, Centro is looking to run buses directly to the schools without ever going through the Hub. Never mind that this would cut students off from the rest of Centro’s network and limit their opportunities to work, participate in community activities, or access childcare after school. Concerns like that don’t matter when what you really want is to use the buses to make kids behave.

Or look at the perennial problem of the spatial mismatch—the fact that many employers looking to hire are only accessible by car while many people looking to work don’t own cars.

The most obvious solution is to run better bus service. In the short run, that’d make more jobs accessible by bus. In the long run, it would build Centro’s ridership and attract more employers to the places with the best bus service where they’d be accessible to all those potential bus-riding customers and employees.

The County could also use its economic development powers to encourage employers to locate along bus lines or within walking distance of communities with low rates of car ownership.

Instead, Onondaga County came up with a plan to subsidize Lyft rides for people who find work through a specific employment agency, don’t have access to a car, and can’t get to their jobs on the bus. The workers themselves will have no control over their rides—the employment agency “will monitor employees’ work schedules and pay Lyft each month for the transportation.” Eventually the County hopes that employers themselves will pay Lyft directly, giving managers direct control over workers’ transportation to and from work.

That will give employers just one more piece of leverage over their workers, one more pressure point to press, one more method of exploitation. But of course none of that matters when you think, like a manager, that workers should just be happy to have any job at all and you can’t imagine how it would be a good thing for them to have the ability to travel to places other than the worksite at sometime other than the beginning of the shift.

The proposed solutions in both cases use transportation to constrain people’s choices so that they do what they’re supposed to and nothing else. Students are supposed to just go directly home at the end of the school day—they’re not supposed to hang out somewhere they could get into trouble. Workers are supposed to just travel between their homes and their current jobs—they’re not supposed to have the opportunity to travel to some other job that might offer better pay or working conditions.

Transit should do the exact opposite. It should expand people’s choices. It should give them the ability to go where they want when they want. It should make people more free.

We Shouldn’t Widen Highways in the Suburbs Either

This week it came out that NYSDOT wants to take land away from people living in Cicero and the outskirts Syracuse in order to widen 481 as part of the plan to get the viaduct out of Downtown.

That’s bad. Highways are loud, they’re ugly, and they blacken people’s lungs. People who live next to the highway out in Cicero know this. That’s why a lot of them plant a thicket trees at their property’s edge to shelter their homes from the highway. Now that’s the very land where NYSDOT wants to build a bunch of drainage ditches so that it can make the highway even wider and more noxious.

It’s not so different from NYSDOT’s original plans to rebuild the viaduct Downtown. They were going to make it wider and straighter so that more cars could fit on it and so they could make even more noise. NYSDOT was going to knock over dozens of buildings and put the highway even closer to so many people’s homes.

For what? To double down on 1965’s idea of the future? To attract more cars, accidents, and congestion? We don’t need any of that. We don’t need it in the middle of Syracuse, which is why we’re getting rid of the viaduct there. We also do not need it in Cicero, which is why we shouldn’t be widening the highway out there.

Bike Lanes in Winter

A lot of people are concerned that Syracuse is wasting its time making the streets safe for bikes. ‘It snows here,’ they say, ‘three months of the year no one’s going to be on a bike.’ This do-nothing stance treats bikes as recreation, and it treats all the people who ride them as fitness buffs. It fails to address the reality in Syracuse, which is a lot of people don’t have access to a car, and bikes can and should be a safe, convenient way for them to get around town.

First, let’s get over this ‘no biking in winter’ thing. If we all just stopped using a transportation option because snow made it harder, then no one would drive in the winter either. The slick roads, white outs, and potholes make driving in the winter miserable, but people keep on doing it anyway. It’s not so fun biking in that weather either, but if that’s how you get to work, then you’re going to keep on biking regardless of the weather. Plenty of people on bikes aren’t out there for fun—they ride because it’s the most practical economical way to get around town. It’s more dangerous for them to do that in winter, sure, but that’s exactly why Syracuse needs more bike lanes to keep them safe.

There are people who won’t bike in winter—they weigh all their options and decide that it’s not worth the extra danger to keep biking through winter with all that snow, ice, and all those lousy drivers. How do they get around town during the winter? Not in their own personal cars, that’s for sure. If these people had a spare car lying around, it’s how they’d travel all year. No, they’ve either got to walk or ride the bus when they put the bike up.

But if there are so many bike riders making this decision, then how come we’re not doing more to make walking or riding the bus safer and more convenient in winter? Why did it take so long to plow even a few sidewalks? Why aren’t there more buses? Why aren’t the people so concerned that we not waste money on bike lanes because of ‘winter’ asking these same questions too?

It’s because they don’t really see who uses bikes and what for. These people are car drivers who might understand the idea of taking a Saturday bike ride for fun or whatever, but they’d never mix that up with the real business of getting to work or buying groceries or taking a child to school. They think Syracuse is for people in cars because everybody has one.

But plenty of people don’t have a car, and Syracuse is for them too. Those people need wider sidewalks, they need better bus service, and they also need more bike lanes—especially in the winter