Centro’s recent Bus Rapid Transitannouncements are fantastic news for Syracuse. We need better bus service to better connect people and neighborhoods, and BRT is the best way to make that happen.
The actual content of these announcements confirms a lot of what we’ve known for a long time. Centro’s first two BRT lines will run on the routes identified in the SMART1 study, they will run faster by stopping less, riders will board at stations rather than just a pole in the ground. This is all good.
But the announcements also contained two new pieces of information worth highlighting: a timeline for the service to start, and Centro’s intention to pair BRT with a network redesign.
While it’s always seemed inevitable that Centro would do something like BRT sometime, there’s never been an actual timeline on it. Ever since SMTC published its SMART1 study, Centro has been dealing with a series of crises (a funding gap, Covid, hiring problems, etc), and designing and implementing a new service has never been the top priority. It was always a part of the long range plan, and Centro was always working on it, but the service was never imminent.
Now we know these buses will be on the streets by 2026. It is a big deal for Centro to say this publicly because they wouldn’t commit to a timeline if they weren’t confident they could keep it. Now that Centro’s made that promise, it is clear for the very first time when we can expect to actually board a BRT bus.
But BRT isn’t all they’re promising. Centro’s doing that and “the most comprehensive review of our Syracuse route system in more than 20 years.” This is also very good.
Centro’s bus routes follow lines laid out for the streetcars back in the 1800’s. They’ve been extended and stretched and kinked to try and keep up with changes in the community since then, and the results have not always been pretty. Buses slowly zig and zag across neighborhoods, they make detours, they run at irregular infrequent intervals. The whole system is so complicated and so fragile that people rarely try to understand how to use it to go more than one or two specific places.
A network redesign will allow Centro to look at the whole system and rework it to be faster, more frequent, more reliable, and more understandable.
Taken together, both these pieces of new information are great news for Syracuse and Central New York. We need better public transit, and that need is only more urgent since the Micron announcement. Centro has a real vision of the transit system this community needs and deserves, and they are ready to build it.
If you gave Centro one dollar to improve service, where would you get the most bang for that buck? Where would a marginal improvement in service—more frequency, more speed, better reliability, new service—have the greatest positive impact for the greatest number of people? Where would better bus service result in the greatest increase in ridership?
This is a good clarifying question when talking about how to improve Centro, because it confronts the reality that there are a lot of ways Centro needs to improve, but a constrained budget means Centro can’t fix all of its problems at once.
The answer to this question—and it’s an obvious answer when the question is framed right—is that Centro would do the most good by investing any new funding to improve service on high-ridership corridors like James Street and South Salina. Those are the places where lots of people already ride the bus, where a lot more people could easily walk to a bus stop, where homes and destinations are relatively close together and easy to connect with a bus line. Run BRT-style service every 10 minutes in places like those, and Centro would get a lot of new riders and existing riders would ride a lot more (more than you could ever hope to get from a new bus line to the airport).
So as Onondaga County prepares for new population growth and thinks about how its transportation system can accommodate a few thousand more people moving around, keep this in mind: of the many steps we need to take to get from where Centro is now to where it needs to be, the first one should be investing in the communities where bus ridership works best—densely populated, mixed-use, city neighborhoods.
Micron’s proposal to build a large factory on Route 31 in Clay has a lotof peopletalking about public transit in the northern suburbs, but Onondaga County will need better planning to guide population growth so that public transit can actually work out there.
The northern suburbs can’t accommodate much more population growth with their current transportation network. These areas were almost entirely rural until pretty recently, and their road network doesn’t have the capacity for much more than a rural population. There are only a small handful of roads that cross the enormous area between Syracuse and the Oneida River, and as single-family development has converted farms to suburban sprawl where every adult makes every single trip in a car, those roads have gotten very congested. Onondaga County predicts another 4,000 homes will be built in this area in the next few years, and if every adult living in all of those new homes also makes every single trip to the grocery store, to work, to school, in a car on those same overtaxed rural roads, the traffic is going to be terrible.
Public transit can help. With fast, frequent, reliable transit service, people won’t need to use their car every time they leave the house. That gives people the option to avoid dealing with traffic, and it reduces traffic by taking cars off the road. Giving people this decent option is the only way to accommodate significant population growth without strangling the northern suburbs with car traffic.
But public transit needs population density to really work. There are a lot of different factors that influence transit ridership—the street grid, household income, building form, land use—but population density is one of the biggest. As a rough estimate, the land within walking distance of a transit stop needs at least 10,000 people per square mile in order to generate enough ridership to justify useful high frequency transit service.
Here are all of the blocks in Onondaga County with that level of population density. The overwhelming majority are in the City, and just a few are in the northern suburbs. Right now, there just aren’t enough people living near enough to any bus stop to justify high frequency bus service up there.
This isn’t a problem that goes away just by increasing the County’s population. The northern suburbs are already pretty heavily populated—way more people live in Clay than in high-bus ridership city neighborhoods like the Northside—but that population lives in sprawling suburban development that can’t support decent public transit. The map below shows the rough extent of existing residential development in the northern suburbs in black with transit supportive densities in purple. Thousands of acres have already been developed in a way that simply cannot support decent transit service. Huge yards separate neighbors from each other, apartment bans force small households into huge houses, single-use zoning makes it impossible for people to walk to neighborhood shops. This is car-only, traffic-causing development.
There’s still a lot of space up there to build homes for a lot more people, but the kinds of neighborhoods and the kinds of homes that get built in the next 50 years have to be different from those that have been built in the last 50 years if the northern suburbs are going to avoid the kind of terrible traffic that you see in sprawling cities like Atlanta. The northern suburbs need mixed-use neighborhoods where people can walk to neighborhood businesses and community institutions. They need a diverse mix of housing types like apartments and rowhouses and walkups and single-family homes of different sizes. That’s the only way to make transit work, and it’s the only way to accommodate population growth without creating terrible traffic.
Centro’s recent announcement that they are planning Bus Rapid Transit service along South Salina Street is great news for public transportation in Syracuse.
Since 2017, pretty much all discussion of BRT in Syracuse has been confined to the two lines described in SMTC’s SMART1 report, but SMART1 itself assumed the eventual BRT system would include more lines. South Salina is a perfect place to run Centro’s next BRT line, and it will make the system more useful to three groups of people.
First, better bus service on South Salina will serve more people who rely on the bus. South Salina has always been one of Centro’s top performing bus lines—both in terms of overall ridership and ridership per service hour. That’s because lots of people who live along South Salina ride the bus. Look at a heat map of bus boardings, or a population map showing where people who commute by bus live, and it’s clear that the South Salina corridor is one of Syracuse’s strongest transit corridors. Adding frequency there will allow lots of current bus riders to take more trips immediately.
Second, transit’s network effect means this additional BRT line will benefit people who live along the original SMART1 lines too by increasing the system’s service area. BRT uses high service frequencies to facilitate connections between multiple lines, so no matter where you board a BRT bus, you can easily get anywhere else in the system. That means every new line increases the number of places existing riders can go, and that will make the two original SMART1 lines (shown in blue and orange below) more useful for more people.
note: Centro has not officially stated where the South Salina line will terminate. These maps are guesses.
Third, this network effect also benefits neighborhoods as a whole along each line. Shops, businesses, libraries, and church’s sitting on either of the two SMART1 lines will have a larger pool of customers, workers, patrons, and congregants with the addition of the South Salina line. That network effect puts existing businesses and institutions in a better place to succeed, and it will strengthen neighborhoods by attracting even more businesses and institutions and making more opportunity accessible within the City.
For all these reasons, it’s a very good thing that Centro is looking for ways to expand its plans for BRT service beyond the two lines described in the SMART1 study. We need to upgrade every high-performing Centro bus line—including South Salina but also those serving high-ridership corridors like Butternut, Genesee, and Onondaga—to BRT service in order to create a citywide network. That’s the transit system Syracuse needs and deserves, and Centro is committed to building it.
Assemblymember Pamela Hunter’s and State Senator John Mannion’s proposal to subsidize car driving by defunding public transit will entrench the very problem they want to solve. They are right that household budgets are getting squeezed by a sharp and unexpected increase in the costs of operating a car. But they offer the same solution that local politicians have been offering to this same problem for decades with no positive effect: a small subsidy for drivers at the cost of true alternative transportation options.
Gas costs more today than it did last year. That’s a real problem for people who drive a lot and don’t have a lot of extra room in their household budget to handle that new unexpected expense. The people who drive the most are mostly pretty well off financially, and many of them probably do have enough money on hand to cover the rise in the price of gas. But there definitely are also a lot of other people less well off who have to drive every day and who are really hurting because of this rise in the price of gas.
In a recent Op Ed, Assemblymember Hunter explained the immediate causes of this gas price spike: oil corporations produced less gas during Covid lockdowns, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted global oil supply chains. The result is that there’s less gas available right now, so oil companies raised prices. Assemblymember Hunter’s (and Senator Mannion’s) answer is to shift money from road maintenance and public transit to subsidize gas purchases by 8 cents per gallon.
(For what it’s worth, this temporary price shock is already fading away. According to AAA, the price of gas in New York peaked early last month at $4.46 and has fallen steadily since).
There is nothing new about any of this. I’m 31 years old, and some part of the world has been at war over oil for more than half my life. Gas was more expensive when I was in high school than it is today, and it’s going to get a lot more expensive before I die. OPEC may try to manipulate the price of gas by increasing or decreasing production, but there’s nothing they can do about the fact that they will exhaust their reserves in the not too distant future.
And beyond all that, even if the New York State legislature could somehow protect car drivers from sharp unexpected increases in the price of gas, it wouldn’t do much at all to make driving more affordable. Huge unpredictable expenses are a guaranteed experience for every car owner. Your brakes give out and have to be replaced. You get in an accident and your insurance goes up. You drive through a speed trap and get a ticket. All of these absolutely normal events in the life of a car owner have exactly the same impact on household budgets as last month’s gas price spike.
The simple fact is that car ownership imposes unpredictable expenses on too many households hardly able to afford it. It requires people to have a reserve of money—whether that’s personal savings, or friends or family willing and able to lend money—at all times to deal with these emergency expenses. That may work out for people making decent money and people with family wealth, but it’s a disaster for anybody living paycheck to paycheck. These daily disasters are so common that we hardly even think of them as problems for public policy. But just as people who depend on cars need relief from high gas prices, they also need relief from the chronic financial stress of car ownership.
But instead, public policy in Onondaga County has always pushed poor people to buy cars. The old Wheels-for-Work program provided loans for people to buy a car if they got a job—saddling workers with a debt they could only pay off by keeping a job that depended on the source of their debt. The Rides-to-Work program—and its successors, JOBSPlus! and Providence Services—subsidized taxi rides for carless commuters with the explicit expectation that workers would save their first paychecks to buy a car.
Transit austerity hangs behind all these efforts to get poor people driving. Public transportation is the obvious alternative for people who can’t afford—or don’t want to deal with—the enormous and unpredictable expense of driving. But the Federal Government, New York State, and Onondaga County have bled Centro dry, so Syracuse’s bus service is just a pale imitation of the fast, frequent, reliable transit system that this community needs and deserves. Compare the urgency behind this gas subsidy with the silence from Syracuse’s legislative delegation last Fall when Covid forced Centro to cut its service to the bone.
The Hunter/Mannion proposal sits squarely in this long line of failed transportation policies. It’s a small subsidy that makes driving a little less painful for poor families, but it gets that money by raiding the State’s transit budget. This would further degrade Centro’s service, push more people to purchase a car, and expose more families to the unpredictable budget-breaking expenses that are a normal feature of car ownership.
updated February 10, 2021 in light of information shared during Centro’s public hearings on fare restructuring. New payment technology will allow riders to pay the fare with their phones but not, initially, with a credit card.
There are different kinds of barriers that keep people from riding the bus, and Centro’s about to remove one of the big ones: finding exact change. Centro is upgrading its fare boxes to give riders the option of paying the fare with a smart phone, and that will make a lot more people a lot more comfortable stepping onto the bus.
Right now, paying the bus fare requires some advanced planning. The regular fare is $2, and you have to pay in exact change. That means finding four dollar bills or sixteen quarters or forty dimes or some combination of those before you leave the house in order to make a round trip. People just don’t carry cash as commonly as they used to, and it’s not unusual to not have the right combination of bills and coins to pay the bus fare. (you can also pay with a multi-ride pass, but that requires even more advanced planning since you’ll have to have purchased it well ahead of time).
This is a hassle, and it depresses ridership. Plenty of people really do pass up public transportation because they’re too worried about stepping onto the bus and not being able to pay because the only cash they’re got is a $20 bill and the operator can’t break it.
So it’s a very good thing that Centro is upgrading its fare boxes to accept mobile payment. You might have already noticed the new hardware that started showing up on the sides of fareboxes months ago. This new technology will give people the option of paying the fare (which Centro is lowering to $1) with their phone. And because plenty of people have their phone every time they leave the house, paying the bus fare will require no more planning than paying for a cup of coffee.
But in the meantime, it is very exciting to see Centro making this simple, common-sense improvement to the rider experience. Mobile fare payment has succeeded in making transit more convenient in plenty of other cities, and it will remove an important barrier to ridership in Syracuse.
Syracuse should build bus lanes on specific high-traffic streets as part of the I-81 project. Giving buses dedicated space on city streets makes public transit faster,cheaper, and more reliable, and it’s an important step towards building a transportation system that works for everybody.
But bus lanes weren’t included in NYSDOT’s draft plans for I-81, and they weren’t even part of SMTC’s design of Centro’s planned BRT lines. Even though bus lanes (and preferably, separated bus lanes) are considered necessary for any project to call itself BRT, Centro isn’t asking for any dedicated street space for its buses.
There’s some sense to that. Syracuse doesn’t have the same level of traffic congestion that makes dedicated bus lanes so essential and successful in cities like New York and Boston, and it’s better to focus on other infrastructure improvements—like signal priority and level boarding platforms—that will have a greater impact in Syracuse.
But even though dedicated bus lanes shouldn’t be Centro’s top priority, there are at least three good reasons they should still be part of the I-81 project.
FIrst, Centro buses do get stuck in traffic. It doesn’t happen on every bus route, and it doesn’t happen all hours of the day, but there are plenty of times that buses moving through the middle of town get stuck behind a bunch of cars, and that sucks.
Centro should make it a priority to build bus lanes in the specific places where excessive car traffic slows buses down.
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.
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.
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.”
“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:
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.
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 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.
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.
Bus Rapid Transit—a service model that makes the buses run faster and more frequently—works best when lots of people can live within walking distance of just a few bus stations. That’s why SMTC’s plan for two BRT lines stays pretty much within the City of Syracuse—City neighborhoods have the necessary population density to support quality transit. But even though Syracuse’s first two BRT lines will be confined almost entirely within the City, they will improve bus service in the suburbs too.
To see why, look at current service in the northern suburbs. Say you want to get from North Syracuse to the Amazon warehouse in Liverpool—a distance of about 5 miles if you were to walk it. It’s possible to make that trip on a bus, but you have to go all the way Downtown to make a connection at the Hub. That more than triples the length of the trip, and an easy 10 minute drive stretches into an hour-long bus ride.
BRT fixes this problem by making better connections between lines. It achieves higher service frequencies in the City—in part—by consolidating the city-portions of those suburban routes. Right now, the lines to North Syracuse and Liverpool run roughly parallel through the Northside, but they don’t ever connect until they reach Downtown.
With BRT, both routes would run on the same streets and serve the same stops all the way from Downtown, through the Northside, to the RTC. It will be possible to connect between the two lines at any of those stops, and that could shave 30 minutes off the trip between North Syracuse and Liverpool.
BRT service from University Hill to the Regional Transportation Center would stay entirely within the City limits, but it would still improve bus service in the northern suburbs. It would turn the RTC into a transit hub where people traveling between suburbs could easily transfer between suburban lines, and that would make it possible to get between suburbs without having to ride all the way Downtown.