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.
Bus Rapid Transit—a set of service and infrastructure improvements that makes buses run faster and more frequently—is Syracuse’s best opportunity to improve the City’s public transportation network because it’s much simpler and easier to expand BRT than either rail or traditional bus service.
To see why, look at Syracuse’s planned BRT system. Right now, it’s just two lines—Eastwood to OCC along James and South Ave, and SU to the Regional Transportation Center along Adams and North Salina Streets. That’s a good start, but obviously this city needs quality transit in more places than just those two corridors, so the BRT network will have to expand over time.
That expansion can take two forms. First, Syracuse could add more lines. South Salina Street, for example, obviously needs better transit service, so the 10 bus should be upgraded to BRT. Second, BRT lines can be extended further out. New development along Old Liverpool Road might make it worthwhile to extended the SU-RTC line all the way to the Village of Liverpool.
But that kind of expansion is almost impossible under Centro’s current, traditional pulse-timed service model, and it’d be incredibly difficult if Syracuse was committing to some sort of rail-based transit service.
The problem with expanding rail service is pretty straightforward—it costs a bunch of money and takes forever to build. And since you can’t run a train until the tracks are in the ground, service improvements get delayed for decades. Just ask Buffalo, where plans to extend the subway have been in the works for four decades without any new service to show for it.
The difficulty of expanding traditional pulse-timed bus service is less intuitive. Centro time’s its buses so that they meet all at once at the hub every forty minutes, or so. It’s called a lineup, and it helps riders transfer between different bus lines that don’t run very often. Since the buses are all timed in relation to each other, it’s impossible to change any line’s schedule without throwing the whole system out of whack. Any significant improvement in service requires a full network redesign—like the one that Rochester is rolling out next week—and that also takes years.
BRT avoids these problems because it’s so much cheaper to implement than rail, and because its frequent service doesn’t require a lineup to facilitate transfers between lines. If Syracuse wanted to extend service to Liverpool or add BRT to South Salina, we could just do it without taking 10 years to lay down rails or rejigger the rest of the bus network. That’s what’s happening in Albany, where the Capital District Transit Authority is building out a full BRT network one line at a time.
There are a lot of reasons that BRT is the best option for improving public transportation in Syracuse, but this is the most compelling one. It’s iterative—we can build the network in manageable pieces—we can get started now, and we can keep expanding the system into the future.
Fare capping is a public transit payment reform that boosts ridership and minimizes inequality by making transit passes more affordable for people without a lot of money. Centro should implement fare capping in Syracuse.
Time-based transit passes allow riders to take as many trips as they like within a given amount of time—a day, a week, a month, a year. This rewards frequent riders who use transit often, and it encourages people to take more trips by making the marginal cost of each trip $0.
Centro sells two types of time-based passes—a daily pass and a weekly pass. The $5 day pass is a good deal for anyone making more than two trips in a day, and the $20 week pass saves money for anyone riding more than 10 times a week. Before 2015, Centro also sold a monthly pass for $60—a good investment for anyone riding more than 30 times a month, so any regular commuter with a full-time job.
However, these time passes are often unaffordable for the poorest riders. It’s one thing to come up with $2 for a single bus ride, but a lot of people have a harder time scraping together $20 to buy a weekly pass—let alone $60 for a monthly pass—even if they ride the bus often enough that the time-based pass would save them money in the long run. This is a real problem for Centro’s riders who are very likely to have very low incomes.
Fare capping makes time-based passes more affordable by allowing riders to buy them in installments. Each time a rider pays the individual fare, it goes towards the cost of purchasing an unlimited pass. This ‘caps’ the total cost that any rider pays in a given amount of time at the total cost of an unlimited pass for that same amount of time. So a rider would never pay more than $5 in a single day or $20 in a single week to ride Centro.
This will require new fare payment technology. Installments only work if there’s a way to track them, so riders will need to have payment accounts. This might mean account-connected payment cards that riders keep from month to month, or it might mean upgrading the mobile payment system that Centro piloted in 2019.
All of this will be even more important when Centro begins running Bus Rapid Transit. High frequency service will allow people to make more trips by bus, and that will only make time-based passes more attractive to riders. Centro should implement fare capping in order to make unlimited passes accessible to everyone who needs them.
Syracuse needs more people riding the bus. Increased ridership is good for Centro, obviously, because it provides increased fare revenue and a broader base of political support for public transportation. But increased ridership would also indicate that Centro is serving Syracuse better, because more people are choosing to ride.
So how do we do it?
Here’s a breakdown of Centro’s commuter ridership by income. People making less than $25,000 a year account for 84% of Centro’s Syracuse-based commuter ridership. People making more than $50,000 a year account for less than 5% of workers who live in Syracuse and commute by bus.
One approach to building ridership—the ‘captive-choice’ approach—tries to even out the pieces of that pie. 84%(!) of riders are poor—so the thinking goes—because low income correlates with other factors—like lack of access to a car—that constrain people’s transportation options and force them to ride the bus. People making less than $25,000 a year are “captive” riders, and so Centro can count on their ridership no matter what.
High income earners, on this theory, are “choice” riders—they have lots of options for getting around and will only choose the bus if it’s the most attractive option. Current bus service is obviously not an attractive option because high income workers don’t ride, so the answer is to cater service specifically to them. That’s the SYRculator: a high-frequency route that loops around Downtown’s high-priced apartments and office buildings while avoiding all the “captive” riders who pass through the Hub.
Centro serves 38% of workers in its “captive” market—those who make less than $25,000 and commute by some means other than a car. If Centro ‘evened out’ its performance by capturing 38% of the non-car-commuting population across all incomes, it would increase the total number of people who commute by bus by 43%.
But even in this extremely unlikely scenario (quintupling the number of bus commuters earning more than $50,000), workers making less than $25,000 would still account for 59% of regular bus commuters. There just aren’t that many people making lots of money for whom it would make sense to ride the bus. In part, that’s because there aren’t that many people making lots of money, period. And in part, it’s because the people who do make that much money own multiple cars, and for the foreseeable future driving a car will never be less convenient than riding the bus.
But to even frame the question in terms of individuals making choices shows what’s wrong with the entire captive-choice analysis: every person has a choice, there are no ‘captive’ riders, and there are lots of low income people who currently choose not to ride the bus but who would if it met their needs better.
Here’s a graph showing the total number of workers living in Syracuse according to income. Within each bar, the different colors show how different riders commute. Blue is current bus commuters, and red is commuters who drive and are extremely unlikely to switch to riding the bus. Yellow is people who commute on foot, on bike, by taxi, or by sharing a ride, and it represents Centro’s best chance at ridership growth
Workers earning less than $25,000 make up about half of all workers in that yellow area, and so although that population already accounts for 84% of Centro’s current commuter ridership, it also is the portion of the working population with the greatest potential for ridership growth.
‘Evening out’ ridership across all incomes increased the share of non-car commuters who make between $25,000 and$50,000 by about 26 percentage points. If Centro improved service and enticed enough riders to see a proportional increase in ridership across all incomes, it would increase overall ridership by 96% (twice as much as ‘evening out’ performance among high earners).
57% of that increase would come from workers making less than $25,000. There are just so many low income workers, and so many of them have limited access to a car, that Centro could see huge ridership gains if it simply focused on serving the City’s poorest neighborhoods better.
And the best part is that we already have a plan to do that. It’s Bus Rapid Transit, and for all of the branding and the technology and the hype, the core of the idea is that Centro should spend every extra dollar improving service on the lines that already carry lots of people. Those lines run through neighborhoods with lots of potential bus riders, they connect to places with lots of jobs, and if they ran faster, more frequently, and more reliably, more people in those neighborhoods would use them. That’s how you build ridership.
It’s unclear exactly who is supposed to ride Centro’s new Downtown circulator route—a 2-mile figure-8 loop that winds its way from the Tech Garden to Dinosaur BBQ and back.
It can’t be people who live Downtown. The residential population is growing because the neighborhood is so famously easy to walk around. There’s no need to get in the car or wait for the bus to get from Hanover Square to Salt City Market—you can just walk there. A potentially actually useful bus service for Downtown residents would connect them to the City’s other neighborhoods, but this circulator route doesn’t do that because it never leaves Downtown.
It can’t be Centro’s regular riders. The circulator very pointedly avoids interacting with the Hub, and anyway, anybody who rides a bus into Downtown already has ample options for getting themselves around Downtown using Centro’s existing bus lines. This circulator route doesn’t add any new options for regular bus riders.
It can’t be people who drive into Downtown for entertainment. Anybody who shows up in a car has to put it someplace, and they might as well park it where they’re going. Even if they plan to move around Downtown—drinks at Hanover Square and then a hockey game at the War Memorial, maybe—the bus still isn’t much help because after riding from the restaurant to the theater, they’d have to ride back to pick up the car, and this bus doesn’t run past 7pm.
It can’t be commuters. The route doesn’t even start running until 11am.
It’s hard to imagine who would have a transportation problem that this circulator could possibly solve. But to even ask that question you’d have to think like a bus rider, and not many people in positions of power think like that because not many people in positions of power ride the bus. The officials who pushed this new service do not, in their daily personal lives, have to worry about what it would take for a bus line to make life easier, and so their reasoning on this issue is not much more sophisticated than this: “Downtown is booming, Downtown is success, a Downtown bus will succeed!”
If anyone involved had taken a moment to consider the service from the point of view of someone who might actually ride it, then they would have seen that the Downtown circulator will not serve a need, that it is a waste of money, and—because Centro’s budget is not unlimited—wasted money means worse service on the lines that people actually ride. Syracuse will never get the public transportation system that this City needs and deserves until someone with the power to make decisions at Centro takes the perspective of a bus rider.
Low-frequency bus service entails enormous costs—both economic and social—and those costs go unaccounted for in too many conversations about the place of public transportation in our City and in our public budgets. Whenever Centro’s service gets cut, we’re told it’s because we can’t afford it. But rarely does anybody ask whether worse service is really a better deal.
Let’s say you take the bus to the grocery store. You’ve got to check the schedule and pick one of the handful of times a day when the bus actually goes from your house to the store. Then you’ve got to time your shopping so that you can finish, pay, and get out to the stop in time to catch another bus home. Miss it, and you’re stuck waiting for the next bus, and on a low-frequency line, the next bus is never just around the corner.
With all the scheduling and all the waiting, that trip can easily take hours out of your day. It crowds out other uses of your time, so it’s not possible to get groceries and go to the doctor, or to go to the doctor and babysit your goddaughter, or to babysit your goddaughter and go to bible study—not if all of those trips require a bus ride. There’s just not enough time to go many places because the infrequent service shortens the day.
So when the bus takes up so much of your time, it costs you the opportunity to do everything that you need to get done.
But it’s not as if you’re really willing to give up on eating, family, and church just because the bus doesn’t run often enough. So you try to accomplish as many of those tasks without the bus as possible. Maybe that means going to church with your car-owning neighbor or getting food from the corner store sometimes instead of going all the way to the supermarket. Maybe it means picking an apartment within walking distance of family. All of those strategies to cope with impractical bus service constrain your other choices—you can’t buy just any food but what’s available at the corner store. You can’t pick any apartment but the one that’s within walking distance of your daily needs.
So when the bus is such an impractical method of travelling across the City, it costs the freedom to choose between different places to live, schools to attend, food to eat.
And if those choices are insufficient—if you can’t force your family and friends to live within walking distance or if you move to a new neighborhood for a better apartment and are justifiably unwilling to change churches just for that—then the bus is simply insufficient and you’ll need a different way to get around. Maybe that’s biking, maybe that’s taking a cab, but probably—aspirationally—it’s buying a car.
And what a cost that is. AAA puts the annual price of owning, operating, and maintaining a new car at $9,282. That’s 24% of Syracuse’s median household income, and it’s way more than what anyone would spend on bus fare over the course of the year. Between 2010 and 2019, the total number of 2-car households in Syracuse increased by 25% while the number of car-free households decreased by 2%, meaning that several thousand families took on that new onerous expense because Centro couldn’t get them where they needed to go.
So when the bus service is insufficient to let you live your life, it costs you thousands of dollars.
There’s a lot of focus on the cost of making Centro better. How much money to buy more buses, to build better shelters, to pay more operators.
But there are costs to leaving Centro as it is. Trips not taken, opportunities forgone, connections missed, household budgets broken. Tally all that up, and it’s clear we can’t afford not to invest in better bus service.
Public transportation works best as a network. When riders can transfer between multiple buses to access more of the city, the service is exponentially more useful than if it consisted of just a single line. And since additional service makes existing service even more useful, Centro should build out the biggest BRT network that it can as soon as it can.
To see how this works, just look at the 2 lines that SMTC proposed in the SMART1 study. 3,912 workers live within a 5 minute walk of a station on the SU-RTC line. 512 of them (13%) also work within a 5 minute walk of a station. 7559 workers live within a 5 minute walk of the Eastwood-OCC line, and 1101 of them (15%) also work along that line.
If you account for the 552 workers who live within walking distance of both lines, about 1,500 workers (14%) could use one of these two lines to get to the jobs that they work now.
But good transit doesn’t work as a series of individual lines—it’s a network. These two BRT lines will intersect at both St. Joe’s and at the Hub, so anybody who lives along either line could use those connection points to change buses and access any job that’s located along the other line.
And when you account for that network effect, it turns out 2,407 of the 10,919 workers (22%!) who live within walking distance of a planned BRT station could use the service to get to the jobs that they already have. Some people who live along the SU-RTC work along the Eastwood-OCC line and vice versa, so when the two lines operate as a network, each one is more useful to more people.
Add more lines, and those numbers will climb even higher. Run a line up South Salina and out Erie Boulevard to Shoppingtown, and 4,403 out of the 16,808 workers (26%) living within walking distance of a BRT station could commute to their current jobs by bus. Run another from Shop City to Western Lights through the North and West sides, and the number of potential bus commuters rises to 6,714 out of 23,969 workers (28%). That’s 1 out of every 10 people who work within walking distance of this 4-line BRT network.
And what’s true for commuters is true for people who ride the bus for any other reason too. Someone living just off North Salina might be able to use the SU-RTC line to get to the Mall, but they’d need to connect to the Eastwood-OCC line to get to school at OCC, or the Valley-DeWitt line to visit family in Salt Springs. More lines going more places make the network more useful to more people.
The network effect is what makes transit work. No individual line can be very useful all on its own, but any line gets more useful when it operates in tandem with another line. Every single line in a network gets more useful every time another one gets added to the network. That’s why Centro takes such pains to facilitate transfers at the Hub, and it’s why when Syracuse starts running BRT it should build out as many lines as quickly as possible.
Walk west on Euclid Avenue, and from the time that SU’s campus comes into view to when you get to Comstock Avenue, you’re guaranteed to see at least a handful of buses pulling in and out of the University. SU operates as a sort of second Hub, and the buses that originate, terminate, and run through there constitute a sort of second bus system nested within Centro’s larger tri-county network.
Although College Place acts as the hub where every single bus line meets, it’s possible to make transfers at other stops too. Lines that leave that College Place in different directions sometimes meet back up again at important points like the intersection of Genesee and Westcott or the corner of Westcott and Broad. This creates secondary transfer points that riders can use to move between different lines in the system without ever going through the main hub. Low service frequencies make that kind of transfer unlikely, but it is at least possible within the network design.
And although College Place acts as a Hub, the network doesn’t rely on lineups to help riders transfer between different lines. This is partly because the overwhelming majority of riders are either trying to get to or from SU, so there’s no need for them to transfer. And it’s partly because some lines (like the South Campus/Connective Corridor) run right through College Place, so there’s no need to actually change buses to ‘catch’ that connection.
Ditching the whole concept of the lineup frees Centro to run significantly more useful service for SU. The South Campus line, for instance, makes 138 runs between 7am and 3am. That’s service every 8 to 10 minutes all day long, and it’s so useful that students living at South Campus simply don’t need to own a car in order to get back and forth between their housing and their classes. That kind of service is only possible at SU because they’re not concerned with fitting every single bus run into the rube-goldberg service model that is the lineup.
These are good lessons to apply to Centro’s main network. The Downtown Hub doesn’t have to be the network’s only transfer point—people travelling from Mattydale to Liverpool should be able to change buses at the Mall, say. And it shows that Centro can run both frequent service and pulse service simultaneously—frequent service on high-performance BRT routes, say, while maintaining pulse service for suburban coverage routes. Centro’s SU service offers a model for the kind of public transportation that the rest of the City needs and deserves.
Syracuse can be a hard place to navigate. The City is big, it’s streets intersect at weird angles, and it’s just very easy to get turned around and lost. In a place like this, it’s helpful to have a way of simplifying things—some mental tool that makes the City understandable and makes people feel comfortable and in control as they move around within it. BRT can provide Syracuse with just such a tool—the network diagram.
The highways already do this for car drivers. There are people who understand the City entirely in terms of highway exits. Name any spot, and they can tell you how to get there from the nearest exit. Ask for directions to any location, and they’ll tell you how to get from where you are to the nearest onramp, how to take the highway from there to the appropriate exit, and then how to get from that exit to wherever you’re going. It may not be the shortest or fastest route, but for someone who understands the City through the highways it will be the most intelligible route.
It’s not actually so simple to get from the RTC to SU as this diagram suggests—the bus operator is going to have to make more than three turns—but from the perspective of a passenger on the Blue Line, it’s as easy as boarding and exiting the bus at the correct station stops.
If these transit lines are useful enough that people can ride them as their primary mode of transportation in the City, then knowing your way around town is as easy as remembering the relationships between the network’s different station stops. How to get from Eastwood to Crouse Hospital? Just catch an OCC-bound Orange bus, transfer to an SU-bound Blue bus at either St. Joseph’s or the Hub, and get off at the Hospitals station stop. This simple diagram becomes a key to understanding the City as a whole.
And after these two first lines prove their worth, Centro should extend BRT to more of the City, running new lines to different neighborhoods, making more of the City accessible and intelligible to people through public transit.
Centro’s new CEO, Brain Schultz, wants to start running a “Downtown Circulator.” That could mean two different things—one good, one bad—and what form this plan takes will say a lot about whether or not this new CEO is up to the task of building the kind of public transit system that Syracuse needs and deserves.
Centro hasn’t provided many details, but it sounds like they’re considering a new bus route like what they run for Winterfest and the Downtown Living Tour—one that will run in a rough circle and provide door-to-door service for several specific destinations.
“Mr. Schultz’s ambitious vision includes a Downtown Circulator bus to help the growing number of Syracuse residents easily move from one end of the city to the other, including service to the soon-to-be-opened Salt City Market.”
This kind of service is almost never useful because very few people will wait for the circulator to show up. If only one bus is running the loop, then time spent waiting for it to pick you up will account for more than half of the length of most trips. That makes a circulator extremely unhelpful for the kinds of short trips that are supposed to be its focus. Want to get from the Clinton Square tree lighting to Armory Square for a drink? Waiting for the circulator could take anywhere from 0 to 13 minutes, but it’s just 7 minutes by foot. Why wait when it’s faster to just walk?
The essential problem is that a bus route designed to serve a single neighborhood as small as Downtown is necessarily very short, but a route like that is too short to be useful to the people in that neighborhood. Centro was clear, they want a bus route that’s useful for people trying to move around Downtown, but if they try to do that by targeting the service too exclusively on Downtown they’ll end up with something that’s not even useful for that narrow purpose.
A better model is the Chicago Loop (a piece of transit infrastructure so iconic that they call the central part of the city The Loop instead of Downtown). There, multiple elevated rail lines meet and run along a set of common tracks that loop around the city’s center, all serving the same 8 stops. If you’re in the Loop and trying to catch any one of these trains, any station will do. That means less walking for riders, it means that businesses that want access to transit can locate anywhere in the Loop, and it means that the trains don’t get overwhelmed by people all trying to board at a single downtown stop.
All those benefits improve service for everyone who rides any of these trains—most of whom are travelling to or from a station outside the Loop—but they’re structured in a way that also creates specific benefits for people who are riding between stations within the Loop. All those lines serving the same stops means that a train is never more than a couple of minutes away. That’s the kind of frequency that makes the Loop useful for people just making short trips between its closely-spaced stations.
The Chicago Loop is a good model for running useful transit in Syracuse’s compact city center. It would be simple to modify existing plans for a Bus Rapid Transit network so that every line serves multiple common Downtown stations—Clinton Square, Salina/Jefferson, and the Hub, say. This would put all of Downtown within easy walking distance of every single BRT line, and it would allow riders to access any BRT line from any Downtown station.
This would also create a Downtown corridor with extremely frequent service. Say there are 6 BRT lines and each runs every 12 minutes. That means service every 2 minutes. With such short wait times, it actually would actually make sense to ride the half mile from Clinton Square to the Hub, especially if it were cold or rainy and the short wait for a bus could happen in a safe, climate controlled station.
The difference between these two models is that the downtown circulator tries to do one extremely specific thing for a very small group of people and fails, while the Chicago Loop is about improving the entire transit network in such a way that it works for everybody, including that small group of people that the downtown circulator was supposed to serve.
The way that Centro hired Brian Schultz has raised a lot of questions. Is he fully focused on Centro? Does he have the qualifications to run a transit agency? Is he the right person for the job? How he chooses between these two models as he implements this new Downtown service—and, hopefully, a lot of other service improvements as well—will go a long way to answering those questions.