Tag Archives: Centro

Two ways to do a downtown circulator

Centro’s new CEO, Brain Schultz, wants to start running a “Downtown Circulator.” That could mean two different things—one good, one bad—and what form this plan takes will say a lot about whether or not this new CEO is up to the task of building the kind of public transit system that Syracuse needs and deserves.

Centro hasn’t provided many details, but it sounds like they’re considering a new bus route like what they run for Winterfest and the Downtown Living Tour—one that will run in a rough circle and provide door-to-door service for several specific destinations.

“Mr. Schultz’s ambitious vision includes a Downtown Circulator bus to help the growing number of Syracuse residents easily move from one end of the city to the other, including service to the soon-to-be-opened Salt City Market.”

This kind of service is almost never useful because very few people will wait for the circulator to show up. If only one bus is running the loop, then time spent waiting for it to pick you up will account for more than half of the length of most trips. That makes a circulator extremely unhelpful for the kinds of short trips that are supposed to be its focus. Want to get from the Clinton Square tree lighting to Armory Square for a drink? Waiting for the circulator could take anywhere from 0 to 13 minutes, but it’s just 7 minutes by foot. Why wait when it’s faster to just walk?

The essential problem is that a bus route designed to serve a single neighborhood as small as Downtown is necessarily very short, but a route like that is too short to be useful to the people in that neighborhood. Centro was clear, they want a bus route that’s useful for people trying to move around Downtown, but if they try to do that by targeting the service too exclusively on Downtown they’ll end up with something that’s not even useful for that narrow purpose.

A better model is the Chicago Loop (a piece of transit infrastructure so iconic that they call the central part of the city The Loop instead of Downtown). There, multiple elevated rail lines meet and run along a set of common tracks that loop around the city’s center, all serving the same 8 stops. If you’re in the Loop and trying to catch any one of these trains, any station will do. That means less walking for riders, it means that businesses that want access to transit can locate anywhere in the Loop, and it means that the trains don’t get overwhelmed by people all trying to board at a single downtown stop.

All those benefits improve service for everyone who rides any of these trains—most of whom are travelling to or from a station outside the Loop—but they’re structured in a way that also creates specific benefits for people who are riding between stations within the Loop. All those lines serving the same stops means that a train is never more than a couple of minutes away. That’s the kind of frequency that makes the Loop useful for people just making short trips between its closely-spaced stations.

6 BRT lines converge to create a high-frequency Downtown corridor where the next bus is never more than a couple minutes away

The Chicago Loop is a good model for running useful transit in Syracuse’s compact city center. It would be simple to modify existing plans for a Bus Rapid Transit network so that every line serves multiple common Downtown stations—Clinton Square, Salina/Jefferson, and the Hub, say. This would put all of Downtown within easy walking distance of every single BRT line, and it would allow riders to access any BRT line from any Downtown station.

This would also create a Downtown corridor with extremely frequent service. Say there are 6 BRT lines and each runs every 12 minutes. That means service every 2 minutes. With such short wait times, it actually would actually make sense to ride the half mile from Clinton Square to the Hub, especially if it were cold or rainy and the short wait for a bus could happen in a safe, climate controlled station.

BRT station in Rio de Janeiro

The difference between these two models is that the downtown circulator tries to do one extremely specific thing for a very small group of people and fails, while the Chicago Loop is about improving the entire transit network in such a way that it works for everybody, including that small group of people that the downtown circulator was supposed to serve.

The way that Centro hired Brian Schultz has raised a lot of questions. Is he fully focused on Centro? Does he have the qualifications to run a transit agency? Is he the right person for the job? How he chooses between these two models as he implements this new Downtown service—and, hopefully, a lot of other service improvements as well—will go a long way to answering those questions.

Treating riders with respect

Public transportation is a public service—like libraries and municipal water—and riding the bus shouldn’t feel any more degrading than checking out a book or drinking from the tap. Too often, it is. There are so many small things that make riding the bus unpleasant—things that are unnecessary, that don’t really save any money or make the service and more useful—things that would get fixed if people with power took riders’ time, comfort, and convenience seriously.

Centro doesn’t value its riders’ time. The system is designed to be able to get a person from anywhere in the urbanized area to anywhere else, but it’s not designed to do that within any set period of time. Buses are routinely late and for no good reason. Operators watch riders while they pay the fare instead of pulling away from the curb once a rider gets on board, buses don’t go fast enough between stops, bunched buses rumble along as a pair. All of those little delays could just go away if Centro’s culture prioritized speed, but it doesn’t, and that’s because Centro does not prioritize riders’ time. The schedule might say that you can get to your sister’s house by 2:00 so that she can leave the kids with you and get to her meeting at 2:30 on time, but the schedule’s no guarantee. The schedule might tell you to drop what you’re doing and get to the bus stop at 7:47, but you could end up waiting there until 7:59 and that’s just how it goes.

And if a bus is going to be 12 minutes late, Centro should let you know. They have the technology to know where every bus is on its run and to predict how far away it is from any point. In other cities, the transit authority uses that technology to display real-time arrival info at the bus stop so that riders know when to expect their ride. This makes the waiting less stressful because you know that a bus really is coming, and you know when to expect it. Putting real-time arrival displays at bus stops wouldn’t do a thing to make the buses show up sooner, but it would make waiting at the stop less stressful for riders, so Centro should do it.

And while you’re waiting, you should at least be comfortable. Why are so many bus stops such unpleasant places to spend time? So many are just a sign in the ground with no protection from the sun or rain, nowhere to sit, and no easy place to stand when there’s snow on the ground (and forget rolling up to most of Centro’s ‘handicap accessible’ stops in a wheelchair). If the bus is the best way for you to get where you’re going, then this is just one of the things you have to deal with, but you shouldn’t have to, and Centro should care enough to do something about it.

Centro can get away with ignoring this stuff because none of it is likely to change the material considerations that make public transportation a practical or impractical means of getting around town for any particular person, so none of it is likely to make someone change their decision about whether or not to ride the bus. But that really shouldn’t matter because these are the kinds of things that make a person feel respected or not, and no one deserves to be disrespected just because they’re riding the bus.

Who will ride BRT?

Talk to non-bus-riders about Centro, and eventually they’ll say something to the effect of “you know a specific challenge that we have in Syracuse is that bus ridership is associated with socio-economic class, and so the question is how do we get people of all classes to ride the bus. How does Centro get me to leave my car at home?”

That question comes from a good place. Public transportation is a public service, and it should be no more stigmatized than checking out a library book or drinking water from the tap. Asking where that stigma comes from and how to eliminate it is good.

But instead of asking how better bus service will work out for me specifically, it’s better to work from the other end and think about who is most likely to benefit from improvements to Syracuse’s public transportation system.

Getting around on Centro takes time. Slow buses meander through City neighborhoods, and they run so infrequently that getting to and from anywhere includes a lot of wait time—you might only need a half an hour to shop for groceries, but if there’s an hour gap between runs, then an hour is how long you’re going to be spending at Tops.

This depresses ridership because it limits the number of places that any bus rider has time to get to in a day. Riding Centro to and from Tops takes so much time and effort that it’s often practically impossible to then ride Centro to and from the doctors office, a PTA meeting, your aunt’s house. Forget trying to run an errand by bus after getting off from work.

Run faster, more frequent service, and ridership will increase immediately because the people who have to plan their whole entire day around running one errand by bus would all of a sudden have the time to ride the bus two or three or four places.


Some people can’t or won’t abide Centro’s current inconvenient service, and they avoid it at all costs by walking and or biking around town. That’s not always convenient either, especially if you’re going very far, the sidewalks are busted up, and it’s snowing. Or maybe they bought a car, but can’t really afford to fill the tank or to keep it fixed up.

BRT can offer these people a better option: a service that’s safer, more convenient, and more economical than what they’re doing now.

Run faster, more frequent service, and ridership will increase because more people will start riding the bus instead of walking 3 miles to work.


In the long term, better bus service builds its own ridership by making it possible for more people to build lives that include the bus.

Imagine a person moving to Syracuse from Boston to start a new job. They might make enough to be able to comfortably afford a car and a house with a garage, but they didn’t drive in Boston and would be happy to use public transportation in Syracuse if it was convenient enough. BRT can offer that convenience, and it can precipitate a series of major decisions—apartment or house, city or suburb, car payment or no—that lead that person to ride the bus because they have built a life where riding the bus makes sense.

Or imagine a kid moving out from their parents’ house into their first apartment and needing to provide their own transportation for the first time in their life. Right now, that might mean getting a place with a parking spot and buying a crappy used car. With BRT, it could mean finding an apartment near a station.

Run faster, more frequent service, and ridership will increase in the long term because more people will choose to build lives that account for and rely on the bus.

So to go back to that original question—”how will BRT get me to leave my car at home?”—the answer is that it might not. If your family owns multiple cars, if you don’t live within a short safe walk of a bus stop, if your neighborhood is so spread out that it can’t support good bus service, then there’s not a lot that Centro can do to create a service that will work for you. 

But there is so much that Centro can do to create a service that works for so many more people. Faster, more frequent service will get more people riding the bus more often. Better bus service will get current bus riders riding more often, it will get new people to ride the bus, it will make life better for people who rely on the bus in their daily lives, and it will come from making that way of living more attractive to more people.

Frequency and Speed

In public transportation, service frequency depends on bus speed. The faster buses go, the more times one operator can make a run in a single shift. Since the vast majority of operating cost is taken up by operator salary, that means higher service frequencies for little to no extra money. And since higher frequencies are the best way to make public transportation more useful to more people, Syracuse should be doing everything it can to make Centro’s buses go faster.

Nationwide, transit buses travel an average of 12 mph. Buses go so slow because they spend so much of their time not going at all—between sitting at red lights and pickup up/dropping off riders, buses in NYC only spend half their time actually moving. Reduce time spent stuck at reds and time spent letting people on and off the bus, and Syracuse can have faster—more frequent, better—public transportation.

Transit Signal Priority lets traffic lights know when a bus is approaching

There are a few ways to do this. The most obvious is bus lanes. Give buses their own space on the street, and cars won’t get in their way. That means no waiting for traffic to pass before pulling away from the bus stop, no getting stuck behind somebody illegally parked at the curb. All this requires is some paint, and it will speed buses up immediately.

Transit signal priority is another way to speed up buses. That technology lets traffic lights know when a bus is approaching, and it adjusts the light cycle to speed up bus travel times—either turning green a little faster or staying green a little longer to let the bus through. City Hall has talked about implementing this technology with its newly acquired streetlight grid, and it would be a perfect smart city technology to deploy as part of the Syracuse Surge.

New payment technologies can also speed the bus up. Paying the fare on the bus takes a couple seconds, and that time really adds up when a lot of people get on the bus all at the same time. Riders have to look for exact change, they have to request a transfer, they have to wait for the fare box to spit their pass back out. While they’re doing all that, the operator has to monitor them, and the bus isn’t moving. Other cities have much faster payment methods—like touchless RFID cards, mobile pay, and offboard fare collection—that let people board much faster so that the bus can spend less time hanging out at the curb.

All of these infrastructure and policy improvements complement network redesign strategies that will also increase service frequency with little to no added operating cost. Take the lineup: it confines service to infrequent bunches throughout the day. That’s bad for frequency from a scheduling standpoint (spreading the service out evenly over the course of the day would yield better frequencies), and it causes traffic that slows buses down (putting 20 buses on the street all at one time creates way more traffic congestion than Downtown normally sees, and those buses get in each other’s way and slow each other down). Getting rid of the lineup would improve frequency in both cases.

Or take spines: the idea of running multiple bus lines on a single street near the center of the network. That multiplies the service frequency on the spine, and it makes all of that speed-boosting infrastructure more effective because improvements to a single street benefit multiple bus lines. Running all of the northbound lines as a spine up North Salina would give that street frequent service and it would make it easier to build this kind of speed-boosting infrastructure.

If Centro is going to improve its service, it’s going to have to find ways to make the buses go faster. That will mean working with City Hall to build infrastructure like bus lanes and transit signal priority, and it will mean adopting innovative technology like mobile fare payment. Combine improvements like those with a redesigned network and schedule, and Syracuse will have more frequent service that gives more people more access to more opportunity.

Frequency and Spines

Frequent service frees transit agencies to run better, more efficient networks. Centro’s current network is designed around the lineup—a tool that facilitates transfers in when the buses don’t run very often. But there are other design tools—like the spine—that can turn that infrequent service into the high-frequency, high-quality transit system that Syracuse needs.

Riders on Munich’s spine-based network can catch any one of 7 different trains to get through the middle of town. Because so many trains serve the same stations, the next one is never more than 4 minutes away.

A spine is a string of stops all served by multiple bus lines. Anyone travelling along the spine can catch any of the different buses that serve it even though all of those buses might have different final destinations. So someone riding from Downtown to James and Lodi, for instance, can catch either the 23 or the 80 bus because both bus lines are identical as far as that person is riding.

Spines multiply service frequency. If a spine is served by four different bus lines, each of which run every 40 minutes, then the spine sees a bus every 10 minutes—that’s the difference between the kind of lackluster service that Syracuse has now and the quality service that it needs.


Centro doesn’t make much use of spines because its network is designed around the lineup. Buses from multiple lines all get to, and leave from the Hub at the same time. This facilitates transfers, but it makes spines impossible—if all of the buses serving a spine left the Hub together, they’d just show up in bunches of four every 40 minutes instead of spreading their service out to arrive every 10 minutes.

Get rid of the lineup, and a spine-based network could redefine public transportation in Syracuse. Take the service between Downtown and the Mall. The STSA identified that corridor as a good candidate for high-frequency service, and SMTC planned a BRT line for it. Buses should run up and down North Salina Street every 10 minutes all day.

Centro could offer that service with the buses it’s running now. The 16, 46, 48, 50, 84, 86, and 88 bus lines all run from Downtown up past the Mall and the RTC, but they spread their service out over multiple parallel routes. If Centro operated all of those bus lines as a spine running up North Salina, it could provide service every 10 minutes from 5 am to 1 am every single weekday.

In fact, the six ‘transit improvement corridors’ from the STSA lend themselves well to a spine-based network, with spines providing extremely frequent service up N Salina, University Hill, and Gifford St. Run these BRT lines in spines, and the city center would see service running as frequently as every five minutes.

Spines are a great way to get high-quality, high-frequency bus service. They are service multipliers, doubling or tripling service frequencies without any added cost. They could turn Centro’s existing barely adequate service into the kind of transformational public transportation that Syracuse needs.

Frequency and the Lineup

Frequent bus service makes more of the City more accessible, but it also saves money. Citywide transit systems only work when people can easily switch between different buses to reach any point in the network, but low-frequency service—like what Centro currently offers—requires enormous inefficiency in order to facilitate transfers. More frequent service can pay for itself—at least in part—by eliminating that waste.


Transit networks benefit from transfers. All alone, a bus line only connects a small part of the City, but as part of a full network, that one bus line can help anyone get anywhere they need to go.

Transfers, though, take time. A rider can show up at their stop right on time to catch the first bus, but they have a lot less control over how long they’ll have to wait for their connecting bus at the transfer point. When the buses don’t show up all that often, a rider can end up waiting an hour or more for their second bus. That’s enough to put a lot of people off of riding the bus at all.

Centro facilitates transfers by running every single bus through the Hub. A person riding any bus can transfer directly to any other bus at that one single point, so it never requires more than one transfer to reach any bus stop in Centro’s entire network.

This ‘hub-and-spoke’ system also allows Centro to minimize the amount of time a rider spends waiting for their connecting bus. Centro times its different bus lines to meet at the Hub all at once roughly every 40 minutes throughout the day. It’s called a lineup, and it makes transferring quick and easy—anybody can transfer between any of the dozen or so buses at a lineup with just a few minutes wait.

Screenshot 2020-08-24 at 9.36.53 AM

But although the lineup is the best way to facilitate transfers in a low-frequency bus network, it is enormously inefficient. If a dozen buses are all going to meet at a single point at a single time, then bus stops near the center of the network will see bunching (when two or more buses reach a stop at exactly the same time) before and after lineups. This is most obvious at stops right next to the Hub (like Salina and Jefferson), but it’s a problem as far away as James and Oak. 76 buses run from that stop to the Hub between 5:30 am and 12:21 pm every weekday (or 1 bus every ~15 minutes), but 9 times a day Centro intentionally sends 2 bunched buses from that stop all 1.75 miles to the Hub. That doubles the cost of serving lower James Street nine times a day without adding any benefit for riders.

Relatedly, the hub-and-spoke network requires all bus lines to start at the Hub even when that makes no sense. Centro runs buses along Grant Blvd, Teall Ave, Geddes St, Colvin St, and Rt 31. These corridors don’t fit easily into the hub-and-spoke network because they don’t point towards Downtown—Centro has to shoehorn them in by combining them with other lines that do go Downtown. So the Rt 31 bus is really just a detour on the route to Oswego, the Grant Blvd bus zigs and zags across the Northside to make its way to the Hub, and Teall doesn’t get the service it really needs along its full length. All of these fudges add extra miles and extra expense to each bus run, and none of it would be necessary if not for the lineup.

Run buses more frequently, and none of this waste is necessary. When buses run every 10 minutes, riders never have to wait more than 10 minutes for their connecting bus. That makes the lineup unnecessary because transfers are quick and easy no matter when a rider reaches the transfer point. And it makes the hub-and-spoke network unnecessary because quick transfers are possible wherever two bus lines intersect.

Screenshot 2020-08-24 at 9.12.42 AM

The lineup is necessary and useful in a system where the buses only run once an hour, but it limits the kind of service that Centro can offer, and it makes that service more expensive than it needs to be.

Frequent service will free Centro from the logic of the lineup. It will make new kinds of bus routes possible (a line running from Lyncourt to South Campus along Teall and Westcott, a line running from Corcoran to the train station along Geddes, a line running from Liverpool to Hancock Airpark along Taft), and it will make the entire network cheaper to run.

Frequency and Access

When the people in power think about making opportunity accessible by bus, they focus too much on where the buses run and not enough on when the buses run. Centro runs bus lines to every urbanized part of the County, so just about any factory, school, or home is within walking distance of a bus stop and technically accessible by bus. But almost none of the County is within walking distance of a bus stop where a bus actually shows up frequently enough to be useful to anybody, and so most of the County is not really accessible by bus in any practical way.

The one big change that Centro can make to bring more places and more opportunities within reach of the bus is to run its buses more often.

People who don’t ride the bus—who have never had to wait at a bus stop for over an hour in the hot sun without a bench to sit on—look at the bus map and think that Centro does a pretty good job of serving the whole County. They look at how the 48 runs up Morgan Road and think that paying Amazon to build a new warehouse on the old Liverpool County Club will create ‘transit-accessible’ jobs.

But the 48 only runs by that site 13 times a day between 5 am and 10 pm—that’s less than once an hour! Sure, it’s going to be possible to get to that new Amazon warehouse on a bus, but it’s not going to be practically feasible. With more than an hour between each run, if a worker is running a couple minutes late and misses their bus, all of a sudden they’re more than an hour late to work and in danger of losing their job. Or if they need to leave early unexpectedly for whatever reason, they can expect to have to wait outside the warehouse for more than an hour just to catch the bus home. Such infrequent service makes for fragile transportation, where a single small change in plans makes the system unusable, and so practically useless.

For bus service to really be useful, it has to run so frequently that you can go to the bus stop at any time and know that another bus will show up soon. That means buses every 10 minutes—maybe every 15 minutes at the most. The red areas on the map above are within a half mile walk of bus stops where the buses run about every 15 minutes. A person living in that red area can get to work anywhere else in that red area without having memorize the bus schedule or stressing about catching the one single bus that can make their commute work. A person moving within that zone can rely on the bus to get them where they’re going.

That’s what it really means for a job or a home or a school to be accessible by bus. So if you really want to know what opportunities are ‘transit-accessible,’ this is the kind of map you need to be looking at. If people in power were really interested in making more opportunity accessible by bus, they’d focus on running more frequent service more places.

The Recipe for BRT

The recipe for good public transportation is simple: (1) run lots of buses (2) in straight lines (3) that connect lots of people (4) to the places where they want to go. Do that, and people will ride.

The Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council followed that recipe when it designed two new crosstown bus rapid transit lines (BRT) for Centro. One will run from Eastwood to OCC, and the other will run from Syracuse University to the Regional Transportation Center. Together, these two lines will make Centro much more useful to many more people, and they’ll make Syracuse a better City.

Run lots of buses…

When the bus runs every fifteen minutes, you always know that you won’t have to wait very long for the next one to show up. That’s incredibly freeing because it means you don’t have plan your day around the bus schedule. You can leave the house when you want, and you can head back home when you want. No more worrying about catching the one single bus that can get you where you’re going on time.

Centro’s new BRT lines will run every fifteen minutes minutes all day. It will be a huge improvement over Centro’s current service, and it will make the bus useful for people making all kinds of different trips at all hours of the day.

In Albany, the next Red Line bus is never more than 15 minutes away

…in straight lines…

A straight line is the shortest distance between two points. Buses that travel in straight lines get you where you’re going faster. There’s no need to zig and zag your way across the entire City when you’re just trying to get home.

And speaking of speed, BRT lines in other cities use a few more tricks to make their buses go faster: smart traffic lights, bus lanes, level boarding platforms, fewer stops.

All of this is on the table in Syracuse. The more high-tech options—like integrating the buses with City Hall’s streetlight network—will be a big win for the Syracuse Surge. But it’s the low-tech stuff—running straight down James Street without detouring onto Teall, stopping every ¼ mile instead of every block—that will really make these buses go fast.


…that connect lots of people…

If people are willing to walk about 10 minutes to catch the bus, then the number of people who can ride the bus depends on how many people live within a 10 minute walk of a bus stop. In neighborhoods where lots of people live near a bus stop, lots of people ride the bus.

Eastwood, the Northside, University Hill, the Southside—these are some of the most populous neighborhoods between Buffalo and New York City. Centro’s new BRT lines will be accessible to tens of thousands of Central New Yorkers, just a short walk from their front doors.

…to the places where they want to go

People get on the bus to go places. Good bus service has to pass the places that people actually want to go. It also has to serve a variety of different kinds of destinations if it’s going to attract a variety of riders over the course of the entire day.

There are plenty of places worth going in Syracuse, and these new BRT lines hit a lot of them. Whether it’s to get to one of the 50,000 jobs Downtown, at the Mall, or on University Hill, to get to class at OCC or SUNY ESF, to meet someone for drinks Downtown or on North Salina, to buy fresh food at Price Rite or the Farmers Market, to get to church or to see friends or family anywhere in the City, there will be plenty of reasons for people to ride these BRT lines.

This is a good plan to bring better bus service to Syracuse. It will serve a lot of people. It will get people through the City fast. It will take people to the places they need to go. It will make more opportunities more accessible to more people.

Trolley Tracks and Bus Lines

I used to catch the 58 bus at Burnet and Teall. In my head, this was the Burnet Ave bus—Burnet’s a big street, it’s one of the few that stretches from Downtown all the way out to the city line, and the 58 does run straight along its eastern half from Beech Street to Thompson Road. But it’s really not right to call the 58 the “Burnet Ave line” because west of Beech, the bus zigs and zags along a bunch of different Northside streets before making its way Downtown.

Centro’s bus lines in 2018

I had to memorize all those zigs and zags—they were the only part of the line that didn’t make intuitive sense to me—and I recognized them immediately when I saw this 1917 map of Syracuse’s streetcar system.

Syracuse’s streetcar lines in 1917

Back then, the streetcar line to Eastwood didn’t run straight out James Street. Between State and Sedgwick Streets, it detoured along Hawley, Lodi, Oak, Hawley again, and Elm. That was partially to avoid the big hill on James—streetcars couldn’t handle it with their slippery steel wheels—and partially because that section of James Street was populated by gilded-age robber barons who didn’t ride the trolley.

None of that matters anymore—buses can handle hills, and huge apartment buildings replaced the mansions, making lower James Street one of the heaviest transit corridors in the entire City—so now all the Eastwood buses run James Street’s entire length.

But at the same time, the very fact that a streetcar used to run along Hawley, Oak, Lodi, and Elm means that there’s a lot of housing in that part of the Northside. It’s a far walk from there to Downtown, so the people who moved to that neighborhood 100 years ago clustered along the streetcar line. That housing still exists, people still live in it, many of them chose to live in it because of the existing bus line, and that makes the neighborhood a good place to run a bus.

Look at the rest of Centro’s system map, and you can find similar patterns. The 52’s jagged path up Salina, James, Townsend, Butternut, and Park echoes another long gone Northside streetcar line. The 64 and 74 are almost perfect images of old Westside lines. The South Ave bus’ periodic detours along Bellevue are a vestige of the line that ran out to Strathmore. The streetcar companies often laid those lines for reasons that don’t matter anymore—to avoid hills, to use existing track, to compete with rival transit companies. But the very fact that streetcars did run along those lines has built enough inertia to keep Centro’s buses running along the same streets.

So when the 58 bus took that weird detour, it was bringing me into a complex relationship with the City’s past. That’s not where I had intended to go when I paid the fare, but I can appreciate the journey.

Coronavirus and the Bus

Crises reveal what really matters. Work that used to be forgotten is now understood to be essential. Workers who used to be taken for granted are now recognized as heroes—fighting on the frontlines against this global pandemic—the hospitals, the nursing homes, the garbage routes, the checkout counters.

Renewed appreciation for these people and the work that they do is shaking up Syracuse’s ideas about what makes the City work. When Syracuse started social distancing, a lot of people expected Centro to cut its service. After all, demand was bound to go down, and anyways, no one really rides the bus, right?

Instead, the entire community is learning just how much Syracuse needs the bus. While big cities like Chicago and Boston have seen 75% drops in transit use, Centro’s ridership has only dropped 55%. And the people who are still on the bus are the ones getting Syracuse through this crisis. As Centro spokesman Steve Koegel pointed out, the remaining bus riders are often in uniform: “A lot of people are wearing hospital garb. It’s visible those are the people using our service. They are critical-need workers.”

So while the buses remained full of heroes riding to work in the hospitals, and highway interchanges went empty, our transportation priorities shifted. The federal stimulus included $21.5 million for Centro, a necessary lifeline for a perennially underfunded service. After years of getting cut out of budget deals, left to languish with declining local, state, and federal support, this crisis shook people up and made them realize that Syracuse needs a functioning public transportation system to survive.

But the risk is that once this crisis is over, once we’ve moved from dealing with a global pandemic to managing its economic aftershock, the people in power will forget that lesson and go back to business as usual—back to neglecting the basic necessities that made it possible for the City to get through this, back to starving the bus.

We can’t let it happen. We need to come out of this smarter than when we went in, with a greater appreciation for what makes life in Syracuse livable. That means a new commitment to the services that support the people who do Syracuse’s most essential work—it means better bus service.