Tag Archives: Centro

Transit is not a Tool of Social Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OnTrack’s Shadow

Sometimes it feels like this City can’t get past OnTrack. When Centro is working to run better bus service, people just say ‘bring back OnTrack.’ When I81 is making Syracuse totally rethink what kind of city it wants to be and what that means for public transportation, people just say ‘bring back OnTrack.’ That rail service was a great experiment, but Syracuse needs to move on if public transportation is ever going to do what it needs to do in this town.
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Syracuse needs better public transportation between the University, Downtown, and the Mall. That’s common sense, and it’s one of the big recommendations from the Syracuse Transit System Analysis. After weighing all the options, the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council drew up a plan to serve that corridor with a new high-frequency bus line.

OnTrack used to do that same job, but a bus could do it better for the simple reason that a bus could do it faster. OnTrack ran on rails that zigged and zagged through the City, tracing a 4.5-mile squiggle from the University to the Mall. Trains took 20 minutes to make that trip. That’s no faster than what Centro’s buses already do running on 3.75 miles of city streets, and SMTC’s plan includes a few tricks that will make those buses go even faster.

Despite that simple fact, people still ask why Syracuse should settle for a fast bus when it could have a slow train instead. That mindset—trains or nothing—deprives bus service of its natural political allies, and it keeps Centro from making even incremental changes to improve the state of public transportation in Syracuse.

At the same time, OnTrack is a poor model if you’re trying to imagine what a truly transformational transit system would look like. It was a half-hearted budget-minded proposal that barely even tried to improve the lives of people who actually rely on public transportation.

Train tracks criss cross Syracuse and its suburbs. The rail lines left over from the City’s pre-car period still run through the walkable villages and neighborhoods where public transit works best, and they extend to major regional population centers like Oswego, Auburn, and Cortland. A true regional rail service could connect all those places, making it possible to get around the entire metropolitan area quickly and conveniently without ever having to step foot in a car.

Existing rail infrastructure

And that’s not the only way to liberate people from automotive dependency. Syracuse has ceded its streets entirely to cars. Take just a fraction of that space back, and the City could have a true rapid transit network with buses running in dedicated transitways through villages and neighborhoods, and in separated lanes on the highways that connect those population centers.

Despite these possibilities, too many ideas about what’s possible in this town start and end with OnTrack—a solitary, short, single-tracked rail line that served too few destinations too slowly and too infrequently. If Syracuse ever builds the political will to spend the money necessary to build a transformational public transportation system, we’ll need to think bigger than that.

OnTrack was a bold experiment. The City needed better public transportation, and instead of tinkering with bus routes Syracuse went big and built an El. As a passenger train service OnTrack failed, but as an experiment it succeeded in showing the City what wouldn’t work and in suggesting new possibilities that could work. That should be OnTrack’s legacy—a visionary investment in public transportation that points the way towards a better future Syracuse.

Buses Without Traffic

You’re riding the bus when a mother with her two kids rings the bell. The bus pulls over, they get off, and the operator waits for a few cars to pass before he can get back into the travel lane. During those few seconds the light turns yellow and then red. The bus rolls up to the light, and then you sit there, waiting for it to turn green, hoping to avoid a similar delay at the next intersection.

The problem is traffic. The cars running parallel to the bus keep it from pulling away from the curb, and the cars running on the cross street keep it stuck at the intersection. The only sure way for the bus to avoid that kind of delay is to get it out of traffic.

Bus lanes can fix half the problem. They clear a straight path down the street so that buses can pickup, transport, and drop off passengers in a single unobstructed line.

Transit signal priority deals with the other half of the traffic problem. Smart stop lights sense approaching buses, holding a green or shortening a red so that all those riders can get through the intersection quickly.

Bus lanes Downtown and signal priority at key intersections like Park and Harborside Drive would immediately relieve choke points where buses get slowed down now. Expanding those smart technologies throughout the City would improve service across the system, allowing for faster frequent service everywhere.

Eventually, Centro could build a true bus rapid transit line of crosstown bus-only streets with transit signal priority. Imagine riding Downtown on a street reserved for buses. There aren’t any cars, so the lanes are narrower, the sidewalks are wider, and the bus runs right at the curb. When someone has to get off, the bus only pauses long enough for them to step out before it continues down the block, and you never get stuck at a red light.

The Emerging Pro-Transit Coalition

In Syracuse, local politicians are doing all they can to expand economic opportunity. At the same time, politicians in the State government are working to eliminate New York’s carbon footprint by 2050. These two groups of politicians—along with the activists and organizations that support them—should partner to advocate for better public transportation in Syracuse. A high-quality regional-wide service would expand economic opportunity by making more jobs more accessible to more people, and it would fight climate change by taking cars off the road. Working together as a pro-transit coalition, groups interested in each of these outcomes would provide Centro with the political support it needs in order to make this kind of service a reality.

 

The Status Quo

As it stands, Centro has very little political support. Nobody at the City, County, State, or Federal level values bus service enough to shift money from highways to public transportation, so every year Centro has to go begging for the money just to keep its buses running. That gets enough people riled up that Albany will push a couple million dollars Centro’s way—just enough to fill the deficit—and then the exact same thing happens all over again the next year

Without the political power to fund service improvements, Centro has crafted its planning process to make them impossible. SMART1—the most recent proposal to improve public transportation in Syracuse—focused almost exclusively on service within the City. That’s because when Centro plans transit service, it uses demand models that look like this:

According to this model, enough people live and work in the blue areas to justify improved transit service. The light blue areas can justify rapid buses, the medium areas can justify light rail, and the dark blue areas can justify heavy rail.

But this demand model assumes that any new transit service has to justify its existence by first attracting a certain number of riders. That means that good service can only run where lots of people already ride the bus, ignoring the fact that people choose to ride the bus in those areas because Centro runs relatively good service there. It also means that the areas where people don’t use public transportation can’t get better service even though low ridership is caused, at least in part, by how bad the service is right now. By ignoring the effect that the quality of service has on ridership, Centro is able to justify its barely passable service, and it avoids politically impossible requests for more funding. The result is too little economic opportunity and too many cars on the road.

A coalition of economic opportunity and environmental advocates could turn that logic on its head. When you recognize transit as a necessary tool in the twin fights against poverty and climate change, low ridership is a challenge to overcome rather than a sign to give up. The emerging pro-transit coalition should respond to low ridership by improving service in order to make more jobs more accessible and to better compete with car travel. Those improvements would attract more ridership, getting more people to work and taking more cars off the road.

 

Transit for the Whole Region

It’s not easy to run attractive transit service in suburbs where people and jobs are spread thinly over a very large area, but in the book Transport for Suburbia, Paul Mees describes how Zurich’s network of city rail lines and suburban bus routes accomplishes the task by making connections between the trains and buses simple, convenient, and cheap. Easy connections integrate each line into the larger network. That allows public transportation to cover the entire metropolitan area, and it gives riders the same freedom that they’d have in a private car.

For Centro, that could start with a fast frequent regional rail system connecting Syracuse to Auburn, Fulton, Oswego, and Cortland. Much of the infrastructure already exists parallel to the slow infrequent coach buses that Centro already runs.

Regional rail lines connecting the cities and suburbs of the metropolitan area

Complemented by well-timed connecting bus lines—extending to Ithaca, say, or linking suburban communities and job centers along major roads like Route 31 and Taft Road—this service would open the entire region to travel without a car, increasing economic opportunity and reducing carbon emissions at the same time.

Political Support is Fundamental

This service—or something like it designed by actual transportation planners—won’t come cheap. It will cost money to acquire new rights of way, to buy new buses and trains, to hire enough operators to run them frequently, to time them precisely.

For Centro’s entire history, that kind of spending has been unthinkable. The money will have to come from the State or from the Federal Government, and that means that it will have to come at the expense of some other government program—highways, maybe. Good public transportation is a political choice, and it can’t come about unless people with power value it more than they value the other things that also require government funding.

That may finally have changed. Now that the environment and economic opportunity have moved up to the top of the agenda in Syracuse and in New York State, there may finally be a coalition broad enough and powerful enough to make public transportation a priority in this City. We can finally stop treating public transportation like a ‘program’ that’s only funded grudgingly, when all other options are exhausted and only at the bare minimum. Can we finally stop spending billions on highway expansion while ignoring million dollar plans for better bus service. We can finally take public transportation seriously as an opportunity to achieve New York’s loftiest goals.

More Buses or More Routes

In Syracuse, people ride the bus to get all over the City for all kinds of reasons. Centro needs to run a service that fits their needs by connecting the entire City. One way to do that would be to run more buses between different neighborhoods, even if that meant running new lines that avoid Downtown altogether. Another option, though, would be to just run more buses more frequently on the lines that already exist.

Right now, to get from the corner of South Ave and Bellevue to Syracuse University, you have to take a bus up into Downtown and then catch a University bus at the Hub. The whole trip covers 2.5 miles, and you spend about 13 minutes on the bus.

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A new crosstown line along Bellevue, MLK, and Euclid would make that trip much more direct. You’d only need one bus, that bus would only travel 1.9 miles, and it’d only take about 10 minutes. That’s 23% less time spent actually riding the bus—not too bad.

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The bulk of a Centro trip isn’t spent riding the bus, though. Just to ride the 15 minutes between any given neighborhood and Downtown, it’s common to have to wait 30 or 40 minutes at the stop. If that Bellevue-MLK-Euclid bus only ran once an hour, the true average trip time would be 40 minutes—10 minutes riding the bus and an average of 30 minutes spent waiting for it to show up in the first place. At that point, it’s just about as fast to cross that distance on foot.

So while it’s good to shave minutes off of the time that riders spend on the bus, the best way to make Centro more convenient is actually to shorten waiting times. That means more buses running on each line with shorter headways.

Centro and SMTC have proposed to do just that. In their SMART1 plan, they talked about crosstown buses running from Eastwood to OCC, and from SU to the RTC every 15 minutes all day. That kind of service is unheard of in Syracuse, and it would do a lot to connect different parts of the City together.

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SMART1 BRT Lines

Those short headways would reduce the average trip from South Ave to SU to 28 minutes—a 7.5 minute wait at Bellevue, a 4.5 minute ride to the Hub, a 7.5 minute wait for the connecting bus, and an 8.5 minute ride to SU. That’s 30% faster than the direct route on the less frequent Bellevue-MLK-Euclid bus would be, even with the extra distance and the need to transfer at the Hub.

Obviously, the best option would be for Centro to offer both. Then, someone waiting at South Ave and Bellevue could just catch whichever bus came first, no matter whether it was headed up South Ave or east on Bellevue.

These two options represent a tradeoff, though. Frequent service is only possible if Centro concentrates its resources on key lines. Every bus running on east on Bellevue is not running north on South Ave, and if Centro were to start running new lines without new money, then it wouldn’t be as able to run frequent service on its major lines. Too many new crosstown routes could, at that point, actually make it more difficult to get across town on a bus.

Syracuse needs better bus service. Syracuse needs bus service that connects different parts of the City, that makes it easier and convenient for people to get around town. There are different ways to do that, but one of the easiest would be to just run more buses more frequently along major lines.

Buses That Don’t Go Downtown

In Syracuse, most major streets lead Downtown. Salina, James, Burnet, Erie, Genesee, Fayette, Onondaga—all of them are good for getting into and out of the city center.

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Most other major streets at least point towards Downtown, even if they don’t reach it. Midland, South Ave, Wolf, Court, and Butternut all end in neighborhoods outside of Downtown, but they all join up with a roughly parallel street that does reach the city center.

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When so many major streets—the ones lined with businesses, the ones running through close-knit neighborhoods—lead Downtown, it makes a lot of sense to run bus lines on all of them and to make all those lines intersect at one spot Downtown at regular intervals. It’s it’s the simplest way to connect all of those different neighborhood main streets, and it’s exactly what Centro does.

But there are plenty of major streets in Syracuse that don’t point towards Downtown at all. Brighton, Geddes, Park, Grant, Oak, Teall, and Westcott are all good streets to run a bus on, but none of them has its own line. Grant Boulevard runs from Eastwood to the train station and Mall, passing through heavily populated parts of the Northside where many people do not own cars. The 80 and 52 buses each run along Grant for a couple of blocks, but it’s impossible to get from one end of that street to the other by bus because Centro won’t run a bus line that doesn’t get its riders to the Downtown Hub.

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The result bad for bus riders in two ways. Buses like the 80 and 52 try to do two contradictory things (go Downtown and serve Grant Boulevard), and they end up doing neither very well. If you’re taking one of these buses to Downtown, then those zigs and zags that it makes on parts of Grant (and also Park Street) are a waste of your time.

The 52 and 80 buses zig and zag across the Northside

At the same time, riders can’t actually use these buses to get along a street like Grant. This makes it really inconvenient to get between two points on one side of town—between Eastwood and Westcott, say, or between Grant Village and the Mall—because you have to go all the way Downtown to make the transfer.

Centro could fix both problems with new bus lines that follow these streets without ever trying to get downtown. Taking Centro’s existing jogs and deviations as a starting point, here are some potential crosstown lines that never go Downtown.

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These bus lines (or ones like them) would make it much easier to get around town. That’s obviously true if you’re traveling along one of these lines (from Skunk City to the Mall, say), but it’s also true for people transferring between two lines. Imagine trying to get from the corner of Colvin and Salina to OCC. Currently, you’d have to ride more than a mile north (away from where you’re going) to connect with the South Ave bus that will take you to OCC. The full trip is 5.5 miles. If there were a bus running East-West on Brighton, though, you could walk ⅓ mile to catch it, ride west to South Ave, connect to the OCC bus there, and reach campus in less than 3.5 miles.

At the same time, these lines would make the Centro’s existing lines more useful by allowing them to run in straight lines. Some James Street buses take an extra 12 minutes to get Downtown because they detour along Teall. A bus running along Teall from Lyncourt to Westcott would eliminate the need for that detour and make Centro’s James Street service faster, more efficient, and more useful to people actually trying to get Downtown.

Right now, Centro is trying to “fill in service gaps” with some money that it just got from New York State. The most egregious gaps in Syracuse’s bus service are temporal—even the busiest lines have service gaps that last more than an hour during the middle of the day—and Centro needs to fill them first.

The next gaps that need filling are the ones on Brighton, Teall, Westcott, Geddes, Grant, Bellevue. Crosstown bus lines on those streets would make it easier, faster, and simpler to get around Syracuse by bus. Combined with the SMTC’s planned BRT service, these new lines would make it easy to live in Syracuse without a car.

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Centro and I81

At the March 22 hearing on public transportation in Syracuse, State officials asked Centro CEO Rick Lee why more people don’t ride the bus. Lee responded that Syracuse is a 20-minute city—overbuilt car-infrastructure and a spread-out population mean that there’s very little traffic, so people who can afford to own a car choose to drive. Magnarelli immediately interjected with “I hope it stays that way.” Rick Lee laughed kind of nervously and muttered ‘no comment.’

This exchange laid bare the absurdity of Centro’s public stance on I81. Centro has refused to take a position on the biggest transportation project that its service area has seen in 50 years, pretending that no matter what happens, Syracuse’s bus service will chug right along. That’s a nice thought, but it’s stupid. The viaduct is an impediment to bus service now, and replacing it with the Grid will make Centro more useful to more people.

Currently, the 30, 58, 62, 68, 76, and Connective Corridor buses all run in the area around the 81/690 interchange. That’s 40 acres of barren land where very few people (often no people at all) get on or off the bus.

 

Running a bus through the I81 dead zone is a lot like running a bus along an unpopulated stretch of rural road—it adds expense without making the bus more useful to anybody. Centro can’t avoid the I81 dead zone—like it could shorten a rural route—since people need to cross it to get between Downtown and the Eastside.

So the dead zone needs to disappear. That means making it into a place where people live and work—where people will get on and off of all those buses that already run on its streets.

The Grid is Syracuse’s best chance to get rid of the I81 dead zone. The Gifford Foundation envisions new housing, businesses, and institutions in that area, and the Allyn Foundation is working with City Hall on a project that could bring all of those things into that space. ReZone will help by allowing more homes and businesses on those blocks, but it needs to go further by eliminating parking requirements there (and, really, across the entire City).

All of that new building will allow more people to live and work in a part of the City that already has pretty good bus service (and could get even better service), so the bus will be a good option for more people in Onondaga County to get around. That’s how Centro can benefit from the I81 project, and that’s why Centro needs the Grid.

Ending the Spatial Mismatch in Syracuse

Syracuse needs better bus service that empowers all kinds of people to meet all their different daily needs. One of those daily needs is getting to work. In a recent hearing on the effectiveness of public transportation in Syracuse, Assemblymember Pam Hunter addressed that directly when she asked about how Centro could overcome the spatial mismatch—the fact that a lot of jobs are located in the suburbs, but her constituents in the City can’t get to them.

That’s usually how people talk about the spatial mismatch: Jobs are in the suburbs and people who need jobs are in the City, so the solution is to get those people transportation to the suburbs. But running more buses out to the suburbs is no solution because that will just take buses away from existing routes in the City—routes that serve more people more efficiently than a line in the suburbs could.

A better solution is to eliminate the spatial mismatch by encouraging employers to locate where people already live and where the buses already run.

Consider this exchange between Kevin Schwab of CenterState CEO and Senator Rachel May. Schwab told a story about how a business located on Taft Road is difficult to reach by bus and how one of its bus-riding employees has to walk two miles from the bus stop to get to work. Schwab used this anecdote as evidence that Centro should run a bus line along Taft Road. Senator May agreed that it’s difficult for bus riders to get to work in the suburbs, but she also suggested that this company, if it wanted to be able to hire people who don’t own a car, should have set up shop closer to a bus stop. Schwab responded that employers have a hard time finding suitable sites near existing bus lines.

Suitable means cheap. Centro’s best service is in the County’s urbanized center, but the land in the center costs more money, is divvied up into smaller parcels, and is more often polluted than land on the County’s edges.

For a lot of employers, these costs are just too high a price to pay for the benefit of being able to hire bus riders. 70 years of subsidies for private cars and disinvestment in public transportation has marginalized bus riders to the point that they’re too small a portion of the labor market to sway employers’ behavior. Car drivers, on the other hand, have no problem getting employers to take on the enormous costs required to provide free parking.

It’s a question of power. Car drivers have more power over where employers choose to locate than do bus riders. The result is the systematic exclusion of bus riders from employment opportunity. In this City, that’s systematic racial and economic exclusion, it causes poverty and segregation, it hurts the entire region’s economy, and it needs to end. 

In the short term, City Hall and Onondaga County can do their part by supplementing bus riders’ power with incentives for employers to locate on bus lines and/or within walking distance of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. There is plenty of empty land on the Lakefront, at the Inner Harbor, Downtown and along Erie Boulevard where Centro runs good service (and plans to run even better service), and many of these sites are already under SIDA or OCIDA control. Steering economic development to these sites should be a part of County Executive Ryan McMahon’s PIE agenda (poverty, infrastructure, economic development).

In the long term, bus riders will need structural changes to the region’s transportation system in order to gain power in the labor market. Centro needs new investment to provide all-day frequent service that covers enough of the City that many different people can meet all their daily needs. That will make life without a car more feasible for more people, grow Centro’s ridership, empower bus riders in the labor market, and force employers to respond to that newly empowered constituency’s needs. That means building out the two BRT lines that SMTC planned in its SMART1 study, and it means expanding on that study to develop the full BRT network described in the STSA.

There are too many people in Syracuse who can’t get work because the jobs that are available are out in the suburbs and out of reach for people who ride the bus. This travesty is called the Spatial Mismatch, and it’s a problem of power—bus riders don’t have the power to force employers to respond to their needs by locating in places accessible by bus. The solution is to build bus riders’ power. In the short term, this means using economic development to incentivize development on existing bus lines. In the long term, this means investing in Centro so that more people ride the bus as part of their daily lives, increasing bus riders power over employers’ decisions about where to locate.

What Are Buses For?

During a March 22 hearing on public transportation in Syracuse, local legislators asked over and over again why Centro isn’t doing more to get people to work. Assemblymember Pam Hunter asked how more frequent service would help her constituents if it didn’t give them access to jobs in the suburbs, State Senator Rachel May asked why Centro doesn’t use smaller vehicles to provide tailored service for specific employers, and Assemblymember Bill Magnarelli went so far as to suggest that employers should pay Centro directly to get better service for their employees. Through the entire hearing, these legislators assumed that the point of public transportation is to get workers to their jobs—an assumption that Rick Lee, Centro’s CEO, affirmed when he described public transportation as a series of routes that get people to and from work.

That’s an understandable assumption and an understandable focus. The issue at top of so many people’s minds is getting and keeping a job, and a lot of people need Centro in order to do that. One third of people living in Syracuse do not own a car, and two out of every three people who responded to SMTC’s 2018 survey ride the bus to get to work.

But that’s not all the bus is for. That same survey showed that one of every two people ride the bus to go shopping, one of every two use it to keep appointments, one of every four ride Centro to get to school, and one of every four ride the bus for ‘recreation.’

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People in Syracuse who commute by bus choose to do so because, for them, it is the best option—in many cases, the only real option—for traveling any kind of distance in the City. People who ride the bus to work also ride the bus to get around the City to do the various things they do every day, and Centro needs to meet all those needs.

That survey also showed that one third of people who ride the bus but do not use it to get to work at all. These might be people who walk, bike, or carpool to work. It might be people who are retired or who are too young to have a job. It might be people who work from home or who do necessary work in the home even if nobody pays them for it. It doesn’t matter why they’re not commuting by bus, what matters is that the bus is still an important part of their daily lives, those lives have value, and Centro needs to meet their needs too.

It’s never a bad thing to ask about how any government service can fight poverty in Syracuse. People in the City need paying jobs, and they need to be able to get to those jobs. But that narrow focus on commuting misses the full and necessary role that Centro plays in so many people’s daily lives.

Buses need to run where people will ride them—sometimes for work, but also for school, for groceries, for appointments, for church, or whatever else it is that some person needs to get done in their day. When Centro provides reliable frequent service to those neighborhoods, then businesses and people seriously concerned about bus access will choose to locate in them. Buses-for-commuting will be the same as buses-for-shopping and buses-for-visiting-family, because the bus will be a viable means to living daily life. After all, that’s what buses are for.

Bus Rapid Transit for the Eastside

ReZone—City Hall’s complete rewrite of its zoning ordinance—assumes that Centro will run some kind of Bus Rapid Transit service in the future. The current draft ordinance includes special zoning around public “transportation terminals,” and the project’s guiding document refers to a “TOD overlay” within .25 miles of BRT stations. SMTC and Centro have planned two potential BRT lines already—and ReZone needs to account for those plans—but Centro needs to get a move on and finish planning the rest of its BRT network before City Hall adopts ReZone as law. Otherwise, Syracuse runs the risk that its new high quality bus service serves neighborhoods where restrictive zoning will limit its success.

The 2014 Syracuse Transit System Analysis identified four other potential BRT corridors, and Mayor Walsh’s transition team identified half of one of those (Downtown to Dewitt) as a priority for his administration.

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BRT service running on Erie Boulevard out to Shoppingtown Mall would pass within walking distance of all the new housing along Genesee Street on the Near Eastside, it would run through other older Eastside neighborhoods, and it would connect those residential areas to major employment centers Downtown and along Erie Boulevard.

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This map shows the potential BRT route in red, and it shows Jobs and Persons Per Square Mile—a measure that indicates how many people might use public transportation in an area—in shades of blue. Areas that are not shaded do not have enough people and jobs to support BRT service.

Lots of people already ride the existing 168 bus along Erie Boulevard, so that’s a good route to upgrade with shorter headways and faster runtimes. The Mayor’s transition team probably also chose to single out that route because a new BRT service could run in fully separated bus lanes in Erie Boulevard’s wide median.

But there are problems running BRT service on Erie Boulevard. There is no housing on any of the enormous parcels that line the street from Beech Street all the way out to DeWitt. All that land is zoned for commercial use only—no housing is allowed. Erie Boulevard runs down the middle of a deep valley, so anybody living in the housing that is nearby has to walk up a steep hill just to get home from the bus stop. Shoppingtown Mall—the line’s eastern anchor—is dying, and there are no concrete plans to turn it around. It might not even be possible to put bus lanes in the Erie Boulevard Median because of the State’s plans to use that space for the Canalway Trail.

Given all that, the City’s Eastside might be better off if that BRT service ran on Fayette Street instead. That would bring better bus service to neighborhoods where a lot of people don’t own cars. It would also connect LeMoyne College to the rest of Centro’s BRT network. Ending the line at LeMoyne instead of at Shoppingtown would also shorten the route by 35%, allowing Centro to run more buses more frequently for less money.

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Centro could also split the difference between these two options by running the line along Fayette to LeMoyne and then continuing it out to DeWitt along Erie Boulevard, say, or by turning onto Erie at Seeley or Columbus Avenue (like the existing 168 bus does). Those are decisions for actual transportation planners to make in consultation with Centro, the City, and the public, but let’s get them made.

Choose where the bus will go and where it will stop. Then, the ReZone team can make the changes it needs to—like lifting the ban on housing along Erie, or allowing more mixed-use development in Salt Springs—if that BRT service is going to succeed. The clock on ReZone is ticking, and Syracuse needs better bus service now.