Story by Eddie Velazquez and Sarah Dolgin
While Centro riders generally find public transportation affordable, safe and convenient, many said the service has one glaring issue: infrequent bus schedules create slack time in their day.
Twenty-two riders, nearly half of those interviewed, raised concerns about long wait times between rides or gaps in service.
The findings come from a weeklong project by Central Current. Reporters spent about 40 hours interviewing and surveying more than 50 bus riders about the service. Improving public transportation has become a focus for elected officials who want to make Micron’s planned $100 billion investment in Central New York a boon for everyone.
Centro has even announced bus rapid transit — a more frequent service — will likely arrive in 2025 or 2026.
But until then, residents who currently rely on transportation and advocates say Central New Yorkers need buses to circulate with more frequency.
Gaps in Service
Ramfis Medina, a Liverpool resident who commutes to his job near the village of Solvay every Friday, said he finds Centro convenient but would like more frequent service near his home. The Sy-46 Liverpool/Route 57 bus he takes to the transit hub on South Salina Street before boarding the Sy-74 route to Solvay stops near him once every hour, Medina said.
“It would be great if they stopped by at least once every half hour,” he said.
Medina said he would also love to see more buses running after the evening rush.
“You can’t find any more routes at night. The last route back to my house from Solvay stops at 6 p.m.,” he said. “I would love to see at least one more bus coming after that.”
Infrequent bus runs, delays, and tardiness, can sometimes lead to long waits for commuters.
Several riders Central Current spoke to attested to the wasted time the waits can build into their days. Anne Childress, who works at Onondaga County Community College, sometimes has to wait an extra 90 minutes at Centro’s downtown hub on her way home from work. Wendy Cilbrith, a teaching assistant at OCM Boces, said she ends up waiting for buses up to two and a half hours each day.
Local public transit advocates said the number of survey respondents who find the bus convenient but still end up enduring long waits due to infrequent runs sends a clear message to Centro.
“It should signal that people do want to use the service and they like it for the most part,” said Maurice Brown, a member of the progressive organization Uplift Syracuse. “It’s just not available to the degree that it should be.”
Alex Lawson, who co-authored Uplift’s plan to improve public transportation in Central New York, said some concerns about frequency of service will be alleviated by Centro’s bus rapid transit plan expected to be implemented by 2026.
The planned BRT service would have two lines with buses stopping every 10 to 15 minutes. One would go from Onondaga Community College to Eastwood along the South Avenue corridor. The other would go from Syracuse University to the North Side.
Lawson said he understands implementing BRT lines all around Syracuse would be financially difficult now, but noted he hopes Centro is looking to implement similar frequency schedules on high-use bus lines.
“That would be big,” he said. “You need the type of frequency where people can walk to a bus stop and say ‘I didn’t check the schedule before leaving my house, but I know a bus is coming soon.’”
Affordability and payment options
Nearly all riders surveyed by Central Current said Centro is affordable. Some riders referenced Centro’s recent decision to reduce the fare to a dollar for each ride as a reason why they use the bus.
Dean Brutcher, who rides the bus occasionally when visiting downtown, said he prefers riding Centro over driving .
“With a car I would pay for gas and the monthly insurance costs,” he said.
Affordability is one of the service’s main draws for current and prospective riders, Lawson said. He noted there needs to be almost no barriers of entry for prospective riders who may be on the fence about relying on public transportation.
“For a lot of people, another barrier to ride the service is a mental block of not knowing how it works and the fear of a situation where you’ve messed up and now you’re stuck,” he said. “The switch to a $1 fare is very helpful with that.”
Lawson, however, said Centro needs to diversify how it allows riders to pay its fare. Centro only allows cash payments. Machines that accept bills can break and paying in cash can slow down the bus, Lawson said.
He believes allowing mobile payments — through Apple Pay and Google Pay, for example — would reduce a barrier to ridership.
“It makes the service less intimidating,” he said.
A vast majority of Centro riders surveyed by Central Current said they feel safe on the bus.
Several of those who said they feel safe on the bus noted they believe other people do not ride the bus because of safety concerns. Few riders said in surveys and interviews that they felt directly threatened on the bus.
The majority of riders who said they felt unsafe on the bus were high school students. They pointed toward fights between peers as an issue.
One student on her way to school believed that some of her peers are not allowed to use the city bus system because their parents do not think the bus is safe.
Centro rider Caitlyn Wesolowski said that she feels unsafe when other riders who appear to be in crisis approach bus riders in ways that she feels are intimidating. Wesolowski felt safer when the bus driver was receiving training because it increased the Centro staff on the bus.
Lawson said Centro has a difficult task at hand. The service has to work for older people who are looking for a relaxing ride on the bus, as well as energetic high school students getting to school, he noted.
“It’s a balancing act that is really hard and exemplifies the hardships of making public spaces truly public,” he said. “They are tasked with making sure this is a space that feels open and welcoming to everyone.”
Three riders suggested an increase in Centro staff on buses to make them feel safer, and one recommended the presence of ambulances at the hub for people in need of medical attention.
For Lawson and Brown, increasing security staff on rides would be impractical. Brown called having security staff or police officers riding the bus “a drastic overcorrection.” Instead, he called for more education on behaviors that could make public spaces safer.
“It might entail talking to people and letting them know they are part of a community. That may mean more visible signs about maintaining reasonable volume,” he said. “There are ways you can curtail that kind of behavior, but at the same time, you are going to get some of that when you are in public.”
Editor’s note: An interview with Ramfis Medina was translated from Spanish. The quotes have been edited for clarity.
Read more transportation coverage
Read more from Central Current’s weeklong series on transportation.
Centro bus drivers like Albert Anderson are trying to make sure riders get where they need to go.
Public transportation has gotten added attention since Micron announced it planned to invest $100 million in Onondaga County.
Anne Childress, a grants coordinator at OCC, said delays and misaligned routes also create issues for her.