Syracuse and Bilbao, a comparison of public transport

It is a well known fact that American public transportation is woefully poor, even in comparison to far-poorer nations.[1] Especially when the transportation systems of Europe are mentioned, Americans often simply throw up their hands and give up. We seem to believe that there is something categorically different between America and ‘Europe’ that prevents us from ever developing systems that even come close to theirs.

Yet, this surrender is simply that and by throwing up our hands we continue to perpetuate a system that is agreed to be economically inefficient,
socially isolating and environmentally disastrous. In fact, when we say ‘Europe’ we are in fact often lumping together an incredible variety of societies, from the Finns to the Turks to the Portuguese, each of which had to approach the problem of mass transportation from a unique standpoint and find its own solutions. It was never inevitable that the European continent would enjoy well-developed public transport and the American continent would revel in its automobiles and it is not inevitable that it will continue to be so.

So, for the purposes of education, discussion and perhaps change, I am going to compare two relatively similar metropolitan areas, one American and one European, and their choices in public transportation. The cities of Syracuse, NY and Bilbao in the Basque Country of northern Spain are similar in many ways. Gran Bilbao had a 2004 population of 946,829 and Greater Syracuse had 732,117 in 2005 (77% of Bilbao). Both are declining industrial centers with similar four-season temperate climates.
[2] However, in the area of public transportation the gulf between them yawns.

Most public transportation in Greater Syracuse is provided by the Central New York Regional Transportation Authority (CENTRO) which has
43 bus lines in Onondaga County with a base fare of $1. The city also has a commuter rail line, Ontrack, which has four stops; Syracuse is the smallest city in America with light commuter rail. Amtrack serves the city with three trains: the Empire Service, the Lake Shore Limited and the Maple Leaf Line.[3] Both Greyhound and Trailways has long distance bus service from the Regional Transport Center (this is also the train station for Amtrack and, someday, Ontrack).

The pride of Bilbao’s public transportation service is its subway system, it is the smallest city in Spain to have one.
Metro Bilbao opened in 1995 with 23 stations. Today it has two lines and 34 stations. The unique aesthetic design of the system has won several national and international awards. According to Wikipedia:

“Metro Bilbao is used by more than 77 million people every year. Since it serves about 630,000, each citizen travels about 120 times a year. That is one of the highest rates of usage in Europe.”

Supplementing the Metro are the national cercanías, or commuter trains, of which there are three lines and a total of 41 stations, and one light rail line. The Basque rail company EuskoTren has three further lines and also operates EuskoTran, a tramway with one line. The train and metro system is further interconnected by 30 city bus lines (five of which are “microbuses” that go into the old city where large buses cannot fit) and over 100 provincial bus lines.

Quite frankly, it’s an almost embarrassing comparison,
[4] but one that can be rectified with time. The situation of Bilbao is relatively new, the tramway dates all the way back to 2002 and the Metro was inaugurated in 1995 and grown considerably since then[5]. The great difference, as I see it, is that the government of Gran Bilbao has decided that all of its people will be able to enjoy all of modern life without needing a car. From the little buses that serve the outlying areas to soaring atrium of the Sarriko metro station, the system is fully interlocked, attractive, affordable and efficient (having ridden it myself).

So what can we do here in Syracuse, or in any other Upstate City for that matter? Some might argue that a change in attitude is necessary before we can develop the will to create more infrastructure. Yet our car-aholic attitudes will not alter without good examples and at least a basic infrastructure to rely upon. In Syracuse, the beginnings are already in place with the creation of Ontrack.

However, Ontrack languishes. Reports I’ve read say that there are only 60 passengers per day! Part of the problem is the fact that the final destinations of the line-- the Regional Market, the Sky Chief’s Stadium and the Amtrack Station- cannot be accessed since they are on the far side of an unfinished bridge. It is shameful that in the past 12 years
[6] the Basques of Bilbao have built a tram service, 34 train stations and one of Europe's most popular metro systems and we cannot finish a bridge. The money has even been earmarked for the project since 2004 and all of the other stations are complete.

With the completion of the full line, OnTrack is going to have to work on it’s PR. For one, their website,
www.syracuseontrack.com, is difficult to read and looks like it was made up as a Geocities site. Better advertisement on campus and in the neighborhoods and improved signage in those areas might also increase usage. However, eventually, OnTrack is going to need to expand the number of stops it operates. These days all but one of the stops are “destinations” like Armory Square and the Carousel Mall, not residential areas. The train does travel through residential areas, however, and stops would be relatively easy to add.

Beyond this, the inspiration of places like Bilbao can continue to inspire us to create more human-centric, not car-centric landscapes. We must continue to think creatively and be willing to take risks. As the cost of gas continues to rise in the coming years, those cities that are able to continue to move people around without cars will be those who succeed and those who don't will find the cost of doing business driving them out. The last thing our Upstate cities need is another strike against them.

-Posted by Jesse

[1] Which I can attest to from my travels to Turkey and southern Europe.
[2] Syracuse gets a bit more snow.
[3] To put a little national perspective on this, Las Vegas does not even have a train station.
[4] Though our superhighways blow theirs out of the water. Does that make us happier?
[5] Two new stations are slated to open in December.
[6] OnTrack opened in 1994, the year before Bilbao’s Metro opened.


NYCO said...

This is an interesting comparison, but Syracuse actually has a pretty decent public transportation system compared to the vast majority of >American< cities of its size. (I am kind of partial to Centro, as they have been kind enough for the past 30 years to maintain a very lightly ridden line that goes into my off-the-beaten-path suburban neighborhood.) At least Syracuse has a tradition of public transportation that is still staying alive and viable in tough economic times. You certainly cannot say that about newly busting metro areas in the South.

But as you point out, there could be improvements. As for Ontrack, they could start by improving the trains themselves, which are beyond tired and old and dirty-looking, inside and out. You could extend them to more stops, but the suburbanites who ought to be riding them, will simply turn up their noses at the current condition of the train. Also, how do you make the trains operate "cleaner" - which is something Centro has worked toward for many years by adopting natural gas buses?

Jesse said...

NYCO, I have to agree that Syracuse's public transportation is head and shoulders above many in America, my home town, Binghamton, and the city of Las Vegas don't have AMTRACK, much less a local train. The bus service and shuttles appear to be efficient (I walk most places). However, there are (as you point out) stigmas against public transportation and it certainly not considered a viable option for most people. Yet, if we point to the automobile as the source of much of the blight in modern America, we must go beyond making public transport a viable option and make it the preferrable option.

Beyond the basics of improving Ontrack with a new bridge, improved service, better PR and more stops, work must be done to discourage cars. Steps the community could take include: increasing the cost of parking in the City (rising meter price, taxing private parking spaces) and decreasing the amount of parking (giving incentives--perhaps with money raised by parking taxes- for asphalt to be converted into green spaces-- gives rise to a hundred mini-parks, community gardens, tot-lots, etc).

Light rail is difficult to create whole-cloth (you often have to use eminent domain), but trams/trolleys/streetcars on pre-existing roadways are easier to construct. Trams can be electric and very "green," check out this scenario on returning the trolley to Ithaca and this article on the EuskoTran, which runs on a grass track.

Trams or light rail would travel out to the periphery, where commuters would find easy parking to travel into the city. CENTRO would continue to operate, meshing the tram/light rail network together and servicing the outlying areas. Eventually, light rail could be extended to Auburn, Oswego, Skaneateles, etc.

Local people could encourage a car-free economy by patronizing bike cargo haulers and creating co-operative car sharing networks like those that already exist in many cities.

Initiatives to improve the walking/biking/blading in the city should be explored (such as the Connective Corridor, though perhaps not that high-handed and elite).

Check out this group working for a CarFree City.

If we ever met, Billy Fuccillo would hate me.

Jesse said...

I'm on a roll today. Let's not forget the success of pedestrian streets like the Ithaca Commons and Church Street in Burlington.

Strikeslip said...

There are a LOT of people who commute daily from Utica to Syracuse and Rome to Syracuse. Check out the traffic at the Westmoreland interchange of the Twy. Centro now serves Utica and Rome. It should study a rail connection. Its exactly an hour for me to drive from my home in Greater Utica to work in downtown Syracuse. If i knew I could make the trip from my house via public transport in <1.5 hrs, and if i knew the costs were comparable, I would consider using public transport.

wyld tofurkey deseo! said...

I really liked the article, for I think that the issue of public transportation is of the utmost importance. Creating a discourse for a little debate is always something along a postive path.

I lived in Oswego for a number of years and recently a student group using student funds from SUNY Oswego started a community bicycle project. It orginally started before the fall semester of 2002, yet stopped during the fall of 2002 to only later be resurrected during the fall of 2005.

In the spring of 2006, I think there were over 80 or so community bikes or "Campus Cruisers" that according to policy could only be used on the campus of SUNY Oswego (or so they said). At the end of the semester, out of those original 80 or so bikes, I would have to say that only a few were actually still in a rideable condition.

Of course these bikes were abused, unfortunatly when something does not belong to someone or incurr them financial expenditures, it seems all to often folks often don't care or respect the object in question, especially college students.

I'm sure there are many other reasons, but honestly folks, these bikes were messed up beyond belief. I couldn't believe some of the stuff that happened to the bikes, it was incredible. Somethings that as an avid biker, I could never imagine happening under normal circumstances.

Community bikes project? Better watch out for all those folks with no respect for community.

I also understand that SUNY Geneseo, recently had a community bike project, with the almost the same results or the bikes being stolen or either damaged beyond belief.

And I leave you with a local Auburn, NY band - Manowar with "Return of the Warlord" (video from You Tube)

Get on Your Bike and Ride!

Jesse said...

For some observers, your story WTD about the destruction of the bikes in Oswego would be used to justify the inevitable "Tragedy of the Commons" where commonly available resources are wantonly destroyed for individual greed.

It's unfortunate lesson to be learned that when a small number of people with no long-term practical or emotional need for a resource abuse it. The students abuse the bikes because they saw themselves as having no material or emotional stake in their being there (they didn't pay for them or organize the plan), and because they will leave the town in four (or fewer) years and have little impetus to see its long-term improvement. Not everyone acts in this way, but enough do.

Yet, this doesn't mean that the only answer is to privatize everything and to have no Commons. How do we "fix" this dillemma? Commons systems work in many situations around the world (I know quite a bit about long term communal ejido lands in Mexico, communal forests in Nepal, village pearl-beds in Samoa and town forests and farms in New England), but there are several key factors: 1) the systems are not open to everyone but instead only to members of the organizing community, 2) people recognize that their own long-term sustainability relies upon the maintenance of the Commons, 3) the Commons were organized and funded by or at the direct behest of the Community OR that new members have to imput their resources into becoming a member and 4) that the Community organizes resources for the protection and maintence of the Commons.

So how would this work in the bike situation you describe WTD? I believe that while we are talking about a good idea here, bikes for everyone's use for free, that some changes would be needed for the program's improvement. First off, to simply have bikes sitting around is to invite vandalism-- some people seem to simply not be able to avoid destroying things- bikes perhaps would only be open to members of a cooperative organization. How would this be done?

Perhaps they're held in locked cages scattered around the community (members have the key/combination), or locked with chains with a single master key/combination. A co-op member, before joining would have to make a monetary investment (perhaps enough to cover their key and a yearly maintenence charge hopefully a very small one), an investment in time (it wouldn't be unreasonable to require members to take a short bike safety and repair course) and for members to either volunteer a certain amount of time fixing bikes or maintaining paperwork (those who don't might be able to pay a fee instead).

The organization members would have a vested interest in protecting the commons and would have a framework for doing so. The organization would also help to promote bike culture in the area and to promote the expansion of the co-op (if the members so desire). It would also be a clearing house for information and experience from one biker to another. The organization would still be as democratic and egalitarian as simply having bikes on the side of the road as anyone could join and requirements are not prohibitive for any particular group of people.

Well, that's my thoughts on the Commons.

feral bike desire! said...


Thanks for the reply, I've been thinking it about it a while, I'll try and sum up my response. I really appreciated the reference to the Tradegy of the Commons, and while I didn't mean for my rant to become a weapon of those against communal projects, I was trying to point out somethings that can go wrong and need to be worked on within communal projects.

First, I must say, you are right, it only takes a few people to destory and entire fleet of community bikes, although, perhaps this was not the case referenced in Oswego. It is really difficult to know the exacts of how every bike is destoryed and I'm positive they were not all damaged on purpose, but some of them on accident.

However, I will go on to say that it seemed like the majority of the damaged bikes were either done out of plain stupidity, drunkeness, trying to be funny, something else, or what I would call an overall lack of care for the bikes and the community in general.

It is sad, to know that there are those out there who would purposely damage these bikes in an attempt at something, whatever that may be. It seems in the end the only things that are physically hurt are the bikes and those abusing the bikes. I think the impact upon the community is more phychological.

Bikes rock, if it were up to me, I'd never want to leave my bike locked. Yet at the same time, I've had my personal bike stolen before, along with the personal bikes of numerous friends, which has lead us to being more careful about how we leave our bikes. One thing for sure is that Oswego, NY is vicious when it comes to bikes and I'm willing to bet a lot of people would get their bike stolen in any Upstate town. It is a reflection on our culture and how we are living. I think here is the inherant problem.

Capitalism, always a problem. Bikes, always a solution.

I wouldn't want to lock up the community bikes, but rather I would want any stranger to be able to jump on that community bike and ride, as an alternative to cars, buses, walking, running, ect; at least in this certain case of SUNY Oswego.

So, the answer to what to do about this destruction, while still keeping it open to the public is... I don't exactly know. We should look for examples from herstory, after all communal bikes are no new idea, and for some strange reason, I'm sure that, unfortunatly, some idiot destorying a bike happens all over.

I might suggest an intensive subversive advertising campaign, after all it has seemed to work with the everyday masses, let us turn it towards bikes.

Other than that, I would also suggest forming/supporting a critical mass ride, putting on a skill share of how to fix bikes, creating a free bike repair shop, riding your bike all over the place, or just plain old supporting bike culture in general.

get on your bikes ride!
-feral bike desire

Marie said...

I'd love to see more public transportation and walk/bikeability issues addressed. Coming here from NYC, I chose to live in a Village because I can access stores, the library, and the pharmacy, as well as a Centro route, on foot.

When I do drive downtown to work, I park on the outskirts (for free) and walk to the office. It takes all of 8-10 minutes, and de-stresses me before I try to merge onto the highway. I'd rather spend that time walking than waiting in a line to exit a parking garage.

My complaint with Centro, which I have relayed to them, is that although buses run every 30 minutes or so in the 3-5 time period, there is an hour long break between the bus leaving just after 5 and the next one, which is the final one of the night! I'd like to have the flexibility to work 20 minutes late, shop, have dinner, etc., without needing the car. Certainly there have to be some people who would also like that. Not to mention, there are probably some people frequenting the pubs later in the evenings who SHOULD be taking the bus home.

This is a town that likes to finish work early (a situation further evidenced by the great percentage of day care centers in the suburbs closing at 4:30 and 5:00), and those of us who want to stay downtown longer need alternatives to private vehicles to get home. Maybe the new "hub," if and when it's opened, will provide more late night service.

Maybe rail transit could start with areas without convenient highway routes downtown...Manlius, Jamesville, Skan, and the North side of Oneida Lake come to mind. The relatively higher incomes of those areas might convince people that this is an "exclusive" club and encourage ridership.

John said...

Great piece, but some additional facts to consider. Bilboa has almost quadruple the population density of Syracuse (check Wikipedia, Syracuse: 2266.8/km², Bilbao 8,615/km²). And going by the figures you've given and from Wikipedia, 1/3 of all residents of Bilbao live in the city, where as in Syracuse it's 1/5. Really, Bilbao is closer in size to Buffalo (Buffalo has 300,000 living in the city and 930,000 in Erie County).

Living in DC, I'm always 100% for any subway but a Syracuse subway would be impractical. I've read that the DC subway costs $100 million per quarter mile (http://www.dcist.com/archives/2006/01/24/transit_on_tues_9.php)! In order to extend a subway to residential areas so employees can ride it from home to work would cost billions! Even if they went cheap and had a light rail train around the city and into the burbs, do you think residents want a train running in their backyard? And with all the sprawl, ridership would be fairly low since people will have to drive to the metro stop, pay for parking, and then pay again to get on. How is that convenient? People do this in DC, but it may save them an hour or so worth of traffic and paying city parking rates so there's value to it.

Just my $0.02.