It is a well known fact that American public transportation is woefully poor, even in comparison to far-poorer nations. 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. 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. 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, 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. 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 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
 Which I can attest to from my travels to Turkey and southern Europe.
 Syracuse gets a bit more snow.
 To put a little national perspective on this, Las Vegas does not even have a train station.
 Though our superhighways blow theirs out of the water. Does that make us happier?
 Two new stations are slated to open in December.
 OnTrack opened in 1994, the year before Bilbao’s Metro opened.