Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Guest post: the source of the Long Island Bus crisis

Here is another guest post by regular reader George K.

For those of you that don't know, Nassau County officials have been neglecting to pay the MTA for providing the service run by Long Island Bus. As a result, the system has been in danger of either facing steep reductions by the MTA or facing privatization.

The situation has recently been resolved in the following way: The State Legislature has given the MTA $8.6 million on behalf of Nassau County to continue operating the bus service at the current levels. However, after January 2012, the system would be turned over to a private company to operate with a subsidy.

A small portion of the blame for the high cost of these routes is poor practices on the MTA's behalf. There are instances where buses deadhead very long distances when they could be making a revenue trip for a portion of that run, and there are several route restructurings that could be considered. For instance, combining the N24 and N51, would give riders along Merrick Avenue access to the Mineola LIRR station. Although this probably wouldn't generate enough ridership to save the N51, it would make it more cost-efficient in the interim.

Although part of the blame for these reductions lies on Nassau County executives for shortchanging the MTA, part of the blame lies in the fact that many of the people in Nassau County have an anti-transit attitude, similar to the attitude that can be found in many other parts in the country.

For instance the N22 and N73/N74 could've gotten more ridership if they were extended from the Hicksville LIRR station to the Broadway Mall, which is a short 1/2 mile trip. Since the routes end at the Hicksville LIRR station, riders must either walk or transfer to the N20, N48, N49, N50, N80, or N81 routes. Although it may appear at first that there are a lot of routes to transfer to, those routes run at a low frequency. At the height of rush hour those routes run roughly 8 buses per hour, which results in a frequency of approximately 8 minutes (though buses tend to be scheduled in pulses, to meet with LIRR trains). Off-peak frequency can range from 2-6 buses per hour. In any case, making a transfer when carrying shopping bags tends to make transit a very unattractive option, and in this case, the transfer could've been avoided by a short extension.

However this wasn't done because the owners of the mall didn't feel that it was worth the cost to maintain a bus station within the mall and residents in the community felt that the buses would attract the wrong type of people to shop at the mall.

Another part of the problem is that the wide roads in Nassau County entice people to drive, and many of those roads (particularly in Eastern Nassau County) have poor transit service, with buses running every 60 minutes without Sunday service. Here in NYC, we have some wide roads, but they generally have good transit nearby: A train, or at least a frequent bus route serves the corridor.

Another problem is the fact that park-and-rides were built to accommodate too many cars. Park-and-rides are not the answer. Stations like Hicksville have more parking spaces than daily commuters. Had there been fewer parking spaces, there would've been more of an incentive for people to buy a UniTicket and use the local bus to commute to the LIRR station, rather than driving. This program idea has been fairly successful at the other end of Nassau County in Great Neck, where, although the surrounding areas are fairly affluent, the ridership on the buses that feed into the Great Neck LIRR stations is relatively high for the simple reason that parking isn't as easy to find.

Overall, although Long Island Bus is saved for now, the reality is that Nassau County cannot go on maintaining the status quo. The fact that Long Island is more spread out means that the private operator is likely to be stingy with the service it provides, and the fact that people have an anti-transit mentality is what caused this situation in the first place. Ideally, we should encourage the building of higher density housing closer to LIRR stations, and locate office parks closer to these stations for reverse commuters from NYC. Residents would be lured to these dense developments, and would provide more support for transit subsidies rather than road subsidies.

As a result, Nassau County will become more sustainable in the face of rising oil prices. Residents working in Manhattan would be able to walk (or take a bus) to the LIRR rather than drive, and residents working in the office parks located near the LIRR would either be able to take the LIRR or take LI Bus as a crosstown service to access their jobs, and the service would run more frequently as a result. Low-income workers would no longer be faced with the financial burden of owning a car, and would be able to use the frequent east-west bus service (the dense housing would provide enough demand for transit that it could be split with the LIRR and LI Bus running in the same corridor) to access their jobs.

Some people may feel that the areas near the LIRR stations would become too ”urban” for them, since there would be more dense housing there to support the transit services in the area, and they would want an area that is quieter and more spread out. However, they can buy a larger house or apartment in a walkable area away from the LIRR, along a frequent bus route. The route doesn’t have to be as frequent as the Manhattan crosstown routes, but a headway of 10 minutes during peak hours and 15 minutes during off-peak hours would be sufficient to maintain a quiet lifestyle while still not having to own a car.

The development of more dense housing surrounding the LIRR can be done in a gradual manner. First, the price for parking in LIRR stations can be raised to a point where people find it more economical to take LI Bus to the LIRR station (some people might find that it isn't worth owning a car at that point, since they won‘t even be using for their commute). Then, when the demand for parking spaces is lowered, the land can be sold off and converted into residential units or office space.

Although we could potentially see some progress with projects such as the LIRR Main Line 3rd tracking project being designed, this cannot come quickly enough, and, as a result, everybody will suffer. People will remain stuck in traffic on the LIE, while low-income workers will be faced with the choice between purchasing an automobile or relying on infrequent buses that may not be there the next day.


jazumah said...

I am not sure why transit advocates keep getting this wrong. The MTA is a CONTRACTOR. The MTA will be replaced by a private firm. This would make the private firm a CONTRACTOR. The private firm has not been asked in the RFP to propose a level of service. It has been asked to propose a price point for operating the service that Nassau wants operated.

The only difference is that if Nassau doesn't pay their bill, the private contractor won't keep running. The idea that the private carrier is going to cut service on their own is simply not how this works.

Brandon said...

Ive known affluent people who take Long Island Bus to the LIRR, I wonder if that will decrease when East Side Access opens though. I always assumed they did it because they already use a metrocard for the subway to get to their jobs from Penn Station. Once ESA opens, will they start driving to their station on LI if they dont have to take the subway anymore?

Also, how much of the LIRR parking is controlled by the LIRR or MTA itself? At least on the Babylon line, i thought most of the parking capacity (except maybe under the train viaduct itself) is controlled by the towns.

George K said...


I am very well aware of what is occurring in Nassau County. However, my post was focusing more on the fact that Nassau County is fairly spread out, and why that is bad for its long term future.

In addition, I was focusing on what caused the problem in Nassau County in the first place (if there were more people who used the buses, there would be more people fighting for Nassau County to pay its dues to the MTA)

On a side note, another problem with suburban transit services that leads to these high costs per passenger (besides the obvious one of having low ridership) is the fact that the low number of buses used means that the depots are spaced far apart, which results in long deadheads.

For example, the N20/N21 and N57/N58 serve the Great Neck area, yet they are based out of the Mitchel Field Depot in Garden City, several miles away. In addition, the N80/N81, which travel south from Hicksville are also based out of this depot.

George K said...


While it may be true that they are using a MetroCard just so they could transfer to the (7)/<7> to get to Grand Central, what about the people in Hicksville. I'm sure many of them work near Grand Central (or in another area far from Penn Station), but the routes that feed the station are more expensive to operate than the routes that serve Great Neck.

George K said...


You wouldn't happen to know where the stats are for specific routes in Suffolk County, Westchester, and New Jersey are, would you?

Also, to everybody: I've noticed that, even though Long Island has an anti-transit mentality, the situations are even worse outside of the NYC Metropolitan area. Cities like Allentown and Bethlehem have an even lower percentage of commutes using public transportation (made even worse by the fact that rail service was taken away from them 30 years ago)

If I were an urban planner, I would try to do a similar thing: Reactivate the rail lines in the corridor, giving those areas decent service to NYC and Philadelphia via rail (they do have express buses, but rail service would definitely be better used). Again, the areas surrounding the train station should be walkable, with buses acting as feeders to the train.'

Since those 2 towns are relatively poor, the better transit service should either give the citizens the chance to reach a higher-paying job in a city further off, or encourage employers to come to the city itself, which would be even better.

George K said...

I wonder if express buses could attract customers who don't live within walking distance of an LIRR station, and don't want to be bothered with taking the local buses to the LIRR. That could also help to justify the increase in parking prices: If you don't want to take LI Bus to the LIRR, you can take an LI Express Bus for a similar price.

Express buses are able to coexist with the subway in suburban areas of NYC, and some get high ridership even though there are easy local bus->subway alternatives. The BxM1, BxM7, and BxM10 are examples. If this can work when the subway fare is less than half of the express bus fare, I'm sure it can work, even if the density is lower.

Again, this can probably lead to people giving up their second car. If the husband needs the car to drive to the LIRR, and the wife needs the car to drive to a job in a hard-to-reach location, the husband could give up the car, since he has the option of frequent local bus service, or hte express bus directly into Manhattan.

In the future, the people who want to get away from the noise of the LIRR will probably be able to have express buses in addition to the frequent local buses.