Sunday, November 3, 2013

Why I care about Suffolk County

Last year I explained why I care about transportation in the suburbs, even though I live in the city (well, Queens). But some suburbs matter more than others. Here's an illustration: last month I talked about how Staten Island affects our goals. It does, mainly because its strategic political position gives its citizens outsize power over transportation policy, and because they like to drive all over the city. But in terms of other factors, it's a relatively small player. Look at how many vehicle miles were traveled (VMT) in the borough in 2005:

According to the EPA, vehicles were driven 2 billion miles in Richmond County in 2005, or 4,215 VMT per capita. That is just 1.29% of the 155 billion total VMT in the region that year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 56 people were killed on Staten Island's roads in 2005, which was 1.56% of the 3,601 total people killed in car crashes that year.

If every Staten Islander sold their cars tomorrow, it wouldn't make that big a difference in pollution or death. But if you look at those charts, there are other counties that jump out at you. Queens, Nassau, Monmouth and New Haven counties are all on the bigger, left-hand pie in both charts, meaning they contribute over 4% of VMT and fatalities. And the biggest culprit is Suffolk County.

In 2005 there were 19.8 billion vehicle-miles traveled in Suffolk County, which roughly covers the eastern half of Long Island, 12.8% of the regional total. 402 people were killed on Suffolk's roads, 11.2% of the total. That gave it the largest share of both measures by a wide margin. Any changes we make in Suffolk can have a big impact on the region's health.

On a per-capita basis, there were 13,171 miles driven for every man, woman and child in Suffolk county, and 27 people were killed out of every hundred thousand. The county with the lowest VMT per capita was Brooklyn (1,951) and the lowest fatalities per capita, believe it or not, was the Bronx (11 per hundred thousand).

If the average person in Suffolk county only drove 1,951 miles a year, it would bring the county's annual VMT down to 2.94 billion, an 85% reduction. If we could bring Suffolk's per-capita road deaths down to the level of the Bronx we would save 282 lives.

But that's really ambitious. What if we just brought the road deaths down to the regional median level of 18 fatalities per hundred thousand inhabitants, like Rockland or Hunterdon? We could still save 130 people. And if we brought VMT down to the regional median per capita VMT of 8,722, like Nassau County, its neighbor to the west? That would mean only 13.1 billion VMT, a 34% reduction, and a 4.3% reduction in the total regional VMT.

What does a 34% reduction in VMT get us, in terms of our goals? It's generally considered to be proportional to pollution. There's a correlation with fatalities, but it's not very close, as the charts show. Think, also, about the budget: in the 2012 state capital budget there was $291 million for Long Island roads. Road capital budgets are notoriously unresponsive to VMT decreases, but a 34% reduction would be hard to ignore. I'd say it would save us at least $50 million a year.

Also, since the VMT reduction is per capita, not from a mass depopulation of the East End, all those people would be taking transit instead. That would probably mean that the North Fork Branch would have enough passengers for hourly service, and the Hampton Jitney would make a killing. People would be walking to the train and to shopping, which would mean more sidewalks on those Long Island road. And you bet your ass there'd be local bus service on Sundays.

Next question: What would it take to bring down Suffolk's per capita VMT from 13,171 to 8,722?


Patrick @ The LIRR Today said...

Transit within Suffolk County stinks. I live in Montauk and commute into Long Island City by train, and while a good few people use the LIRR within the Hamptons, there is still much more potential for intra-island travel within Suffolk County, and the LIRR is completely missing the ball. And it's even worse on the Greenport Branch, there are many things they can be doing better to make taking the train not as painful as it is, but the LIRR doesn't seem to be inclined to work to fix that.

And Suffolk Transit is terribly unreliable. I don't think I've ever taken an SCT bus. The headways are atrocious, the routes go nowhere, and the buses rarely show.

A change in thinking would be the best way to fix this. The LIRR and SCT think the only place people on Long Island work is in Manhattan, and they completely overlook the masses who would take their services intra-island if the schedule were more appealing.

Alex Knight said...

"There was $291 billion for Long Island roads." Minor point, but you probably mean million.

Capn Transit said...

Yeah, I guess you're right, Alex. Thanks!

The Amateur Transporter said...

Westchester bus service is pretty poor, too. At odd hours or odd places outside of the major cities, service is hourly or worse. Sidewalks to the bus stops don't exist, bus stops are in weeds with lots of ticks, and crosswalks to the bus stops are non-existent.

neroden@gmail said...

Thing about this is, you can understand a "driving only" attitude in, say, Cattaragus County or St. Lawrence County.

Suffolk County is dense by comparison. It's bottled in by water, so it doesn't have the "everywhere to everywhere" passenger flows which we see upstate. And it already has multiple active passenger railroad lines running through it. It really ought to be possible to do something about it.