Long Islanders love their cars. According to the 2015 American Community Survey, of the 2.8 million people (1.3 million workers) living on Long Island, just 11% of them use public transit (bus + rail) to get to work. A whopping 74% of workers drive alone.
While train ridership is generally more widely used, bus ridership on Long Island has always struggled. In total, just 4% of Long Islanders ride the bus daily (Ridership: Suffolk – 22,000, Nassau – 95,000).
So why do so few people take the bus?
There’s two leading theories when it comes to bus systems: Coverage and Frequency. Suffolk County’s bus system enjoys neither. Busses typically run every hour, though, limited busses arrive 45 minutes apart. That’s fine so long as the system covers a large part of the island.
To determine the coverage of the SCT Bus + LIRR, I opened the the system map in Illustrator and changed the route values to be about a quarter mile wide (a commonly used measurement to determine walkability). I then used an image color summarizer to calculate the percent of the image that was red vs green. According to the resulting image, people living in just 28% of the county have easy access to public transit. People living in the remaining 78% would have to walk further than a quarter mile or drive to access public transit.
Worse, Suffolk Transit just cut 8 routes due to infrequent use. In 2016, 31% of the island had easy access to transit. Now, just 28% has easy access. You can see the differences if you use the slider above. I would have no issue with this if they increased the frequency of other bus routes after this change but that is not the case.
I realize many of these areas of Long Island are not densely populated. To get a better picture, I chose the town of Babylon (Suffolk’s densest downtown) to compare to a city I consider to have fantastic public transit: Ithaca, NY.
Babylon Township, NY:
Bus/Rail Within A Quarter Mile: 46%
Area Beyond A Quarter Mile From Transit: 54%
City of Ithaca, NY:
Bus Lines Within A Quarter Mile: 45%
Area Beyond A Quarter Mile From Transit: 55%
The resulting images show that the coverage of the two downtown areas are nearly identical. However, the usability/experience of the systems are immensely different. To start, every single route in the Babylon area runs 45 min or worse. The TCAT, Ithaca’s bus company, has headways from every 5 minutes to every hour downtown (with certain rural commuter routes – not shown – running every two hours). Given that frequency, the TCAT’s is able to get a daily ridership of 15,000 people with a population of 103,000 people. This means that 14.5% of the Tompkins County (much of it rural) rides the TCAT while only 4% of Long Islanders ride the bus.
I’m not the only one who has taken notice of Ithaca’s devotion to a good transit system. An study published in Science Direct titled Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice wrote that providing an oversupply of transit in Ithaca, along with in New York City, has helped create a larger demand for transit.
I have personally spent a lot of time in Ithaca over the past 4 years and I absolutely adore their transit system. Like the study concluded, I attribute much of its success to the collaboration with the college campuses, low fare and frequency of service. I could only wish that the Suffolk County Transit would take note.
Next, take a look at the below image, taken from the Regional Plan Association, which shows the coverage of local bus lines in NYC:
An incredible 97% of the city is can walk less than a quarter mile to access busses. When you add in rail, subway, express busses, ferries and the short headways seen in NYC, it’s no wonder why car ownership is below 50%.
Back on Long Island, I strongly believe it would be best for the Suffolk Transit to switch from a coverage system to a frequency system.
Currently, if I tried taking the bus between my parent’s homes, it would take an hour and 40 minutes for a 20 minute drive (excluding the o.8 mile walk from my mom’s house and the 2 mile walk to my dad’s house). Since the busses run an hour apart as is, I would only have limited times when I could make the trip. Even if I wanted to take the bus to the LIRR, it would take 15 minutes to get to the train station (no big deal) but since the two systems are no longer connected, it would perfectly miss the train by 10 minutes (forcing me to wait an additional 50 minutes for the next one).
Why bother? The busses would be much better used if they had short headways and if they were situated through downtowns to connect residents to stores, train stations and their jobs. Additionally, having busses devoted to downtowns would create larger demand at all hours of the day, not just morning/evening commutes to/from work.
For the few people who need public transit services in less dense areas, they can make use of an on demand service system. Ithaca has one of those systems and it’s the same fare for anyone who needs it outside the downtown zone. Suffolk has this as well but the fare is nearly double the cost of a normal fare and it is only for disabled persons.
In the end, I’m positive that no advocate of planning/economic development would be against what I’m suggesting here. It all comes down to how the community perceives it: Will it save them tax money and will it create more traffic in towns? Those are unfortunately questions I cannot answer. It’s up to the community to demand more routes/better frequency.