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More Long Islanders are opening up to riding buses and bikes instead of driving, experts say

Jack Khzouz, CEO of NICE Bus, speaks Wednesday

Jack Khzouz, CEO of NICE Bus, speaks Wednesday during the Sustainable Transportation Symposium at the Suffolk County Community College Grant Campus in Brentwood. Credit: Barry Sloan

More and more Long Island communities are warming up to alternative transportation, from on-demand minibuses in Nassau to a bike-share program introduced in three Suffolk communities, experts said.

Areas across the Island, and nationwide, are experimenting with environmentally friendly transit options that reduce the use of personal vehicles in an effort to cut traffic, free up parking and slash air and greenhouse gas pollution. 

About 80 percent of Suffolk residents drive to work alone while the figure is 70 percent in Nassau, said Rosemary Mascali, co-chair of the Long Island chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council's Sustainable Transportation Committee. 

"Any way you look at it, from an environmental standpoint to a health standpoint to an economic development standpoint … we need more transportation and mobility options," Mascali said at a panel discussion Wednesday at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood.

The panel was one of more than a dozen events scheduled across Long Island for Mobility Week, which culminates Friday with "Car Free Day," which encourages drivers to give up their cars for a day. 

One of the newest programs is Bethpage Ride, a bike-sharing program at 17 stations in the villages of Babylon and Patchogue and in Hampton Bays that launched earlier this month. The for-rent bike program is modeled after Citi Bike in New York City and follows similar programs in Long Beach and at Stony Brook University.

To use a bike, riders need to download Pace, a mobile app, and create an account. A 15-minute ride costs $1; a membership costs $10 a month or $60 a year for unlimited trips of up to 30 minutes. 

"This is trying to bridge the gap between a train station and a major employment center that is a little too far to walk comfortably but really is a nice comfortable bike distance a few miles away," said Jonathan Keyes, director of downtown and transit-oriented development for Suffolk's Department of Economic Development and Planning.

Farther west, the Nassau Inter-County Express bus system, also known as NICE, has spent the past several years experimenting with microtransit programs, which offer flexible scheduling and routes on minibuses. 

Some pilot programs have shown signs of success, said NICE chief executive Jack Khzouz.

For example, NICE's on-demand Flexi route buses stop at eight designated locations in Elmont and Valley Stream — with riders able to request additional stops in advance. The 28-foot buses now shuttle 350 to 400 passengers a day, tripling ridership from two years ago when NICE used a circular route that was unpopular with riders.

But other NICE microtransit programs were a "miserable failure," Khzouz said.

Link, the company's Uber-like shared-ride service on Nassau's South Shore, attracted few riders, who complained they wanted more reliability with their schedules, he said. 

"You can't have an ego because you're going to fail," Khzouz said of the transit programs. "We realize that and we are not married to any of these solutions. We are married to solutions that the village, town, county, state or community tells us is successful."

Officials are also working to reduce congestion on Suffolk's East End. 

A South Fork commuter rail service began taking riders between Speonk and Montauk on weekdays in March. The service, dubbed the South Fork Commuter Connection, connects Long Island Rail Road trains with shuttle services to reduce the region’s traffic and give commuters new transit options.

East Hampton and Southampton towns provide shuttles between the train stations and workplaces using a $500,000 state grant. 

"People on the East End aren't used to using public transportation," said Thomas Neely, director of transportation for Southampton Town. "It's been so limited for so long. We've really had to start at scratch."

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