Fourth in an occasional series on the future of transportation in the region
During a time when the COVID-19 crisis kept many people off the roads, rails and airlines, it also gave a boost to alternative transportation modes, which have proved invaluable in keeping thousands of Long Islanders mobile and safe.
Cycling, walking and public buses have tapped into new markets, as Long Islanders working remotely have looked to get out of their houses and rediscover their neighborhoods. The heightened interest in walking and biking has resulted in bike retailers struggling to keep up with demand, and walking advocates pushing for increased safety for pedestrians.
Bus providers in Nassau and Suffolk counties have seen a sizable decrease in their commuter base but still played a key role in transporting essential workers — and lost far fewer riders than did the Long Island Rail Road during the pandemic.
What to know
Long Island bus ridership has remained at around 50% of pre-pandemic levels, far higher than most other public transportation agencies.
The pandemic has accelerated several bus ridership trends, including more frequent short trips within Long Island communities, and increased midday and weekend travel.
Bicycling and walking have gained in popularity in the pandemic, as people look to remain active while staying closer to home and rediscover their neighborhoods.
Bus service is "overwhelmingly used by people who depend on it to get around, whereas railroad riders tend to also have a car, and are more likely to be able to work from home," said Danny Pearlstein, spokesman for the Riders Alliance, a nonprofit transit advocacy group. "Railroad riders are wealthier and more white-collar by a significant stretch."
While the LIRR's ridership plummeted to as low as 3% of pre-coronavirus levels, Long Island’s largest bus provider — the Nassau Inter-County Express — held on to a little more than half its riders for most of the pandemic, and has reached as high as around 60%, according to NICE chief executive Jack Kzhouz, who noted that "most of our ridership doesn’t have the luxury of working from home."
At their lowest points during the pandemic, NICE, which typically carries about 80,000 riders a day, and Suffolk County Transit, which typically carries about 14,000, were carrying about a third of their regular weekday ridership. In comparison, the LIRR sunk to as low as 3% of its usual 300,000 weekday passengers a year ago.
Nassau Inter-County Express (NICE Bus) by the numbers
226 bus fleet size285 square miles 79,530 average weekday riders in 2019 45% approximate ridership losses during pandemic $134.4 million annual operating expenses
Among those with little choice but to ride a bus is Luis Barahona, who takes the N4 from Freeport to Rockville Centre, where he works at a restaurant.
"This whole time, they’ve been running. So it’s been a great help," Barahona said in Spanish.
While many regular bus riders have yet to return — including thousands of Nassau Community College students and commuters who also rode the LIRR — others have discovered NICE during the outbreak, Kzhouz said. The agency said it has seen measurable increases in shorter trips within towns and villages, and in weekend travel, as well as a lengthening of the traditional evening rush hour, which used to last until around 6:30 p.m.
"We’re now seeing that go all the way until 9 p.m.," said Kzhouz, who believes the changes are an acceleration of travel trends that began years ago. "The pandemic has forced us to maybe take what would be a five- or 10-year evolution and jam it into 24 months. If you have to look at something that comes out of this that's good, I think that's the one thing."
While NICE has taken a financial hit from lower revenue — including over four months early in the pandemic when it did not charge fares — and reduced state subsidies, it made up for those losses in the form of $33 million in federal aid from the first two COVID-19 stimulus bills approved by Congress and President Donald Trump in 2020. NICE officials are unsure of what they stand to receive from the most recent stimulus package, under President Joe Biden.
NICE working on several initiatives
With their finances stable, NICE plans to move ahead with several initiatives that have become more urgent during the pandemic, including "last-mile" solutions to help riders get closer to their destinations. One idea is to have fixed-route bus customers share rides with disabled customers on NICE’s Able-Ride vehicles, which are smaller and more "nimble," Kzhouz said.
NICE also plans to continue investing in intensified sanitizing efforts, including through the use of ultraviolet light, and in upgrades to its mobile app. One change that Kzhouz does not anticipate is cutting service — even if demand remains below where it was before the pandemic. "I think frequency has always been proven as a way to build ridership," he said.
The situation has been more dire for Suffolk County Transit. The declines in revenue during the pandemic led Suffolk officials last year to consider cutting half the bus routes.
Suffolk County Transit by the numbers
116 bus fleet size912 square miles 14,308 average weekday riders in 2019 40% approximate ridership losses during pandemic $83.5 million annual operating expenses
Suffolk is still moving forward with plans to reinvent its transit system by bolstering its busiest bus routes, while using mobile technology to provide on-demand transportation services in areas with lighter ridership. The county plans to conduct a survey and hold public meetings on its "Reimagine Transit" initiative later this year.
Jon Carnegie, executive director of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, said the renewed focus on buses, rather than commuter rail systems, is not isolated to Long Island.
"I’ve seen significantly more effort and attention being paid to perhaps doing a better job at serving the bus customer," said Carnegie, who noted that "legacy" bus routes can go decades without being redesigned to meet changing demand.
"And the world around them has changed significantly in that period of time," Carnegie said. "I think there's tons of opportunities to kind of rethink how we're providing [bus service] and kind of re-imagine it in the future."
Bicycling industry has seen boom
While public transportation providers have struggled with low ridership, the bicycle industry has experienced a different kind of problem: not enough bikes for everybody who wants to ride them.
"They’re calling it the ‘cycling boom of 2020,’ " said Dan Flanzig, a Mineola attorney and executive board member of the New York Bicycling Coalition, an advocacy group.
Flanzig said the surge in bike popularity during the pandemic was driven in large part by people, with few recreational options during the pandemic, "dragging their old bikes out of the garage and pumping the tires up with air." The NPD Group, a national market research firm, reported a 121% increase in adult leisure bicycle sales in March 2020 alone. Bicycle retailers say the high demand could last for years.
121% increase in U.S. adult leisure bicycle sales, comparing March 2019 to March 2020, according to NPD Group
But, Flanzig said, the popularization of bikes also has been driven by the realization that "cycling isn’t ‘alternative transportation,’ but transportation" — especially for shorter, intra-Island trips. Flanzig said that realization could bode well for cyclists as the Biden administration pushes his $2 trillion infrastructure initiative.
"The hope is that when we rebuild our roads, we redesign them with cycling in mind, which is something as simple as narrowing the car lanes and increasing the shoulders," Flanzig said.
Some of the same factors that spurred Long Islanders to hop aboard their bikes during the pandemic also have led to an increase in walking, experts said.
300% increase in U.S. outdoor walking, comparing April-June 2019 to April-June 2020, according to Strava exercise tracker
Eric Alexander, executive director of Vision Long Island, a planning group, said the pandemic did more to promote efforts to create "walkable towns," like in Garden City and Huntington, than anything else in recent history.
"There was a symbiotic relationship between walking and biking and the shop local movement," said Alexander, who hopes the change will result in increased investment in making street spaces safer, and more inviting to pedestrians and cyclists. Those can include crosswalk countdown timers, elevated medians, trees, and outdoor dining opportunities.
"These little treatments aren’t incredibly costly, but they show good faith that you’re serious about creating public space, and that this is a destination for public space," Alexander said.
Efforts to establish bicycle and electric scooter sharing businesses, like those that have emerged in recent years in New York City, also could get a boost in some Long Island communities, Alexander said.
80% increase in NYC bike rides, comparing July 2019 to July 2020, according to Strava exercise tracker
Ferry ridership back to 60%
While some alternative transportation modes welcome the changing face of travel on Long Island, ferry carriers hope to get back to the way it was. The 138-year-old Bridgeport and Port Jefferson Steamboat Company saw its core ridership — passengers and their cars — drop by 90% during the height of the pandemic, forcing a massive schedule reduction, layoffs and furloughs, general manager Fred Hall said.
Ridership since has recovered to about 60% of pre-pandemic levels, coinciding with an increase in automotive traffic and congestion on Interstate Highway 95. Hall hopes the next big surge in ridership will come with the return of leisure travel this summer.
"I think there’s going to be so much pent-up demand to go anywhere," said Hall, who noted that his company has not received any federal COVID-19 relief funding. "We have been going it alone. And we’re lucky to be able to say that we’re beginning to come back."