A fully electric shuttle company has received a $7 million state grant to provide low-cost rides in disadvantaged Suffolk communities that lack easy and affordable transit options.
Circuit Transit will offer fares priced at $3 or less in a roughly five- to six-square-mile zone in Brentwood and the surrounding area next spring, according to Alexander Esposito, a former East Hampton resident who co-founded the business in 2011 with his high school friend James Mirras.
The service launched as a free summer beach shuttle in East Hampton and then rolled out in Montauk and Southampton before expanding to more than 20 cities across the country as either free or low-cost app-based rides.
The company, with offices in Wainscott, was one of several to win a statewide electric mobility challenge administered by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority rewarding projects that improve air quality and makes transportation more accessible in disadvantaged communities.
WHAT TO KNOW
Circuit Transit, a fully electric micro-shuttle service, is expected to launch in Brentwood and the surrounding area next spring.
The app-based car and van service will offer low-cost rides at $3 or less to select points in a five- to six-mile radius.
Community leaders said the program fills a need in the area, while transportation experts questioned whether the plan would succeed.
The program is funded by investor-owned utilities to increase the number of charging stations, EV infrastructure and other green transportation alternatives, specifically in lower-socioeconomic communities. The Long Island Power Authority helped fund the award on Long Island.
Stops haven't been set yet, nor have ridership or emission reduction goals, which are being finalized in conjunction with the Energy Research and Development Authority, Esposito said.
A fleet of roughly 10 electric vehicles, including sedans and vans, will provide pooled rides to Suffolk Community College's Brentwood campus, the Brentwood and Deer Park Long Island Rail Road stations, and the Hauppauge Industrial Park, along with dozens of other still-to-be-determined stops scattered throughout the zone.
Some ride-hailing industry experts were skeptical the plan would succeed. But Esposito said it fills the need for short-distance travel, particularly for connecting to train stations.
"Whether it be commuting, getting to the college, or for other reasons — we knew all these problems existed," Esposito said, adding he had several talks with key stakeholders before devising the plan.
Requests made by phone app
Like ride-hail services Uber and Lyft, customers will be able to request rides via a phone app. But unlike those companies, there will be fixed pickup and drop-off points, operations will run on a set schedule Monday through Friday, and the company's app will assess whether it can be a multiple-person trip.
“It’s focused on short-range transportation, and all employees are drivers who are background checked and paid hourly,” Esposito said. "We are hoping this sets an example for how mobility can and should be deployed."
Expected to operate for 2 1/2 years, Brentwood leaders said the service will fill a transportation void and be a boon for the environment.
"In our community, there are lots of low-income individuals that rely on public transportation. I see a lot of individuals waiting at the bus stop for hours and it breaks my heart," said Alexandra Velez, founder of Flutterflies Wings of Empowerment, a Brentwood nonprofit that provides resources to help youth. "Plus, we have lots of individuals who lost their jobs, and they need reliable or affordable transportation to get to that interview or those appointments."
Suffolk Legis. Samuel Gonzalez (D-Brentwood) said many residents in his district don't own vehicles.
“On those days it’s raining, snowing or there’s bad weather, they can utilize this program to get to work, school or the grocery store,” Gonzalez said.
“We are going to enter 2023 in a situation where every penny is going to count in the household.”
This also will help students at Suffolk County Community College who struggle finding affordable ways to get to campus, according to college president Edward Bonahue. "Having a sustainable option for our community is a huge win for our students," Bonahue said in a statement.
PSEG Long Island is partnering with the company and will help identify locations for charging stations, but the developer is responsible for installing them, according to Michael Voltz, director of energy efficiency and renewables for PSEG Long Island.
Will there be consumer demand?
Transportation ride-hailing experts questioned whether the project would succeed and match consumer demand.
In a 2021 published research paper, former New York City transportation official Bruce Schaller found the environmental benefits limited because ride-sharing adds to vehicle mileage even when passengers share rides.
He also noted the service has some benefits, including as an important link to train stations.
Schaller said the service might work in a suburban setting like Long Island, but there are several challenges, including trying to group people together, finding out when and what time the demand will be and figuring out the right price point.
"If everyone is going from the railroad station to the college in a steady stream all day, you could serve that," Schaller said. "If everyone’s doing that to make 9 o'clock so you have this great surge … that’s a problem. And if people are going every which way, that’s also a problem,” Schaller said.
“It’s a real challenge to find the sweet spot," he said.
Gabe Ets-Hokin, an electric vehicle contributor at the rideshareguy.com, an industry website, said he doesn’t believe the shuttles will last past a year and added that since the pandemic, carpooling has proved unpopular.
“Why not just put that money into the bus system? This kind of thing when it’s not done in a sustainable way is doomed to fail and reflects badly on the environmental movement. It won’t address whatever problem this funding is being spent to address,” he said.
Previous effort failed
A free app-based electric vehicle car service effort on Long Island failed when Qwik Ride, started in 2018 by two locals, shut down during the pandemic. It provided rides to Patchogue, Huntington, Northport, Port Jefferson, Bay Shore, Long Beach and Farmingdale.
Esposito was confident that there'd be a demand for services.
“We’re intentionally positioning the service so we can help be that connector piece so more people are incentivized to use the train and not use their cars,” he said.
NYSERDA spokeswoman Kate Muller said in a statement: “Electric micro shuttle services supplement community access to full-size buses, trains, and subways that are available through the public transit system."
Suffolk County spokeswoman Nicole Russo said in an email that the service is expected to be "fully complementary to our transit system."