In most regions of the United States, the expectations for public transportation in a county like Suffolk, large and split between suburban and semirural communities, would be nearly nil.
But in the New York metropolitan area, where commuter rail service has been in place since the 1800s, expectations are higher. They should be. Helping people move about is a crucial government service, and communities that don’t prioritize it do a disservice to those who can’t drive or can’t afford to.
But public transportation where population density is light is expensively inefficient. In order to make it work better, buses that run on busy routes must arrive and depart more frequently. And buses on routes with few passengers must be replaced by smaller vehicles that make the run only when needed.
RIDERS FEW, COSTS HIGH
Bus ridership on Suffolk’s approximately 40 routes plummeted from 6.3 million passengers a year at its 2011 peak to 4 million in 2018, and officials say it has decreased further during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the cost of the system has grown from $65 million in 2013 to $84 million in 2019.
It’s a trend county officials are hoping to turn around via an initiative, "Reimagine Transit," that seeks to revamp the system using public input gathered through a survey and virtual public meetings.
The numbers tell the story. The price of each passenger ride on Suffolk Bus has increased from about $10 to $21 in just a few years. That’s staggering, particularly since the average Uber or Lyft trip here costs $20 to $25.
Worse, few Suffolk bus routes operate at the twice-per-hour frequency experts say it takes to convince riders to use the system.
In addition to routes not running buses often enough, buses often don’t come as close to riders’ pickup points and destinations as they’d like. Residents who have to walk too far to and from buses find another way, or simply don’t go.
These two offsetting priorities, high frequency and broad geographic coverage, are the root of reliable service. The core question is whether residents would rather focus service on the frequency of buses on main routes, or on broadening coverage to get buses closer to riders’ pickups and drop-offs off the beaten path. But improvements in both areas are needed and Suffolk, which pays for about half the system’s $84 million annual budget, can’t afford to prioritize both via traditional methods.
SUFFOLK PAYS MORE THAN NASSAU
Suffolk operates about 300 buses, large and small, and most of the cost of buying the vehicles is borne by the federal government. Because state transportation aid is traditionally allotted based on ridership, Suffolk’s aid is comparatively minuscule, with just $29 million of the operation’s $84 million budget coming from the state. About $8 million came in via fares before the pandemic, $4 million came from the federal government and $43 million from county coffers.
Nassau County, by contrast, ferries about 26 million passengers a year, nearly seven times as many as Suffolk. That means it brings in far more cash with its $2.75 fare than Suffolk does at $2.25. It also means, because state aid is so closely tied to ridership, that Albany contributes far more to Nassau’s bus operation than to Suffolk’s.
As a result, Nassau County’s own annual spending on busing has been as little at $2.5 million in some recent years, only about 6% of Suffolk’s outlay.
Outside of the largest cities, fewer high-income and fully abled people in the United States use buses. That means most of the people who pay the most taxes often have no use for the service. To them, it seems inefficient and unnecessary.
And the arguments resonate. When fares make up only 10% of a transit service’s budget and rides are being delivered for $21 apiece on average, the inefficiency is unarguable. When the resulting service is infrequent and doesn’t pick up or drop off people where needed, supporting the service at that cost seems questionable.
NEW STRATEGIES NEEDED
While there is no perfect solution to providing bus service in a county like Suffolk, the best answer likely is to increase frequency on the big, crucial routes, and increase coverage by finding ways other than regularly scheduled buses to reach the county’s nooks and crannies.
Faced with potential funding shortfalls last year, Suffolk considered eliminating 19 routes. One, a night loop from Smith Haven Mall to Stony Brook and Port Jefferson Station, averaged three riders a day. A day version of that route averaged 36. And a route from Copiague through Melville to northwest Babylon averaged 12. But the people who use them still need service.
The answer is innovative on-demand options, like taxis, ride-shares or shuttles — some of which eventually might be driverless — that move these riders between pickup and drop-off spots, rail stations and high-density bus stops, taking them where they need to go when they need to get there.
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