On Long Island, Transit Operates as Two Separate and Unequal Systems

Major new rail infrastructure projects won't deliver on their potential if Long Island continues to operate its train and bus networks as a two-tiered transit system.

Long Island's bus and rail networks are run as two separate and unequal systems. Photo: Adam Moreira/Wikimedia Commons
Long Island's bus and rail networks are run as two separate and unequal systems. Photo: Adam Moreira/Wikimedia Commons

The Long Island Railroad is building some of the biggest infrastructure projects in the region — even the world. The hugely expensive East Side Access tunnel and terminal at Grand Central and the construction of a third track for the LIRR Main Line will open up new possibilities for convenient, all-day transit that people can use for all types of trips. But not if Long Island continues to operate its rail and bus networks as a two-tiered transit system.

Currently, the LIRR runs its trains to connect the suburbs of Nassau and Suffolk counties with New York City, especially Manhattan. The LIRR has schedules and park-and-rides that assume passengers are affluent car owners who take the train to get to their 9-to-5 Manhattan jobs.

For working class Long Islanders, the transit on offer is different. There’s a beleaguered bus system, the Nassau Inter-County Express (NICE), formerly known as Long Island Bus. NICE ridership, already at a 15-year low five years ago, has continued to fall.

Long Island’s two transit operators have separate fares and serve different markets, in what Stephen Smith calls transit apartheid. It’s a terrible way to run transit, and Long Island can do better.

Transit works best when all the pieces fit together: suburban and urban transit, trains and buses, infrastructure and operations planning. Decisions made about one aspect of transit affect other aspects in subtle but significant ways. When passengers can easily connect between commuter trains, subways, and buses, they benefit from a seamless experience.

Three aspects of transit integration are directly relevant to Long Island: fare integration, schedule integration, and integration between infrastructure and operations planning.

In European and East Asian cities, the best practice is to charge the same fare for a trip regardless of the type of vehicle, or how many transfers the trip takes. This means buses, subways, and commuter trains should charge the same fares, and use the same fare media, even if it’s paper tickets. Fares can vary based on geographic zones or distance traveled — or they can be flat within the entire metro area — but the way the passenger travels should not affect the fare. This is called mode-neutral fare.

Within New York City, subways and most MTA buses are fare-integrated, and there are free transfers. But the LIRR charges a premium fare in relation to NICE. This segments the market: Low-income riders take NICE, and middle- and high-income riders take the LIRR.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With their less Manhattan-centric travel patterns, low-income riders in Long Island could fill empty reverse- and off-peak trains, instead of crowding slow buses.

Schedules can also be integrated across different modes and operators. This entails planning how buses and trains connect, and avoiding destructive competition. The best industry practice is known as timed transfers: All transit services run on the same basic schedule (for example, every 15 or 30 minutes all day), and buses feed trains with timed connections.

There are no timed transfers on Long Island because of the market segmentation between NICE and the LIRR. The busiest LIRR stations in Nassau County act as NICE hubs, but the buses run on a different timetable, and are not timed to meet the trains; in some cases, they are timed to just miss the trains.

Finally, planners cannot make decisions regarding schedules, infrastructure, and rolling stock in isolation. The opening of a new rail extension may affect the market for bus service in the area. Or the introduction of high-performance trains may alter the optimal timetable on a rail line. Or, in the other direction, the switch to a different timetable may suggest new priority infrastructure investments.

The best practice is to plan all three aspects together. That’s why, for instance, referendums for local rail spending in Switzerland include precise service plan information.

Right now, the New York region is making massive investments in the LIRR, but there is no integrated planning to make the most of this spending.

The MTA’s East Side Access project will increase LIRR capacity into Manhattan by 50 percent when it opens and lead to dramatic changes in train operations. We know what some of those changes will be: The LIRR plans to cut off Brooklyn from mainline LIRR service and replace it with shuttle service, diverting all through-trains to the East Side Access tunnel. Today, there are timed cross-platform transfers at Jamaica between trains bound for Penn Station and trains bound for Brooklyn, but the reconstruction work at Jamaica will break the cross-platform transfer. Passengers will have to go up and then down stairs to change trains.

More detailed schedule information is scant. The LIRR says that during peak service, it plans to run 24 trains per hour into Grand Central via the new tunnel and 37 into Penn Station via the existing tunnels. But there is no public schedule, or any indication of how often trains will run on each branch to each Manhattan terminal.

The LIRR isn’t very concerned about optimal scheduling. The LIRR Main Line has two tracks. Peak train traffic would fit in one track in each direction, if all trains ran local. But the LIRR prefers running express trains instead of any reverse-peak service — as a result, trains run one-way during the peak. This makes the Main Line useless for reverse commutes, which disproportionately affects low-income riders who work in Mineola and live further west.

To add more flexibility, the LIRR is planning to add a third track to the Main Line. But the state has a promotional video talking about everything except good scheduling: adding parking, preventing delays, and allowing reverse-peak service. Unsaid is how frequent the reverse-peak service will be, or how off-peak service will change.

These scheduling questions matter especially to lower-income riders, who are more likely to have unpredictable travel patterns than 9-to-5, peak direction commuters who take the same train into the city each day. Can riders rely on the LIRR without memorizing a schedule? Can they use it for trips at all times of day? The lack of interest in answering these questions shows the LIRR’s priority is still suburban park-and-ride passengers who go to Manhattan in the morning and return in the afternoon.

There are two competing visions for transit on Long Island. One is the current policy, in which buses and trains serve different classes of riders, separate and unequal; trains exist exclusively to transport people who work in Manhattan and drive everywhere else; infrastructure and schedule planners do not coordinate. In such an environment, it’s likely that everyone who works outside Manhattan and can afford a car will get around primarily by driving.

The other vision is more integrated across different modes of transit, different social classes, and different aspects of planning. NICE, the subway, and the LIRR would charge the same fares, with free transfers, so riders could use whichever system makes the most sense for where they live and where they want to go.

NICE buses, running about every half hour, would be timed to meet LIRR trains at major stations with short transfer windows, and LIRR stations would be designed to minimize walking time between the bus and the train platforms. Infrastructure planning would be based on a well-publicized train schedule, offering frequent local service all day in both directions.

In this vision, Long Island would have a transit system based on the same principles underlying German and Swiss transit, and could expect similar results.

  • ohnonononono

    Good article. Nassau County isn’t unique in doing things this way, and the division between slow, frequent, cheaper “local” transit and infrequent, fast, more expensive rail developed back when they were horse-drawn trolleys and steam engines under private operation. The two types of transit competed but targeted different markets. Here’s an old Third Avenue Railway map showing the streetcar lines that extended all the way into Westchester: http://nycsubway.org.s3.amazonaws.com/images/maps/3rd_Ave_Rwy.jpg

    Even back then the division existed: for a much cheaper fare you could ride the crowded, rickety, slow-moving trolleys all the way from Westchester into Manhattan, or for a quicker, more comfortable, more expensive ride you could take the 8am train into the city. Of course poorer/working class people would be more likely to only be able to afford the former while wealthier people would choose the latter, just like today poorer people in Southern Westchester take Bee-Line buses to the end of the subway while the well-off take Metro-North.

    It’s even true to an extent within NYC city limits. Poorer people in Northeast Queens take the local MTA bus down Northern Blvd to get to the 7 train in Flushing while richer people take LIRR in Queens too.

    What I think has changed, and what I think makes Nassau stand out a bit, is land use. The suburban counties, especially Nassau, have a lot less pre-auto era walkable places, and prohibit any new ones from being built. They’re hostile to get around on foot, and they’ve transformed almost every single LIRR/MNR station into a park-n-ride. In Manhattan, even rich people don’t own cars; in Nassau, only the poor don’t, and they’re the only ones left to put up with sitting in traffic on the bus.

  • Fool

    Damn, never thought about it this way.

    Also mainline RER type operation between Hicksville and PEN/GCT would enable some massive regional housing stock growth. If LI was interested in providing housing.

  • Johnathan Boev יונתן בוייב

    Great article, I would include Suffolk county bus service and HART bus service, both are in Suffolk and provide service respectfully. Suffolk county bus currently running a survey, to improve their buses. According to their website the survey staff asking only riders, so other ideas not in a count. Suffolk train stations have huge parking lots, you need to take a shuttle to get to the station’s if you are parked on the edge.
    Many LIRR stations have only 2 tracks, which create a bottle neck effect, especially when the line bufricates, or continues as ‘powerless’ also it affects express services.

  • Charlie

    Suffolk county busses are moderate at best even their connecting is not good. Suffolk subs out the routes and there is currently 2 or 3 separate companies that run and they do not play nice with each other. They? only started running busses on Sundays a few years ago. And the lirr has been having more and more problems the past 2 years. I know all this because I have been using public transit for about 10 years now and getting places is just a nightmare. A half hour round trip takes 5 hours by bus. I agree there are things that can be done.

  • HamTech87

    Can we get Alon to write about MetroNorth and Bee-Line/MTA Bus? @ohnonono is correct in the above description. Bee-Line sucks nights and weekends, even going from White Plains to Yonkers.
    MetroNorth hasn’t done a bad job with offpeak service, though. Unfortunately, it is ridiculously expensive.
    Long Island’s flat topography, especially the southern and eastern parts, would make bicycling to LIRR stations easy and popular. But its prioritization of motorists makes bicycling there incredibly dangerous.

  • Larry Littlefield

    There is a reason that the MTA is being very quiet about reverse peak commuting.

    That means “those people” traveling to affluent Long Island to work. Some of whom might be residents of Brooklyn and Queens.

    Which is one reason they fought that third track to begin with.

  • Petee

    very thoughtful article. one cavil:

    “Today, there are timed cross-platform transfers at Jamaica between trains bound for Penn Station and trains bound for Brooklyn, but the reconstruction work at Jamaica will break the cross-platform transfer. Passengers will have to go up and then down stairs to change trains.”

    it’s that way often enough now.

  • Eric Alexander

    This article nails it. Add in the lack of planning surrounding Uber/ridesharing services with no benefits for our local bus systems. Despite the investment you have a radically underfunded system for working folks combined with a lack of amenities and ongoing frustration for LIRR riders. Sadly the toxic mix of folks not trusting large government and regional solutions breeds ongoing angst. Not a fun time to be working on transportation.

  • vnm

    Metro-North is expensive if your ticket is to Grand Central or Harlem. But if you’re staying local within Westchester County or the Bronx, there’s a deep discount.

  • vnm

    The MTA is being very quiet about reverse peak commuting? Didn’t they tout the need to encourage reverse peak commuting as the reason for building a main line third track in Nassau County? http://www.mta.info/news/2017/01/23/lirr-and-metro-north-railroad-break-ridership-records

  • skeets11

    Everything is racist, huh?

  • Joe Versaggi

    Some of his conclusions are somewhat exaggerated:

    Single-threading on one main Line track and making everything local would seriously slow down some trains, some of which have little extra room on them. A lot of trains would be running on Approach signals all the way from Westbury to Queens Village, if not Jamaica, on an 80MPH railroad. No more 40 minute runs between Hicksville and NYPS.

    The reverse peak outage lasts 90 minutes, but that doesn’t make it totally useless for reverse commuters. Annoying yes, but not totally useless. Arrivals at Mineola are at 6:39am, then 8:15am, 8:22am, 8:30am, 8:42am, 8:51am. The 7:39am NYPS to Ronkonkoma is loaded with 12 cars – hardly a sign of being useless.

    Many low-income workers living in NYC and working in Mineola have long since
    opted for NICE bus service since the LIRR has priced them off the system. Unlimited Metrocard with free transfers between subway and bus has changed many commuting patterns in western Nassau County, both peak direction and reverse peak over the last 20 years. Look at the peak direction N-6 buses out of Hempstead. They have chosen not to ride the Hempstead Branch, which has lost about 25% of it daily train volume since 1972.

    It is NICE’s LIRR Station/ village feeders, such as in Great Neck, Rockville Center, and Freeport, that have perished from lack of usage.The NICE east-west trunk bus routes are over-whelmed, but not well suited as LIRR train feeders. NICE’s Hempstead Terninal is across the street from the LIRR terminus, but there is not a whole lot of people walking between the two.

    I am all for a Main Line 3rd track project, as well as a 4th track – utilizing the old Central Branch between Garden CIty and Bethpage.

  • Alon Levy

    The Swiss slogan is “electronics before concrete.” If the signals don’t let local trains go at full speed, then upgrade the signals. It’s not expensive – all that’s required is shorter blocks. The top speed is 80 mph, not 125 mph; the trains accelerate and decelerate fast enough to not need new signal aspects. It’s massively cheaper than three-tracking, and results in better service to the local stations.

    A blackout until 8:15 is pretty bad. Way more rush hour trains arrive at Penn Station between 7 and 8:15 than between 8:15 and 9. it’s even worse at Hicksville, where trains arrive later and jobs are farther from the station.

    The NICE/LIRR fare system is exactly the problem. The trains are faster – even all-local trains with today’s 32% schedule padding would be faster. (And if all trains run local, schedule padding won’t be 32%; on the Babylon Branch, which has simpler scheduling, it’s 19%, and a system that prioritizes reliability, with no diesel in third rail territory, could go down to 7%.) The trains also have lower operating costs – even with five conductors per train, there’s less crew labor per passenger than on a bus. It’s in the entire region’s incentive to get people to take trips by rail when possible and use buses as feeders and not as competition.

  • Nicole Vaiana

    You do go into depth here, and I appreciate that because honestly LI’s transit woes arent discussed much at all. However as a former LI Bus and NICE passenger I’d like to bring up a few more points.

    Up until 2012, Nassau County’s bus system was Long Island Bus, operated (and greatly subsidized by) the MTA. Ed Mangano cut ties with the MTA because he thought it was too expensive. So that’s how we got privately-operated NICE. A month after they took over, they announced service cuts. Over the past six years we see this cycle repeat. service cuts –> unreliable service –> declining ridership–> service cuts. When you have to take two buses to get to work or school and one of those buses gets eliminated, you’re not going to take the other route anymore and NICE has lost all of your money.

    About a year ago I totally gave up on NICE and I no longer consider it an option. Buses are poorly maintained and break down frequently; fare boxes sometimes double dip. The bus rarely runs on schedule, I’ve frequently waited 40 minutes for a bus that’s supposed to run every 10 minutes. I once waited an hour and a half for a bus, after seven full or express buses flagged me. I’m sometimes afraid to be on the bus with some of the characters on it. Fights and arguments are way too common, sometimes even the bus driver argues with passengers.

    I moved to the Bronx because getting to my job in Brooklyn was way too much of a hassle from western Nassau. It’s higher rent but since I’m no longer paying the LIRR and Uber, I have more money in my pocket.

  • NYrByChoice

    I really don’t think so!


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