There are fewer situations where the statement “If you build it, they will come,” rings truer than in the area of transportation.
Opening the Erie Canal opened the Midwest; the railroads opened the West; the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system turned rural no-wheres-villes into towns and cities. Henry Morrison Flagler transformed Florida’s swampland into tourist centers merely by laying railroad tracks. And it was the Long Island Railroad that triggered the residential development of Great Neck and Port Washington, and the Long Island Expressway that sowed the seeds for countless suburban communities to crop up as each new exit was constructed.
In other words, it’s not the concentration of commerce and people that first spark transportation systems, it is the transportation infrastructure that is the catalyst for development.
So it is unbelievably baffling to me, as I sat through my second Nassau Hub “gathering” of what are referred to as “stakeholders” (they aren’t really public hearings), as to what is the big mystery in how to create mass transportation into and around the Nassau Hub, and what could possibly warrant $8 million in a contract to the consulting company managing this ridiculous process, Jacobs Engineering.
Well actually I do know: in order to qualify for federal funding, the County has to do a study of transit “alternatives”. And it is taking so long because the Nassau Coliseum redevelopment is still up in the air, even though the planners said that the Hub study is “separate.”
This session was euphemistically called a “progress report” – basically reporting on why out of a dozen or so “alternatives” several were knocked off.
Apparently, the decision has already been made that none of these systems will involve anything as ambitious as Light Rail, or anything that actually requires building at all – and if it did, wouldn’t it make more sense to “test” a route with a bus, before you build something?
I had the audacity to ask Jeff Stiles, the lead consultant on the Nassau Hub Transit Alternatives Analysis, why they don’t just try out different routes. I mean it is okay that to survey passengers who already ride the bus – you know, “those” people who can’t afford a car and use the bus to get to their jobs, to school, to doctors – but the idea (and this is where it gets rather humorous) is to get the affluent people who would much rather drive, to leave their Lexus, their Mercedes, or such in the garage when they go to their season seats at the Nassau Coliseum.
Only in the bizarre-o world of Nassau County can you have Long Island Bus service on the brink of being slashed in half for people for whom bus service is a lifeline, even as an elite group, funded with millions of federal dollars, looks at ways to create new public transit routes into the Nassau Hub (that shopping and commercial area around the Nassau Coliseum that includes Roosevelt Field) designed to get people to leave their cars at home.
This is the second public session I have attended and left without a scintilla of practical information about the Nassau Hub project, except for the impression that this is a dog-and-pony show in order to meet the criteria to get that stash of federal funding.
The “planning” process which has been going on for a year or more, has fine-tuned a bunch of potential “routes”, oriented around a 2035 framework. That’s the year 2035, when the modeling for new transit routes are supposed to project demographics and use.
That modeling is based on (basically) what happens if you do nothing, and just let the demographics go in their trajectory. But amazing things happen if you make it easier and cheaper for people to travel. (It was unclear when these routes are supposed to actually be implemented – not as long away as 2035 but not any time in the near future.)
Interestingly, the newest trend is for people to try to live within walking distance of mass transit; the appeal of driving 1 1/2 hours in traffic each day to get from that house in the suburbs to the job in the city, at an ungodly cost for gas, is losing its appeal. That is the case in urban areas like the Five Boroughs, but is also happening around the downtowns of suburbia, Nassau County, with the best example in the Great Neck Plaza.
The benefits of building transportation infrastructure were appreciated and embraced in the 19th and 20th centuries – resulting not coincidentally of the rise of America as an economic superpower. But we very modern 21st century Americans seem to question the benefits of mass transit and economic and social development.
What was painfully clear at this particular meeting of the Nassau Hub “stakeholders” was that all that talk about the benefits to Nassau County areas outside the Hub was really just talk. There was no discussion of any proposed north-south routes (beyond some access from the South Shore to the Nassau Hub), beyond the idea of a “feeder” system into the Hub, though there was some mention of the inconvenience of having to make multiple transfers to get to a destination. The main focus is moving buses around the Hub.
So you wonder: how are people supposed to get to the Hub, in order to get around the Hub? Or is the point of this exercise really to make sure the workers get to the Hub from their Hempstead homes?
One woman asked whether there would be “park-and-ride” lots, as a way to encourage people who would otherwise drive to at least use mass transit into the Hub – an excellent idea indeed, but then again there is the problem of land (how about the brownfields that Suozzi wanted to redevelop?, or even use train station lots in the off-hours, which tend to be the busiest times for shopping and entertainment in the Hub?
Noting that at some point the study will look at the external links into the Hub system, Stiles said, “One of the amazing things we found is that the second highest land use is parking – 12.5% of land is parking – that’s a tremendous waste, so we will look at places for parking so people can take transit into the Hub.”
But since all of this planning really benefits the commercial interests within the Nassau Hub (Charles Wang and the Nassau Coliseum, Roosevelt Field, the Source shopping area, Hofstra University with a bit of Winthrop Hospital thrown in mostly as a token social benefit if they feel magnanimous), why wouldn’t the property owners subsidize the transit service?
This is not a breakthrough idea. Other places already do this: Louisville, Kentucky, has a free vintage-looking trolley that runs around the downtown; Portland, Oregon offers free Light Rail service inside its downtown loop. And during the Gold Coast International Film Festival weekend, I noticed recently a cutesy trolley in Port Washington sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce.
In fact, whenever there is new housing development, such as was proposed for East Shore Road (remember that marvelous waterfront project that died?), there should be some requirement of putting money into a mass-transit fund to support some kind of public bus or shuttle system. Developers are now required to make contributions to a park fund (even the Village of Great Neck which until the Strathmore park, didn’t even have a park, but had a park fund), and to make traffic improvements like pay for a street light.
Indeed, it would seem that advertising alone, or using new Social Media marketing techniques like the couponing schemes like Groupon or Living Social, could go a long way to subsidizing the cost of mass transit. (We just saw the first New York City subway car wrapped on the outside with advertising, and wall to wall advertising inside, and in China, it is common to see buses that are entirely wrapped advertisements, one of the incongruities.)
The juxtaposition of the discussion over Nassau Hub, against the backdrop of slashing, and now privatizing Long Island Bus, was absolutely comic.
Last week, during my interview with executives of Veolia Transport, Mangano’s selection for the private operator for Long Island Bus, I raised the question of why, as long as you are privatizing and ostensibly choosing a company (Veolia Transport) that has VAST experience in multiple modalities of mass transportation around the world, why you wouldn’t actually bring them on board to address the Nassau Hub as they take over Long Island Bus?
Veolia Transport’s senior management replied that the Nassau Hub was not part of the RFP. But they seemed intrigued.
Jeffrey Stiles, of Jacobs Engineering, opened the Nassau Hub meeting, which was held in the Nassau County Legislature’s Chambers on June 2, noting that the transit study they were working on had nothing to do with the proposed redevelopment – or the $400 million in bonding to rebuilt Nassau Coliseum and a minor league baseball park. And yet, how could the redevelopment, which will affect the use of the land, traffic to those places, not be part of the planning for a new transit system?
“We are here about transit service around Nassau and the Hub area, and not part of the redevelopment of Coliseum – but we are keeping an eye on the studies, because changes in land use could impact transit ridership, patterns, that we will incorporate into the study.”
Doesn’t it all seem carts before horses, especially since the decisions that will be made about the Nassau Coliseum appear to be fairly imminent, with a referendum set for August 1 on bonding? (In fairness, it all comes down to going through the hoops in order to get the federal money).
It is instructive to know how they are building their concept: Stiles said that they had people riding buses over a two-week period last June (before the end of school), during which they distributed 7,000 surveys to determine where they started their trip, where transfer, where they ended up; they developed a ridership profile of race, income and such to determine who is riding the buses today. They got back 4,000 completed surveys.
What was the major finding of this survey? The highest concentration of bus ridership is in Hempstead.
This is all very interesting (as well as obvious), but a key goal of the Nassau Hub transit system, Stiles said, is not the people who are actually riding the buses today, who actually depend upon bus transportation because they do not have an alternative to get to jobs, school or medical care, but, rather, to get people out of their cars and into mass transit so that by 2035, we do not strangle our own existence.
They came up with a list of Nassau Hub “activity centers” (attractions) that should be somehow connected by transit – most essential on the list were Nassau Coliseum, Roosevelt Field, and depending on how ambitious you want it, The Source. Remember “if you build it, they will come?” It is as if government decides which enterprise will be getting the boost.
Out of all of this analysis came some 14 alternative routes (remember “Alternatives Analysis” is the name of the game… I mean “study”). The purpose of this particular meeting was to review the “fatal flaws” that apparently knocked out several of these routes from future consideration.
What might qualify as a fatal flaw? Stiles explained that a “fatal flaw is a significant barrier to the implementation of the transit alternative.”
The “fatal flaw screen objectives” (the things you want) include:
- Provide improved transit access to, from and within the study area
- Use transit to better serve existing activity centers
- Coordinate transit infrastructure and services with land use to promote sustainability and livability and enhance quality of life
- Develop a transit alternative that takes advantage of the use of existing transportation infrastructure, where appropriate.
All of this has to be coordinated with land-use policies. “We don’t want to implement [the service] in low-density, single family communities. We want to put it into areas where there is a lot of activity, where quality of life is improved, rather than sitting in an automobile.”
He added, revealingly: “The days of building billion dollar infrastructure programs are fewer and far between. This region has tremendous amount of transportation investments being made. Here, this needs to be cost-competitive, take advantage of existing roadways, right of ways, so we don’t have to acquire property.” So much for north-south Light Rail.
And what about such significant changes to the transit landscape as the MTA’s plan for a Long Island Railroad route to Grand Central? Wouldn’t that impact some of their planning?
“When we model alternatives, that model has what we have as a baseline condition – that access to Grand Central will be in place – we will have a build year – 2035 – that will take all transportation products…. So when we see the analysis – a comparison of what transportation networks would be like in 2035 with and without the project.” (I didn’t get it).
Just to give you an example of how this reasoning proceeds, this is what “Alternative 1” sounds like:
It would involve 18.8 miles of new infrastructure (a bus route between Hempstead and Roosevelt Field Mall), travel 679,000 vehicle miles a year, access 6 “essential” and 3 “important” activity centers, with travel times of 14.3 or 10.3 minutes (the faster time assumes the bus has a dedicated lane or some travel priority, a benefit that entails a cost).
Alternative 4 would involve 17.3 miles, travel 722,000 miles/year, access 7 “essential” and 3 “important” activity centers (this alternative doesn’t go out to the Medical Center but to the Source Mall).
Alternative 7 would span 21.4 miles, travel 859,000 miles/year, access 6 “essential” and 3 “important” activity centers, and have an exclusive right-of-way for a short distance, so travel time is reduced.
“Trips to Roosevelt Field Mall are not as sensitive to travel time,” Jacobs said. “People are willing to deal with that” (Well of course: they don’t have to fight for a parking space and walk a mile to get into the mall.)
Now that we’ve cleared that up, the next steps are to Identify key factors for making transit attractive to potential users; assess the market potential for transit investment; and accumulate information about people’s preferences.
Essentially, the question is, “What does it take to get you out of a car and into a transit vehicle?” What attributes do they need to incorporate (Just guessing but park and ride? a free shoppers bus on weekends?)
Once that is done, the analysts will Incorporate input on “fatal flaw” screening – that means, knocking out what is actually not feasible because of such things as zoning and land use.
You can participate in the survey yourself at www.nassauhub.com.
Stiles made it clear who the target of this exercise is. It isn’t “the non-choice user using the bus, who doesn’t have car, who doesn’t have access [because of] income level.” No, the people who actually depend on the bus, for whom the bus is a critical lifeline, are not the focus of this effort to build an “alternative.” Who is the target? “For us to be successful, it is where it is a choice to use a bus or a car– because it is efficient, easier to deal with, and you don’t have to worry about parking.”
He said it might even take a “threshold of pain” to get someone to change their behavior. How? Well, he is targeting the fact that 12.5% of the land use is devoted to parking, “so they will drive. So reduce parking.”
“Travel time is the biggest reason people would switch. The [traffic on the] roadways is only getting worse. So, if we are looking out 20-25 years, that roadway network continues to lock up, it will drive people to make different decisions, if we can provide transit service that is efficient, comfortable.”
And it only costs $8 million to come up with this?
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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