Private App-Based Transit Is the Way to Go
By HOWARD HUSOCK
If you’re on the long waiting list for a parking spot at the Metro-North station, or if you’d rather not drive there at all, you might wonder why Rye does not have bus service linking our neighborhoods to the train. Some may remember that until 2012 there was such a link — the County Bee Line 76 bus, which looped around Milton Point until it was eliminated by then County Executive Rob Astorino.
There were short-lived and ineffective protests at the time. It turns out, though, that the County’s own transportation planners think they were right— and that bus links like the Route 76 should be the future, not the past, of County transit service. Such service, the County concluded, should however be operated by private app-based transportation companies — like Uber — rather than by the County.
A February 2018 report authored by the Planning Division of the County Department of Public Works and Transportation, concluded that the Bee Line, which operates 60 routes in the County, is suffering from “extremely low average ridership”; one route serving Peekskill averaged but nine passengers a day, covering just three percent of its operating costs. Overall system ridership fell ten percent from 2013 to 2016. As a result, the Bee Line requires deep subsidies to run lots of half-empty buses whose fareboxes, at $2.75 per ride, don’t come close to covering costs. The County devotes $123 million annually to operating the system. What’s more, even though it contracts with the private Liberty Lines to provide drivers, the County owns the buses and pays to maintain them.
It’s just one more example, in other words, of Rye taxpayers, who pay more in County taxes than in Rye City taxes (24 percent v. 17 percent), having little to show for shouldering a disproportionate burden. At the same time, poor bus service creates “increased pressure for municipalities and (Metro- North) to expand parking even more.” Not the way to reduce any one’s carbon footprint, in other words.
The Transportation Department report, however, points toward a change that could make a big difference. It’s called “Last Mile” service, so named for linking bus stops or even homes to important services such as Metro-North. An app-based “transportation network company” such as Via, an Uber-type service that offers van-style “micro-transit”, can, the report found, be more efficient than Bee Line-style “fixed-route” buses.
“Share rides,” notes the report, “featured multiple pick-ups and drop-offs during the time that a passenger was en route to his destination. The driver follows the route prescribed by an algorithm, which may not be the fastest or more direct path but optimizes the number who can share the trip.”
In other words, no 30-foot-long empty buses lumbering along routes that don’t meet potential passenger needs. Some routes, the report concludes, might even cover their costs without County subsidies; others might require subsidies to keep the fare low for lower-income riders.
“First and Last Mile transit partnerships” hold the promise of commuters using their phone to alert “micro-transit” that they’re ready to head to a Metro-North station, then walking a short distance to meet a van at a specific time. Such partnerships, the report continues, are credited in cities where they’ve been tried (including a Rye-like suburb, Summit, New Jersey) “for bridging inefficiencies or distances for users by providing quick and easy connections to public transportation.”
Think of the attractiveness to potential homebuyers in what is currently a down market. App-dispatched micro-transit might make it possible for households to own fewer cars and for those who don’t drive to be able to get around town.
Which is why the County’s response, to date, to its own Transportation Department planning staff’s report is disappointing. The report makes clear that the best approach to jump-starting micro-transit would involve discontinuing some existing, low-ridership, high-subsidy Bee Line routes, and re-allocating some of that $123 million operating budget for micro-transit contracts.
That’s not what’s happened though. To date, rather than re-directing its own funds, the County has chosen to pursue the time-consuming route of seeking a federal grant to contract with Via on a limited pilot project. If, and only if, the federal Department of Transportation approves its proposal, Via would operate “first mile/last mile” service to just three Metro-North stations: Peekskill, Tuckahoe, and Crestwood. Rye residents might well wonder why service that would make up for the lost Route 76 was not on that list, especially when County Executive George Latimer is a Rye resident who’s presumably aware of the service vacuum.
There is some hope, though. According to Catherine Cioffi, the County Executive’s office spokesperson, the County is “about to launch a broader, County Mobility and Bus Redesign Study which will further identify potential markets for transit network company partnerships and look at various solutions to addressing first/last mile mobility challenges.”
These, it says, could include partnerships between transit network companies and individual municipalities, as many of them have expressed interest in such arrangements at a local level.