Staten Island is often thought of as New York’s automobile borough, and indeed, it is in all ways more car-friendly and car-dependent than the subway-threaded core.
And yet: the borough boasts more daily bus riders than St. Louis or Detroit, the fastest-increasing bus ridership in the city, and tens of thousands of multi-modal commuters. It is in some ways a more complex transit environment than the other boroughs, where a second mode usually means the quickest way to get to the nearest subway station.
Despite their burgeoning importance, the bus routes on Staten Island are hopelessly outdated. Four buses still terminate at the Port Richmond Terminal, though ferry service there stopped in 1962. Ten buses follow torn-up streetcar routes, some of which date back to the 1930s. The borough’s population has tripled since then.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has launched its own effort to fix the network, but on a Saturday earlier this month, the authority let the public have a go. Writer Kennett Werner was in Lower Manhattan to see what happened when 150 transit geeks and data scientists tried to hack the bus.
It’s a long and winding road to work for Staten Island residents, who have the nation’s second-longest average commute at 43 minutes, according to the Census Bureau. Most Islanders drive to work, but for the 29 percent dependent on public transit, the trip is even longer — 69 minutes, on average —and often multi-modal. Ferry, heavy rail, and subway can all play a part, but the biggest piece of the puzzle by far is the bus. Bus ridership citywide is falling; Staten Island’s is rising.
And yet bus travel within the borough is circuitous to the point of scorn; service to Manhattan is slow. Decades of subpar public transit have made Islanders into a resilient bunch. At the recent Staten Island Bus Hackathon in Lower Manhattan, Jonathan Peters, a finance professor at the College of Staten Island, explained how New Jersey-bound commuters will drive over the Bayonne Bridge to get to the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, paying a toll and parking fee in the process.
“Tell me any place in the world where people pay a bridge toll to pay to park to ride the rail,” Peters challenged the group of hackers. “These people have a car, they’ve looked at the game, and they play the game. So if we can come up with a better way to route them…” Peters trailed off. “You don’t know how happy I am to be here.”
The hackathon — jointly organized by TransitCenter, a foundation dedicated to improving urban mobility, and the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University — drew approximately 150 participants: a mix of software engineers, transit planners, and, yes, a handful of Staten Islanders. There to introduce the challenge and hear proposals was Jonathan Hawkins of the MTA, which has launched its own Staten Island Comprehensive Bus Study. This was the MTA’s first hackathon since 2013 — when it invited hackers to develop mobile apps for commuters — and its first hackathon geared toward major service improvement.
If bus service takes a back seat to the subway elsewhere in the city, on Staten Island, which has no rail connection to the rest of the city, buses are the dominant component of public transport. The trouble, as Hawkins explained, is that Staten Island’s bus network fails to meet modern commuter needs. It was designed in the 1960s as part of a citywide bus planning initiative, but it never received the thorough overhaul since undertaken throughout the other boroughs. Development and demographic shifts have continued apace, and much of the island is now underserved.
“I’m 53 years old, and I’ve never seen anything new,” said Peters. “I am too young to have seen the highway expansion in the ’70s. The Verrazano Bridge opened when I was two.”
It was without a hint of exaggeration that Borough President James Oddo opened the event by thanking attendees for their service as “allies in this struggle.”
After some hacker speed dating, participants formed teams and got to work. Candace Brakewood, a professor of transit planning at the City College of New York, zeroed in on the local bus network. First her team identified major demand generators: the College of Staten Island, Mariners Harbor, and the hospital. Using ridership data provided by the MTA, they compared car and bus travel times. A few minutes with Google Maps underscored how roundabout some routes are. A bus trip from Mariners Harbor to the College would require 45 minutes with two transfers or one hour direct. By car? Twelve minutes.
To streamline transfers between express and local buses, Brakewood’s team decided to implement a system of hubs modeled after the Eltingville Transit Center, where 16 bus lines stop. The team would also improve north-south connectivity and lighten service to Port Richmond Terminal, where ferry service ended years ago.
Nearby, a team of NYU grad students offered a more modest intervention to aid Brooklyn-bound commuters. For buses crossing the Verrazano Bridge to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, they proposed extending service by 30 blocks and offering easy transfers to the N train. That would facilitate transit to the Barclays Center and Industry City, two popular commuter destinations.
Commuters to Manhattan have two public transit options: the ferry, which leaves from Saint George, Staten Island’s northernmost tip, or the coach-style express bus service, which travels through Brooklyn or New Jersey and charges a premium fare. What’s billed as express service is so slow that 36 percent of commuters drive to the last pickup stop to save time, suggesting that express routes linger too long on Staten Island. Another 26 percent transfer to the subway once in Manhattan.
Hawkins instructed participants to weigh ease of access against trip speed. Should express buses make multiple stops on Staten Island, as most do now, before crossing the Verrazano for Manhattan? Should they spend a quarter of their time shuttling across Manhattan surface streets? The X1, for instance, makes 21 stops in Manhattan before reaching midtown.
Christian Moscardi, a data scientist, applied the hub idea to express service. Instead of having express buses “run all over the island,” commuters would get to one of three hubs by car, local bus, or the one-line Staten Island Railway. On the other end of the trip, Moscardi proposed driving buses straight to the Port Authority Bus Terminal or Wall Street. Commuters would reach their final destination on foot or by subway.
The hackers presented their ideas and milled about as a panel of judges repaired to a back room for deliberation. Twenty minutes later they emerged, awarding the first prize of $1,000 to Sri Kanajan, a data scientist from San Francisco, for a proposal to streamline express bus service.
Felicia Tao, a fast-talking entrepreneurship student from Singapore, was unfazed when the prizes went elsewhere. She said she and her friends would be back for more hackathons; they compete regularly.
The organizers of the event were visibly pleased to have MTA officials there. “It’s about proving to government agencies that the general public has good ideas and can get things done,” explained Sarah Kaufman of the Rudin Center.
Others suggested that the MTA had more work to do in eliciting commuter input. Dimitra Kourrisova, a graduate student at the New School studying civic engagement in transit planning, put it this way: “One of the major problems is that when you’re trying to reconfigure a bus network, you need to know where people need to go. If you look at data that’s already there, you’re only assessing what people use among the available options. Because people use what’s available.”
Another reality difficult to ignore was the MTA directive that redesigns should be “cost neutral.” Big investment in public transport tends to go to the core over the periphery. We were standing within blocks of the $1.4 billion Fulton Center and the $4 billion Santiago Calatrava-designed Transport Hub — the “Calatravesty,” as one hacker put it, shaking his head. Staten Island will have to make due with few additional resources for its bus overhaul.
TransitCenter plans to host a meeting with the MTA later this month, where compelling proposals from the hackathon will get a second look. In April, they’ll take those ideas to Staten Island for a town hall meeting. One of them might find its way onto a bus map.
Kennett Werner is a writer based in New York.
Slideshow image courtesy of the MTA | Patrick Cashin