A Day Without Cars

A bicycle studies the North Fork train line at the Riverhead station.
A bicycle studies the North Fork train line at the Riverhead station.

There’s been a lot of talk on the East End in recent years about a concept known as “intermodal transportation,” but when those words come up in conversation, a lot of peoples’ eyes seem to glaze over. Mine do to.

But then a bright sunny September day happened, and some people said it was a good idea to not drive your car for a day, so that you could see what public transportation on Long Island is all about. So last Friday, I jumped on my bike in Flanders, on a mission: to get to Orient to do some secret research.

This isn’t the first time I’ve embarked on some crazy-schemed low carbon personal transportation plan. About a decade ago, I decided to do all my reporting by bicycle. After biking from Sag Harbor to the Southampton Town police station in Hampton Bays and then back again to find myself three hours late for my next interview, I realized there’s just no way to do all the work you need to do here and still be carbon free. I’m a slow learner.

A lot has changed since then with the way transportation works around here. There’s been a lot of talk about connectivity of public transportation, i.e., the buses might not go by your house or the train and bus schedules don’t line up. A lot of potential solutions have been floated — from more regular train service to buses that will pick people up at their homes — but most are just too costly to have seen the light of day.

A bicycle is the perfect link between those forms of transportation, but it’s only a reliable form of transportation if you’re able-bodied and like to get wet and cold. I didn’t realize until I started planning my Car Free Day how much has changed over the past decade in the acceptance of bicycles as a form of transportation. All of the S-92 Suffolk County buses now have bike racks, and the MTA is making it easier for you to take your bike on the train. Between those three methods of transportation, you should, in theory, be able to get anywhere on the East End without too much bother.

A bike pass is five bucks and it's good for the rest of your life.
A bike pass is five bucks and it’s good for the rest of your life.

The much-touted problem with the train is that it runs but twice a day in each direction during the week on the line to Greenport, and just three times a day on the line to Montauk.

But what I didn’t know when I boarded the train in Riverhead was that, no matter where you travel on the East End, the fare is just $3, because all of the East End is in the LIRR’s Zone 14. I tried to convince the conductor that I must have to give him more money, but he refused to take it. After all, you can’t get from Ronkonkoma to New York City on the train for less than $25 round trip. There was no way the fare could be that low.

And a pass to bring your bike with you costs $5 and is good for the rest of your life, the conductor told me. They give you a little receipt on board the train and then you can mail it to the MTA or take it to a ticket window, at a station up west that actually has ticket windows, and exchange it for a real, laminated pass that you can keep until you’re dead in your grave and marked for life as a bicycle permit holder. I gladly paid up.

The train bound east for Greenport was actually full of people, which surprised me, until I realized that they were all women, many of them in matching chiffon gowns, carrying red Solo cups, with one woman at the head of their gaggle holding a plastic champagne glass high. Bridal shower? I don’t know. I’ve never been to one but that must be how they are.

“Vineyards!!!,” they all yelled in unison when they first saw Jason’s Vineyard out the window of the train.

So this is Mattituck?
So this is Mattituck?

“Farms!!!,” they yelled again at yellowing cornstalks, tractors and horses. They all got off the train in the hipster mecca of Mattituck, tripping over their high heels, their Solo cups held high.

The train clack-clacked on, past the beautiful tree alone in the field by Mill Lane, past Southold and the old Traveler-Watchman building, through Hashamomuck Pond and Moore’s Woods until suddenly we were in the Greenport train station and a conductor was telling me to move my bike out of passengers’ way and the harbor of Greenport was sparkling and shining and waiting for the Maritime Festival to begin.

The Long Island Rail Road has all kinds of restrictions on when bicycles can be used listed on their website here, which seems custom-designed to scare bicyclists away. But the staff on the train seemed happy to have the business.

I’m not sure I can say the same for the drivers of the S-92 buses. I’ve never taken a bicycle on the bus, but I’ve taken that depressing ride on the S-92 more times than I care to mention, and the drivers never seem too happy to see a bicyclist trying to figure out how to put their bike on the rack on the front of the bus. The bike buses are a wonderful tool, in theory, for bicyclists to add to their alternative transportation itineraries, but they suffer from the limits that already exist for the Suffolk County transit system: buses are often late because they’re stuck in traffic in the Hamptons, they’re often overcrowded, and sometimes the two bike racks on the front of the bus are already filled and you have to wait another hour to get on the bus with your bike. In some cases, it’s just easier to get on the bike and ride.

The Riverhead to Greenport train ride was just 40 minutes — about the same amount of time it would take to drive there, and a bicycle ride to Orient just took 30 minutes more, less time than it would take you to drive to Planet Fitness for a workout after work.

And in that gear-spinning time, there’s a lot of room in your head to think about all sorts of wonderful things: Ospreys returning to their winter quarters in South America, lessons to teach your children before they leave the nest, notions about smartphones and technology and the changing nature of work. If we could work all night at remote locations of our choosing on projects we care about, we could ride our bikes all day and do nothing more to damage the planet. That’s not a dream, it’s becoming a reality for people around the world, and it’s making the world a better place.

But after I finished the secret Orient assignment, I realized one major flaw in that thinking. At 4 p.m., I needed to pick up two 50 pound bags of potatos, 100 ears of corn, a bushel of eggplants, two boxes of tomatoes and a bushel of green beans and onions from Wesnofske Farms in Peconic and drive them all to Flanders for the next morning’s farmers market. There was no way that was going to happen on the train and there was no way that was going to happen on a bike. I called a friend with a pickup truck, and rode shotgun all the way home with my bicycle wheel, a 50 pound bag of potatoes and a box of basil in my lap.

Last week, Rosemary Mascali of the MTA’s Transit Solutions, which organized this year’s first-every Car Free Day Long Island, told me that part of the purpose of Car Free Day is to better understand the limits of alternative transportation, in order to help make it better. I got schooled.

Humility is one of the most important things you can learn when you leave your beastly powerful car in the driveway and venture out into the world without the armor of your four wheeled escort. We could all use an extra dose of humility in our lives.

Orient causeway
The causeway to Orient.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

3 thoughts on “A Day Without Cars

  • September 24, 2013 at 5:33 pm
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    Well said, Beth.

    There’s one thing you didn’t mention: the lack of understanding most people have — drivers and cyclists both — regarding sharing the road between cyclists, cars and pedestrians. It would be very helpful if we all had a common understanding of the rules when trying to navigate the sometimes treacherous roads out here.

    Reply
    • September 24, 2013 at 9:55 pm
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      I couldn’t agree more, Eric. Still formulating ideas for another story on that very issue! Thank you for reading.

      Reply
  • September 25, 2013 at 9:25 pm
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    Hey Beth,

    It is fantastic that the conversation is moving toward bikes as a serious mode of transportation on Long Island. Multi-modal transportation can work. Many European cities and a few American towns have become extra bike friendly, and once people get used to the amenities of bike lanes, bikes allowed on the buses and trains, a place to shower and change at work… people fall in love with magic of the spinning wheel. As you say Beth, this is a dream that is coming true!

    I love the idea of that life-time bike pass for $5 and the $3 fare for eastern LI. To get people out of their cars, we have to make it cheaper, easier, faster and more fun than sitting in traffic breathing fumes. I worked on these types of multi-modal systems in San Luis Obispo California in the 90’s. Once we got the bike racks on the buses, then we had to lobby to allow bikes to come onto the bus if the rack was full and there was room on the bus. If you leave cyclist behind, the system will not grow as it needs to to significantly reduce societies car use.

    In California, we then worked to get bike lanes that could take you to almost all your destinations, especially work places, schools campuses, parks, beaches… When a novice can look out the window of their can and see a cyclist that has a safe bike lane to ride in, they just might think, wow that looks fun, instead of man, I hope they don’t get flattened.

    More than anything, what is needed is for people to do just what you did Beth, go out and try the system and then help the urban planners work out the kinks in the systems.

    Awesome reporting!

    Reply

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