by Jinsoo Henry Oh
As a North Fork native and returning resident, it might seem a little strange that smart city design and urban infrastructure have always interested me more than agriculture and farm vistas.
Having dabbled in urban planning during my college and even high school years, it’s safe to say that the urban environment has always been an interest of mine and a place from which I take inspiration.
Adorning my wall, a now-vintage 1980s New York City subway map waits to be joined by a recently purchased Hamptons and North Fork subway map from an aspirational subway system map design company.
While I’ve come to appreciate the bounty and draw of the East End, it is still hard to argue against the advantages of smart urban city design and its ability to compact interesting cultural institutions, events, and daily necessities together in a practical and efficient manner.
Opposed to the suburban and exurban sprawl of a place like Long Island, cities can provide affordable and accessible mobility to a much larger segment of the population as they simultaneously reduce overall environmental impact.
While the fictional East End subway system will never be built, another form of transit is coming to town that will effectively accomplish the same goals, and be infinitely more cost effective and logical than boring tunnels under beach dunes.
Trolley shuttles – with their quaint visual aesthetic, flexible mobility, and lack of a need of any additional rail infrastructure – may be the perfect solution to a growing problem, and capture both the cultural and logistical juxtapositions of the rural and urban that define this region in the high season.
Summering on the East End is becoming more and more popular every year because of the area’s beaches and the boom in popularity of farm/sea to table dining, wine, and craft beverages. The Twin Forks’ infrastructure has had difficulty coping with the change.
The Hamptons has seen its “trade parade” delays on weekday mornings on Sunrise and Montauk highways for years. The fall season on the North Fork sees exiting traffic backing up from the hamlet of Laurel all the way into Riverhead on busy weekends.
There is also the ever-present problem of driving while intoxicated, especially with the role alcohol plays in the local economy. According to federal statistics, rural areas account for 53 percent of all fatal car accidents, highly disproportionate if accounting by population, as the majority of Americans live in urban areas.
Many East End visitors come from the most populous and most densely populated urban area in the country, and are both accustomed to and attempt car-less travel when visiting.
I remember on more than a few occasions, being out at a local wine tasting room and seeing visitors almost stranded because the local taxi company could not pick them up for another hour. It is clear that solutions are needed for improving the way in which both locals and visitors can get around town.
This summer, the Town of Southampton, in conjunction with M&V Limousines, the operator of Hampton Luxury Liner, has begun tackling its transit problem. The Hampton Bays Trolley Shuttle Service began its inaugural run on Saturday, June 17, attempting to simultaneously tackle the issue of mobility and combat traffic.
The town is also looking to offer more amenities to “spruce up” an area that is sometimes overlooked, compared to its more affluent neighbors. Hampton Bays also happens to be one of the most densely populated areas of the East End, which makes it a prime candidate for this type of transit experiment.
On the trolley service’s opening day, I began my journey as the sole passenger at the Hampton Bays LIRR station, which serves as the line’s start and end point. As I embarked, I was kindly greeted by my driver, Salvatore Diquattro of M&V Limousines, and Southampton Town Director of Public Transportation & Traffic Safety Thomas Neely.
While it was slightly discouraging to see the lack of a strong initial turnout, I was able to gain a lot of insight into the town’s goals and how it envisions residents and visitors will use the service.
Hampton Luxury Liner has two vehicles reserved for its runs – one that looks like a traditional trolley and the one I rode, which was essentially a mini-bus. The town plans to use the trolley design most of the time and reserve the mini-bus for backup.
The trolley’s hourly run targets two beach areas – the eastern end of Dune Road along the ocean and Meschutt Beach on Peconic Bay. Along the way, it makes designated stops and can also be waved down like a taxi. En route, we passed the densely populated neighborhood along Ponquogue Avenue, Hampton Bays’ Main Street, and the newly constructed Good Ground Park.
It originates from the Hampton Bays train station every hour, on the hour, between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. A map of the route is online here.
As we made our way down the first “leg” of the route, I asked Mr. Neely if the town’s ultimate goal was traffic alleviation or increasing tourism to the area.
He explained that the hamlet’s population density, along with its amenities – its beaches, parks, and business district – made for the perfect opportunity to accomplish both goals. The program was something that the business community in Hampton Bays had been asking for, he said.
Once the pilot was proposed, other businesses along the route were eager to be listed along it as well. The trolley passes several hotels and restaurants on the way to Ponquogue Beach and Shinnecock County Park West.
Mr. Neely foresees beachgoers utilizing the shuttle to get to the water easily and still be able to return to town for a meal.
The service could help busy families, he said, as kids would be able to make a trip to the beach without having to rely on their parents for rides. He explained that a similar beach shuttle concept has already been tested in Bridgehampton because demand for parking was so high.
As we made our way toward Ponquogue Bridge, Mr. Diquattro and Mr. Neely found their next passenger, who was able to successfully wave down the shuttle. I introduced myself to our new passenger, Ted Salmon, who happened to be an employee of the Town Clerk’s Office.
He said he was thankful for the shuttle, since Suffolk County recently ceased a Suffolk Transit bus route that serviced the same area. Mr. Salmon said he plans to use the new town-operated shuttle over the course of the summer to get to work and run errands in town.
As we looped back around to downtown Hampton Bays, we pass the Southampton Town Clerk’s Office, the Main Street business district, and proceeded toward the eastern edge of the Shinnecock Canal. We arrived at Meschutt Beach and the county-operated marina, where Mr. Neely envisions visitors will be able to get a “tour of the town.”
He sees this an opportunity for tourists visiting by boat to have a viable means of transit into Hampton Bays’ main business district and other parts of the hamlet.
Our final leg of the trip takes us to the beautiful and newly opened Good Ground Park amphitheater.
While no final decision has been made, Mr. Neely said the town is considering operating a late trolley to service evening concerts that will take place at the park in the summer months.
As an interested stakeholder in regional quality of life and transportation issues, I asked the transportation director what other plans are in the works for Southampton Town and beyond. He said counterparts in neighboring East Hampton and Southold Towns are discussing similar trolley plans for their respective districts.
Mr. Neely, who also sits on the East End Transportation Council, explained that when it comes to tackling transit issues in Eastern Long Island, there is much more in the pipeline, including a multifaceted approach to solving the morning traffic problems on the South Fork. Such a plan would call for extra trains during the morning and evening rushes, which would operate in conjunction with neighborhood shuttle systems.
After traversing a large portion of Hampton Bays and learning a great deal about the real and practical initiatives Southampton is making in public transit along our ride, we finally made our way back to the loop around point. At the train station, a family of three awaited, about to make the same pleasant trip and take advantage of a promising new service for the area.
The Hampton Bays Trolley Shuttle will operate the weekend of June 24 and 25, and will begin daily service (except Wednesdays) 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., beginning June 30 and will run until September 4, The trolley shuttle will operate regardless of weather.
While opening weekend fares were free, the town plans on charging nominal fees for service going forward. One-way tickets will cost $5, same day unlimited rides will be $10, or $100 for an unlimited ride season pass. Seniors over 60 and children between 3 and 12 years will be $3 one-way and $8 for same day unlimited. Children under 3 ride free.