An Exhausting Dependence

Bus Cuts on Long Island and Their Impact on Riders

History of Long Island Public Transportation

How did Long Island come to love cars? Today, roads are congested and rush hours to and from the city are extreme. The vast majority of those who live and work on Long Island own a car and drive it to work. Three-quarters of them drive alone, according to census figures.

Car culture has been a part of Long Island since the end of World War II, when veterans flooded back into civilian life seeking a piece of the American Dream. It became the suburban dream, one built around the nuclear family: Mom, dad, 2.5 kids, a yard with a picket fence—and a car.

But even that is not the whole story: All those families needed roads, parkways, bridges and public beaches and parks. Nearly all of that infrastructure was built mainly by one man, Robert Moses. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 book “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro showed how Moses–though never elected to any office–used the powers and resources of the multiple public authorities he controlled to shape Long Island into a paradise for personal transportation.

It meant an emphasis on parkways and highways and away from public transportation. It also meant the building of several public parks and beaches, always with a large parking lot and  limited means of access for people coming from the city.

According to Caro, many of Moses’s practices were racially motivated. Moses required buses to have permits to enter state parks, and in the first half of the 20th Century, buses that were chartered by minority groups “found it very difficult to obtain permits, particularly to Moses’ beloved Jones Beach; most were shunted to parks many miles further out on Long Island.” Black people were pushed even further to the edges of parking lots and to the farthest, most undeveloped beaches.

One of the ways Moses restricted public transportation was by building bridges across state parkways with clearances too low for buses to pass. “Moses’ ingeniously restrictive laws and ingeniously low clearance parkway bridges had insured that buses would never be able to ruin the beauty of his Long Island parkways or carry poor people along them to his state parks,” Caro wrote. These bridges remain along the Wantagh, Southern and Northern state parkways.

Caro described Moses as a man who loathed both minorities and the poor, but many who moved to Long Island from the city shared some of those prejudices. From the early to mid 20th Century, the mass migration from the city to the new suburbs was a process known as “white flight.”

“For many it was not having to rely on subways and buses. Buses in particular were seen as something only poor people use,” said Lawrence Levy, director of the Institute for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. “Those people moved out here to get away from everything that represented the city, it was about race. Long Island is not responsive to the working poor, particularly people of color.”

As Long Island’s population grew in the decades after the war – from 948,894 in 1950 to 2,605,813 in 1980 — the suburban ideal strained under a new reality that came with development. “It was one thing when a family of four or five had a car, even a second car spent most of its time at a train station,” Levy said. “It’s another thing when homes were supporting three, four or five cars where every kid over the driving age had their own vehicle. The expansion of Long Island led to shopping areas, the arrangement of retail establishments in strip and indoor malls could only be reached by cars and trucks for delivery.”

Because Long Island was built for cars and personal mobility, it has never had an extensive and unified bus system. Until the 1970s it was a hodgepodge of private bus companies that ran short lines around the Island. But over time these companies had trouble sustaining themselves on their farebox revenues, said Larry Penner, a local transportation advocate who spent 31 years working for the Federal Transit Administration in New York.

In the 1980’s Suffolk Transit was created by the county legislature to oversee and administer a system of private contracted bus operators. The agency purchases buses and controls routes, schedules and fare prices, while the private contractors operate and maintain the buses.

Nassau started purchasing equipment, facilities and routes from a number of private bus operators in 1973. The county that year also made a licensing agreement with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that formed what became known as Long Island Bus. That relationship ended in 2012, when Nassau County signed an agreement with a French company, Transdev, formerly Veolia Inc., to form the Nassau Inter-County Express bus, or NICE.

The original agreement between Transdev and Nassau was set to end in 2016. Despite protests from Nassau Democrats and bus rider advocates, the contract was extended to 2021.