New thoughts in New York

Unsurprisingly, a trip to the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut “tri-state area” gives a transit geek like me multiple stimuli.  I daresay I responded to all of them—an Amtrak interstate train from the airport to New Haven; a free city bus from the train station to the Yale campus; a vanpool back to the station; “heavy” commuter rail from New Haven to midtown Manhattan; the subway to Brooklyn; a taxi to another rail station; commuter rail to and from Long Island; and commuter rail to the airport.

Through it all, I came to a startling realization—some trips, or some itineraries, may not be well-suited for transit, even in a “mecca” like New York.  Were we to have gone from New Haven to Manhattan, stayed there for the day, and then taken a half-hour train to the airport, I would not have come to this conclusion.  After all, we could easily have beaten a rental car on price (including gas and parking) and speed (the freeways don’t all have dedicated high-occupancy vehicle lanes to compare to dedicated rail right of way).

But in this case, we had to veer a good bit off course—traveling southwest into Manhattan only to veer southeast to Brooklyn and then north and east to Long Island.  We also couldn’t get right to our destinations, which ordinarily would not bother me, but I was carting a 60 pound suitcase and a carry-on in high heat.

So, when it was all said and done, our itinerary would likely have been covered at least more quickly in our own car, and we might have even spent less.  In all, we spent around $214 on transportation as a couple for the three days we were in the area.  Even covering 250 miles in a car, with a full tank (figure $50), I think we could have saved money, especially by avoiding Manhattan and parking on a Sunday with more free street spaces around.  Interestingly, in New Haven, we would have found ourselves parking several blocks from where we stayed, paying to park and walking much further than where the free city bus dropped us off.

We would have also faced heavy traffic in New York that’s hard for me to calculate given that I’ve not driven much of the area, so that could have marginalized the time gains—30 minutes here, 40 minutes there, etc.  And, of course, we could read or sleep on transit, which I desperately needed to do after consuming more free alcohol at the reunion than one ever should in a single evening.  And we minimized the pollutants added to the air and so on.  And all but the Amtrak ran on schedule and I could buy all of my tickets at a self-serve station that took credit cards.

All of that said, particularly in cities where transit is far less regular, prompt, and extensively developed than it is in New York, I understand the need for car travel.  I am encouraged to read in the New York Times that even a city like New York continues to look for ways to expand transit infrastructure—adding another subway line to reduce oppressive crowds on the East side, creating a ferry system as a meaningful mode of commuter transportation.  But some occasions and trips truly demand the features a car provides—particularly freedom from luggage weight at transit stations without elevators and greater time to spend with loved ones whom you don’t often see.

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