Seven Hours: A tour of Staten Island's infamous transit systems
An expedition on the borough’s infamous public transit system
It took five subways, a ferry, a train, and four buses to get from the top of Queens to the bottom of Staten Island, and back.
Normally, the trip by car is a little over an hour each way. But for me – the courageous commuter – the few hours I had set aside to traverse Staten Island quickly morphed into an entire workday: I left my apartment in Astoria at 9 a.m., made it to the South Shore just after noon, and was back home around 5 p.m. Clocking in at eight hours flat.
Of course, this isn’t news to Staten Islanders. Transportation is one of the most visible disconnects between their borough and its brethren; the New York City subway system efficiently snakes its way through Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx, but its tentacles come nowhere near the “forgotten” fifth, which barely holds on to the edge of the MTA subway map. Instead, the island’s denizens must rely on a mile-long bridge with hefty tolls – or, of course, the free Staten Island ferry, which if you miss (like I did), the punishment is another half-hour wait.
Earlier this year, Borough President James Oddo remarked, “The commute for many Staten Islanders has gone from bad to torturous.” Traveling via public transportation in the borough certainly has that reputation; the island is said to be the most car-friendly borough for a reason. “You could write a book about that,” one Bay Terrace resident remarked to me.
So I came ashore at the St. George Terminal with a purpose: to crisscross the borough from one end to the other, using only buses, a train and my own two feet. It would be a test of true grit, to see how tough it is to get around as a Staten Islander. Was this just a blown-up exaggeration by the island’s residents, who – in their minds, anyway – feel so distant from City Hall? Or was the native I met on the ferry ride over right? “It seems small,” he ominously told me, “but it’s a big island.”
Once back on land, my journey to the South Shore began on board the Staten Island Railway, the only train Staten Islanders can call their own. (Even its ads give vent to the borough’s existential crisis: “Staten Islanders deserve #1!” one exclaimed.) Save for a minor stall, the ride was relatively smooth. And by the time I arrived at the terminus in Tottenville, the bright harbor and marina yachts visible from my window, the car was barely full.
From start to finish, the train time itself lasted about an hour, or the length of time it takes for the A train to bounce its way from Washington Heights down to Bed-Stuy. In the morning and evening rush, SIR express trains – which are linked to ferry departures and arrivals – can cut that time in half. But past 8:30 p.m., trains come every 30 minutes.
As a train, the SIR comes off like a mix between the Long Island Rail Road and a city subway: a scheduled line above ground, a simple MetroCard swipe for a ride. The route curves southwest from the St. George Terminal, and strictly serves one side of the island. It’d be as if Brooklyn only had the G train. (Post-Sandy proposals to revitalize the defunct North Shore line were deemed too costly, and replaced by an express bus route.)
So borough residents who don’t live close to an SIR station – also known as “the majority” – must instead rely on the bulk of the island’s massive, migraine-inducing maze of MTA bus routes. And from the minute I left the quiet confines of colonial Tottenville on the S78, I learned why these buses are, perhaps, the greatest woe of the stranded Staten Islander.
On board the S78, I texted a friend of mine who’s from New Springville about my journey. His response: “Good luck with those buses.” And I didn’t even have to approach a resident to find out why.
In true Staten Island fashion, they came to me with complaints. Numerous conversations started off with “Have you seen the bus?” rather than “Hey!” and ended with a collective sigh, like the one Brooklynites let out when commiserating about the G train.
As I got off the S78, one passenger who boarded angrily told the driver, and then me, that he’d been waiting for over a half-hour. While waiting for the S55 (my second bus) on Hylan Boulevard, a woman named Bonnie approached to ask how long I’d been there for. Fifteen minutes, I said. Then I asked her what happens on the weekends, when a lot of the buses stop running. “I just take the train.” And to get across the island? “Oh, that’s impossible.”
That’s another thing: waiting. Nearly every Staten Islander I met had the MTA’s Bus Time site pulled up on his or her phone, which leads me to suspect that long wait times are the norm. That went for Bonnie, too; she later said she recently lost her Lincoln Town Car to a faulty transmission. The Staten Island native nostalgically reminisced about her days with the car, her eyes drifting off, like a daydream; “I miss having that luxury,” she told me.
Nearly 125,000 Staten Islanders like Bonnie use the 31 local and 20 express routes on a daily basis. And most of those buses, like the train, only run north-south, to and from St.George. This makes it hard for huge swaths of the island’s residents to get to one another without taking two or three buses. Even Allen Cappelli, the former MTA representative for the borough, admitted the illogic here. “The current system that we have is outdated,” he said in July. In fact, the agency is currently conducting a study on how to improve it.
On board these buses, I noticed many people paying for their ride with change – reminiscent of the age of the token, before we could use debit and credit cards to buy monthlies and weeklies. As if things couldn’t get worse, I later found out that a MetroCard machine is rare in these parts; actually, there are only three vending machines on the entire island where a resident can buy or refill one. So instead, residents must buy them at delis or convenience stores. (Tellingly, the Staten Island Advance even has an online map of where those locations are.)
By the time I arrived at the Staten Island Mall, a major intersection for a number of routes, I had already ridden two buses for two hours. The stops along the way were both numerous and long, and the S61 from the mall followed the same pattern. That bus brought me to the S93, an express bus that I took over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where an hour-and-a-half-long ride on the R train was waiting for me.
This, of course, doesn’t include the half-hour I waited for the S93 to arrive. Or the rush-hour traffic it encountered. Or the fact that I had been on Staten Island for four hours at this point.
Thankfully, for Staten Islanders’ sake, the silver lining of it all is the scenery. Some stretches on the SIR looked more like the Hudson Valley than New York City, exploding with the autumnal colors leaf peepers flock to see this time of year. The S78 brought me past the sun-dried dunes of Lemon Creek Park, and on the S55 I passed through the beautiful forests of Wolfe’s Pond Park. It’s no surprise, then, that the island is considered the “greenest borough” – it definitely shows.
But for a vast portion of New Yorkers, this beauty is inaccessible, and therefore practically unknown. The problem is, it’s logistically easier for millions of city-dwellers to hop on the Metro-North and see the nature just beyond the Bronx than to make the trek to see it in their own city. Most New Yorkers can’t dedicate three hours just to get to Staten Island, like I did.
So, to me, the greatest disappointment of the dismal public transit system on the island is that it makes the invitation plastered on the wall at the Manhattan ferry terminal – “Come Visit Staten Island!” – genuinely hard for me, or anyone who doesn’t live there, to accept. And it makes the borough feel far away, when really, it isn’t.