Taking your bike when taking the bus

07/22/2010 12:00 AM |

If you’re like many people I know, you may be unaware that for more than a year Suffolk County Transit’s S92 buses — which wend their leisurely way between Orient Point and East Hampton via Riverhead daily except Sunday — have been sporting bicycle racks on their front ends, each capable of carrying two bikes.

It’s easy to overlook these racks since they fold up compactly against the front of the bus when not in use. Also, they’re silver colored and offer little visual contrast with the buses’ white exterior. But for those of us who use them, the racks have facilitated a splendid marriage of two of the most environmentally friendly means of mobility — public transit and pedal power — with the health benefits of cycling thrown in for good measure.

Like most marriages, however, this one is imperfect.

My first experience using the racks last summer was humiliating. I fumbled and fumed trying to load my bike while the bus driver, already way behind schedule because of heavy traffic on the South Fork, impatiently gestured to me, in vain, from behind the windshield how to do it. He had to leave the bus to do it himself, muttering, “I don’t want to have to write out an accident report.”

This unhappy encounter only stiffened my resolve to master the technique this year, which I did on a recent trip aboard the S92 from Greenport to East Hampton. Instead of panicking, I turned this time to my last resort: following the directions on the rack. “Push in and pull handle up to release and lower,” they instructed. It couldn’t have been easier.

“It seems that once someone has done it the first time, then they do it fairly quickly after that,” bus driver Ken Loeb told me. Indeed, loading takes maybe 30 seconds, unloading even less.

In one sense, the rack service is a bargain. There’s no charge for bringing your bike, and bus rides are reasonable by big-city standards. The full fare is $1.50; students pay $1 and seniors, 50 cents. But in another sense you get what you pay for.

There’s no assurance that there will be space on the rack for your bike. On my trip back to Greenport, the bus was carrying two bikes and unable to accommodate a third that a man in Southold wanted to load. “He’ll have to wait another hour,” said Mr. Loeb, adding that he doesn’t have to turn away bicyclists very often. (Tip to Suffolk County Transit: In future purchases of racks, it should consider models that hold three bikes and racks that store bikes vertically inside the bus.)

The S92 departs every half-hour at peak times and hourly at other times. Even operating on or close to schedule, it’s slow. It took my bus nearly 2 1/4 hours to cover the approximately 65 miles to East Hampton. And when it’s really slow?

A fellow passenger, Jack Duo of Shelter Island, said that on a summer Friday he once waited four hours with his bike in Riverhead for a bus to Greenport because it was delayed on the South Fork.

Still, he loves being able to bring his two-wheeler with him. A fit-looking man of 56, he says he’s lost 25 pounds since he began cycling to and from the bus when he does volunteer work on the North Fork. “I think it’s one of the best additions that Suffolk Transit could put into play,” he said of the racks.

What I liked about this service was that it enabled me to do some superb cycling on the South Fork that I otherwise wouldn’t have. From East Hampton, I headed west (mainly on lightly traveled roads south of the Montauk Highway) past the estates, farms and seascapes of Wainscott and Sagaponack to Bridgehampton, where I caught the S92 for the return trip. Using the bus this way meant that I didn’t have to retrace my route by bike.

All this cost me only $1, the senior round-trip bus fare.

Clearly, this marriage of transportation modes, whatever its imperfections, is something to celebrate. Long may it last.

John Henry is a frequent contributor to The Suffolk Times. He lives in Orient.