Updated: May 1
By Kate Riga
According to Google Maps, the drive in East Hampton from a home in Springs to East End Pediatrics is a snap: nine minutes. The online GPS lists only the driving option under its “recommended travel modes.”
Walking is more laborious: one hour, 22 minutes. For the public transit option, Google Maps draws a blank.
In fact, according to Bryony Freij, a licensed clinical social worker at East End Pediatrics, trying to take a bus to an appointment would add three hours to the trip—one way.
“We have new mothers pushing their strollers along [Route] 27 in the blistering heat, in the snow,” Ms. Freij said on Friday. “One time, we had a Good Samaritan pick up a new mother along the highway, because he couldn’t stand to watch her push her little baby through the torrential rain.”
According to Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, that particular gap is being targeted for change, after Ms. Freij brought it to the attention of East Hampton Town and Suffolk County leaders at a recent transportation working group meeting.
“We have got to fix that,” Ms. Fleming said on Monday. “We’re looking to change the internal 10B and 10C bus routes to better serve East Hampton.”
Last fall, the county cut eight bus routes, three of which served the South Fork, and the problem has become so acute that a private group is stepping in to help fill the void.
Organizacion Latino-Americana or OLA, an advocacy group for the Latino community on the East End, is offering temporary free and confidential van rides to doctors’ offices three days a week.
“There are not a lot of parameters around it right now, but we’re trying to highlight pediatric, OB-GYN and cancer appointments,” said Minerva Perez, OLA’s executive director, on Friday. “We only have the money to last through the winter, so for now we’re going to be the little organization that could.”
Two anonymous couples donated a seven-seater minivan, as well as money for insurance, gas and hiring a driver. According to Ms. Perez, it’s still enough to fuel the effort only until April.
“The bus service is inept,” she said of the county’s system. “It is not a luxury—it is a right to get to the critical pieces of your life.”
She added that though her organization is dedicated to serving the South Fork’s Latino population, it would not deny anyone the service who needed it.
For some, the shortcomings of the county’s infamous public transportation system—with infrequent and undependable service, antiquated routes, and a county trying to make changes with minimal funding—are more than inconvenient: they’re dangerous.
According to Ms. Perez, fear of the repercussions from even a traffic stop prompts many undocumented immigrants to miss their appointments rather than take the risk.
“Immigrant fear is through the roof right now,” Ms. Perez said, citing an anti-immigrant climate as the cause. “People won’t tell their doctors that they’re struggling to make it to appointments, because they’re constantly worried that there’s a bad side to telling.” She added that a language barrier often prevents patients from understanding and trusting doctor-patient confidentiality.
“Patients show up hours before appointments when their spouses drop them off on their way to work, because they share one car,” said Ms. Freij. “The bus system is so unreliable, patients go to the emergency room at night when they can, after work.” The trips to the ER, rather than regular medical visits with a doctor, raise the cost of the care.
Ms. Freij agrees with Ms. Perez that things have gotten worse in the past year. “I work primarily with Spanish-speaking kids and families,” she said. “Since Trump, there is a rising fear of being on the roads.
“We’re thankful for what OLA is doing, but our own county should be addressing this shame,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to rely on private money.”
Ms. Fleming, who has campaigned on improving public transportation, said that she and her transportation working group are working hard on the issue. “A glaring problem is that these bus schedules haven’t been changed for 30 years,” she said, adding that she is currently meeting with members of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s Public Works Department to figure out how to adjust the routes to meet the most need.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg problem,” she said. “To make the system more robust, we need more riders. But we need a more reliable system to get more riders.”
The county has developed the “TransLoc Rider App” to help passengers track buses on their phones, hoping to entice people back to public transportation.
Ultimately, many of the problems with the buses come down to money, an issue Ms. Fleming recognizes. “There’s no real funding for marketing the app,” she admitted. “We’re trying to make the changes now that we can.”
Ms. Fleming said she has been a vocal advocate for getting state money to help fix the problem. She also recently refiled legislation at the county level calling for a temporary moratorium on ride-sharing companies—like Uber and Lyft—until the surcharges are funneled into county transportation funds.
“It’s not right for us to adopt these ride-sharing services without regulation or support,” she said, adding that the companies were willing to funnel the surcharges into county funds, but that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office stepped in and pushed to divert the money into state coffers to fund the MTA, or Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Mr. Cuomo’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.
“I’m glad that OLA has stepped in to fill the need, but I don’t think this is something that needs a private solution,” Ms. Fleming said. “This is a need that a decent public transportation system should meet.”
Ms. Perez said she plans to collect as much data as possible over the next few months, presenting it to the county as she goes. “I know that they’re broke and that the budget constraint is real,” she said. “Bridget Fleming has been accessible, but we’re trying to show her the urgency of the situation.
“This is not just a Latino problem, or an OLA problem,” continued Ms. Perez. “This is everybody’s problem.”