Home Public Transit Policy What the Ikea Shuttle says about NYC’s transit

What the Ikea Shuttle says about NYC’s transit

by Benjamin Kabak

In a secluded and idyllic corner of Brooklyn, where South American taco vendors mingle with Fairway-bound foodies, a giant blue box recently opened its doors, and with it came an interesting experiment in public transit.

Just over three weeks ago, the highly-anticipated New York City Ikea opened its doors on the waters of the New York Harbor in Red Hook, New York. Red Hook has escaped the gentrification that has run rampant over the rest of the western sections of Brooklyn largely because the nearest subway stop is a mile away and the buses are never too reliable. But with the Ikea came more public transit options to the area.

As part of their efforts to attract customers while encouraging New Yorkers to avoid driving, Ikea is running free shuttles to various transit-accessible parts of Brooklyn and Water Taxi ferries to and from Lower Manhattan. Well, as New Yorkers — Ikea-bound and otherwise — are rather resourceful people, residents of Brooklyn have taken a liking to the free transit options. Jeff Wilkins of The Daily News explains:

Countless commuters are taking advantage of Ikea’s free bus and ferry – without ever setting foot inside the giant Swedish furniture store that opened last month in the waterfront neighborhood. The posh, coach-style shuttle buses, equipped with footrests, reading lights and music, are quickly becoming popular with travelers tired of shelling out $2 for overcrowded – and, by comparison, uncomfortable – city buses …

The free bus service transports passengers from Red Hook to stops on Court St. and to subway stations at Fourth Ave. and Smith and Ninth Sts. every 15 minutes during store hours.

Thrifty bus riders aren’t the only ones taking advantage of Ikea’s services. City residents are also saving $6 each way and taking the store’s free water taxi to and from Wall Street. “It’s such a nice ride, I’d almost be happy to pay for it,” said Steve Riley, 40, who lives in Park Slope, takes the Ikea bus and then transfers to the Ikea water taxi for his job in SoHo.

Wilkins writes that only eight of the 19 riders on the first shuttle of the day last week were bound for the Swedish furniture store. Two of those folks were employees.

So what does this mean for public transit in New York? Well, at a time when the MTA is increasingly coming under attack from politicians and the public, this news does nothing to bolster the MTA’s case. But is it a call for privatization? Some time this week or next, I’ll have a long post about the future of the MTA, but I’m not sure privatization is ever the way to go. It didn’t work in London; it hasn’t really worked anywhere mainly because public transit doesn’t really turn a profit. The aims of private companies and the goals of public transportation systems are rarely in line with each other.

Rather, the MTA could take a lesson from the comfort and ease of the Ikea Shuttle. Riders want to like their public transit options. They want to be ferried or bused in relative comfort with enough space to sit. They want a reliable and steady schedule, and from the sound of it, they’re willing to pay for that privilege. Perhaps the MTA could use the lessons of the Ikea Shuttle to improve bus service; perhaps the Ikea Shuttle will remain unique among the city’s transit options. Either way, it’s certainly an interesting case study in unintended consequences.

Photo above of the Ikea Shuttle by flickr user the real janelle.

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Alfred Beech July 9, 2008 - 7:50 am

Are there other examples of private business paying for an addition to the NYC transit system to boost traffic?

For example, there’s a branch of the blue line that runs to Aqueduct Race track, and there were racetrack specials that would run from downtown Brooklyn. Did the track pay for the connector and the additional trains?

ScottE July 9, 2008 - 8:40 am

Well, up until recently you could put the express buses in that category, but the MTA took them over.

It’s not quite private, but the PATH train will get you from Christopher St to 34th St along Sixth Avenue for less than the subway.

There’s also the NY Water Taxi (http://www.nywatertaxi.com/map/) which could get you around midtown/downtown without using MTA, with a few Brooklyn/Queens connections — at least if you’re going close to water.

The Gray Line tourist buses probably aren’t worth it for intra-city travel.

Will July 9, 2008 - 11:51 am

Let’s be precise here, folks. The “private” express buses were never really “private”. They received a very hefty subsidy from the NYC DOT and, as I understand it, that subsidy (as well as other additional funding) now goes to the relatively new MTA Bus operation.

In the end, the economics of true, equitable, ubiquitously available public transit will always require some type of subsidy from the public sector – the question is how much. If we are willing to pay the operators of the buses a wage that is fair and upon which one may make a living, then don’t expect to not have to subsidize a “public” service which people demand be affordable and convenient.

As for other examples, the ones that pop into my head right away are the “apartment shuttles” that buildings on the far East Side (Yorkville) pay for to ferry their residents to/from the 86th Street Lexington Avenue Subway station. They remind me of the same large 40-foot buses used in Philly by apartment buildings on the Ben Franklin Parkway. These buses have always irked me a bit – although I understand why the buildings run them (i.e., to attract tenants), they rank of classism to me (i.e., “Why should I have to wait five minutes to ride a crowded SEPTA bus?”) On the East Side, it makes even less sense to me, since the M86 is pretty reliable and might only add a few minutes to the trip overall. BUT – it’s FREE if you live in the building, so – like IKEA’s bus – why not use it?

Also, in that same neighborhood, you can see an example of what “private” sector transit might look like sans subsidies: Mario’s van service. Every day hundreds (as far as I can tell) Yorkville residents eschew the X90 and use these white vans (I believe the fare is $5.00 – the same as an express bus) for an express trip down to the financial district. But these vans only run in the peak period/peak direction. It would be as if the MTA decided to run ONLY the X90 and not provide the local services to the area (i.e., M31, M15, etc.) that provide for transit service throughout the day, thus obviating the need for a car.

Kid Twist July 9, 2008 - 9:49 am

Blue Line? Don’t mean to pick on you, but as a native, that always makes me cringe.

Actually, the Aqueduct Specials ran from the now-abandoned lower level platform at 42nd Street on the Eighth Avenue Line.

I’m pretty sure the Transit Authority, not the track, funded the service, just like the agency pays for the extra trains to and from the ballparks.

Syed July 14, 2008 - 9:56 pm

Calling traisn by color makes me cringe too. At Columbia the other day someone asked me ifthe red line comes here, Ugh.

And yes, the MTA and the city do their best to run extra service on special game days. for example, the (4) can have boosted traffic because of Yankee Stadium as can the or (7) for Shea Stadium The MTA publicizes he thing for ballparks a lot, but I’m sure it happens elsewhere.

twakum July 9, 2008 - 8:51 am

The article also talked about the proximity of methadone clinics, which you did not….

Benjamin Kabak July 9, 2008 - 10:45 am

I don’t mean to sound harsh, but why exactly does this matter? I linked to the article and analyzed its transit policy implications. In my opinion, The Daily News’ quoting an anonymous driver as saying that “many” riders are going to a meth clinic is just a way to stir up outrage. Other sites have covered it, and for my purposes, it doesn’t really have much to do with my point.

Marc Shepherd July 9, 2008 - 10:55 am

The key point about the Ikea shuttles is that if non-shoppers continue to be the predominant customers, they’ll be discontinued.

R2 July 9, 2008 - 11:51 am

Oh, you bet they’re paying attention to the numbers. Once the publicity wears off, IKEA will realize just how expensive it is to keep running those buses and ferries. (FYI, farebox ratios for NYCT buses are significantly lower than for subways)

If we, the public, want them to keep doing it, we better actually do some serious shopping (or carry around full IKEA bags to give them the impression we’re shopping).

I’ll be eager to see what develops 1 year from now or 5 years from now….

brian g July 9, 2008 - 12:30 pm

it’s been many years since i lived in Bk, but if I recall correctly the B69 took forever to come and was always late. I heard this was b/c the drivers would stop somewhere in red hook for prostitutes

also, public transit CAN be privatized, although it’s usually only dones so in places with really high usage per vehicle mile. NYC has a high usage, but also a large network that’s also old and needs to be repaired/maintained

Marc Shepherd July 9, 2008 - 1:25 pm

Although public transit can be privatized, the public reaction has generally been overwhelmingly negative, once the reality sets in. There is a simple reason for this. Private operators look to be profitable, and most public transit does not earn a profit. There are plenty of MTA lines that, on a pure cost-return basis, either should not operate at all, or should not operate with anywhere near the frequency they do. The reason we have them is because they run as a public service, not as a venture for profit.

Izengabe July 9, 2008 - 1:55 pm

Bravo for Ikea. The City should do more to encourage private business to run these type of ferry/bus services. Not all public transport needs to be run by the government!

New York City really need to look at ways to encourage more of this kind of alternative public transport.

Does Mayor Bloomberg’s 2030 plan have anything to say about private comapanies like Ikea playing a role in the City’s public transportation infstructure?

Boris July 9, 2008 - 2:03 pm

Maybe instead of privatizing, the MTA should do a complete survey of its transportation system to better match service with where people actually need to go. Various new routes and perhaps even subway extensions would be very useful.

Also, giving priority to services to commercial centers like malls and big-box stores seems to be the trend in public as well as private transportation. One of two Staten Island buses that goes to another borough (Brooklyn) takes riders to the Staten Island Mall. A new mall projected for Staten Island’s West Shore has a ferry in the works. So what will make the express buses less crowded for the rest of us is not the desire of the people for a new transit option, but a new shopping center in their neighborhood.

Jack July 9, 2008 - 2:10 pm

Actually, you might want to do a little research on your statement that privatization hasn’t worked…


Benjamin Kabak July 9, 2008 - 3:15 pm

From the Wikipedia article you just linked to: “Yet, this trend seems to have reversed, as profits grew more than tenfold in the fourth quarter of 2004, making it one of the few profitable public transport systems in the world.”

So you found the exception to the rule. For the most part, public transit is not profitable and thus hasn’t really worked in a private setting. I was being a bit hyperbolic when I said it hasn’t really worked anywhere. I should say that it hasn’t really worked anywhere outside of a Hong Kong system whose profit is largely dependent on real estate revenues more so than on the profit derived from rail passengers.

Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog » Blog Archive » The antithesis to Ikea’s free shuttles July 9, 2008 - 3:20 pm

[…] 2nd Ave. Subway History « What the Ikea Shuttle says about NYC’s transit […]

Marc Shepherd July 9, 2008 - 3:57 pm

The City should do more to encourage private business to run these type of ferry/bus services.

You’re forgetting that the main purpose of “Ikea Transit” is to get people to and from their store. Ikea isn’t offering to supplement NYC Transit out of generosity. If it doesn’t suit their business purposes, they can drop it at any time. That isn’t a sustainable transit model.

Does Mayor Bloomberg’s 2030 plan have anything to say about private comapanies like Ikea playing a role in the City’s public transportation?

It doesn’t, because there are very few cases where it would work. Indeed, we don’t even know if “Ikea Transit” will work in the long term. Remember, almost every public transit line we now have was run by a private for-profit company at one point. They all went bankrupt.

Think twice July 9, 2008 - 4:21 pm

Hypothetical scenario:

I’m at a bus stop with my friend the businessman. Up comes three vehicles: an MTA bus, a plush private coach, and a no-frills private van.

The only things they have in common: they accept Metrocards and meet government safety standards. The businessman pays $4 for the coach and I pay $1 for the van and we all get to where we want to go.

Todd July 9, 2008 - 5:41 pm

There is a ridiculous amount of car traffic on 9th Street. Anything (buses included) that takes some of these cars off the road is good news to me.

AlexB July 9, 2008 - 7:49 pm

It is interesting that this bit of information should be tossed about on the blogs at the same time the Straphangers recently posted information about the increase in bus ridership versus the mediocre increase in service. Although I am willing to give the MTA the benefit of the doubt and assume that there was excess capacity ten years ago, the straphangers revealed some interesting information about the B61, the bus that I ride everyday and that duplicates the IKEA shuttle route. Ridership on that bus route has increase 74% in the last ten years and service has increases only 7% over the same period! Gene Russianoff is correct; at least once a week the bus goes by too full to accept more passengers. What’s going on here?

Greg Homan July 9, 2008 - 8:54 pm

From the Daily News article, the Ikea Spokesman Joseph Roth said this,
We are thrilled that we are providing free transit options for the people of New York to come to Ikea and to come to Red Hook.” “We support mass transit, and if people are using our services and not going to Ikea, that’s fine with us as well.”

The quotes above tells me that Ikea does not care that people are using the shuttle for commuting. I guess Ikea wants to be a good neighbor. Also I think Ikea had predicted people using the shuttles other than for shopping. When something free people will miss use it.

twakum July 10, 2008 - 8:58 am

ooo BK touchy about the Smack, huh?


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