June 26, 2021

"Getting There" - New Commuter Alternatives

Not with a bang, but a whimper.  That’s how commuters seem to be moving, albeit in small numbers, back to working in-person in their NYC offices.

Leaving the comfort of your home office and Zoom-nasium won’t be easy, as many of us have found ways to be so much more productive without wasting hours commuting.  But when the boss says “jump” you got to ask yourself (and her), “how high?” when you really want to say “but why?”

I hear anecdotes of some employers being persuaded (or forced?) to offer work-from-home alternatives two or three days a week just to keep their key staffers.  And  given the demand for talent, such options may become a deciding factor in where to hold a job.

Many of those who’ve been persuaded (or ordered) back to the office have so far opted for driving to New York City, perhaps because their expensive parking was being subsidized by their employers to entice them back.  But their traffic-and- stress-free drives of months ago have morphed into post-COVID mayhem as I-95 and the scenic Merritt Parkway are back to gridlock.

So, is it time to reconsider the train or are there new alternatives on the horizon?

Much as Metro-North keeps saying it wants commuters to come back, they’re not doing enough to make their service attractive.  Oh, their trains safe enough if you keep masked-up (as required by the TSA).  But with ridership crawling back from 9% (a pandemic low) to more recent weekday loads of 39%, given the reduced service the trains are getting crowded again.  Really crowded.

Every day someone Tweets a picture of a standing-room-only Metro-North train, pleading with the railroad to add more cars if not also increasing the number and speed of trains (currently offering only 53% of pre-COVID service).

Granted, they just added four more daily trains between New Haven and GCT in rush hour.  And I’ll give them thumbs up for adding a new feature to their TrainTime app to show which cars are the least crowded.

But Metro-North is about as nimble as a rock.  They have a surplus of new M8 cars and plenty of OT-hungry conductors and engineers, so why not expand service more quickly?  Why do anything more to discourage people from riding the rails again?

Why?  Because they have no competition… yet.

Sensing a business opportunity, entrepreneur Joe Colangelo (the guy who invented Boxcar, the “Air B&B of commuter parking”), is considering giving Metro-North a run for its money, especially along “the gold coast” of Fairfield County.

Colangelo envisions a luxury motor coach offering a one-seat ride from New Canaan, Darien and Greenwich to midtown and Wall Street.  His cushy fleet would have Wi-Fi (still a non-starter on Metro-North), at-seat power plugs and onboard bathrooms.  So even though you may be stuck in traffic you can still be productive.

Right now he’s conducting a survey to gauge commuter interest and to collect data on destinations and travel times.  But I’d predict he gives his idea a chance over the summer to have it ready for post-Labor Day carmageddon.

Tickets would be bought on their app even use benefit programs like Wageworks and TransitChek.  From New Canaan to GCT would be 65 minutes, then on to Hudson Yards and the Financial District (90 min).

While Metro-North is studying and planning, hemming and hawing, this entrepreneur may launch a new alternative in just a matter of weeks.  And good for him, even if he’ll be skimming the 1% cream off the top of the railroad’s heavily subsidized operation.

Commuters deserve alternatives.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

June 14, 2021

"Getting There" - Summer Road Trips

The summer travel season is starting with a vengeance.  After a year of quarantining, we’re all anxious to get back on the road again.  But where to go?  And what can you expect when you get there?  A recent mid-week mini-vacation to the Berkshires taught our family some important lessons.

WHERE TO GO?    Like many vacationers we opted for a road trip instead of flying.  There are great destinations within two or three-hours drive.  But in deciding where to go, remember you’re not just going to see the sights or visit friends.  You’re relying on local services and the folks who live there and run them.

MASKS OR NO MASKS?:          With vaccination levels well over 50% here in Connecticut and mask rules relaxed, especially for those vaccinated, you’ll want to see how your destination compares.  Do you really want to go someplace where vaccination rates or low or mask compliance is arbitrary?

WHAT’S OPEN?               In many parts of the country restaurants and hotels are still shuttered, so put your spontaneous wanderlust on hold and do your research.  Don’t just rely on apps or websites.  Call ahead and be sure they’re open.

CAR RENTALS:     If you are flying or enjoying Amtrak to travel and need a car at your destination you don’t want to be disappointed.  Many car rental companies downsized dramatically during the pandemic, selling off their fleets.  Now, because of the chip shortage hitting auto makers, they can’t get the new cars they now need.  Reservations will be a must and car rental availability may even  end up determining where to go.

If you can reserve a car, prepare for sticker shock as rates have soared, on average double the old rates. 

GASOLINE:            Unless you’re driving an all-electric car, the availability and price of gasoline may also factor into your plans.  In the Northeast availability was unaffected by the recent Colonial Pipeline shutdown, so the supply is there.  But rising demand will see the highest prices in seven years.  AAA suggests filling your tank before arriving at busy resort destinations where prices will be the highest.

STAFFING SHORTAGES:          The biggest surprise on our recent trip was the number of establishments offering reducing hours because they can’t find staff.  Restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, museums and art galleries were all operating on reduced hours while their windows were plastered with help wanted signs.

Several owners lamented to me that they desperately needed servers, kitchen help and sales staff but nobody was applying.   “I need four people right now,” said one restauranteur, “But nobody wants to work.  They’re all making $600 a week on unemployment!”

This is becoming a serious issue, not just in hospitality but in transportation.

DRIVER SHORTAGE:       Supply chain issues have left some store shelves empty because the trucking industry says they have a driver shortage.  In some areas of the country that’s also affecting gasoline deliveries.

In New York City the MTA needs 400 bus drivers, meaning reduced frequency and longer waits at bus stations just as they’re urging riders to come back to mass transit.  Some school districts are also having trouble filling bus driver jobs as are tourist destinations that run jitneys.

But don’t let all of this frighten you.  We all deserve and can enjoy our summer travels if we just do a little planning ahead.

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

BUILDING GREAT (AND REALLY EXPENSIVE) THINGS

Grand Central Madison, the new train station bored into the rock beneath Grand Central Terminal, is finally open.  When it’s fully operation...