Monday, November 5, 2012

The disaster of New Jersey's emergency transit plan

New Jersey's transportation infrastructure is in crisis. New Jersey Transit told Businessweek that 257 rail cars and 65 engines (23% and 35% of the total, respectively) were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Some of the rail lines were washed out, or blocked with boats and shipping containers. Hoboken Terminal and the PATH train, which connect New Jersey Transit passengers with lower Manhattan, were flooded. The state is in the midst of a gasoline shortage. They needed a plan.

Unfortunately, the emergency plan that New Jersey Transit came up with was horrible. They borrowed 31 buses from SEPTA and are getting another 350 from around the country. They chose eight park-and-ride lots around the northern half of the state, and set up buses to take people from these lots to the ferries and the Holland Tunnel, twenty in the morning and twenty in the evening from each lot. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, quite a lot, actually. Turns out that even people who had gas in their cars didn't want to waste it driving to some park-and-ride and back. They probably also didn't want to have their car stuck at some park-and-ride out by the highway with no bus to get them to it, if they had to go home in the middle of the day or late at night. They wanted to walk to the bus, so that's what they tried to do. In towns across the metro area, including Montclair, South Orange, Hoboken and Woodbridge, people waited up to 90 minutes to board packed buses bound for Manhattan. There was only one lane open for buses in the Holland Tunnel, and the usual one-lane XBL in the Lincoln Tunnel, limiting the total number of buses that could cross the Hudson. Many of those who did take the park-and-ride buses were dropped off at ferry terminals, where there was another wait for a boat.

In the ultimate craziness, after trains from Woodbridge attracted unmanageable crowds, New Jersey Transit simply cancelled the service and told everyone to drive to Metropark to catch a Northeast Corridor train. And, you know, let them eat cake on the way.

The commute home was similarly frustrated. The Port Authority Bus Terminal was packed with commuters - first waiting for buses, then waiting to buy bus tickets, finally waiting just to get into the terminal.

As I write this at 9:30 PM, many people are still at the terminal waiting for buses. Some of them are afraid that at a certain point New Jersey Transit will stop running buses. I'll update this when that part of the saga is over.

The problems in the morning rush attracted some attention from the media. First, WNYC reporter Nancy Solomon discussed the long lines at South Orange. (I've been trying to find that report online, but haven't been able to.) Then it got mentioned by Wall Street Journal bloggers and Capital New York.

In the afternoon, New Jersey Transit released a revised plan for tomorrow. "Buses that were used in emergency service at Bridgewater, Woodbridge and Willowbrook Mall, as well as Newark Liberty International Airport have been redeployed to ease crowding on buses traveling through South Orange, Jersey City, Hoboken and Newark, to New York, the agency said." In other words, there were nowhere near as many cars in the park-and-rides as the planners expected, and a lot more people at the walkable bus stops.

We'll see tomorrow how much better the revised plan is. In the meantime, can we all agree that this shows the utter bankruptcy of the standard park-and-ride mentality that still preoccupies transit planners? No, New Jersey Transit Planners, most transit riders don't want to maximize the time they can spend behind the wheel, especially during a post-hurricane gasoline shortage.

Can we also agree that buses are not better than trains? The "Bus Rapid Transit" zealots at the Institute for Transportation Development Policy have mesmerized too many of New York's transportation thinkers, to the point where we get the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the Pratt Institute and former Streetsblog editor Aaron Naparstek all arguing that buses should be a higher political priority than trains. In the current world buses have their place, and the "bus bridge" instituted by the MTA last week seemed to work fairly well. But to replace either one of the PATH tubes or the North River Tunnels with buses would take a huge number, and they'd need serious street priority.

I have to admit that I was disappointed in the performance of the private sector. I had expected private bus operators to be more flexible, adding service as needed to meet demand. Since New Jersey's laws allow private bus operators, I had hoped to find that they stepped up to fill the obvious holes in New Jersey Transit's plan. Instead, there is no evidence that any of the major private bus companies (DeCamp, Suburban Transit, Academy or Coachusa) added buses to their existing routes or sent buses to supplement routes that were overcrowded. Apparently the private vans were running their usual routes, but they haven't had enough capacity to get everybody home from the Port Authority.

Of course, it's hard to add extra buses, especially if the route is relatively complex and you have to bring on drivers who don't know it. That's why it's nice to have relatively simple routes like "you go all the way down Route 3 to the end, then turn around and come back."

It's possible that the "cross-honoring" system is contributing to the lack of interest from private operators. I don't know exactly how it works when someone with a monthly New Jersey Transit pass shows up on a DeCamp bus, but it may be that DeCamp doesn't get any money from it, or enough to make it worth running extra buses. It's also possible that DeCamp and friends have simply grown fat and lazy on its government-protected monopoly.

The bottom line is that New Jersey Transit's park-and-ride culture has to change. We know how much Governor Christie likes drivers, and it's possible that that attitude is shared by Executive Director Weinstein, and from him on down. But New Jersey can't go on functioning as a car-dominated society. The longer that Christie and the NJ Transit planners try to stave off the inevitable, the worse it will be.


James Sinclair said...

I wrote about this in my blog as well. I dont understand many things.

-Why no service to train stations? Many take the train because they cant drive, how does a park-and-ride help? Its like the transit planners think their entire audience lives around a car...uh, hello, theyre transit riders!

As you mentioned, thats especially odd when theres a gas shortage/rationing.

-Why no extended private bus service? Last week Coach USA was running a Saturday schedule on their lines, even though at that point even the NEC wasnt running. I thought theyd double buses, not run less. This week, they dont seem to be running anything beyond their basic service levels.

-Why not use state buses like the school buses instead of looking elsewhere?

They foolishly didnt do anything last week, and then they had all weekend to come up with a plan, and this is the best they could do?

LetsGoLA said...

I've heard that many stations on the NEC (both MNR and NJT) have long wait lists for parking permits. If that's true, I think all we can say for certain is that people don't want park-and-ride when there's a gas shortage/rationing.

As for private sector buses... to me, emergency response seems like a case not well suited for the private sector. Increasing your peak frequencies in NY/NJ would probably mean you'd have to redeploy resources from elsewhere. So there's logistical tangles - e.g. do you have enough employees, and can they even get to where they're needed? Then hanging over your head, you have a huge, unpredictable actor - the government. For example, Chris Christie could decide tonight that the plight of NJ transit riders is a serious issue, and that school buses should be used to offer free replacement service. If you're a private operator and you tried to ramp up, now you're taking a loss. The profit margins on running a bus can't be that high that it would seem to justify taking such a risk.

Maybe what should happen is that someone calls all the private operators and asks them to increase frequency and redeploy buses, promising them that they will be paid for their efforts? Maybe they are complacent, but maybe it's hard to know how to respond to a severe but short supply shock.

nathan_h said...

"I've heard that many stations on the NEC (both MNR and NJT) have long wait lists for parking permits."

You can interpret this to mean a few things. 1. People on the list really want to ride the train. 2. People on the list want to park cars. 3. Parking at the stations in question is severely underpriced.

NJ planners seem to only get #2 out of that, instead of taking #1 to mean they should invest in more train stations that people can walk to, and operate useful and comfortable surface transit that people can take to the train. And raising the price of parking to deal with #3 is a no brainer. It works for every other commodity on earth.

Yet they come away with only with a mandate to build more parking? That is really missing the transit forest for the auto-parking trees.

"If that's true, I think all we can say for certain is that people don't want park-and-ride when there's a gas shortage/rationing."

But the planners are aware of the gas shortage. (I mean, one hopes.) If their planning is so myopically auto-centric in this crisis, what about normal times? Can't they be making the same error in general--the fuel-buying power of Americans is going down daily, are they thinking about that?

No, people don't want to park and drive in a fuel shortage and rationing situation: hey, welcome to the 21st century. For us the 21st is a longer, slower, bigger version of "Superstorm Sandy". The sooner NJ planners wake up from their auto-centric stupor, the less awful it will be for New Jerseyans.

By planning for park and rides in a gas shortage, it doesn't look like the wakeup call has been answered.

PWR said...

Let's please not forget the Port Authority. The Lincoln Tunnel (which the PA operates) should have more than one bus-only lane. Even on a Monday or Thursday AM commuter buses frequently back-up 2-3 miles from the entrance of the tunnel. I don't think the PA is responsive.

And I'm saddened with this news about NJT, because in the 2003 blackout NJT had (I thought) better plans for its customers at the Port Authority Bus Terminal than anyone else. No one had good plans that day. The PA's idea of emergency response was to send all commuters onto the streets, where they would mill around and maybe sometime find a bus going to their region. No megaphones, no magic markers or poster board or announcements. (I won't easily forget watching PA employees speeding off in private cars to the tunnel.) It was frightening to see commuters from the independent lines throwing themselves in front of buses. In contrast, after a few hours of confusion, NJT had all its customers getting out of Manhattan, and going to one of their centers (like Secaucus).

Good post! -Paul

Anonymous said...

Let's break down the numbers here:

Every weekday, NJ transit carries:
275K passengers on commuter rail
68K passengers on light rail
515K passengers on buses

They operate 2,000 buses during the peak period. So if you want to carry half of those rail passengers you're going to need more than 600 buses, not 380. Not to mention the fact that another 262,000 people take PATH every day and those people are trying to take the bus as well.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that NJ Transit didn't try to set up anything like the "bus bridges" that were up. Now that the MTA is slowly restoring train service to Manhattan, they can probably loan a couple of the "bus bridge" buses so NJT can do the same for its customers.

Re the "buses are better than trains" situation: They're definitely not better in terms of what they can do to funnel lots of people into an area quickly with limited space, but given that the MTA doesn't really have the cash to take on any more big transit projects, and the excessive costs of SAS Phase 1, subway expansion is going to be limited if it ever happens, so bus improvements are the next best thing we can get. There's really no place you can build actual BRT that would work, so i guess SBS is what we'll have to settle for in the near term.

busplanner said...

Cap'n -

Based on news reports, most of the buses operating from the very few special parking areas set up were corralled from private and charter operators. The vast majority were assigned to an existing park-ride location at the Arts Center along the Garden State Parkway in Holmdel, to serve North Jersey Coast Line passengers. The last thing the Coast Line rail stations (many of which appear to be in restricted zones) needed was commuters.

But on a much more practical basis, I don't know of any transit agency in the country that would have enough spare buses or enough drivers to operate them to handle a catastrophe of this magnitude.

@PWR - I happened to be in New Jersey during the 2003 blackout. While the operation for New York bound customers in the AM peak and customers outbound from New York in the PM peak worked reasonably well, it was at the cost of no reverse peak service. You couldn't leave New York in the AM or head into New York in the PM. If you used a New York route for local travel in New Jersey, you could not travel in the reverse peak direction. This impacted thousands of regular bus riders.

LetsGoLA said...


I don't disagree w/ any of that. The MBTA has raised parking rates and still manages to fill the lots, which helped them avoid raising fares. I'd buy the argument that the wait list means NJT is leaving money on the table, and that they should raise rates. Of course, raising rates and/or building more parking are heavily political issues that go way above the pay grade of any planners.

But, all of this suggests that in normal times, the park-n-ride business model is going pretty well for NJT, MNR, MBTA, etc. Note I am not saying it's great for society at large, but for transit agency finances.

Alon said...

But, all of this suggests that in normal times, the park-n-ride business model is going pretty well for NJT, MNR, MBTA, etc. Note I am not saying it's great for society at large, but for transit agency finances.

That's not true at all. Park-and-rides make sure commuter rail will only ever be used for peak-direction, peak-hour travel, which raises operating costs since the marginal peak trip is more expensive than the marginal off-peak trip.

I just got off the S-Bahn from the airport to Zurich Hbf. The fare for a day pass in the city and airport zones is CHF12.80. Accounting for the fact that the Swiss franc is overvalued, this is about $7.30 in PPP. On the LIRR a single trip from Jamaica to Penn Station is $7.25 at the peak. And despite the lower fares, ZVV has much better farebox recovery - either 50% or 70%, I can't tell, vs. 30% for the LIRR.

Cap'n Transit said...

Busplanner, I'm disturbed by your statement that "the last thing the Coast Line rail stations needed was commuters." This implies that for you, commuters are car commuters.

I regularly take the NJCL for weekends on the Shore. Most of the development is walkable, and stations get a lot of walk-up commuters and travelers. This park-and-ride plan is a serious slap in the face to them.

It might be difficult to run buses for walkers without attracting drivers, but it seems like any stations that could be dangerous for drivers could be skipped or substituted.

jazumah said...

I have the feeling that a large chunk of this program was paid for by the private sector and not FEMA.

busplanner said...

@Cap'n -When I was a child and growing up in New Jersey, we took the train to the Jersey Shore, also. I am very familiar with the proximity of many of the stations to walkable neighborhoods.

Those neighborhoods (those near stations near the ocean from Red Bank south) almost all have both local bus service to travel between stations and bus service to NYC. For people who live in those towns and who did not need to evacuate, they can rely on those services.

However, there are many stations on the NJCL that attract large populations of people who drive to the stations and do not have any (or any adequate) alternate bus service currently (especially Middletown, which has only a small walkable neighborhood near the station, but large ridership). During this emergency when the NJCL is not operating, it seems appropriate to operate a centrally located bus park-ride for these users. I also note that the park-ride location is close to the Middletown Station; but can serve others who do not have alternate bus service.

LetsGoLA said...


I think that has more to do with land use patterns, which is way out of NJT's control. In the case of the MBTA, consider Mansfield or Attleboro. They're both in the town center, they're both surrounded by development of such low density it ought to be criminal. Eliminating park and ride there would hurt revenue and the towns would fight it too - its really politics, not transit planners

neroden@gmail said...

Boy oh boy. So, the MTA has restored practically all service now.

On the subway, the tail end of the 1 line is still out; the R tube is still out; the Sea Beach line is still out; and the Rockaways are out.

On Metro-North, the Pasack Valley Line (NJ Transit's problem) is out, and the New Canaan branch is bustituted. On LIRR, the Long Beach branch is out (partly bustituted).

That's not bad.

In New Jersey, it's different. The light rail lines are back up, finally. PATH has a little service. *One* line out of Hoboken is partly up, while the trains running on Amtrak's NEC are running. Now, I understand the NJCL was truly wrecked, like the Long Beach line.

But the lines out of Newark Broad Street were NOT. Wires down and trees across the track is the sort of thing which LIRR, NYC Subway, and Metro-North cleared within 24 hours. Yet NOTHING is running out of Newark Broad Street.

Is NJ Transit even trying, or do they really think buses are an adequate substitute? It would be nice to see some sort of explanation for why they have not bothered to run any service on the lines out of Broad Street -- there are possible explanations, such as perhaps all the rolling stock is trapped on the other side, but we haven't heard such explanations.

They didn't even start running bus service to replace the Morris/Essex/Gladstone/Montclair/Boonton service until today, and that is minimal. A continuous set of shuttle buses between Broad Street and the ferry terminals would have been a lot simpler than what's going on now... so what's going on on the "Broad Street side"?