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A bus ride in my imagination

640px-lincoln_tunnelThe idea of driving is a conservative one. You can go whenever you want, wherever you want. There are no schedules to stop you. And, the idea of the interstate highway – with no big government obstacles like traffic lights, crosswalks, or stop signs – is the true home to this idea. Sure, that highway was built and is maintained by the government (minor details). On paper, it is a simple concept. Drive fast or get over. Ah, freedom!

The commuter bus on the other hand is fits nicely as a liberal idea. Most, if not all, commuter buses are run by or contracted for operation by the government. Big government schedules your arrival and departure. It too shares the highway with those freedom loving drivers.

These two ideas are put to the test each day in the daily “debate” known as rush hour. Will the commuter alone in his or her car make it home on time? Will the commuter bus make it to its destinations on time? Both are jockeying for position as the highway fills. There are moments of compromise but a lot of brake lights. It is what I call decider overload. The idea that with so many people making decisions (I should cross three lanes of traffic to exit) or expressing their opinions (it is my opinion driving in the left lane at 45 mph is ok), it creates the environment for system break down. And, with that, you get traffic.

I knew I was in for quite a bit of decider overload as I rolled into the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 3:35p The next bus was at 4:15p, with my arrival in Frenchtown, New Jersey scheduled for 5:55p.

5:55p. I chuckled. Not only was it rush hour, it had started to rain.

I headed into the bowels of the Port Authority to Gate 10. With its chrome numbers and fire engine red bricks, I found the line for a Trans-Bridge interstate bus that would shoot down Interstate 78 and Interstate 287 before exiting on to US 202. This highway would lead us to Branchburg and Flemington before we connected to the two lane NJ 12 for the final leg to Frenchtown.

The overload started at the Lincoln Tunnel and was off and mostly on all the way to Flemington. None of this was surprising. Driving is the primary way to commute from this part of NJ. Just two commuter bus lines and one train– the maddeningly slow Raritan Valley Line – move people to NYC.

So, as the bus began its slog down US 202 – an arterial highway with traffic lights – I came to find out that the setup of this bus route was probably under the guise of, “you should be happy there is bus service at all” thinking.

Branchburg in Somerset County was the first stop. It has a park-and-ride on the eastbound side of US 202. The bus has to go past the park-and-ride to the next light, make a U-Turn, come back to the park-and-ride, drop people off, and then get onto US 202 North and proceed to the next traffic light to make another U-Turn to get onto US 202 South.

Efficient. With the rain, traffic and odd route, we were 35 minutes late to Frenchtown.

A similar situation happened in Flemington the next morning when leaving its park-and-ride to head to New York. The parking lot exit only allows for right turns out of the lot. This requires the bus to go west on NJ 12 and turn around via a traffic circle. Huh?

We were 15 minutes late arriving at Port Authority.

It is all a little sad.

You hear about the big plans and over budget projects like the criminally expensive PATH station at the World Trade Center.  Imagine all the little upgrades or the less glamorous projects that could have been paid for with just half the money that station ended up costing.

Imagine the park-and-rides in Branchburg or Flemington were in more strategic places. And, because they were, it would save the weary commuter 10 minutes.

Imagine the bus had its own lane that zipped past the traffic, like a train. Imagine there was a train that went to Flemington or even Frenchtown.

Imagine there was not a debate in this country about whether or not we should be fixing and upgrading our infrastructure.  

Imagine that. I will, as I sit in traffic.

 

My train has been Dikembe Mutombo’d

357px-mutombo

No one wants to be rejected.  The feeling of having your ideas panned or your heart broken is not a pleasant one.  Rejection can make you do all kinds things. You might withdraw. You might contemplate your place in the universe.  You might creatively use the name of a retired NBA player known mostly for blocking shots and sounding a bit like a Sesame Street character to show your displeasure for your streetcar system not getting built.

Our request for streetcar project was Dikembe Mutombo’d. So recapping, 0 for SI and $2.5 billion for other places pic.twitter.com/c0X8p9JxJL

— Jimmy Oddo (@HeyNowJO) February 4, 2016

Dikembe Mutombo’d = RE-JECTED!

Well played, Staten Island Borough President James Oddo. Well played.

Oddo’s feeling of rejection was in response to news that Mayor DiBlasio wants to build a streetcar line connecting Queens and Brooklyn near the East River.  We know BDB does not want his QBX plan Manute Bol’d rejected.  But, where to go for some advice?  Cue the New York Times, with a rather glowing article about a successful light rail line to use for inspiration.

Was it in Europe or Asia?  Nope.  Minneapolis or Charlotte have newer systems, how about them?  Nope.

How about that transit juggernaut just across the Hudson.  Huh.  Huh.  I am talking about New Jersey and New Jersey Transit’s Hudson-Bergen Light Rail.

The two billion dollar, 17-mile system runs parallel to the Hudson River through some of the most population-dense cities in the country.  Its ridership is growing and has helped spur growth along the route.  Look at Hoboken’s westside and Weehawken.  But, the HBLR, for all its “sleek cars” that “glide” on rails and that it is getting “increasingly popular”, it has its issues that the Mayor can learn from.  Here’s my top four:

#1:  Its fare box recovery is terrible

At 33%, if it were not not for the Newark Light Rail and the Trenton-Camden RiverLINE (what the then director of NJT called “the poster child for how not to plan and make decisions about a transit investment.”), HBLR would be the worst in NJ.  Part of the reason is #2.

#2:  It uses the honor system for its fares

Unlike the New York City subway system or the PATH trains, the HBLR does not have fare gates.  And, unlike commuter rail, there are no conductors punching or checking every ticket.  Like a lot of Light Rail systems, it uses a proof-of-purchase system.  You buy a ticket and then punch it in a ticket validator that stamps the time on your ticket.  Ticket checkers will hang out at the station or on a train and check you ticket from time to time.

#3:  Weekends to Hoboken: Nope

If it is Saturday or Sunday and you live north of Hoboken Terminal, there are no HBLR trains to Hoboken Terminal.  You can go to Newport.  You can go to 2nd Street in Hoboken. But, you cannot take the HBLR to the busiest train station in New Jersey without transferring.

#4:  And speaking of missed connections

The HBLR is an NJT property.  Its biggest connections for rush hour commuters into NYC are the PATH and NJ Waterways Ferry.  While you can buy a combo ticket with NY Waterways, NJT has no combo or ticket reciprocity with PATH.  Wouldn’t one ticket be nice?

Here, take my pickle. Come on, take it. 

The Metro-North trains are usually jammed packed at rush hour with working stiffs like me. So, if you are not normally riding with us, perhaps in town from a different country, here are a few tips to help our time together be more pleasent. 

1.  If you are going to eat, choose a dish with a mild smell.  Curries, Chinese food or fish are bad choices.  

2.  Offering food to your travel mates across other people is frowned upon especially if it is a food that drips like a wet pickle or a falafel.  

3. Don’t make phone calls on your cell you then pass around.  It’s bad enough you’re on your cell. Now, three people are on your cell. 

4.  Buy the right ticket.  You’ve ridden a train before right?  You wouldn’t get on a Ferris wheel without paying the correct amount, why is this ride any different. The MTA is happy to take your money on board but come on, there are only like 20 machines are half-a-dozen windows at Grand Central. 

5.  Know where your going. You can’t get to White Plains, New Haven, Philly, DC, etc. on my train.  Or, Tarrytown and Ossining.  You somehow by the grace of God made it to New York, you can probably develop a plan to move from the Grand Central Hyatt into the wilderness that is the Hudson Valley. 

6.  Leave your selfie stick at home. This is New York, someone may beat you with it if you use it. 

7.  Don’t sit in the middle of the three seater and try to have a conversation with your friend three seats in front of you.  Remember that selfie stick, it may get used again 

8.  Do not discuss loudly or really at any volume hot button issues with friends. If we cared what you thought you wouldn’t be heading north with every worldly possession you own in a backpack destined for the Appalachian Trail to “find yourself” among nature’s wonder.  My only wonder is why you are still talking. 

9.  Please use your headphones. No one wants to hear your favorite Nelly song or the audio of your mom’s Yorkie reciting the Periodic Table of Elements. Your dog is just barking. He did not just say Boron. 

Safe travels!

Urban planning advice from the college girls who got on in Westchester

Listen up planners.

From the college girls on my train who got on in Westchester (who strangely had southern accents),

“You know in our town you need a f*cking car to like get anywhere, you can’t like f*cking walk, sucks.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Well, I probably could have.

Listen, and remember

Metro-North at Cold SpringThe sound is a simple one; low but powerful.  It is a noise that is part of the region’s soundtrack.  The deep steady sound of the train’s horn – commuter or freight – lets you know a train is coming.

And that is its job; to alert people of the massive machine before it reaches platforms, tunnels, or grade crossings.  I can imagine it is a sound that many heard seconds before the Harlem Line crash in Valhalla Tuesday night.  The sound was quickly replaced by the violence of a crash that killed six people and injured more than a dozen; the noise of an express train hitting a SUV stopped on the tracks, stopped in a spot – by mistake or on purpose – where it should not have been.

While some politicians tactfully began riding in on their white horses just hours after the crash, the number of accidents Metro-North has had at grade crossings is comparably low to other commuter transit agencies.  Between, 2012-2014 Metro-North had five accidents at crossings.  NJ Transit had 30.  Long Island Rail Road had 27.  MBTA in Boston had 17.  Across all railroads – freight and passenger – deadly accidents at crossings peaked in 1989 with 801.  In 2013, that number had fallen to 251.    It is true that Metro-North’s safety record has been troubled recently and there should be a thorough investigation into the crash but this one likely wasn’t its fault.  The reality is the only way to truly stop accidents at crossings is to not have trains at-grade.  Ask Al Smith why there are no grade-level trains in New York City anymore.

There are two crossings like this on the Hudson Line between Cold Spring and Croton-Harmon.  One is by the tiny, isolated station at Manitou.  The other is north of the Peekskill Station where you can cross for access to a park along the river.  This morning, we pushed through these crossings as icy flakes fell from the sky.  The train horn sounded, the red lights flashed and the gates went down.  A steady tone alerted anyone down the line a train was on its way.  Until this week, it was just another noise along the way to Grand Central.  But, as the horn sounded this time before we pass through the crossings, it provided me a small but audible connection to this terrible accident.  It acted as a personal reminder of the people who died or were injured at a spot very similar.  They are people I never met but they were doing the same thing I do every day.  Ride the train.  Go to work.  Head home.

This time, sadly, some of them never made it home.

When you hear a train’s horn – tonight or tomorrow or whenever – think about the people who died or who were injured.  Use it as a chance to reflect on how quickly lives can be changed and keep their families in your thoughts.

And, also use that sound – or the flashing red lights or the gates being down  – as a reminder of something equally important. There is a train coming.

New York Transit Museum

I’ve been to the Transit Museum once myself and it is totally worth the trip!

Department of Everyday Visualingual

New York Transit Museum

The New York Transit Museum! Where do I even begin? I wanted to visit since I was a kid and, once I finally did, even though I felt weird because I was there alone among families, the place did not disappoint in the least. Allow me to share some highlights.

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Two world’s fairs, two views on trains worlds apart

Pennsylvania Railroad PRR S1 steam locomotive at the New York World’s Fair, July 15, 1939

The New York City Transit Museum Annex at Grand Central Terminal opened an exhibit this summer commemorating the anniversary of New York’s two World’s Fairs.  The opening of the two fairs – the first in 1939 and second in 1964 – were separated by 25 years.  And, in that short period of time, railroads had gone from “being the backbone of the country” to a mode of transportation with a severe case of osteoporosis.  This is illustrated with railroads at the 1939 Fair put on “parade“.  While in 1964, this picture of happy LIRR execs symbolizes the smaller transportation role rail roads were now playing.

LIRR

LIRR executives sit on a miniature train for a photo at the 1964 New York World’s Fair