New York City

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?

“There was a pregnant girl sitting on the floor.”

I knew it was going to be an odd night when I got in line at Rite-Aid with the following two people in front of me:  A man with a small pony tail buying six umbrellas and a woman who needed change for a five dollar bill.

The woman requested three dollars in quarters (she got two) and two singles (she got three).  Why would you need three dollars in quarters at Grand Central?  Maybe she was doing was laundry later?  How much laundry can you do with two dollars in quarters?  I should have asked her.  The man’s umbrella extravaganza went off without incident.  Maybe he’s got big plans for the umbrellas.

umbrella-corporation-goat-research-group_o_1163575

Now, the 6:45p Hudson Line express train to Poughkeepsie is not my normal train.  If I had to guess, it must be one of the more crowded Hudson Line trains of the night.  It is the first rush-hour express train to the northern part of the line (above Croton-Harmon) not paired with a super express train that skips all of upper Westchester and Putnam stops before hitting Beacon in Dutchess County.

johnny

Channeling Johnny Carson:

Johnny:  I tell you, this train was so packed.

Audience:  How packed was it?

Johnny:  This train was so packed the conductor mentioned to another conductor that there was “a pregnant girl sitting on the floor.”

ed hiooo

Wait Ed.  That’s not a punch line.  That’s just terrible.

On top of being crowded, it was the last day for April monthly passes.  And, if you are not familiar with how the monthly commutation pass works, on the first day of the new month conductors will let you slide with last month’s pass so you can get into the City and buy a new monthly.

A gentleman behind me – who had already complained about the announcements being too loud – decided to inquire awkwardly about why the May monthly passes were not good for the last day in April.  The logic of course is you can use the April monthly on the first day of May why not the opposite.  The conductor – a younger woman – shut him down with the, “that’s not how it works” and “that’s a great suggestion, not the first time someone has asked, but the higher ups don’t listen to me.”

He stopped talking and paid for a ticket.

As for the pregnant girl on the floor, the conductor let us know that he found her a seat.  But, he had to ask someone to get up.

ed hiooo

Airheads

The year was 1978.  New York City wanted to make it easier to get people from Manhattan to JFK.  So, they shined up some subway cars, recorded a catchy jingle and the JFK Express was born.  Millions each year flew in and out of the airport.  Surely, some would use the service.  And, that was the problem.  Only some did.  At its peak, “4,000 to 5,000” riders used the service, with the number dipping to “3,200” when NYC Transit decided to discontinue the line.  Plus, “47 percent of riders” were commuters from its terminus in Queens.  So, that’s like 1,600 riders per day specific to the airport.

Now, the latest train to the plane is the proposed new PATH line to Newark Airport. Reports say it could move – trumpets please – about “6,000” airport goers each day! 6,000 per day is the same amount of people that ride NJT daily from Princeton Junction.  And, all of this excitement for just $1.5 Billion with construction to commence in 2018.  Governor Christie is a fan.  And, we all thought Chris hated trains. I mean he screwed hundreds of thousands of commuters each day when he pulled NJ out of the ARC tunnel project. But, apparently his love of trains is because he likes airplanes more, especially if they fly out of Atlantic City.  He’s so complex.

After listening to the old JFK Express advertisement, I may have found another reason why Governor Christie is a fan of the PATH extension.  This could be an opportunity to revive that jingle.  The Governor is fan of catchy jingles.