Imagine How COVID-19 Could Reshape Mobility for People Who Rely on Transit

By Stewart Mader

How does public transit defy dire predictions about its future? Before we think about restoring pre-pandemic commutes, let’s listen to some of transit’s most critical–and enduring–customers. Speaking to us from 2021, a year from now, Cecilia and Enrique describe how the pandemic has changed what they require from their transit providers.

New Priorities

“Before COVID-19,” says Cecilia, a nurse, “early every morning I stood shoulder-to-shoulder on a packed rush-hour bus to commute to work at a large metropolitan hospital. Now, I’m working a new shift from 5AM-1PM to ensure I’m traveling during a less busy time of day. I’m also able to check on my transit app before I activate my ticket to confirm the next bus has room for me before I board.”

After seeing how important it is to maintain safe physical distance to limit the spread of COVID-19, Cecilia’s employer restructured its shifts for nurses and other frontline patient-care professionals. Now they rotate at 5AM, 1PM, and 9PM. This ensures hospital employees are traveling at times that minimize overlap with shift changes for law enforcement, logistics, construction, and other location-essential fields.

Enrique works the night shift at a nearby factory. “I started out as a sheetmetal fabricator, working my way up to production line manager and shop steward.” When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he was furloughed, but his employer received a federal loan that enabled them to shift production to batteries for electric buses. ”I grew up riding the bus, but before COVID-19, I was thinking about buying a car to get to work because the bus was becoming so unreliable. When we got off work at four in the morning, we used to race out and squeeze into the bus that came right at 4:00 sharp, because the next one wasn’t coming for another 45 minutes.”

Because of the focus on location-essential workers during the first wave of the pandemic, Enrique says bus service has become much more reliable, and frequent. “Now I can take the 4:10AM bus, which is easier to catch since it’s timed to come ten minutes after the shift change. If I miss that one, I’m only waiting another ten minutes for the next one! And if our shift ends early, our company alerts the transit agency so they can send a bus earlier.”

Glad to be back at work–and able to do his part to help the environment–Enrique appreciates how the local transit agency has adapted to his new work schedule. “I am relieved I no longer have to consider the extra expense of buying a car,” he says. The increased service frequency and better bus scheduling is a result of new collaboration between the transit agency and employers to better align service on key routes that serve their facilities. It ensures high-enough frequency to protect customers by preventing crowding.

Mask Transit: Wearing a mask while waiting for the bus. Photo by Miikka Luotio.

Mask Transit: Wearing a mask while waiting for the bus. Photo by Miikka Luotio.

Enrique’s mother Maria lives with the family. Maria retired after 30 years as a school security guard to look after her grandchildren Rosa and Miguel. Before COVID-19, she wanted to find part-time work but her mobility issues, owing to chronic back pain, limited her options. After COVID-19 compelled many employers to embrace work from home, Maria was able to find work with the local transit agency as a home-based customer service representative.

Maria helps customers plan their transit trips and buy tickets on the agency’s app. She also helps customers with a new program: registering as regular riders on specific bus routes and train lines. Voluntary registration helps the agency balance supply with demand. In return, customers receive a recurring discount on their weekly or monthly tickets.

Rosa is in eleventh grade, and Miguel just started high school. The new reality of education has necessitated a mix of remote learning and small-group instruction designed to keep occupancy in school buildings to 50%. Rosa also plays soccer, and Miguel swims competitively. Rosa notes that, “we now practice in groups–red white and blue–to reduce the risk that an infection could incapacitate our entire team.” Miguel points out that athletes must undergo biweekly testing. “We can compete only if we have tested negative for COVID-19,” Miguel says. For further protection, only athletes are allowed at event venues, and games are live streamed for families and fans.

The family lives in a working-class neighborhood just outside a major city. Their municipality still maintains the character of a hundred years ago, with tightly packed homes, four-story walk ups, and corner stores. The family lives in a neighborhood that had begun to experience gentrification as home buyers recognized what the family already enjoys: close proximity to the next-door city by bus, train, or light rail, and an easy walk to buy groceries, fill a prescription, or pick up a lunch order. Prompted by COVID-19, the local government enacted new land-use policies to promote infill development. The increased housing stock protects the existing community from displacement.

Opening Streets for pedestrians, bikes, and scooters strengthens communities. Photo by Mike Christensen.

Opening streets for walking, biking, and scooting strengthens communities. Photo by Mike Christensen.

The state’s economic development officials also offered incentives to employers to occupy several vacant industrial buildings with location-essential manufacturing jobs, so more members of the community have the option to walk to work. To support this new mobility, and provide light, air and open green space, the local government permanently opened 50% of its streets to non-vehicle use, and created a network of dedicated bus lanes throughout the other 50%. The “Open Streets” program provides more opportunities for walking, biking and physical distancing, safe trips to local retail, schools, and community facilities, and swift bus service that is no longer subject to vehicle congestion.

Funding the Future of Transit

These changed priorities and new ways of serving customers are funded by the Federal-Aid Health and Transit Act of 2021. Like the landmark Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the 2021 bill demonstrates a huge federal commitment to investing in national mobility, and it passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan support. The key to its passage was legislators’ collective recognition that public transit is a utility–much like water and power–that is essential to protecting public health and national security.

The Transit Act of 2021 makes permanent the change started a year earlier by the CARES Act of 2020, which broke a longstanding precedent by enabling the Federal Transit Administration to fund transit operations. Prompted by the public health emergency, the landmark change in the FTA’s traditional funding role created a strong rationale for the Transit Act of 2021. Both the 2020 and 2021 legislation now equip transit providers with the resources to run service at a frequency, flexibility, and capacity that serves the diverse needs of their communities.

Recognizing that the pandemic had decimated cultural institutions’ revenue, Congress included in the law a new, national “transit arts” program. It requires agencies to allocate 1% of their new federal funding to programs that increase public transit travel to museums, zoos, botanical gardens, and other cultural destinations.

“Rosa was so happy when their favorite museum in the city reopened after the first wave of the pandemic,” Enrique says. “What’s cool is that we can use our transit app to pay our fares, check for a non-crowded bus into the city, and also get a break on our museum admission.” As a result, Cecilia, Enrique, and their children have become regular sources of new weekend revenue for the transit agency, as well as for their expanding “must do” list of attractions.

People wear masks and maintain physical distance while riding a ferry. Photo by Big Dodzy.

People wear masks and maintain physical distance while riding a ferry. Photo by Big Dodzy.

What Have We Learned?

Putting ourselves in the role of public transit professionals in 2021, what have we learned by looking at the lives of our customers like Cecilia, Enrique, Rosa, Miguel, and Maria? Quite a lot!

To best serve their most transit-dependent customers, agencies in 2021 deploy equipment and staff for 24/7 schedules to accommodate the needs of those working beyond formerly typical “commute” times. This all-day, all-week service has benefited vast numbers of lower-income people, whose jobs and educational opportunities never followed the nine-to-five peak.

Employers and employees in 2021 have embraced working from home, further enabling transit agencies to break free from the constraints that traditional, nine-to-five peak-hour service placed on their ability to offer more service at other times. Where working from home is not possible, employers and employees have migrated to decentralized workplaces. Recognizing this, more transit agencies have supplemented their hub-and-spoke routes with service patterned on a spider web of interconnected nodes and modes.

Agencies have also seen that “demand destruction” for office-tower rentals, home-sharing services, and other industry sectors presented both a challenge and an opportunity to create and meet new demands for mobility. For instance, as center-city office-tower property owners began to convert under-performing, stranded-asset office space into residential units, agencies adapted service to support the resulting shift in transit supply and demand.

Transit agencies have also realized that many of their own office workers could, and should, work from home. They have discovered that embracing remote work enabled them to access a broader pool of talented people that enhanced their ability to relate to their customers. They are supporting all employees–those that could work from home, and those on the frontlines of service–with financial incentives such as subsidized day care. They have updated code-of-conduct policies to embody a mentally-healthy work-life balance, and avoid succumbing to the notion that employees working from home are always “on call.” Recognizing that customers follow leadership, transit agency leaders have modeled best practices such as physical distancing, the wearing of face masks, and conducting meetings remotely.

A tram crosses the Pont de la Citadelle in Strasbourg, France. Photo by Jimmy Pantzy.

A tram crosses the Pont de la Citadelle in Strasbourg, France. Photo by Jimmy Pantzy.

Transit agencies have taken on a new role. They have become public utilities supported by dedicated revenue from taxation rather than subsidy-chasing quasi-government entities. In their new role, they have accelerated “give backs” to communities within their service areas. For example, they lent planners to help communities replace street traffic with pedestrian-friendly and transit-friendly street design that enhanced light, air, and open green space, outdoor retail and eating, stormwater and climate-change mitigation, and higher real estate values.

Recognizing that members of their communities who previously worked as ride-hail drivers were out of work, agencies created accelerated certification programs to help these people convert their contract driving experience to commercial drivers licenses so they could become full-time bus, microtransit, or paratransit drivers with benefits.

By strengthening bus and train service, agencies helped reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions. By accelerating the transition to all-electric fleets, they are contributing to the broader economic recovery, and better protecting employees traditionally impacted by health issues resulting from prolonged exposure to fossil-fuel powered internal combustion engines. They also contribute to climate-resilience by creatively adapting real estate assets to new climate-mitigation and climate-adaptation uses.

Public transit providers adapted to the new realities of the pandemic-altered ecosystem in which they operate. They did so by seeking and using their “seat at the table” at decision-making meetings of government officials, social-welfare entities, industry leaders, education providers and cultural institutions. In those discussions, they both understood and helped shape the environment in which they optimized transit service.

Reality or myth? Aspiration or achievement? It depends.

Three Steps Forward

As transit professionals right now, in 2020, we can start to create a new 2021 world of, by, and for public transit. Here are three steps forward.

Legislate for change. Advocate and advance legislation that positions transit as a well-managed, state-of-the-art public utility. Help transit advance beyond the vestigial standard of its private sector predecessor railroads and bus companies. Be attentive to decisions about service that favor the economically and socially stratified segment of customers who only use it to commute to 9-5 jobs. Recognize that those decisions may unintentionally limit transit’s ability to support equity. Seize the opportunity to reimagine transit based on its ability to benefit the largest number of people.

Build cohesive policy. Initiate new collaboration with key players–retail, logistics, real estate, architecture, education, health care, and other fields–to jointly reshape the realm that transit supports. Take into account that all of these sectors have a role to play in shaping clear policy goals. For instance, employers can structure work arrangements to avoid peaks that cause crowding on transit. To aid working parents and care-givers, government can fund day care, as it already supports schools. Communities can support abundant, all-day transit that more fully benefits a greater diversity of people.

Architects, planners, and transit agencies can coordinate land-use and network design decisions that best support transit availability and reliability. Transit agencies can also ensure more seamless mobility in the areas they serve by streamlining fare payment, and integrating bike share, micromobility, and microtransit into their networks. Enabling customers to plan, pay for, and pick up their ride, whether by bus, bike, or train can give customers greater confidence that they can get where they need to go safely and conveniently.

Plan beyond the pandemic. The pandemic that has begun in 2020 foreshadows the effects climate change likely will impose on society. Both the pandemic and climate change are existential issues. Both give us many interrelated opportunities to address them with intelligence, inclusiveness, and investment. For example, less vehicle use of our roads has contributed to the cleanest air many of us have seen in our lifetimes. Fully understanding that cleaner air has come at the cost of lost employment and decimated industries, our challenge now is to rethink all sectors of our lives to increase health and well-being in an equitable way. Those of us in public transit, for example, can provide mobility geared to serve as many people as possible, at all times of day and night. We can simultaneously increase convenience, strengthen safety, and mitigate the pace of climate change.

A Montreal Metro train passes through De La Savane station. Photo by William Daigneault.

A Montreal Metro train passes through De La Savane station. Photo by William Daigneault.

As we plan how to welcome customers back to transit, our reflex action, typically, is to ask: “Where and how do we take our customers?” As policy leaders, we will do better by asking “Where are our customers taking us?” “How can we meet their evolving needs and maximize their connectivity, accessibility, and mobility?”

Cecilia, Enrique, María, Rosa, and Miguel have shown us how they live and want to ride. Now it’s our job to provide.

Author’s Note: Thanks to my colleagues throughout the industry, including Jessica Alba, Jim Aloisi, Sara Holoubek, Jarrett Walker, and Jenny Wong, for providing invaluable feedback that strengthened the perspective of this policy paper.

E-ZPass Streamlines Driving. Could it do the Same for Transit Fare Payment?

Mobility Lab Feature Story By Stewart Mader

When my family and I drove to Washington DC in 2019, we spotted an opportunity to bridge the difference between driving and transit. We realized there is a way to enhance transit fare payment in almost every state east of the Mississippi River.

Heading out from New Jersey, we had a simple goal. We wanted to see our nation’s capital, visit museums, walk the National Mall, and visit Alexandria, VA which has a lot in common with our current hometown of Hoboken. From New Jersey to DC, and every state in between, we were able to move seamlessly, and pay our tolls easily, all because of E-ZPass.

The little E-ZPass transponder mounted on our windshield makes driving convenient in seventeen states. So convenient, in fact, that E-ZPass processed $9B in tolls for 21.5 million customers in 2017. It’s all made possible by a group of transportation agencies who have equipped their highways, bridges, and tunnels with equipment to read the transponder, process tolls, and credit them to the appropriate member.

Once we paid those tolls and arrived, we put the car away for the weekend and planned to use the DC Metro to get around. But when we got to the turnstiles at the King Street station in Alexandria, we ran into a problem. Our MetroCards didn’t work. Neither, of course, did any of the other transit fare cards I carry: Boston CharlieCard, SEPTA Key, or PATH SmartLink card.

So we had to buy another – the DC SmarTrip card – three in fact, one for each person in our family over two years old. There’s a $2 fee for each one, and that’s before you add a balance or buy a daily or weekly pass. That’s one more card to squeeze in my already-bursting wallet, which is fast becoming like George’s Exploding Wallet of Seinfeld fame. You never know which one is going to make it all fall apart. As George’s irascible father Frank Constanza famously exclaimed, “There has to be a better way!”

Let’s look at other forms of payment. There’s no need to pick up a local credit or debit card each time we travel. That’s because payment networks like MasterCard, VISA, and American Express provide a shared payment platform. Merchants can accept cards with confidence that they’ll get paid, and customers can use the same card everywhere it’s accepted.

That’s where E-ZPass comes in. Imagine if your CharlieCard in Boston was an E-ZPass CharlieCard, linked to the E-ZPass network just like that transponder in your car. There are two things that make this feasible.

First, these systems are account-based. Your CharlieCard, SEPTA Key, or SmarTrip Card is linked to an online account that contains your balance, transaction history, and payment information to replenish it. That’s exactly how E-ZPass works too. I can log in to my E-ZPass account, update my payment info, choose a threshold at which E-ZPass automatically replenishes my balance so that I can pay tolls with ease and confidence. Since both types of platforms – new transit fare payment systems and E-ZPass – are account-based, linking them is largely a software project. One possible direction for this integration: E-ZPass could introduce support for Apple Pay, so that E-ZPass members can add their E-ZPass account to their iPhone alongside other payment methods.

Second, many of the agencies that are already members of E-ZPass directly operate toll facilities and transit, or are connected to the agencies that run transit. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority oversees MTA New York City Transit, which operates the city’s subway and bus network, and MTA Bridges and Tunnels, which uses E-ZPass, creating a natural opportunity for collaboration on seamless payment. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is directly responsible for both the tolled Massachusetts Turnpike, and Boston’s T. The Maryland Transportation Authority, which is responsible for the state’s toll facilities, is a sibling of the Maryland Transit Administration. Both are overseen by the Maryland Department of Transportation, creating another opportunity for interagency collaboration. Linking toll and transit payments would transform customer experience by eliminating a barrier to transit use, drive more customers to use transit, and help agencies save money on user fee collection.

As E-ZPass connects transit, the convenience of using transit throughout the seventeen-state region will mirror the ease of driving that E-ZPass customers enjoy today. A Chicagoan can use a Ventra card while visiting Boston, a Pittsburgher can use a Port Authority ConnectCard while visiting Philadelphia, and a Bostonian can use a CharlieCard when in DC. As agencies throughout the E-ZPass region continue to introduce new fare payment platforms, like the OMNY from New York’s MTA, Indianapolis’ IndyGo, and Cincinnati’s Cincy EZRide, integrating these new platforms with E-ZPass from the start will accelerate adoption.

In addition to the new convenience, here is another reason why this transit fare payment idea’s time has come. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a landmark report in 2018 that calls for unprecedented action to keep warming below the 1.5°C threshold above which the most damaging effects of climate change will be inescapable. Transportation accounts for 28 percen of worldwide energy demand, and 23 percent of greenhouse gas emissions that directly contribute to atmospheric warming.

To reduce transportation’s impact on climate change, the UN report specifically calls for a greater switch from cars to buses and trains: “it is primarily the switching of passengers and freight from less- to more-efficient travel modes (e.g., cars, trucks and airplanes to buses and trains) that is the main strategy.” Enabling seamless transit fare payment will add a new chapter to the E-ZPass success story. It will accelerate the transition to more diverse mobility options. It will better balance use of roads and rails. It will further boost quality of life. It will benefit our environment.

The author presented this idea at the New Jersey Future Redevelopment Forum in March, 2019. Presentation slides are available on SlideShare.

Subway Photo: John St. John. E-ZPass Toll Booth Photo: Peter Titmuss / Alamy Stock Photo.

Chicago Transit’s Digital Redesign Offers Blueprint for Transforming Customer Experience

Mobility Lab Feature Story By Stewart Mader

Transit users are an agency’s most valuable source of insight. Customers typically use an agency’s website to plan trips, check arrival times, and get updates on planned work. Visitors typically need to get maps, figure out fares, and find their way around. Journalists, advocates, and policymakers need to keep up with capital plans, system improvements, and service quality for their constituents. Engaging with each group gives an agency the ability to inform, drive, and optimize its services in ways that can continually energize their relationship with transit. Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, and former US Deputy Chief Technology Officer during the Obama Administration calls this delivery-driven government. Continues…

PATH to Penn Station: Restoring an Underground Passage to Streamline NYC Transit

By Stewart Mader

Reopening the dormant Gimbels Passageway underneath 33rd Street would streamline NYC transit by linking the New York City Subway, PATH, Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road, and New Jersey Transit at Penn Station. It would be a low-cost, high-profile enhancement to the renewal of Penn Station, and an opportunity for an innovative public/private partnership with the real estate community.

When New York Penn Station was built in the early 20th century, a passageway beneath 33rd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues seamlessly connected passengers to transit, hotels, stores, and businesses along the block-long span adjacent to the new station. The Gimbels Passageway, as it came to be known, gave passengers easy access to the Hotel Pennsylvania, Gimbels Department Store (a then-major rival to Macy’s), and the rapid transit hub at 34th Street-Herald Square, where passengers could reach multiple elevated and subway lines.

The passage survived the decline of rail traffic in the mid-twentieth century, and the controversial demolition of Penn Station’s headhouse in 1963, but it was closed in 1986 during the period in which New York City nearly declared municipal bankruptcy, and disinvestment in mass transit led to a rise in crime and squalor throughout the subway system.

In 2009, Vornado Realty Trust made restoring and reopening the passageway part of a package of upgrades to streamline NYC transit and win city approval for its 15 Penn Plaza project, which proposed to replace the Hotel Pennsylvania with a 1,200-foot tall office tower. Steve Cuozzo, commercial real estate columnist at the New York Post, described the changes in 2010 as a “wish-list” from transit agencies to streamline customer experience at the busiest rail station in the Western Hemisphere, and three of the busiest subway stations in the New York & New Jersey region.

According to the environmental impact study, Vornado would build new subway entrances at Seventh Avenue between West 32nd and 33rd streets; widen the congested northbound No. 1 line platform by six feet; and widen stairs and build new escalators and elevators to serve the subway and PATH lines. It would also improve access to the Sixth Avenue subway and PATH entrances, which are both now hidden inside the Manhattan Mall.

But the most dramatic change in the proposal might be a plan to open a sanitized, 21st Century edition of the old Gimbels Passageway — the creepy corridor that once connected the Herald Square and Penn Station/Seventh Avenue subway stations, until crime and squalor forced the MTA to close it in 1980.

The concourse would be widened to 16 feet from 9 feet and crafted like Rockefeller Center’s, with stores, artwork and mid- block access points.

Vornado commissioned visual artist Stewart Smith to create a potential public art installation for the reopened passageway. Smith proposed a simulation using 900 rotating digital discs to explore the theme of clockwork.

In an April 15, 2010 presentation to Manhattan Community Board 5, Bob Paley, director of transit-oriented development for the MTA, voiced the agency’s support for the project and the transit improvements it would bring to the area around Penn Station.

The MTA strongly supports this project – both the subway and transit improvements and the new tower that will rise above them. Although we can’t bring back the old Penn Station, through a series of very significant improvements such as those proposed as part of this development, we will be able to bring back the high level of convenience and amenity that the public deserves.”

Although 15 Penn Plaza faced opposition from preservation advocates over the proposed demolition of the Hotel Pennsylvania to make room for the tower, and the local community board voted 36-1 against it, the project was unanimously approved by the New York City Department of City Planning, and subsequently approved by the New York City Council in 2010. Citing market conditions, Vornado delayed the project in 2011. In 2013, the developer announced that it was exploring a makeover of the hotel instead of demolition.

In 2017, Vornado, Related Companies, Skanska, and Empire State Development Corporation finalized a $1.6B project to convert the James A. Farley Post Office into a new headhouse for Penn Station. Named after the late-U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who championed a new train station to replace the demolished Penn Station headhouse, the Moynihan Train Hall will be the transit centerpiece of an emerging neighborhood that extends from the Hudson Yards and Manhattan West developments west of the station to the Penn Plaza towers directly above, and the fast-growing Herald Square to the east.

Moynihan Train Hall’s expected opening in 2020 will give passengers new entrances, retail, waiting areas, and train access, and will enable the renovation and streamlining of existing passenger spaces throughout the station. In September 2018, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans for a new pedestrian plaza and Long Island Rail Road entrance on 33rd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. The project also includes renovation and expansion of the LIRR passenger concourse under 33rd Street.

Reopening Gimbels Passageway would complete this transformation and streamline NYC transit, by linking the B/D/F/M subway trains and PATH at Sixth Avenue, with the 1/2/3 and A/C/E subway trains, Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road, and New Jersey Transit at Penn/Moynihan Station between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. It would be a low-cost, high-profile enhancement to the renewal of Penn Station, and an opportunity for an innovative public/private partnership with the real estate community.

Simplify Things for Customers: A Transit Vision for the Tri-State Region

USA TODAY Network Op-Ed By Stewart Mader

On August 23, 2018, the North Jersey Record published an op-ed on transit in New Jersey that called for a new vision for the mass transit systems serving the tri-state region. Here is my transit vision, based on my experience of having created and chaired the PATH Riders Council for the past four years. Let’s make the customer experience of transit rival that of the interstate highway system: Simple signage, standardized wayfinding, seamless payment, and a streamlined network that gets you from Point A to Point B. Continues…

Seamless Subway Rides Replace Shuttle Buses, Thanks to Port Authority, MTA Collaboration

Mobility Lab Feature Story By Stewart Mader

Taking cues from feedback in 2016, transit officials on both sides of the Hudson River this year collaborated on a new way of speeding weekend riders on the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) subway into midtown Manhattan from New Jersey during scheduled service disruptions. The improved customer service program to provide seamless subway rides constitutes both an achievement and a model for further collaboration among transit agencies in the New York metro area. Here’s the story of how this latest innovation came together. Continues…

Verkehrsverbund: How Germany Standardizes Transit Customer Experience

Mobility Lab Feature Story By Stewart Mader

The customer experience of transit starts before you ever board a bus, train, tram, or ferry. For transit to compete effectively with driving, it needs to be easy for a person to make an informed decision that transit will offer a superior experience. Over the past half-century, Germany’s urban regions have harmonized their transit customer experience via the Verkehrsverbund, or transport association, a coordinating body that works with transit operators to synthesize their services and present them to the customer as a unified network. Continues…

New PATH to Newark Airport: Train to the Plane Supports Economy, Equity, and Resilience

By Stewart Mader

Newark Liberty International Airport, the largest airport in New Jersey and second-largest in the New York & New Jersey metropolitan region, is in the midst of major change. The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the bi-state agency responsible for the airport, is constructing a new terminal, planning to extend its PATH subway to Newark Airport, and preparing to replace the airport’s AirTrain monorail that connects the terminals to intercity rail and parking.

The nexus of these projects creates a transformational opportunity to improve airport access, advance economic equity for currently-underserved Newark neighborhoods, increase transit frequency throughout the region, and strengthen Trans-Hudson transit resilience, which are all key elements of the Port Authority’s strategic plan.

The most effective way for the metropolitan area to prosper from its opportunity to expand economically is to add new transit capacity to the most congested parts of the region already served by transit, to concentrate future development in locations that can readily be served by an enhanced transit system, and to encourage the greatest practical shift possible from autos to transit for commuting and non-work trips during peak travel periods.

24/7 Airport Transit for Millions of Travelers

Fast, efficient, and direct rail connection to airports is a growing area of competition for major cities. For example, the London Underground’s Piccadilly Line provides subway service to all terminals at Heathrow Airport, while Heathrow Express and Heathrow Connect provide service via regional rail at varying price points and travel times. London City Airport is served by the Docklands Light Rail, which connects to multiple Underground, regional, and national rail lines. Both of Chicago’s airports have direct subway access: The Chicago Transit Authority’s Blue Line provides direct service to O’Hare International Airport and the Red Line provides direct service to Midway Airport.

New York has fallen behind these peer cities in this critical area. LaGuardia Airport is served only by bus, and a potential extension of the New York City Subway from nearby Astoria, Queens is still just an idea, despite years of discussion. John F. Kennedy International Airport is served by the New York City Subway and Long Island Railroad, but both services require travelers to connect to the JFK AirTrain at stations several miles away from the airport’s terminals. Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the Global Gateway Alliance, says the prospect of multiple transfers drives people away from taking transit.

The New York & New Jersey region has a transformational opportunity to improve its airport access, and better connect Newark’s South Ward to transit, by extending PATH to Newark Liberty International Airport. PATH provides 24/7 subway service between New York & New Jersey, connecting Midtown and Downtown Manhattan with Hoboken, Jersey City, Harrison, and Newark. It serves as the transit backbone for dense urban areas supporting more than 400,000 jobs within a 1/2 mile of PATH stations, and a residential population of more than 8.2 million people, projected to grow to 9.6 million by 2040.

Employment in PATH Service Area

More than 400,000 jobs are within a 1/2 mile of existing PATH stations.

PATH service currently terminates at Newark Penn Station, roughly two miles north of Newark Airport. In order to reach the airport, PATH riders have to transfer at Newark Penn Station to a train or bus operated by New Jersey Transit, or an Amtrak intercity train. The PATH extension scoping document (PDF) highlights the limitations of the transfer at Newark Penn Station, which is especially challenging when traveling with luggage.

The connection between PATH and NJ TRANSIT at Newark Penn Station for those traveling in the outbound direction, involves transferring to another platform via stairs, elevators, or escalators. This transfer is inconvenient and platforms, corridors and vertical circulation elements are often crowded during peak periods. Pedestrian modeling shows that by 2030 all vertical circulation elements in Newark Penn Station will be congested, in some cases severely congested, without significant infrastructure investment.

Once a person has navigated the transfer at Newark Penn Station, they may face a long wait for the next New Jersey Transit train, especially on weekends or off-peak hours. New Jersey Transit also runs two bus lines connecting downtown Newark with the airport, but the Go 28 bus rapid transit doesn’t stop at Newark Penn Station, so riders would have to walk or take Newark Light Rail to Broad St. Station, easily adding 15-20 minutes to the trip. The 62 local bus takes a scheduled 16 minutes to travel between Newark Penn Station and the airport, but the bus travels in mixed-traffic, and is subject to delays depending on traffic conditions.

Extending PATH to Newark Airport would eliminate the transfers, waiting time, and unpredictability associated with the current transit options, and provide a one-seat ride directly to the Newark Airport station, where the AirTrain monorail connects to individual terminals. According to the PATH extension scoping document (PDF), PATH service to Newark Airport would operate every three minutes during peak hours. This would represent a significant improvement over the current New Jersey Transit service, which operates approximately every ten minutes during peak hours.

Off-peak and overnight service would improve as well. PATH’s current schedule (PDF) shows off-peak service between World Trade Center and Newark operating approximately every 10-15 minutes, and every 35 minutes between midnight and 5am. Off-peak service to Newark Airport could conceivably operate on this same schedule, if not more frequently, since PATH is nearing completion of a major upgrade to its signal system. The current New Jersey Transit rail service does not operate from 2am-5am, and the 28 Go bus does not operate from 2-4:30am, leaving only the local 62 bus serving the airport during overnight hours. PATH is one of only five subway systems in the US to operate 24/7, and Newark Airport is a 24/7 operation, with 80 arriving and 78 departing flights between midnight and 6am. Extending PATH to Newark Airport would connect two 24/7 transportation services operated by the same agency, which would allow for reliable, convenient, well-coordinated transit service for the growing population in New York & New Jersey who need round-the-clock access for travel and work.

Improved Trans-Hudson Transit Resilience

The region faces a major potential for disruption in the coming years, if the century-old North River Tunnels, which were damaged by Superstorm Sandy, need to be closed for emergency repairs. In 2015, then-Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman told NPR that a tunnel closure would reduce transit capacity by 75%.

Right now, Boardman says, Amtrak can squeeze 24 trains an hour through the two tracks of the tunnel. But when one of them has to close for repairs, that number drops to just six trains per hour.

Closure of one of the rail tunnels connecting to Penn Station could create widespread chaos in the transit network. Bob Gordon, a former state senator who led the New Jersey Senate Transportation Committee, and current Chair of the Board of Public Utilities, sees the PATH Newark extension as an important alternative to strengthen trans-Hudson transit. He told NJTV’s Briana Vannozzi that the uncertainty in timing and funding surrounding the Gateway project to build additional tunnels for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit makes the PATH extension a viable ‘Plan B’ to increase the reliability of the region’s transit network.

Shahram Tahmasseby and Rob van Nes, authors of Improving Service Reliability in Urban Transport Networks, demonstrate that increasing redundancy helps counteract the forces that affect transit service reliability, including varying demand, equipment breakdowns, and necessary maintenance.

Increasing line density in a certain way results in higher redundancy in the service network and consequently can improve service reliability. Furthermore, the availability of several line options enables travellers to switch between transit lines in case of disturbances and find an alternative route for making their trip.

Multiple national, state, county, and local roads including Interstates 78 & 95, U.S. Routes 1 & 9, NJ Route 81, Earhardt Drive, and Brewster Road provide redundancy for those accessing the airport by road. Extending PATH would similarly diversify and enhance transit connections to the airport.

New Mass Transit for Newark’s South Ward

The PATH Newark Extension is being planned with two important co-benefits: an economic anchor for Newark’s South Ward, and a transit catchment that would relieve strain on other trans-Hudson crossings. The PATH extension would bring a new subway station within two blocks of Newark’s Dayton Neighborhood, offering a direct transit connection to downtown Newark, Jersey City, and Manhattan.

PATH Newark Airport aerial view

Proposed Newark Airport PATH station and train yard locations.

PATH, infrastructure firm HNTB, and the Regional Plan Association studied how new PATH service, combined with the revitalization plan for Newark’s Dayton neighborhood (PDF) could lay the groundwork for new mixed-use development on the formerly industrial area adjacent to the proposed extension. According to the PATH extension scoping document (PDF), the new station would more strongly connect the existing neighborhood to transit, provide greater access to job opportunities throughout the region, and anchor new transit-oriented development.

The Dayton neighborhood contains over a hundred acres of vacant or underutilized industrial properties adjacent to its residential core. The Newark 2012 Master Plan noted that improved transit accessibility at the Airport Station could create transit-oriented development opportunities, such as office space for airport logistics, and hospitality uses (hotels and hotel support businesses), as well as residential development, which could serve a broad market, including airport workers and crew members who would benefit from proximity to the airport. Strategies identified in the Newark 2012 Master Plan to support new transit-oriented development and provide better transit access in Newark include: extending PATH service to the Airport Station; providing a new multi-modal station that is accessible to the community; and construction of a commuter parking facility.

Critics often argue that transit extensions to airports prioritize business travelers and tourists over local populations, but PATH’s plan is a forward-thinking approach that could make the extension into a success story for transit and community growth.

Newark South Ward PATH Access

The new PATH Newark Airport Station would also reconnect Newark’s South Ward to rapid transit.

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