Saturday, March 17, 2012

Buses in Tunnels

This morning, I read of a tragic accident in which a tour bus crashed into the wall of a Swiss tunnel, killing many school children. But even if that had happened Monday of last week, I would still have taken a bus from Newark, New Jersey's Penn Station to New York City through Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River.

Why a bus in a tunnel? Because I had learned from an official of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (at a meeting organized by Chicago's Metropolitan Planning Council) that more people are brought into New York City in the reserved bus lane of the Lincoln Tunnel than by any other transportation corridor. That's really surprising, given how many high-volume rail corridors run in to the Big Apple. I had to experience it for myself, especially since Michigan's Powers That Be announced that Detroit will be getting a "rapid bus" system instead of light rail. Could this be a potential model?

Here's how it works. Every morning, buses from all over northern New Jersey - and beyond - head for the west entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel, which runs from Hoboken to 42nd Street in Manhattan. My bus - NJ Transit Route 108 - started on the ground level of Newark's Penn Station in a bus terminal that would be a good model to emulate. (We'll take a look at bus terminal design toward the end of this post.)

Route 108 is local through Newark, and made several stops along Raymond Boulevard. Then we got on the New Jersey Turnpike (breezing through the gates with an E-Z Pass), ran a couple of miles, and got off at Union City, a portion of the megacity that perches on top of the Hudson Palisades Sill. We made one stop there, leaving about 1/3 of our passengers and replacing them with new riders. About 46 people were on board, 43 of us seated and three choosing to stand, though a couple of seats were unoccupied. Demographics? Well, there were two or three European-derived people like me on the bus, but the majority represented the remainder of the globe pretty well.
Past Union City, we headed onto another tollway and down to the east gate of the Tunnel (and yet another toll-collection). The bus-only lane was indicated by illuminated signs which would be turned off after rush hour, allowing cars and trucks to use both lanes through the tunnel. Our bus driver elected to use the non-reserved lane, which was a little faster at first, though later things evened out. Traffic moved pretty slowly in both lanes, but before too long we emerged in sunny Manhattan.

That's when the spiralling began, as we followed the queue of buses slowly up around the concrete ramps. There are apparently two spiral ramps, one leading to Level 2, the other to Level 4 of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Buses of all kinds use these facilities: NJ Transit seems to be the heaviest user, followed by Coach USA ("A Stagecoach Company"). Greyhound, Megabus, and several regional bus lines serve the terminal as well. Bus types include big and small, city transit and intercity, public and private.

The terminal building is big and new. Six stories high (as I mentioned), with a basement shopping/food court and subway station below it all. I found the terminal that morning full of people hurrying purposefully out (no surprise there), more like streams of rushing water than individual people. I had to dive into the streams and "swim" across in order to get to good picture-taking spots.

I'm told the terminal is just as active in the evening, but the activity isn't concentrated into such a brief time period, so there is no bus-only lane except in the morning.

The boarding process is super-organized in the Port Authority Terminal, and also in Newark's Penn Station. I'll describe Newark's because that's what I had a chance to see in detail and photograph.

There are four parallel lanes on the east-bound side of the station. The bus lanes run at right angles to the railroad tracks, which are elevated, making the boarding areas semi-enclosed, protected from rain and snow, but not from the wind. The lanes are wide enough for buses to pass one another, and separated by boarding platforms ten or twelve feet wide. Each platform has at least two enclosed glass shelters with benches for waiting passenger, designated to serve two or more bus routes. Some shelters have an official in a booth at one end for security, who operates the sliding glass doors to let people board their bus when it arrives. The shelters have electronic signs announcing the time till arrival of the next bus, of course.

When buses arrive at the station or terminal, they let passengers off on un-sheltered parts of the platform. According to the driver's orders, they may wait until departure time before moving to their assigned sliding doors to admit passengers; or they may leave the terminal and go to a parking lot to await their next scheduled assignment. Because of the premium on land in Manhattan, buses that drop off their passengers in the morning normally go back to New Jersey to wait for their evening assignments in large bus-parking lots.
Well, it was certainly impressive, particularly the Port Authority's bus terminal. It'll be a long time before Detroit matches that. In the meanwhile, bus transit could be made a lot more efficient for both passengers and bus operations by adopting some design features of the Newark bus station. It's much more pleasant to get on and off buses in a well-designed terminal. A pleasant transit experience can make a big difference in whether people choose to ride or drive, so we can make our country much more sustainable to making transit more inviting.


  1. Thank god for public transit. Just seems the best way to travel in a crowded city. Certainly less expensive then a tank of gas.

  2. It seems like only best way of traveling in overly crowded city like New York cheap way of traveling is using Coach Buses NYC.

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