Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Look at New Jersey Transit

In March of 2012, I spent a week bumming my way around New Jersey riding their transit, as part of my ongoing survey of transit systems. I'd like to do a series of blog posts on New Jersey, because it's a fascinating system and illustrates all three of the types of transit I discussed in my July 18 post: "heritage", "mature", and "young".

In this series, I'd like to post on the "heritage" system, the "young" systems, the rail service offered to three low-density areas of the state, and the light rail systems. Each offers interesting observations on how transit affects community development and sustainability. But first, here's an overview of New Jersey Transit (NJT), including the demographics of the state.


New Jersey Population Density (2000)
The 2010 Census counted 8,791,894 residents of New Jersey, giving an overall density of 1195.5 people per square mile, making New Jersey the most densely populated state in the nation. New Jersey has held this distinction since the 1970 census, when it surpassed Rhode Island.

As you can see from the population density map, the greatest concentration is in the northeast, adjacent to New York City, with a concentration in the southwest across from Philadelphia. Not surprisingly, that's where the heaviest concentration of transit is found as well.

The nickname of New Jersey, "The Garden State", is a clue that it's always been a place where people from the big cities go to find a peaceful home community. Soil in the state is actually not great for gardening or farming, leading to early development of industry. And New Jersey has always been on the forefront of transportation, with railroads under construction as early as 1831.

Principal highways of New Jersey
The combination of early railroads and industrialization encouraged population growth along the rail lines where industry was sited. This pattern continued until the 1950s, when highways became a popular alternative. The New Jersey Turnpike was planned in the 1930s, though construction did not start until 1948; the Garden State Parkway was started in 1947. Both are toll expressways, built before in Interstate Highway System was enacted, and development along their routes presaged the impact of the Interstates on U.S. community growth patterns elsewhere. Traffic on New Jersey's many expressways and surface streets is very congested, as you'd expect in such a densely populated region, so travel by train always remained a popular option.

None the less, people crowded the highways to make their homes in rural areas. Tim Evans, of the New Jersey Future organization, recently wrote a post (linked below) noting a reversal in state growth trends over the last three years (2008-11). Rural counties had, for the preceding 50 years, been the fastest growing in the state; now the top ten growth counties are those that are already most heavily built up. As in other parts of the nation, people are realizing the cost and time benefits of living closer to work and public transportation; most of New Jersey's out-counties have seen growth slowed, and one or two have actually lost population.

Transit patterns and history

NJ Transit rail lines
Although New Jersey has impressive industry, research,and corporate headquarters itself, the main orientation has always been toward New York City and, to a lesser extent, Philadelphia. Above the network of local roads and transit, the highways and railways are primarily directed toward one or the other of the two big cities, or to both.

The spine of the system (shown in red at left) is the portion of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) that enters the state at Trenton, the capital, with a population of 84,913, more or less at the midpoint of the state. It runs straight northeast to Newark, New Jersey's largest city (277,140), turns east and dives into the twin tunnels under the Hudson River to New York City's Penn Station. This portion of the NEC was built by the United New Jersey Railroad and Canal Company between 1834 and 1841. In 1933, under Pennsylvania Railroad ownership, electrification was completed in New Jersey (and in 1935 all the way from New York City to Washington, D.C.).

From the NEC and a terminal in Hoboken, NJT operates seven other heavy-rail commuter lines. In the southern part of the state, service is operated between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. These all follow railroads that were built in the 19th century and were operated by private rail companies until the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, when a combination of shrinking ridership, regulation, and high operating expenses drove the private lines out of business.

Private operators of commuter service in the recent past included the Central Railroad of New Jersey, Delaware Lackawanna & Western Railroad, Eire Railroad (these two merged into the Eire-Lackawanna), New York & Long Branch Railroad, and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Because these operators used rail lines built in competition with each other, commuter service hardly amounted to a "system" when Conrail, formed in 1976 through the merger of several financially troubled Northeastern railways, took them over and provided commuter service under a contract from the New Jersey Department of Transportation. Though diminished, ridership was considered "too big to fail", in the sense that highway capacity and parking space could not have been provided for all riders even if they had all owned cars.

New Jersey Transit was formed by state law in 1979 with the goal to "acquire, operate and contract for transportation service in the public interest." It currently operates 536 miles of heavy-rail commuter service and 107 miles of light-rail. According to the 2010 report submitted to the National Transit Database, NJT commuter service provided 82 million passenger-trips for a total of more than 2 billion passenger-miles. Light rail provided over 21 million trips totaling 101 million passenger-miles.

In addition to its railway operations, NJT operates almost all the bus service in the state. 2009 figures indicate that the Northern bus division ran 83 routes, the Central ran 80, and the Southern 69 - altogether, 232 bus routes. In addition, NJT contracts with seven other operators to run 54 routes branded as NJ Transit. Average weekday bus ridership in 2009 was more than half a million. The 2010 National Transit Database report shows 2,401 buses providing more than 162 million passenger-trips and over a billion passenger-miles.

Bus service provides an extremely important link between New Jersey and New York City. My March 30 post (linked below) gives an account of how this system works.

Next post, let's take a look at the "heritage" rail lines. Check back soon!
To learn more:


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