With more than 650,000 people living in mostly contiguous cities and municipalities, Hudson County today has a larger population than the cities of Boston, Denver, Portland, Seattle, and Washington DC. With a population density of around 13,000 people per square mile it is also denser than all of those cities and its car ownership rates are among the lowest in the country. If you called Hudson County one single city and compared it to these other cities based on mere statistics and removed their names you would assume that Hudson County must enjoy a robust public transit system to serve its large, pedestrian heavy population. You would be wrong.
If you read Matt Hunger’s article in the Jersey City Independent about Jersey City’s public transit issues you would assume that the biggest problem facing the city is the PATH nearing capacity. You would be wrong. The PATH has four stops in Jersey City. All but one is in Downtown. Downtown, while certainly the financial and business center of Jersey City, has around 50,000 residents. That is one tenth of HudsonCounty’s population. Tiny Harrison, with 10,000 or so people, enjoys a PATH stop and Hoboken’s 50,000 residents have one as well. So, roughly 20% of HudsonCounty enjoys immediate PATH access; the rest of us rely in some measure on NJ Transit buses, jitneys and the Light Rail to get us to where we need to go.
Hudson County straphangers are stuck between massive public transit institutions that they have no control over. NJ Transit puts most of its resources into its commuter rail service (especially during Republican administrations) and even when it worries about buses, HudsonCounty is just one part of the state within its purview. The Port Authority is such a bloated, bureaucratic mess in the midst of the stunningly over budget World Trade Center construction and constant interstate squabbles between the New York and New Jersey powers that be that they can scarcely be bothered to worry about Hudson County and everything East of the Hudson River is run by an MTA that doesn’t much give a hoot about commuters from outside the city.
As many journalists have documented in recent years, capital transit costs are so prohibitively expensive in the United States that expanding public transit requires federal money. Gobs of it. The 2 billion dollar Hudson Bergen Light Rail was the biggest piece of pork to roll into New Jersey until Governor Christie was elected. Each bus and its one driver on a bus line costs NJ Transit hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. Never mind staggering per mile costs of subway construction. The total cost of New York City’s 8.5 mile long 2nd Avenue Expansion is estimated to be 17 billion dollars. That works out to something like 2 billion a mile, not to mention the project has been in the works since the late 1920s and is still nowhere close to completion! Hudson County could never foot that kind of bill so new PATH tracks throughout the county are out of the question, which leaves of with buses.
Buses are a relatively cheap, efficient and quick way to drastically improve public transit in a given area. Given how compact Hudson County is a robust bike share program and concerted efforts to improve biking infrastructure would also significantly improve the quality of life of Hudson County residents. While the Jitneys are quick and convenient they are often uncomfortable, unsanitary, tend to disappear during off hours and due to safety concerns do not pick up certain people at a certain time of night (like me). So just a few buses that connect people in the more far flung areas of the County to transit hubs would get more cars off the road, shorten people’s commutes and create the kind of affordable transit infrastructure that an urban area like Hudson County absolutely needs. With interest rates at historic lows, now is the time to invest.
Bicycles and bike share programs are the next part of the solution. The DC Bike share program, as I have witnessed it, is convenient, affordable, and environmentally friendly and brings in revenue for the city through monthly rental fees (like a PATH or MTA card). Before my bike was stolen I could get to the Grove Street PATH station in ten minutes from my house in the Heights. Relying on a mix of bus and/or the Light Rail, that trip becomes a 45 to an hour long trip sometimes. Bikes, especially for younger and middle aged residents, greatly increase the ease of getting to the few public transit hubs that HudsonCounty has. In WashingtonDC the bikes are stored at areas like parks, transit hubs and other main thoroughfares. This could easily be replicated in HudsonCounty. I know the issue is already being mulled by folks at the County, but based on how slowly things tend to move, our elected officials need a kick in the pants.
While myopic officials may think Hudson County’s transit issues begin downtown, the opposite is true. The real problem is elsewhere, where it can take residents of the Heights, Union City, North Bergen or even Bayonne two hours to get to Gotham. The easier those connections cane be made the more growth the county will see and claims to be New York’s Sixth Borough will be true. New York is New York because of its premier transit infrastructure and density. Hudson County is a great alternative because if offers the kind of smaller city life you find in places like Boston, Washington DC and even Philadelphia, where good bus service are a major part of those City’s appeal. Hudson County can be a world class urban area again, but without forward-thinking public transit solutions, we’ll remain New York’s redheaded stepsister. There isn’t much we can do about the MTA, Port Authority, or NJ Transit, so Hudson County has to start taking its internal transit into its own hands.