The landmark study represents the first time the travel company has taken a holistic approach to its tri-county bus service. Recommendations from the first draft are expected after Labor Day.
By Matt Skoufalos | June 21, 2022
For the first time in its history, NJ TRANSIT is “reimagining” its BCG bus network, which serves Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties, and is seeking feedback from riders and the general public in the process.
The study, called “Newbus BCG,” is part of the agency’s broader 10-year strategic plan, and comes at a time when transit agencies nationwide are “actively revamping their bus networks to respond to emerging travel needs,” director of media relations for NJ Transit. said Jim Smith.
Cities such as Houston, Omaha, Jacksonville, Columbus and Baltimore have already redesigned their bus networks, according to the New York-based TransitCenter Foundation, and SEPTA in Philadelphia is now undertaking a similar process.
Why is this happening now?
To begin with, NJ TRANSIT never undertook an in-depth study of the BCG regional bus network, Smith said. Many of the 27 routes that make up BCG have operated on the same corridors for decades, inherited from older tram and bus networks that are no longer in service.
Adapting the NJ TRANSIT bus network to better meet the needs of its riders in the future will mean “evaluating the performance of existing routes, identifying new areas of travel activity and actively engaging with regional stakeholders, customers current and mainstream travel needs,” Smith said.
The agency surveyed cyclists along its routes last fall and plans to involve public stakeholders throughout the process.
Another major reason to undertake reinvention now is that transit agencies are beginning to recover from declining ridership during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Transit agencies that had already seen a drop in ridership amid growth in telecommuting and ride-sharing services have been hammered during the pandemic, said Greg Krykewycz, director of transportation planning for the Transportation Commission. Delaware Valley Regional Planning (DVRPC), with regional rail services losing about 90 percent of passengers, and regional bus services losing about 40 percent.
“Local fixed-route bus ridership has been among the most stable during the pandemic,” Krykewycz said; “people who had to go to work all the time to keep the lights on for office workers who had options.”
NJ TRANSIT riders tend to be low-income earners who do not have access to a personal car and may rely on bus service four or more times per week.
Persons under the age of 18 represent 2% of all users in the BCG study area; another 15 percent are students.
According to the agency, 60% of BCG runners identify as non-white and 40% come from economically disadvantaged households. There are also large groups of cyclists among the elderly and people with disabilities.
Importantly, Krykewycz also pointed out that people who take the buses “often have fewer travel options”, making them regular customers of the service and, in many cases, entirely dependent on it to access important destinations in the tri-county area.
“Buses are the bread and butter of our regional transportation system,” he said. “They have the most ridership and the most stable ridership of any mode. They are essential elements of the regional transport network.
Objectives and Obstacles
The main challenge of the BCG reimagining exercise will be to balance issues of equity of access with efficient road design. In dense areas like Camden City, Burlington City, Glassboro and Paulsboro, the need for frequent service is clear.
Connecting commuters far from major transit hubs to the services they desperately need is more difficult.
“Commuter bus lines are becoming vital bus lines,” Krykewycz said.
“But you end up with these long, slow, circuitous routes in some places that take a lot of time instead of driving.
“How can public transit improve the quality of life of its user base as efficiently as possible and serve its ridership as quickly as possible? ” he said.
“It will be a choice between as much service as possible, so that everyone has something, or less service, but concentrated in places to serve the most people effectively.”
Ultimately, the improvement of the BCG bus lines aims to create a service that approximates the proximity and comparable costs of the regional rail system.
“It’s something to aspire to,” Krykewycz said. “The trade-off could be that some places that now have service might have a lower level of service.”
Some of these service interruptions or deletions can be overcome by smaller on-demand microtransit systems, which are smaller vehicles with flexible routes. Such solutions are difficult to establish, but certainly in demand, Krykewycz said.
“Smaller vehicles ferrying people to Walter Rand is what’s happening now, providing connections to Philadelphia or the Pureland industrial complex [in Swedesboro],” he said.
“There are a lot of people trying to get into these freight and warehousing jobs, which are some of the fastest growing jobs we have in our area: good jobs that pay good wages, but which are difficult to serve by public transport.
In the final calculation, the success of any changes implemented will be measured by NJ TRANSIT gaining new passengers, stabilizing revenue, and achieving a greater degree of travel fairness throughout its service area. However, Krykewycz notes that regardless of their preferred mode of transportation, every traveler has a stake in the success of route re-evaluations like these.
“No infrastructure is profitable,” he said. “The roads, the trains are not self-financing. There are consequences for everyone if these things don’t work as well as they should.