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KOZMA: Fight traffic congestion by reimagining Rutgers buses

Column: With Liberty and Justice for All

Rutgers' buses can lead the way in improving infrastructure.  – Photo by Olivia Thiel

Everyone loves to hate the Rutgers bus system, but the University would be impossible without it. 

Every full bus saves dozens of car trips, massively reducing congestion. Imagine how much worse traffic and parking would be if anyone traveling from Douglass campus to Busch campus needed a car in order to avoid the hour-long walk.

We should commend public transportation at Rutgers for being truly "public": everyone uses it, even non-students. The assumption, so prevalent in the rest of the country, that only select people take the bus does not exist here.

Still, while the system could be worse, it could also be far better. Rutgers buses need to share their routes with car traffic, slowing them down and making the system less reliable and efficient. Buses fall behind schedule, leading to the all-too-common sight of "bus bunching" at major stops.

A majority of Rutgers students commute or live off campus, which only makes the problem worse. Many commuters drive in from surrounding towns in Middlesex County, increasing congestion along Route 18 and within New Brunswick itself.

Unless they have no other choice, people typically only decide to take public transit if it is more convenient than driving. Existing traffic slows down buses, so frustrated riders drive their cars instead, which only makes the traffic heavier.

It is a vicious cycle, but there is a solution.

A well-designed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system would go a long way toward making the buses more efficient. BRT separates buses from the rest of traffic, giving them speed and reliability closer to that of a light rail while maintaining the flexibility and lower costs of buses.

Any true BRT requires a comprehensive network of bus-only lanes, so buses can bypass jammed-up cars moving at the speed of molasses. Buses would also get signal priority at traffic lights, limiting their time spent waiting at red lights.

College Avenue's bus lane is a good start, but several years later, bus lanes remain very rare in the rest of the city. Imagine how much smoother the F route would be, for example, if Route 18 had a dedicated bus lane.

Rutgers buses already have some other features of BRT, such as low-level floors to speed up boarding. Since fares are free, buses do not need to stop for fare collection. In BRT systems, which require fares, passengers pay before boarding to achieve the same efficiency.

Improving the Rutgers buses only takes us so far. The root of Rutgers’ traffic issues does not stop at the campus border.

Both NJ Transit and Coach USA run several routes in Middlesex County carrying thousands of passengers each day, but infrequent and inconvenient service turn many potential riders into drivers. On-bus fare collection, a lack of low-floor buses and lone bus signs instead of protected shelters combine to make the bus a rather inconvenient commute.

The solution is to create a BRT system connecting not just the five campuses but also neighboring towns. A single network could connect commuters from East Brunswick, Edison, Piscataway, North Brunswick and more, easing the traffic and parking situation in New Brunswick.

In 2001, the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy studied the feasibility of such a system for the so-called "Greater New Brunswick Area." They determined it was "physically feasible," "operationally beneficial" and would allow for significant time savings, including reliable intercampus travel within 20 minutes.

In 2008, the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority followed up with a concept plan to phase in a regional BRT system that would integrate the county's existing bus routes. The BRT would be centered around the New Brunswick train station, with park-and-ride facilities at the suburban terminals.

The benefits of BRT are clear. Reduced congestion means cleaner air, shorter waits and more enjoyable travel. Commuting students, workers, residents and even tourists would come to love BRT.

So why has it not happened yet?

Sometimes it seems that everyone looks down on buses. Motorists find them annoying and inconvenient, while transit advocates focus on more attractive alternatives like high-speed rail or trams. Often, those alternatives would be great, were it not for the prohibitive costs. Laying down miles of track for fixed tram or light rail routes is a major commitment of time and money.

Why make things more difficult than necessary? The buses are already here. The roads are already here.

With BRT, there is also more flexibility. If there turns out to be less demand for a specific route than expected, it is far cheaper to make adjustments.

For too long, though, funding shortfalls have held back the dream of a regional BRT network. NJ Transit has barely enough money to maintain current services, let alone expand.

Thankfully, that may be changing soon. Under President Joseph R. Biden's massive infrastructure package, New Jersey is set to receive approximately $4.2 billion for transit.

Investing just a small portion of that in BRT for New Brunswick and the surrounding area would make us more connected while reducing congestion. We have been waiting for two decades. Why wait any longer?

Thomas Kozma is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy junior majoring in planning and public policy. His column, “With Liberty and Justice for All,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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