In New Jersey, mass transit for the masses

In Jersey City and other towns along the Hudson, home-grown capitalists have wiped out the urban ritual called waiting for the bus.

Private operators jam commercial streets with mini-buses— and in turn spark new issues. (Think: traffic jams.)  Longtime complaints peaked last summer, when a wayward bus killed a baby girl, and the state created new regulations, which take effect next year.

Meanwhile, to hear Haroun Khan tell it, most drivers regulate themselves. He drives part-time, but today he’s a passenger. Sitting near the front of a jitney heading down Bergenline Avenue, he explains to a fellow-rider how drivers keep out of each other’s way.  

“They try to keep two or three traffic lights before or ahead," he says. "Wait, see what he did? There’s a bus behind him. So he’ll skip that passenger, try to get the space, and he’ll pick the other passengers up. So that way, they can both make money.”

People call the buses jitneys, collectivos, immi-vans. They’ve got maybe 20 seats.  They charge less than New Jersey Transit buses. They stop on any corner when a passenger hails. And they always make change, something New Jersey Transit drivers will not do. 

They’ve been driving through towns like Jersey City, Weehawken, and Bergen for decades. And they’re still growing, 40 percent just in the last four years, according to regulators.

Big operators rent out branded buses to drivers like Pasquale Gomez. At the end of his route, he waits in line for a dispatcher to call his turn.

He pays$100 a shift and buys the gas. Asked how much he makes, he says, “Well, it depends, man. Today, I don’t have a dime for me yet.”

He plays by the rules. Waiting for a dispatcher to call his turn, he says, “Sometimes we’re here maybe 20 minutes. Sometimes an hour.”

Nicholas Sacco, the state Senator who sponsored the new regulations, seems surprised when he hears about Gomez’s situation.

“If they were all that organized, maybe we wouldn’t have needed the bill,” he says. “We had no desire to get rid of the omnibuses. Just to  make them safe.”

The new regulations include higher insurance minimums— $1 million — and a hotline for riders to report anything unsafe.

Many of the jitneys fall under federal regulation— taking passengers back and forth to Manhattan, that’s interstate commerce. Anne Ferro, who runs the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, doesn’t expect tighter regulation to slow business.

“It’s a supply/demand situation,” she says. "Trucks and buses are like water: They will always find a way through.”

Pasquale Gomez would like to see things more tightly regulated, even if it meant fewer buses.

“We are too many,” he says, “going up and down like crazy. That will make us doing things we don’t want to do.”

Meaning: Not all drivers follow the rules.

“They have three blocks to work on, they want five,” he says. So greedy drivers block the way for other buses, slowing up traffic in the process.

And misbehavior begets misbehavior— or at least, aggressive driving. “I see him doing that to me—playing games— and what am I going to do?” he says. “I’m not going to stay behind him.”

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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