Why are Jersey City bus riders turning to Via? Ask NJ Transit chief Thursday at forum

When Via was established in Jersey City two years ago, it was considered at least a partial solution to the city’s transit deserts.

Whether it’s the southernmost or westernmost sections of the city, plenty of neighborhoods have sparse access to buses and trains, let alone the ferries on the waterfront. Via’s popularity has swelled as residents have taken advantage of the $2 shuttle-like service that picks up and drops off the user at or near exactly where they want to go.

But how much of the ridership is a result of transit deserts and how much is a result of available public transit simply being bad?

A decent chunk of it is the latter, Jersey City found.

The city studied Via rides and their relationship to existing transit routes and found that a bit more than a quarter of Via rides could be better served by fixed transit, said Barkha Patel, the city’s infrastructure department director.

“That includes places where there is already an existing bus line or places where there isn’t an existing bus line,” Patel said. “We want to make a case to NJ Transit that we already have this in demand … this would really be better served by a fixed route bus line and then that would free up Via for some of the other more remote (trips).”

Buses skipping stops or arriving late are not issues unique to Jersey City. But they are issues riders here have raised year after year and will only get worse if NJ Transit doesn’t scale up to meet the demand of the many larger apartment buildings coming in, said Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, D-Jersey City.

He and Heights Councilman Yousef Saleh will host a community meeting Thursday in the Heights with the head of NJ Transit Kevin Corbett so Corbett can hear directly from his customers. The meeting is at 6 pm at School 28, 167 Hancock Ave.

“Any capacity issues are going to get worse,” Mukherji said. “Now, that’s good for business for transit, but it’s bad for capacity if they don’t have a plan because we have thousands of units under construction throughout Journal Square and the Heights and Jersey City and the demand for mass transit and ridership are going to continue to increase.”

Mukherji held a similar meeting with Corbett several years ago and said it is important for riders to be able to tell him directly what they are experiencing. Plus, being on the ground in Jersey City means Corbett will see just how much the city is growing.

What Via popularity say about bus performance in place like Ward F?

“That it sucks,” Mukherji said. “We know we have certain mass transit deserts throughout Jersey City and Hudson County and we’re very lucky that Mayor (Steven) Fulop has been forward-thinking and has filled some of those gaps with Via, but that doesn’t change the state’s responsibility to ensure that public mass transit is available and accessible and reliable.”

Average Via wait time went up by 5.5% in the second fiscal quarter of 2022, April through June. The seat unavailability rate shot up 37.1%, all while the number of unique riders increased by 7.5%.

Top destinations include Several of the city’s transit hubs, including all four PATH Stations, indicating that many riders are likely using Via as part of their journey into New York City.

NJ Transit only recently took over the operation of some of its busiest Jersey City bus routes, including the 119 to New York City, after driver shortages caused headaches for riders.

Now, residents are starting to feel relief as the system introduces accordion-style articulated buses too, but plenty of existing routes continue to be so underserviced that riders have learned to rely on alternative options, said Roger Heitmann, a transit advocate who lives in the Heights.

“I’m hearing that (Via is) a 20-minute wait, so I guess it’s not all that convenient either, but there’s probably some people that would say I can’t get on this bus or I can’t wait for this bus so I’ll just do it on my own time and go with Via,” Heitmann said.

Via said that to further its goal of complementing Jersey City’s existing mass transit, it is developing an app feature that would show users other transit options that would get them to their desired destination, such as a public bus.

“At its core, the service is not at all meant to replace or serve as an alternative to public transit,” said Alex Lavoie, global co-chief operating officer at Via. “We think of micro transit as working best when it complements other forms of mass transit.”

Fulop said he sees the state as having the opportunity now to capitalize on what Jersey City has learned — that transit powered by modern technology works and should be expanded.

“There’s a reliability and trust factor that NJ Transit has breached, and Via has kind of filled that vacuum with technology that allows you in real time to see where your ride is,” Fulop said. “This is something that NJ Transit should be spearheading. The city shouldn’t be investing dollars in this, it should be coming from the state on a statewide program.”