At Newark Penn Station, bus riders currently can’t access half the seats because capacity is capped at 50% to help passengers keep a safe social distance. But that restriction will soon end on buses, trains and light rail cars to allow full occupancy. Riders expressed different degrees of comfort.
“I do feel less comfortable,” said Jersey City resident Robert Horne. “I think I’ll try to avoid riding NJ Transit as much as possible.”
“As long as you got your mask on and your gloves and everything it shouldn’t be a problem,” said Don Horner from Linden.
“I don’t want to be in proximity to so many people, so close. I don’t know who has it and who doesn’t,” added DeSean Abraham, who lives in Newark.
While rail ridership is still way down, many frontline workers have continued to use NJ Transit buses throughout the pandemic. Social distancing has been difficult sometimes as more people take the bus. A new executive order from Gov. Phil Murphy requires masks to be worn inside transit stations. Face coverings are already a must onboard vehicles.
“We anticipate there will be, at least during rush hours, you’ll get cases where you’re bumping up against or maybe exceeding the 50%. But whether it’s below or above 50%, face coverings, social distancing as best we can is mandated,” Murphy said during Monday’s coronavirus press briefing.
“It’s important for the bus drivers, for the train conductors to enforce that,” said Janna Chernetz, director of New Jersey policy for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “Riders have to respect that because they’re protecting those who are on the front line, who are providing the transportation service for them.”
The changes take effect 8 p.m. Wednesday. And for some riders, disagree or not, there’s really no choice.
“I’m not going to be putting myself in that predicament because at the end of the day my boss don’t want to hear that,” Horner said.
Bus driver, rider safety
The bus drivers union noted hundreds of its members have tested positive for the coronavirus and several died during the pandemic. They want better ventilation and infection barriers for bus drivers before increasing rider capacity to 100%.
“There’s so many other things that need to be done to secure their safety — the operators and the passengers — which haven’t been done. And I believe the governor was misguided by NJ Transit in regards to their ability to operate without limiting passengers on the buses,” said Orlando Riley, chair of the ATU-NJ State Council.
The union also doesn’t want responsibility for enforcing the mask requirement. It has reached out to the Governor’s Office. So has Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who said one in 10 essential workers uses public transportation.
“I think we need to find the best ways to protect the riders and the staff at NJ Transit, and I haven’t seen too much that would convince me that that’s true,” Weinberg said.
One solution is to put more buses on crowded routes.
“We think that NJ Transit and the New Jersey Department of Transportation should partner together and coordinate to increase bus frequency, so that could include implementing emergency bus lanes,” said David Garcia, Tri-State Transportation Campaign New Jersey bus campaign manager.
The New Jersey Business & Industry Association says 80% of its members who depend on public transit focus on safety. They’re looking for consistency.
“We do have to get people back to work, that is for sure. But I have to say, you’ve got people sitting on top of each other. And if we can do that on mass transit, why aren’t we allowing indoor dining?” asked the group’s president and CEO, Michele Siekerka.
Business owners said in a survey that their employees will resist riding mass transit until they feel safe.