The shift in daily commutes caused by the pandemic has left empty seats on once-crowded trains and buses bringing commuters from New Jersey to New York. But those crowded conditions will return and could worsen over the next decade as the region’s population grows and more employers call workers back to their offices, a new study has concluded.
Even if working from home quadruples from pre-pandemic levels, there would still be more commuters cramming into trains and buses to cross the Hudson River from New Jersey on some weekdays than in 2019, according to the study, which is expected to be released on Wednesday by the Regional Plan Association.
The study comes at a pivotal time for the long-delayed plan to add a rail tunnel under the Hudson — a sprawling $30 billion project that has gained momentum and political support, but still needs help. state and federal funding.
The researchers found that future overcrowding is likely to be worse on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays – the days when workers are most likely to be expected in the office, according to the study. On those days, there could be as many as 46,000 more transit riders crossing the Hudson by 2030 than there were in 2019, an increase of more than 10%.
For a transport network that is already congested and prone to breakdowns and delays, this could pose problems. More than 400,000 commuters crossed the Hudson on trains and buses each weekday in 2019, many of whom stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the aisles as they arrived at Pennsylvania Station and the bus terminal in the port authority.
At the time, transit leaders and elected officials were rallying support for the construction of a second rail tunnel between New Jersey and Penn Station to complement the existing pair of single-track tubes built more than 110 years ago. year. Part of a $30 billion project known as Gateway, the tunnel would improve reliability and help meet the need for additional capacity, officials said.
But just as political support for Gateway was building, Covid drove most of those commuters away. Ridership plummeted as people stayed at home, leaving only the most essential workers to continue moving. Seats have started to fill up again as the pandemic wanes, but ridership is still well below 2019 levels.
The steady decline in commuter flow raised questions about whether Gateway would still be needed, said Thomas K. Wright, chief executive of the Regional Plan Association, who has been a strong supporter of the project. But the study, which plotted four scenarios for the pace of growth in the region, found that the crush of commuters will return soon, Mr Wright said.
“Even with a slow return to offices and modest job growth, we will need the additional capacity that Gateway will bring,” Wright said.
Tunneling has not started and is not expected to be completed for another decade. Funding for the project, which will likely be split between the federal government and the states of New York and New Jersey, has yet to be determined.
The project enjoys broad support among elected officials in the region. But Republicans in other parts of the country opposed significant federal investment and blocked the project from moving forward during the Trump administration.
It has also faced criticism for its staggering estimated price, worries about the potential for huge cost overruns, and doubts about its necessity beyond the pandemic. Predicting travel patterns in and around major cities after the pandemic is a complicated task, said Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities.
“The central business district is the last remnant of the old industrial age,” Mr. Florida said. “The office district where you pack up and pile up knowledge workers and they plug in their laptops, I think that’s a thing of the past.”
Mr Wright said there was an urgent need for states to reach a deal they could present to the federal Department of Transportation before the midterm elections, when Democrats look likely to cede control of Congress. “From January of next year, it could be much more difficult to work with the federal government on this issue,” Wright said.
Stephen Sigmund, spokesman for the Gateway project, welcomed the report’s findings. “For two years some have wondered if Gateway was so urgent after Covid,” he said. “This report shows that the answer is yes.”
Regardless of his past advocacy for Gateway, Mr Wright said if his organization’s analysis concluded the tunnel would not be needed soon, he would say so. “We stand for the integrity of our research,” he said.
Analysts have estimated that regular commuters to Manhattan only worked from home about one day a month, on average, before the pandemic. They calculated the long-term effects on trans-Hudson commuting if they continued to work from home about twice a month, or even once a week, on average.
They tested these scenarios against both robust and slow growth rates for the region’s population and employment. Either way, they found that overall demand for seats on trains and buses crossing the Hudson would surpass pre-pandemic levels by 2050, if not sooner.
Under all slow-growth, work-from-home scenarios, this new high level of demand would arrive by 2040, several years after Gateway’s planned completion, according to their analysis. If the regional economy grows as rapidly as it has in recent decades, additional capacity may be needed even before Gateway is completed, particularly in the middle of the work week, they concluded.
Commuting patterns will certainly change, Mr Florida said, but with traffic on city streets already back to pre-pandemic levels, many people will take public transport to towns outside the city. other work and leisure purposes, such as attending shows and sporting events.
“It seems to me the long-term problem is that if you’re running an area of 20 million to 25 million people, the car won’t work,” Florida said. “I’m not sure the Gateway tunnel will even solve it.”