You might have seen them. NJ Transit operates articulated buses on only a few routes. In the Newark Area these are the 13, 39, and 70. Articulated buses are also used on the 154, 156, 158 and 159 in Hudson County. These buses are 60 feet long and have a bend in the middle. For comparison, a standard transit bus is 40 feet long. The main advantage of these buses is their additional seating capacity, which is important on busy routes.
The important question to ask- how busy is busy enough to justify using articulated buses? Their main advantage is that they allow NJ Transit to carry more passengers while not running any more buses. Frequencies don’t have to increase. But as we are well aware, increased frequency makes transit more convenient and increases ridership.
NJT’s new 40-foot buses have 39 seats, and the articulated buses have 59 seats. It stands to reason that if these routes were operated with shorter buses, the frequency would have to be about 50% higher to achieve the same number of seat-miles per hour.
The 13 runs a 12 minute headway or less from Monday – Saturday and a 15 minute headway on Sundays. Hypothetically, this bus would run every 8 minutes with standard-length buses during the week and every 10 minutes on Sunday – definitely an upgrade.
The case against articulated buses becomes even more apparent when you realize that the 13 has branches on either end. At the southern end in Irvington, buses on each branch run every 24 minutes during the week, and every 30 minutes on Sunday. With regular buses, this would be reduced to headways on 16 and 20 minutes, respectively.
The use of articulated buses is artificially reducing transit service. And since there’s a direct relationship between service increases and ridership, it’s safe to assume that articulated buses are artificially reducing ridership too.
I’m not saying that there’s no place for articulated buses. While they aren’t appropriate for the 13 on Sundays or late nights, they definitely help accommodate crowds on that line during the rush hour.
Here are a few situations where there is a genuine need for articulated buses:
1) Limited road/terminal capacity: Think Port Authority at rush hour. Articulated buses can help move more people through a bus terminal or roadway with very limited capacity, like the Lincoln Tunnel. Using a higher number of smaller buses would result in more congestion and less through-capacity.
2) Highly peaked ridership: In these situations, increasing frequency won’t do any good. Take for example, a community college where classes get out at 3pm. The 3:10 bus is packed. Adding a 3:20 bus to the schedule won’t relieve crowding because all the students are still going to take the 3:10. The solutions available to the transit agency are to run two standard sized buses at 3:10, requiring two drivers, or use one articulated bus. In terms of labor, the first option is twice as expensive.
3) Really, really high ridership on routes that already have high frequencies: This is appropriate in major cities, like New York for example. Some very busy routes in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn use articulated buses at high frequencies. The difference between a 3 minute headway and a 4.5 minute headway is nowhere near the difference between 10 minute service and 15 minute service. As buses get more and more frequent, the effect of articulated buses becomes less and less noticeable.
Overall, larger buses mean less frequent service. The opposite is true. Take the jitneys. They use 25-passengers buses, and they run at very high frequencies, up to once a minute.
NJ Transit’s articulated buses date to 2003-2004, so they are due for replacement in a few years. Hopefully, some of them are replaced with standard 40-foot transit buses and headways on the Newark routes improve.