New York’s other transit system

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The temporary PATH entrance at World Trade Center in Manhattan. A massive escalator full of commuters.

So I’ve been working recently in Newark. As a lifelong Long Islander (Brooklyn IS Long Island) I hadn’t actually had much of a reason to travel to Newark before (honestly we’re indoctrinated to not think of New Jersey too much), and had never much thought about the PATH.

PATH stands for Port Authority Trans Hudson (I know… “Trans” isn’t a real word). It was originally the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad, which dates back to 1890.

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It was taken over in 1962 by the Port Authority, which used H&M land to build the World Trade Center. You can still see direction signs for “Hudson Tubes” or “H&M Tunnel” in the tile work in Subway stations.

So… until November of 2012, I had never set foot on the PATH. And honestly, when I walked from the 34th St. Herald Sq. to the underground 33rd St. PATH, it was surreal, a whole system I had never explored.

Since then I’ve been commuting daily on both the MTA and NYs other transit system, the PATH. I’ve made a point to visit all the stations on the PATH (which is smaller and more manageable than that task would be on the Subway), and to take my sketchbook… or actually the sketchbook app on my iPad (you can click on sketches to see higher resolution images). Its been one of those “same-but-different” kind of experiences.

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Tile work for the old Hudson Manhattan station sits adjacent to new signage for the PATH at 14th St in Manhattan.

When I first stepped onto the Path I got an odd feeling like I was traveling in a different city… like the first time I used the S-Bahn in Berlin, or the T in Boston. I guess thats appropriate, because it does service a different city, or rather multiple different cities, Jersey City, Hoboken, Harrison, and my destination Newark… it just also happens to overlap with Manhattan.

Having two systems seems a little bit odd… Swiping my card and then having to pay again gives me the feeling like its the early 20th Century and I’m switching between the IRT and BMT. The method of payment is where the differences begin.

On the subway you “Swipe”… on the PATH you “Tap”. This means that the PATH card…  made of thick plastic like a credit card, and called a SmartLink is equipped with a microchip to confirm you’ve paid. Sure you can also use a Metrocard (which by the way is inserted into the turn style in one hole, and is expelled from another) but a Metrocard swipe will cost you the Full NYC toll of $2.50, and a PATH ride is cheaper if you buy the SmartLink, coming in at a reasonable $1.70. The Subway in Rio de Janeiro had a similar system, I liked it there and I like it here… it seems to mess up less than my Metrocard which about 5% of the time I swipe too fast and have to hear the pissed off snicker of a person behind me.

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A TV distracts a commuter at the cavernous Journal Square station in Jersey City.

I’m not actually sure how or why the fare is reduced, but it may be because of increased advertising revenue from all the TV screens. On the trains, and in most PATH stations, you have a multitude of screens assaulting the brain with celebrity news, real estate ads and “clever” word games. I eventually learned to ignore them… but they were a bit jarring at first. I suppose TV systems like these exist on MTA trains too, they just tend to be either above ground at the station entries, or at the LIRR or Metro North stations.

In many ways the PATH feels more like a regional rail, then a inner city transit system. The major stations  (JSQ, 33rd, and WTC) are all laid out like a big underground suburban terminal with separate platforms for trains going to separate destinations. When I first entered the 33rd street station I was surprised to find a baby Penn station, only blocks away from its mother.

The culture also feels a little more like a regional rail, with the conductors around a lot more (they’re regularly using a series of buttons and speakers that are just right there – on the wall  – not locked up in a sacred closet), and commuters do things like remove coats and leave newspapers on the seat for the next rider to share (the prevalence of the free dailies around stations might have something also to do with this).

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Commuters transfer between trains and “recycle” newspapers on the PATH.

Commuters also do something I never see on the Subway anymore, walk from car to car while the train is in motion.  This is largely due to a design flaw.  Smaller stations like 9th Avenue and 14th St are similar to Subway station layout, with long, hollow, and often labyrinthine hallways. The difference chiefly being that the NYC Subway tends to have multiple entries and exits (and if they only have one it is typically in the middle of the platform), and the PATH has all of its riders embark onto the platform from one end. This results in shoulder to shoulder ridership near the station entrance and an empty car on the furthermost part of the platform.

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Exposed pipes greet commuters at the 9th street PATH station in Manhattan.

The PATH has gone through a lot of trouble over the past few years, with lower manhattan station entrances changing multiple times since the fall of the World Trade Center, and experiencing massive trouble from Super-storm Sandy. Based on that, their service record is actually pretty good, but like any system delays do happen… the worst of these (IMHO) is not due to mechanical error, it’s due to draw bridges. Thats right… The PATH goes over multiple rivers and canals in New Jersey, and occasionally you get stuck in the middle of nowhere as a barge floats by. The bridges aren’t exactly draw bridges, they’re “lift bridges” which have giant steel towers and massive counterweights. The biggest of these is the Dock Bridge, right next to Newark Penn Station (which would be kind of attractive if they’d just paint the thing). While delays there are infrequent, knowing you’re so close to your destination makes it feel so much worse.

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The Dock Bridge in Newark runs across the Passaic river into Newark Penn Station.

So… now I’ve become a regular on the PATH, and I can make a judgement. Overall it’s a nice system, and the Port Authority does a good job (it is cheaper after all) but for the regions sake I’m not so sure it should remain separate from the rest of NYC transit. Like I said earlier… I feel like it’s a throwback to the past every time I transfer from the MTA to the PATH. Subway Consolidation was good for the City (especially the outer boroughs) in the 1940’s, and with Bloomberg considering a stretch of the 7 line into Secaucus… maybe we should think about how good it would be for New Jersey and the Metro region as a whole to remove that barrier and have an integrated system.  It would help Newarkers get to Nets games, and it may help Long Islanders get over their indoctrination of not thinking of New Jersey too much.