Like many other Newarkers, I head out to my local bus stop to go to work every day. And what arrives at my local stop leaves a lot to be desired. A decades-old bus, with dirty and sometimes ripped seats, with a ride as bouncy and rough as a ship in a tempest. The schedule inconsistent and random, with buses either packed to the brim or completely empty.
Outside of rush hour, I find myself waiting 30 to 45 minutes for the next bus. Sometimes I miss it entirely, because the Transit app doesn’t show the bus approaching as it darts away from the corner of my eye. So, as I stand there in the pouring rain, scanning the horizon for a bus that never seems to come, I ask myself… This is awful, why does the largest city in the state have to contend with public transit as lousy as this?
With the growth of Newark accelerated after the end of the Civil War, our city leaders had to rationalize, and think about how to get its citizens moving. No longer were we a town of craftsmen living above their shops, but a city of factory workers, clerks, and merchants who crowded along the Passaic River and in offices high above the Four Corners.
The future of Newark lay in its ability to absorb the ebbs and flows of an urban populace that did not have the means to live near their job. The common people needed easy and cheap access to the jobs, goods, and services that kept this city humming. And in this age of industry, Newarkers began to rely on one innovation that made the horse and carriage a relic of the past: The Trolley Car.
Here was a clean, fast, and efficient means from which you could commute from your house in Vailsburg to Newark Port, from Clinton Hill to the Tiffany Glassworks, and from Downtown to the distant boroughs of Bloomfield and Kearny. You would equally find lawyers and doctors sharing seats and grip handles with janitors and teachers. Newark’s system connected Paterson, Hoboken, and Jersey City together, creating a transit cluster whose combined labor pool competed with its rival across the Hudson.
Newark’s wealth grew from a transit system that centralized and interconnected its neighborhoods, allowing its citizens access to a plethora of local services and goods. And at its center was a temple to public transit. The Public Service Terminal, built in 1916, was comprised of platforms stacked 3 stories high, and connected an entire region to what had become our State’s great center of finance, industry, and entertainment.
But soon enough, this great triumph in public mobility would be buried under asphalt. By the early 1910s, the automobile grew cheaper to manufacture, and more of them began to crowd our streets. The trolley, whose strength came from its speed and timely service was now fighting for space with Henry Ford’s rolling abstraction of “freedom”.
The emerging congestion created by the automobile resulted in a negative feedback loop, where people fed up with the slow and inflexible trolley chose to pay extra to ride in buses owned by private companies or purchase their own cars outright, creating even more gridlock. No concessions were made to regulate the impact of these cars on our streets, the more cars there were, the more we surrendered our public needs to private convenience.
But by the end of World War 2, the trolleys were replaced with electric trolleybuses, and soon enough with noxious diesel. Each devolution to Newark’s public transit was made to benefit the throttle-hungry decadence of ever-more distant suburbs. We ripped apart our vast network of trolley cars for the same reason we ripped apart our neighborhoods for highways, to make Newark an easier place for suburbanites to speed past and never stop.
Public transit is the only effective means for Newarkers to get around our city, and at one time, it was a fast, efficient, and timely endeavor. So, remember this… the reason that you and I must contend with dirty old buses that are always late, and overcrowded with people, is because our urban autonomy was surrendered to the white picket fence and the 3-car garage.