NFL fans and casual viewers alike can be forgiven for tuning out Super Bowl XLVIII last night, in which the Seahawks led for all but the opening 12 seconds.
But just outside the stadium, a different drama began to unfold shortly after the game.
On one side of the conflict: some 33,000 fans who decided to take public transportation home from MetLife Stadium. On the other: New Jersey Transit and local police, who kept the would-be passengers waiting in a giant throng as train after train slowly funneled them out of East Rutherford. More than two hours after the game ended, Twitter was still abuzz with images of thousands of people waiting for trains.
Super Bowl organizers had spent weeks promoting such a “mass transit Super Bowl,” with a particular emphasis on a private fleet of “Fan Express Buses.”
As it turns out, they were too successful for their own good.
Before the game, NFL officials predicted around 15,000 New Jersey Transit riders in addition to the 50,000 fans taking the buses. Given the capacity of the stadium, that figure assumed 17,000 attendees would drive. Not an unreasonable guess—even with the severe limitations on parking, the Meadowlands still had about 13,000 spaces for cars.
Yet it appears these drivers never materialized. With the 50,000 bus tickets already sold out, fans turned to good old-fashioned NJT. Before the game, the agency reported ridership at about double what the league had told officials to expect. For the post-game journey, the number was even higher.
Clearly, there was some severe miscalculation on the part of the NFL, the game’s organizers, or NJT. With parking passes starting at $150, the league was urging attendees to use mass transit. But between the finite number of bus tickets and the low pre-game NJT estimates, it seems someone somewhere didn’t make the connection that fans might actually follow through and take public transit.
This fact should come as no surprise to those who read my blog post last Friday. As I wrote then, the problem with introducing private mass-transit alternatives (like the Fan Express Bus) is that they provide a convenient distraction from glaring needs on the public side. Super Bowl organizers tout the buses, wildly underestimate NJT’s transit needs, and thousands of fans are left stranded in the cold.
Still, it is important to note that there is also an infrastructure issue at play here.
NJT could have sent every train and engineer at its disposal to the Meadowlands and the terribly designed MetLife station—with standard-size platforms and three dead-end tracks (which bottleneck to two once they leave the station)—still wouldn’t have been able to accommodate everyone. It simply wasn’t built to handle that many people, as photos of Giants and Jets games can attest.
More generally, this problem points to why stadiums are often such a questionable public investment, even when they’re downtown and not surrounded by a sea of parking, as MetLife is.
Fans may make the effort to take transit, but there’s simply no way to build a station whose size makes sense for both game days and normal days. It’s difficult to generate a steady stream of riders—too much of the surrounding infrastructure is dependent on special events.
So either the city ends up with a normal-sized station that’s dangerously crowded when there’s a game (as in Washington, D.C.), which may scare people back to their cars. Or, the result is a capacious, costlier station that sits empty most of the year, as in Queens near the Mets ballpark, or in suburban Paris.
A Fourth-and-Long if there ever was one.