As if we needed another reminder, the Super Bowl is this Sunday, the first ever to take place in the New York area.
True to its urban setting, this year’s edition has been dubbed the “Mass Transit Super Bowl.” Rather than traditional tailgating, organizers are limiting the number of parking spaces available and encouraging fans to use special buses or trains to travel the nine miles from Manhattan to the Meadowlands.
It would seem to be a coup for transit advocates, with the game presenting the opportunity to show how the country’s densest metropolis regularly moves tens of thousands of fans to and from sporting events without resorting to automobiles.
However, a closer look at the plans for the Super Bowl doesn’t take long to show that the majority of fans won’t be using any mass transit familiar to the average New Yorker.
Moving the Masses
New Jersey Transit is offering a “Super Pass” providing access to its network all weekend long, but the agency sold just 1,300 of the tickets as of last Thursday. Meanwhile, the NFL expects a full 50,000 attendees to use the “Fan Express Bus,” a fleet of coaches organized by the Super Bowl host committee. Mass transit, maybe. Public transit, definitely not.
The distinction may seem unimportant—after all, any solution that involves less Super Bowl-related traffic is a step in the right direction, right?
But the fact that Super Bowl planners would go out of their way to organize an entire independent mass-transit system—in the heart of America’s most transit-savvy city—points to a larger issue that transit advocates must confront. American auto travel is no longer increasing, but public transit isn’t necessarily replacing the car effectively.
For some, it simply isn’t useful. For others, there remains a social stigma surrounding the public bus. Still others are put off by unpredictable schedules and byzantine route maps.
Whatever the reason, privately run alternatives are stepping in to take their place, and not just at the Super Bowl.
A Shuttle Strategy
Since 2005, tourists and locals alike in Washington, D.C. have been able to forgo the often-confusing Metrobus system in favor of the Circulator, an entirely separate system of buses run as a public-private partnership. The much-anticipated D.C. streetcar, also privately operated, will feature the same color scheme and branding as the Circulator.
In San Francisco, a more extreme example—the “Google buses” that shuttle employees from the city to Mountain View—has been the subject of recent protests. Though the buses have come to symbolize San Francisco’s gentrification more broadly, the core question is really whether a large suburban company should be able to use a city’s transportation infrastructure to provide a kind of private “mass transit.”
There is no easy answer. As Matthew Yglesias recently wrote in Slate about the Google bus controversy, “what’s so bizarre about it is that the dispute is so narrow.” With so much effort dedicated to getting people out of their cars, why worry about what kind of mass transit they use?
In San Francisco, this may well be true—there aren’t many ways to get from the Mission District to Mountain View without a car.
Going the Distance
Too often, however, these private alternatives spring up not for lack of a public transit option, but in spite of an existing one. This is the case in D.C., where many of the Circulator routes overlap Metrobus routes.
In the long run, it’s a far more insidious trend. As a tacit recognition that existing public transit isn’t user-friendly, these alternatives discourage policymakers from ever working to make it better.
We don’t know which team will emerge victorious on Sunday—Las Vegas has the Broncos by a slim 2.5 points. But in terms of getting to the game, public transportation has already lost.