On an average weekday four years ago, hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents would squeeze onto PATH trains in Hoboken and Jersey City, before filing into office towers in Midtown and Wall Street. For decades, these trans-Hudson commuters made up the majority of riders on the PATH transit system, which connects the urban centers of North Jersey with the economic heart of New York. In turn, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the PATH, has largely scheduled its service around the weekday rush hour. But post-pandemic, PATH’s weekday ridership has fallen from 285,000 to 149,000, as the home office supplants the downtown office for many professionals.
However, outside of rush hour, demand for PATH service is at or approaching pre-pandemic levels. On weeknights, trains still carry nurses, waiters, and other shift workers who lack the option to work remotely. And on weekends, trains are packed with riders on their way to social, recreational, and cultural destinations. Yet, PATH schedules are still oriented around the needs of weekday commuters, with trains arriving far less frequently outside of rush hour. In response to changing travel patterns, the Port Authority should bring its schedules in line with transit demand, increasing its “off-peak” service, and evolving beyond a commuter-oriented system.
While society has largely reverted to its pre-pandemic normal, office work has not. On any given work day, only half of all Manhattan workers can be found in-office. Fewer still can be found on the PATH, where 52% of rush hour riders have yet to return. And with weekday ridership experiencing little to no growth over the past twelve months, it remains to be seen whether they ever will.
But from the crowded aisles of a Saturday night PATH train, it would be hard to imagine a system struggling for riders. For all its weekday woes, PATH’s weekend ridership has rebounded significantly, reaching 82% of its pre-pandemic average. Similarly, weekday ridership has experienced its strongest growth at what were once considered “off-peak” hours. At noon and midnight, ridership nears 70% of its pre-pandemic totals, before dipping back below 50% at rush hour. Although white-collar office workers have been sluggish in their return to transit, the same can not be said for others. Whether nurses working the night shift or party-goers seeking the nightlife, those traveling outside of traditional rush hours now make up an increasing share of PATH’s ridership.
However, PATH’s schedules have not kept pace with rising demand for off-peak travel. Outside of rush hours, service levels fall off a cliff. On weekends, PATH runs 64% fewer trains than on weekdays. Fewer trains translates to longer waits, with headways averaging over 20 minutes – more than double the weekday average. And on weekends and weeknights alike, travelers contend with 40-minute waits in the late night hours. Arrivals this infrequent, combined with the steady return of off-peak travelers, is a recipe for overcrowding. The shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that now fill PATH stations every weekend are further evidence of a mismatch between transit service and travel demand.
As growing off-peak ridership offers a lifeline to a system otherwise struggling to regain passengers, PATH’s schedules threaten to stunt the system’s post-covid recovery. Infrequent arrivals may push some riders to more costly, less sustainable transportation options, such as personal vehicles or rideshare. Others, faced with the choice of a $40 Uber or a 40-minute wait, may forgo their trip entirely. Ridership has rebounded not because of, but in spite of PATH’s weekend and weeknight service. Even modest improvements in off-peak service could capitalize on this transit demand, turning incremental ridership gains into a system-wide recovery.
As our travel patterns change, so too should our transit systems. In an age of remote and hybrid work, the rush hour commute can no longer serve as PATH’s organizing principle. Instead, PATH must implement a minimum standard of service for weekdays and weekends alike: trains should arrive at least every 10 minutes between 6am and 8pm, every 15 minutes between 8pm and midnight, and every 30 minutes thereafter. This sort of predictable and frequent schedule would do more than just recoup lost riders – it would transform PATH from a commuter-oriented system to one that serves a broader array of human needs. This would offer the same level of service to students, shift workers, errand-runners, and visitors as it does to 9-to-5 office workers, expanding the system’s appeal. A service schedule less focused on the weekday rush hour would not only accelerate PATH’s post-pandemic recovery, it could be the foundation of a more robust and resilient transit system.