Last month, I traded in my ludicrous New York City rent for a more affordable life in Hackensack, New Jersey. (Yes, it’s all my money got me.) Many of my friends who’d migrated to Jersey warned me about the NJ Transit app. It’s not good, they said. I didn’t take them too seriously. I was forged in the fires of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s continually broken website circa 2001. After a seven-year stint in Tokyo navigating the labyrinthian Tokyo subway and bus system, what public transit app could ever befuddle me?
Upon opening the NJ Transit app, I was bombarded with more menus than I knew what to do with. Nothing is uniformly named. App navigation is a matryoshka doll of ill-organized tabs. Would you like to favorite the address of your home and work in the Trip Planner? Sorry. You’ll have to write it in each time. (Also, all the Trip Planner route suggestions are terrible. The fastest route should never involve taking a train to a bus to a train to a bus.)
Whenever I thought I’d figured everything out, the app would throw another curveball that left me facepalming harder than Captain Picard. For example, I wanted to see a schedule and a list of all the stops on my new bus route in order. It’s a simple enough ask. I went to go find the schedule for the four stops near my house and none of them were listed. In the real-time bus tracker feature, you can only view a list in alphabetical order. That’s fine if you’ve been on the same route for years. But whenever I’m new to an area, I feel less anxious if I have a sense of where my stop was in relation to others.
After screaming into a pillow, I found a workaround. If you slowly zoom in on the real-time bus tracker map, you can carefully search for the stops before and after yours. If you tap the stop ever so gently, you can find out the name and the buses arriving in the next hour. Just don’t go too quickly or the app will crash.
Using the NJ Transit app isn’t as bad for trains, but there’s no reason for there to be two wholly different experiences within the same app. Using it for the bus feels like walking past a slightly crooked painting, straightening it, and finding the next day that it’s crooked again. Some days, the app works fine when I scan my ticket. Others, I end up late despite leaving early because the driver has to patiently explain how to hold your phone so the new reader can properly scan the app. When I head to the office, I now use Google Maps and Citymapper to figure out the fastest route, and NJ Transit to buy my ticket and see when the bus is coming to my stop. On the way home, I have to add a third app to the mix because the NJ Transit app doesn’t include any gate information for the Port Authority Bus Terminal. This is unnecessarily clunky for a ride that shouldn’t be that complicated.
And it doesn’t have to be this way.
Despite the fact that the Tokyo subway map looks like a nightmarish web, getting around is extremely easy — even if you don’t speak a lick of Japanese. I used the Norikae Annai website while I lived there. The site is a little cluttered (many Japanese website are), but you plop in where you are and where you’re headed, time, and various options like whether you prefer express or local trains, fare, and whether you’re stopping / passing through any waypoint stations. It spits out a few route options based on which is fastest, easiest, or cheapest. If you want a timetable, all you have to do is enter your station. There’s a route map for the entire subway system if you’d rather view information that way. That’s just the site / app I like, but there are plenty of high-quality alternatives.
But I’m not even asking for NJ Transit to level up that hard. Right now, I need three apps (Google Maps, Citymapper, and NJ Transit) and a bookmarked PDF to ride one bus. I’d settle for one decent app like NYC Ferry. It takes two seconds to tap a route, find your stop, and a table of all the day’s departure times and real-time estimates. You can buy your tickets easily. It’s not going to win awards, but it’d also never inspire a screed like this. I’d also be fine if I could just tap to pay everywhere and just use Google Maps or Citymapper to figure out the rest. (Technically, tap to pay exists on some NJ Transit buses, but they don’t consistently work on the ones I’ve taken.)
New Jersey plans on introducing a 15 percent fare hike later this year and 3 percent annually starting in 2025. Governor Phil Murphy says the hike is justified because of all the improvements under his tenure. Online, commuters are asking, “What improvements?” This is an insidious problem. There’s not enough money to make the experience better, so you jack up prices. Nobody wants to pay more for the same crappy experience, so ridership goes down. Rinse and repeat. Fixing transit apps won’t break the cycle, but it would make my commute suck less. I’d be inclined to take the bus more frequently. My options would open up. It’s a baby step in the right direction and, frankly, I’ll take it.