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Choking When the Pressure's On
The worst thing about Sunday’s huge #NJTransitFAIL after the Super Bowl? It erodes confidence in public transit to get the job done.

The tweets from MetLife stadium pretty much said it all: “Pathetic.” “Major fail.” “[They] should hang their heads in shame.” And they weren’t even talking about the Denver Broncos.

The harshest post-game criticism after Sunday’s lopsided Super Bowl was reserved for NJ Transit. The mass-transit provider had passionately encouraged the 89,529 fans attending the game to ride trains or buses—it was even billed as the first “Mass Transit Super Bowl”—and then choked epically when those same fans actually decided to take the agency up on its offer.

Before the game, NJ Transit and the NFL had estimated that anywhere from 8,000 to 16,000 fans would take the train on Sunday. In fact, nearly 28,000 piled on board, leading to more missed connections than even Peyton Manning could throw. Manhattan-to-the-Meadowlands trips that should have taken 40 minutes stretched into three-hour odysseys, marked by overcrowded trains, overheated passengers and—this being New Jersey, after all—flaring tempers. What’s worse, as it became clear that Super Bowl XLVIII wouldn’t be anything close to a nail-biter, many disgruntled fans decided to head back early, only to find either no buses waiting or drivers who refused to hit the road before 11 p.m., and only one train an hour leaving the stadium for Secaucus Junction. The result? This:

Fans were stranded for hours on platforms, stalled escalators, or pretty much wherever they could find a safe, warm spot to stand. All in all, it wasn’t exactly mass transit’s finest hour. Conducting their own post-game analysis, NJ Transit officials pointed out that the massively overburdened system did manage to get 27,000 people to where they needed to go—just maybe, y’know, not when they needed to get there.

One NFL executive seemed to place blame at the feet of fickle fans themselves: “What I believe happened is a lot of people didn’t make up their minds until the last minute as to how they were going to get there,” he was quoted as saying–nevermind that options for getting to the stadium were severely curtailed by the NFL itself. (Note to all future Super Bowl attendees: Don’t forget to text or e-mail the office of the Executive Vice President of NFL Ventures and Business Operations should you decide to catch a train instead of driving. Try not to wait until game day, if it’s at all possible. That way they can revise those estimates upward!)

Sunday night’s fiasco didn’t just make NJ Transit or the NFL look shortsighted and incompetent. For an estimated 400,000 people who came to New York City for the game, the takeaway was: mass transit doesn’t work. Trains don’t run on time; buses that ought to be there aren’t; and if you do finally get onto a train or a bus, you and your fellow riders will be packed into it like a bunch of sad, ill-tempered sardines.

For way too many of these visitors, every bad memory that they take back home with them regarding their long, cold wait for a ride will melt, over time, into a status quo bias against mass transit in general. After all, if they can’t make it work here, can they make it work anywhere? And that may well keep those disgruntled fans from supporting much-needed public transit projects in their own communities.

And that’s why all of us who support sustainable mass transit, in its myriad forms, should be just as ticked off as those stranded Super Bowl fans were Sunday night. But if we care about the future of sustainable transportation, we can’t afford to let our anger harden into cynicism. Instead we have to demand that our subways, commuter trains, light-rail systems, and buses get the respect that they—and the people who ride them—deserve. That means adequate funding, organization, and professional management.

Good reputations take a long time to build. But they can disappear real quick once the mistakes start piling up. Just ask Peyton Manning.

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image of Jeff Turrentine
Jeff Turrentine is OnEarth's articles editor. A former editor at Architectural Digest, he is also a frequent contributor to Slate, The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications. MORE STORIES ➔