Jennifer Rowland said her commute from Chatham to Manhattan was already a nightmare before this summer’s track repair at New York Penn Station.
Without a parking permit, Rowland had trouble even finding a place to park near Chatham’s train station. The situation added stress to a commute on a crowded, aging train filled with passengers who raced out of the station as soon as the doors opened. “The whole scene of Penn Station is a rat race,” said Rowland, 49, a single mother of five who works as a managing director for the media investment company GroupM in New York City.
To ease her parking pains, a friend of Rowland’s suggested she try Boxcar, an app described as “Airbnb for parking” that directs users to available spaces. She found it helped her commute, but then news came of massive train delays while tracks were being repaired at Penn Station.
During her morning commute Rowland was handed a flyer at the train station promoting a bus service from Chatham to Manhattan. The bus was run by a company called Boxcar, the same one she had used for parking. “It was a lifesaver,” said Rowland.
Boxcar began in 2016 as a phone application created by two Jersey born-and-raised entrepreneurs that focused on suburban parking solutions.
Joe Colangelo, CEO of Boxcar and co-founder along with Owen Lee, grew up in Cranford and experienced the frustration of parking permit wait lists. Colangelo left New Jersey for 10 years but when he came back the problems had only gotten worse.
“It was still a couple years to get a parking permit,” said Colangelo. “Then you never give it up, [because] you’re back on the waitlist.”
Rowland is one of the many commuters stuck on a waitlist. Her situation is exacerbated by her residency in Chatham Township, which is considered “out of town” for her application to park at Chatham’s train station lot.
Boxcar enlists local residents to offer their private parking space or driveway for fee. The average spot costs $6.50 per day, of which Boxcar takes 25 percent to pay for insurance and other costs of business.
As a service, Boxcar relies on customers who need parking in places where there aren’t many options. With construction repairs at Penn Station looming, Colangelo thought Boxcar’s business could be threatened because fewer people would be taking the train.
“If the train became less attractive, then the parking spots would be more open,” said Colangelo.
So Boxcar contracted with a bus company to run a route in select towns in New Jersey to Manhattan. For $12.99 per one way fare, riders were guaranteed a seat on a bus with wi-fi that used the same commuting lanes through the Lincoln tunnel traveled by New Jersey Transit.
The busses were a hit with many riders like Rowland. But Colangelo’s next worry was that demand for local buses would wane after track repairs were completed in August. “We were holding our breath on September 1st,” said Colangelo. “We were pleasantly surprised that it maintained and has grown in popularity.”
Boxcar has now made the busses a permanent part of its business model.
Boxcar contracts Empire CLS. As a third-party, Empire CLS handles supply by providing buses, employing drivers, handling insurance and is subject to Department of Transportation inspections, while Boxcar focuses on providing demand for the service.
“They train their drivers to drive, we train them to drive for Boxcar,” said Colangelo.
Originally the company had bus routes running through multiple towns including Chatham, Madison, Murray, Providence, Short Hills and Summit, but now it concentrates on Chatham and Madison. Boxcar also had an evening service, but phased it out. Colangelo said the company plans to expand and reintroduce its evening route, but wants to perfect its service before bringing it to other locations. Currently there are two buses in use, one that leaves from Madison at 6:30 a.m. and picks up customers at Chatham five minutes later and an additional bus that leaves at 7 a.m. and takes the same route.
Colangelo said that 25 percent of Boxcar’s bus and parking revenue has been earned since the conclusion of the train repairs at the end of August.
The success of Boxcar’s buses suggests New Jersey residents are tired of the aging infrastructure on many levels.
“The system is being heavily utilized. [It is] under stress, no question. However, I don’t characterize [it] as flawed,” said Ali Maher, director of Rutgers’ Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation. Maher separates the state’s infrastructure into two categories: transit, such as trains and buses; and the network, such as highways and bridges.
For New Jersey, the network connecting cities and other states is working, but public transportation hasn’t taken advantage of new technology to maximize the use of the system. Many trains and buses are more than several decades old.
Boxcar is not the only private enterprise looking to capitalize on infrastructure dissatisfaction.
According to Maher, large corporations like J.P. Morgan have taken an interest in entering the infrastructure space.
While many people in key positions are aware of infrastructure capacity concerns, not all are in a position to affect change. “I often tell people from neighboring communities, I’d love to [build a parking garage] but we can’t do it alone,” said Robert Conley, mayor of Madison. Conley has worked directly with Boxcar and although he said he hasn’t used the service himself, he does support its presence in town.
In some ways, private enterprise is more equipped to handle the concerns of infrastructure and transportation, explained Maher. Private companies focused on maximizing profit are more likely to utilize advancing technology and maintain investments throughout their life cycle whereas public entities are generally concerned with keeping costs low, he said.
Boxcar says its buses are only about two years old and take advantage of up-to-date technologies like wireless internet. It also reacts to customers’ feedback. The bus originally stopped at 37th Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan, but after surveying riders’ destinations and preferences, the drop off points now include two stops down 42nd street and four stops headed uptown on Madison Avenue.
“If you think of where we are heading with investment and expansion with our current system, potentially one of the best solutions for us is private-public partnerships,” Maher said. “At the local, state and federal level, people are looking at these options.”