Freedom of Mobility

After two heart attacks, a stroke, and thirty-seven days in the Palm Beach County Jail, Dennis DeMartin had grown tired of Florida. Following an incident that caused him to lose his Delray Beach condo, he moved into a federal housing project in New Haven called Bella Vista. His apartment is near the end of the 212 bus line, close to his childhood home in West Haven. Since he doesn’t own a car, the 212 is his only means of leaving the housing complex. “I live alone. The walls close in on me,” he said.

A stout 74-year-old man with white hair and a bushy, Santa Claus-esque beard, DeMartin is buoyant and energetic. He uses the bus to visit friends, family, and his doctor. “I take four buses a day,” he said. “I rely on the bus one hundred percent for everything I have to do.”

The buses of Greater New Haven are the veins of the region. For those without access to a private vehicle, public transportation is not an alternative mode of transit. It’s a lifeline. In Dixwell, Dwight, Downtown, and the Hill, more than 35 percent of the population does not own a car. For those residents, public transit is their primary, if not sole, mode of access to employment, education, healthcare, and even groceries.

The buses of Greater New Haven are the veins of the region. For those without access to a private vehicle, public transportation is not an alternative mode of transit. It’s a lifeline.

The system is widely used: riders took 8.3 million trips in 2016. But delays, a disjointed central hub, disconnect from employment opportunities, and inconsistent disability access plague the system. These issues prompted the city to begin a collaborative study in October 2016 called Move New Haven, a comprehensive review of the region’s bus network with support from the city, state, and regional authorities. After months of data collection, the study released a report of transit statistics in August. This January, Move New Haven will unveil a series of recommendations for the system. A schedule for enacting those recommendations has not yet been set.

DeMartin has already completed his own study of New Haven’s bus network. In 2015, he self-published a book called Riding New Haven Buses. This past fall, he invited me to take a ride with him. We met on a cold, sunny day in November. I shivered against the wind as we walked down Elm Street toward the New Haven Green.

The main hub of the system includes eleven separate bus shelters that line the Green and lower Chapel Street. End to end, the shelters stretch just under half a mile. It’s “not very customer-friendly,” said Matthew Nemerson, Director of Economic Development for New Haven. “It is spread out and open. [You have to] withstand the heat of the summer, the cold of the winter.” Although cities across the country have central bus terminals, New Haven’s hub consists of nothing more than sidewalks and open shelters designated as bus stops.

When I arrived with DeMartin, the hub was teeming with commuters. By our shelter, there were roughly fifteen people waiting, and large crowds were gathered back at the corner of Church and Chapel. All of the CT Transit routes run through Downtown New Haven— there are no crosstown lines—so the stops around the Green are always busy.

DeMartin and I boarded the 212, one of the system’s most popular buses, at Temple and Elm, DeMartin’s usual stop. Most of the city’s current bus routes date back to New Haven’s extensive trolley system, which shut down in 1948. “The buses follow the same pathways as the trolleys,” Nemerson said. “People who want to change directions need to come into the center of town.”
This “hub and spoke” system is addressed by the Move New Haven study, which found that with the “single downtown hub…bus riders are forced to transfer to complete crosstown trips and riders are forced downtown even if their travel does not require a downtown visit.”

The system’s layout is especially problematic for people living in the city and working in the suburbs. Jobs and industry that used to be clustered along Whalley and Winchester Avenues, such as the Winchester Repeating Arms Factory, have closed down or moved out to suburban towns like Milford and Hamden. Of the approximately 380 thousand jobs in the New Haven region, only eighty thousand are in city limits. For example, if someone worked in the Amity Plaza shopping center by the Merritt Parkway but lived on Morse Street in northern Newhallville (a ten-minute drive away), they would have to take the 238 bus ten minutes to the Green, wait for the 243, and ride another eighteen minutes back out to Amity.

Doug Hausladen, former Ward 7 alder, has been New Haven’s Director for Public Transportation, Traffic, and Parking since 2014. According to him, the city is devising a plan to fix the bus hub by converting many one-way streets surrounding the Green (and elsewhere in Downtown) to two-way streets, with the aim of reducing travel and transfer times. Hopefully, Move New Haven will also propose best practices for rerouting bus lines to better serve changing workforces and workplaces.

However, it is the Connecticut Department of Transportation, and not the City of New Haven, that runs CT Transit, the service that manages New Haven’s network. Changes to the system happen at the state level, and New Haven commuters and officials often struggle to make their voices heard. “If you want to lobby a complaint on CT Transit, there is no hearing, no meeting on public performance for CT Transit,” Hausladen said.

Changes to the system happen at the state level, and New Haven commuters and officials often struggle to make their voices heard.

I inserted my bus pass into the small machine by the driver and sat in a window seat next to DeMartin as the bus rolled away from the Green. Despite opposition from New Haven Mayor Toni Harp and New Haven residents, fares were raised across the transit system last year to compensate for a $37.5 million cut in state funding. Now, the one-way fare for a local ride in the New Haven area is $1.75, up 17 percent from $1.50 a year ago. (By comparison, the commuter rail fare, which serves a population with a much higher median household income, increased only 5 percent.) “We’ve gone backwards on access to jobs and access to upward mobility,” Hausladen said. “In Connecticut, a lot of our poorest communities are in the biggest cities. We’re starving them from an adequate transit system.”

With the state distributing funding, cities often have to scrounge to finance their transit systems. “We have a great relationship but we have real needs,” Nemerson said of the association between New Haven and the Department of Transportation. “We need to fight with every other city in the state to get resources here.” In tough budget years like 2016, proposed state budgets drastically reduce funding for buses. Some of these proposed budgets eliminate it altogether. Although the more radical proposals get heavily amended, there have been budget cuts to bus service. Cities like New Haven are at the mercy of the state.

The 212 bus crossed the railroad tracks as we left Downtown and passed under I-95. Moving beneath the shadow of the abandoned EnglishPower Station, we crossed a modest concrete bridge into Fair Haven. As we continued down Grand Avenue, past a bustling series of small grocers and Latin American restaurants, the bus slowed its pace as pedestrian and automobile traffic began to increase.

Traffic limits bus reliability in New Haven. Part of the problem is the overabundance of bus stops. On a recent ride I took on the 238 along Dixwell Avenue, the evening rush out of New Haven was repeatedly stalled by passengers disembarking. The bus stopped practically every block, and halfway through the route, at Dixwell Avenue and Putnam, we were already running twenty-eight minutes late, according to the schedule posted on CT Transit’s website.

Empirically assessing the reliability of New Haven’s bus lines is nearly impossible because CT Transit keeps no data on bus timeliness, according to Hausladen. As for a bus-tracking app, (e.g. TransLoc for the Yale Shuttle) CT Transit unveiled the “Transit” app in April. The real-time bus information app, however, doesn’t advertise any data on bus reliability. The Move New Haven study laments this lack of data, stating, “Reliability issues are only known through information reported through community outreach.”

We left Fair Haven and headed into East Haven, crossing a rusting bridge over the Quinnipiac River. As we climbed the hill away from the riverbank, DeMartin pointed out the homes of old ship captains that rose above the trees on the hills above the Quinnipiac. Behind the homes, at the crest of the hill, the goliath Bella Vista towers rose into view.

Many of the residents at Bella Vista depend heavily on public transit. DeMartin maintains a waiting room for commuters, carved into the lobby of one of the larger towers. He makes sure that the latest schedules are always posted, and circles each of the bus times that are relevant to Bella Vista. Unlike nearly every bus stop in New Haven, the space offers commuters a warm place to wait for the bus in the winter. Move New Haven reports that of the 943 bus stops in New Haven maintained by the city, only 103 have shelters. Of those, only twenty-one have benches. None are heated.

On the way back from Bella Vista to downtown, we stopped at the corner of Church and Chapel, where the bus switched routes to the 238. The doors swung open to let a line of passengers board.

A middle-aged man in a wheelchair pulled up to the bus’s front door. The floor at the head of the bus popped outwards and became a ramp to the sidewalk. The man pushed forward, and the driver assisted him to the designated wheelchair spot on the bus. The passengers occupying the area were glad to move. The driver knelt to connect the belt buckles that would hold the wheelchair in place, but the man waved him away and fastened them himself.

“Sometimes the buses get so packed … You want to get on, but the driver’s like, ‘Yo, I can’t let you on. There’s too many people.’”

Unfortunately, New Haven buses are not always so accommodating of riders with disabilities. Former 2017 candidate for Ward 22 alder Yansee Horan, who uses a manual wheelchair, claims he has been treated poorly on public transit before. Horan, known as “Brother Born” in the Dixwell and Newhallville communities, has been riding buses for years. “Sometimes the buses get so packed,” Horan said. “You want to get on, but the driver’s like, ‘Yo, I can’t let you on. There’s too many people.’”

At a Move New Haven public presentation on the findings of Phase 1 on November 1, residents voiced similar concerns. One elderly woman, a friend of DeMartin, claimed her daughter, who is in a wheelchair, faced an identical situation: she was denied entry to a bus because passengers refused to move from the foldable seats. TC Taylor, a resident of the Dixwell neighborhood who rides the 238 bus every day, said access is an even bigger problem in wintertime. “The [snowplows] push the snow drift higher and higher. They don’t have people in position to make the areas accessible to walk,” Taylor said. “You have children, the elderly, the ambulatory in the street. It’s virtually impossible for them… to make that connection onto the bus.”
Horan agrees. “During the winter months, they rarely even clean the bus stops,” he said. “So during the wintertime, I’m going nowhere. Trust me on that.”

Our country is emerging from an era of car dominance. The spaces we occupy, from grocery stores to schools, privilege the private automobile, providing parking spaces and right-of-way. In Downtown New Haven, the Temple Street Garage looms over its neighboring properties, spanning two entire city blocks. Even at the Bella Vista housing complex, parking garages occupy as much ground as the towers. Since the construction of the Oak Street Connector in 1959, a network of highways has choked the city center.

But with a renewed interest in support for public transportation—through initiatives like Move New Haven—the city has been given another chance to condemn the inequitable and destructive policies of American car culture and become universally accessible. Although the committee has not yet released its recommendations, inklings of what it could include have already been published in the first phase’s full report. Connecting routes to contemporary job locations, smarter intermodal connections, rethinking the hub and spoke system, and providing a reserved spot for wheelchairs at all times are just some of the many possibilities. For many New Haven residents, like DeMartin, who rely on the city’s bus lines, simply identifying these problems is a sign of progress. If any of these ideas were pursued, New Haven would be better off.

“We design our ecosystems around the assumption of the automobile,” Hausladen said. “It used to be that civil rights was where on the bus you sat. Now it’s about where your bus goes and how long it takes to get there.”

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