Can Bus Woes Be Solved?

If your bus is late—at least soon you’ll be able to know it.

That’s one improvement among others that CT Transit officials promise are on the way for New Haven’s buses. Riders—and potential riders who stay away—say improvements can’t come too soon.

 

A series this fall by Southern Connecticut State University journalism students exposed a wide host of problems, and deep dissatisfaction, with local bus service.

The series included input from the average riders, and the top brass of CT Transit.

As evidenced in the comments sections of these #CTBusDiaries posts and interviews with transportation experts, though, there’s no agreement on what can or should be done to improve the service on city buses.

The Problems

Many riders complain of schedules that don’t run buses regularly enough for their commuting needs. Some complained of schedules that end too early in the day, preventing them from commuting home from late shifts.

Weekend schedules are sparse, leaving those who rely on the buses for weekend work shifts in a lurch, particularly on Sundays.

Crowding was also a concern. CT Transit doesn’t have a clear count of when buses are the most packed, but riders regularly complain of shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, and buses passing them by at stops because there’s no room for more passengers.

Suburban riders had issues with the hub and spoke system of routes, where all buses meet at the New Haven Green, then back track to other locations. The schedules meant a 20 minute drive might take about two hours on the bus.

Riders also brought up a lack of schedules posted at bus stops and lack of information about how late a bus might be.

It’s Complicated

The solutions are not as easy as throwing money at the CT Transit system, according to Michael Sanders, public transportation administrator for the state Department of Transportation.

“There’s a lot of issues that money or technology or policy that can make taking the bus easier. But it’s not as simple as giving us more money,” said Sanders. “We would still need to implement a new bus service, still need to construct a planning process and we would need to buy new buses for these services.”
     
CT Transit officials have been pointing to pending system upgrades as a possible solution to some complaints.
 
“We will have a new bus system in New Haven before the end of next year,” Sanders said. “We’re installing the first elements of it in Hartford including vehicle location technology, next bus arrival times and digital signage in certain stations.”
   
Although CT Transit has all its schedules online, there is currently no way for people to know if a bus is going to be on time, according to David Lee, the general manager for CT Transit. Yale Transit currently already uses a GPS tracking system to allow students to see, in real time, the exact location of every shuttle around New Haven on their computers or smart phones, he said.
 
This technology is something CT Transit is interested in using in the future so people can check the location of each bus before they head to the bus stop to wait. This will limit the number of times people are standing expecting a bus to arrive at one time, but having to wait much longer than expected, according to Lee.
 
“Once we have location data, we’ll do a better job with running times,” Lee said.

Show Me The Money

But regional transit experts say more funding is a necessary part of any improvements to be made to the system.

Norman Garrick, an associate professor for the Civil Environmental Engineering department at the University of Connecticut who studies transit planning, said improvements in bus technology are nice, but will ultimately fail in creating a more efficient bus ride.
   
“They have information systems that tell you when the bus is coming, like at Yale,” he said. “But with bus lines that have problems with overcrowding, technology is not necessarily going to solve anything.”
   
“There really is no magic alternative to solving the bus problem other than adding more buses, and running them more frequently,” said Garrick. “CT Transit just needs more financial support.”
         
Nicholas Lownes, Ph.D. and PE, associate professor of Engineering Innovation at the University of Connecticut, said overcrowding in a public transportation system is essentially a function of capacity.
 
“At the end of the day, bus overcrowding is typically a function of capacity, or the lack of available seats,” said Lownes. “This is logical and intuitive, but the causes are not always as simple as ‘not enough buses.’ ”
 
According to Lownes, a major obstacle to improving public transportation in cities such as New Haven is the fact that large systems like these are densely traveled.
 
Lownes said efforts to be efficient, such as making bus times as close as possible to each other, can lead to an effect known as “bus bunching,” when two or more buses scheduled to be evenly spaced end up running in the same location at the same time.

We reached out to New Haven area legislators to get a sense of what they might be able to do to help improve buses in Greater New Haven.

Robyn Porter, a state representative who represents parts of New Haven and Hamden, and Roland Lemar, a state representative for East Haven and New Haven, did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment. (Another state representative, Robert Megna, was out of the country.)
     
Gary Holder-Winfield, a state senator in New Haven, said in an email that he’d be in favor of starting a discussion at the Capitol about the issues.
   
Holder-Winfield said he believes some improvements, such as the technology, haven’t taken effect because of the lack of understanding of the importance of the transit system and the impact these changes can make. 

Garrick said one way for CT Transit to get a bigger budget is to alleviate the stigma that surrounds public transportation.
   
“We tend to think of buses in Connecticut as [for] poor people with no other choice, but we should think of public transportation as an essential part of a functioning society,” he said. “It’s just not seen as an option for people who can afford better.”

Carl Jordan Castro, Emili Lanno,  Xavier Lassiter,  Alexander Roberts,  Ratasha Smith, Hannah Spreckly, and Matt Stumpo contributed reporting to this article.

The CT Bus Diaries project is a collaboration between the New Haven Independent, the Valley Independent Sentinel and students from the multimedia journalism class at Southern Connecticut State University. The students blogged about experiences on CT Transit’s bus lines in order to give a glimpse into the commutes of the people using the bus system.

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