State Bus Boss: What Broken System?

Paul Bass PhotoJames Redeker calls New Haven’s bus service “convenient” and “wonderful.” Bianca Santiago might agree—if she didn’t have to turn down extra-hours work because she has no way to get home.

Redeker runs the state Department of Transportation, which runs CT Transit, which runs our public buses. So when it comes to the day-to-day management of CT Transit buses, the buck stops with him. During a stop in New Haven this week, Redeker said he sees no reason to make major changes to how buses run in New Haven, because he believes the system runs great. He’s always open to listening to ideas for improving the system, he said.

“For most people it’s actually a convenient, wonderful, inexpensive way to get around,” Redeker said during his visit to town Tuesday.

Many regular CT Transit commuters agreed with Redeker when approached for a reaction as they waited to board rides home from the Green the afternoon after his visit. Bianca Santiago (pictured at the top of the story) had a different view. She relies on CT Transit buses to travel to her job as a demo specialist at BJ’s. She usually catches one bus to get to the New Haven Green from her home in West Haven, which comes once an hour during daylight hours Monday through Friday (less often on Sundays); and then on to BJ’s Wholesale Club in North Haven. Sometimes the buses go straight through; often she needs to transfer from one to another on the Green. If she leaves work at 5, she can catch a D bus back from BJ’s and eventually make it home. She has had to turn down opportunities to work extra hours on later shifts because the bus doesn’t run. (The last D bus leaves Universal Drive at 10:07 on weeknights. The previous bus leaves at 8:59. The C bus leaves BJ’s as late as 11:22 on weekdays, but connections to the suburbs are few and far between by that hour.)

“The hours suck, early in the morning and later at night,” she said. Even the hourly pick-ups during regular working hours, combined with the connection on the Green, are hardly “convenient,” she said. “I’m either an hour early to work, or I’m late.”

The View From The Bus

Redeker didn’t come to town Tuesday to talk about buses. Politicians and state officials rarely if ever do. They hold press conferences aimed at the voters they’re more interested in pleasing: commuters who drive on the highways or ride Metro-North. They do that particularly often in even-numbered (election) years. Redeker came to participate in two separate press conferences at Union Station about improving train service, one with three U.S. Congress members, another with his boss, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. (Click here to read about those press conferences.)

I wanted to ask him about bus service, for two reasons.

One reason: New Haven’s been talking about the issue. It was a hot topic this week at a Department of Transportation-sponsored public-transit “visioning”  session in town called “TransformCT.” (You can still add your voice to that process here.)

“What I’ve been hearing from a lot of customers is that it’s too unpredictable to rely on,” said Douglas Hausladen, the Harp administration’s new transit tsar. “Second-shift and third-shift workers are not able to rely on CT Transit to get to work. That’s a problem.” Newly elected Mayor Toni Harp has called the need for better mass transit in town, including better bus service and development of a trolley, a “civil rights issue.” The administration is pushing the state to equip buses with GPS devices so riders can use their smartphones to find out the information rather than stand in the cold for a half hour or more at a time; that is one of the reasons that New Haveners who have other options don’t rely on the buses. CT Transit is gradually introducing the devices to its buses in the Hartford area, though not yet here in New Haven. (Read about that here.) In a “True Vote” poll, over 89 percent of Independent readers called for introducing the service here.

Another reason: I recently spent about nine months riding city buses quite a bit, and I wanted to match my conclusions about local service with Redeker’s. I usually either walk or bike the two and half to three miles from my Westville home downtown to work in the morning, around the city to stories, and back home or to evening prayer services at my synagogue. I decided to ditch the bike for those nine or so months and either walk or travel by CT Transit. Here were some conclusions from my very personal experience (which, as the comments section will probably reveal, could well differ from others’):

• CT Transit drivers are always friendly. They smile, say hello. They drive those big buses, including the double “bendy” versions, well, including on narrow streets. I have never (including over decades of occasional ridership) encountered an unprofessional or impolite or unskilled driver. Some notice you running to catch the bus from a quarter-block away, and wait for you.

• CT Transit keeps its buses, at least the ones I rode, clean and well-maintained.

• You can’t count on buses coming on time with any regularity. So if you need to arrive places on time, you need to tack on at least a good 15 minutes. Often that meant I could arrive home on foot as quickly or occasionally more quickly than by bus (even at the daydreaming ambulatory pace I keep). Even in the rain and snow.

• The fact that all buses run to the Green, and connect from there to other lines, means you go way out of your way to travel ridiculously short distances, and wait to make connections to double back. When I covered morning stories in, say, the Hill or Dixwell, traveling one or two miles by bus could require setting aside an hour. Those problems become more acute if you commute to or from the suburbs, or need in general to make connections, as riders like Bianca Santiago have discovered.

• The CT Transit schedule is geared toward people who get out of work by 5, and who don’t do stuff at night in New Haven. Even though the economy has changed from manufacturing dominance to reliance on service and professional jobs with far different schedules. Even though New Haven has enjoyed a renaissance as a cultural and entertainment hub, with a busy nightlife. Leaving a political or government event around, say, 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., I would find myself looking at standing still in a freezing night for up to 45 minutes, or just walking home in the cold and dark—and arriving either in the same amount of time or earlier. It’s no wonder that people who have the means to avoid buses in New Haven generally drive to work, even if that cost them more and even if they’d rather contribute to the creation of more pollution. The D bus from the Green to Fair Haven and Bella Vista stops running on a peak schedule at 6 p.m. Westbound B buses from the Green end peak schedule at 5:50 p.m. instead of, say, 7 p.m.; I’ve been on B buses so jammed with standing riders that the driver couldn’t stop to pick up any more passengers. The Q bus stops running on a peak-hour schedule from the Green to Westville or Beverly Hills at 5:18 p.m.; it stops running there altogether at 6:55 p.m. You can’t catch the Q back downtown after 7:33 p.m. And weekends? Don’t bother, if you’re coming home after 10:07 p.m., or not willing to wait for almost two hours, between 6:07 p.m. and 8:03 p.m., to catch the bus. If you want to take a J bus to Hamden from Union Station after riding home on the train, you have to arrive by 9:05 p.m. during the week; by 11:05 if you’re headed to Whitney and Edwards. The O bus from downtown through Winchester Avenue to Hamden stops running at 9:15 p.m. on weeknights. Coming in the other direction, you wait an hour and 15 minutes if you just miss the 7:11 p.m. Headed to Congress Avenue in the Hill or to West Haven on a different version of the B bus? Better make it to the Green by 11:45 p.m., or you’re out of luck.

• Sometimes the bus is so full, with so many standing passengers sardined inside, the driver can’t stop to pick up any more passengers. They just have to wait longer. (I’ve experienced that on the B.) Other times buses are nearly empty, raising a chicken-and-egg question: Would more service simply produce more empty buses? Or would more people ride the bus because they could rely on it?

• The bus system puts Connecticut’s and New Haven’s racial and economic divide in stark relief. The B bus passes through all sorts of neighborhoods; as on most lines, the ridership is overwhelmingly black and brown, overwhelmingly blue-collar or poor. On the Q, the racial makeup of riders shifts predictably along the route. In East Rock the racial divide is magnified by Yale’s free shuttle, which offers a less expensive, more predictable ride (plus GPS real-time data) to people with university affiliations. That hit home to me during a snowstorm after I walked to an appointment into Hamden, then rode a bus back downtown along Whitney Avenue. At first I wondered why the standing-room-only ridership was almost exclusively African-American along a racially mixed (and, nearer to downtown, predominantly white) route. Then I remembered the shuttle.

• Walking to or home from work puts you in a good mood (unless you talk on a cellphone). A reporter also walks into interesting stories that might otherwise be missed. Trying to connect in time with a bus puts you in a bad mood; once you get on the bus your mood improves.

• Occasionally a mentally disturbed person will make noise on a bus. But pretty much all the time riders are considerate and well-mannered. They tend to keep to themselves rather than talk to strangers; the back of the bus tends to be a more comfortable, relaxed and friendly spot. And occasionally you do have memorable and enjoyable encounters with people you don’t know. Some describe the comically frustrating details of their two-hour commutes to and from jobs in, say, East Haven or Branford. I once sat next to a man who happened to be reading a book I co-authored; he was reading a page about a now-deceased inmate to whom he was related. I recently received a detailed education into how one woman ended up at Crossroads, how she hopes to break free from her addictions, and what happens there behind the scenes.

Overall, I concluded that CT Transit can in fact attract a broader ridership, thrive, become reliable. It can become a transportation option of choice, not of last resort. I concluded that the goal is worth pursuing, for civic, environmental, and economic-development reasons. But right now it’s broken. The fault doesn’t lie with people who drive the buses. The fault lies at the top.

The View From The Top

At least that’s how it appears from inside the buses themselves. When it came time to compare impressions with Commissioner Redeker (pictured), I discovered that it looks far different from the top. Following is a transcript of the part of our conversation concerning bus service, in between Union Station press conferences Tuesday. (Click on the video to watch how Redeker kept his cool, stayed polite and constructive, in the face of adversarial questioning.)

Independent: In New Haven now, for at least 20 years, New Haven has started to have a nightclub. People don’t always leave the center of town at 5 o’clock. It is very difficult to get around New Haven by a bus after 5:30 with any regularity.

Redeker: Well…

I take the bus, so I promise it’s true.

It depends where you’re going ...

When I walk three miles or two and a half miles home at night (after 8:30 p.m.), it is often faster for me to walk than to wait for a bus.

I would agree. A bus service is scheduled based on demand. Clearly in the off peak, there’s less demand.

When you take a 6:30 B Bus or a 6, there’s so many people, sometimes they have to wait for another bus to come [because the full one doesn’t stop]. So clearly it’s not based on demand.

Let me finish. We’ve got demand, and we’ve got cost. The bus system basically brings in about 25 percent of the cost of running the bus. And so we’re constantly balancing the resource question against demand.

Do I think that the bus system in New Haven is ripe for some review? Absolutely. It’s been a long time coming. And I’d love to partner with city ...

Should New Haven have any kind of regular, reliable bus service after 5:30 at night?

It should, and I think it has some. Maybe not enough for some people.

I don’t think I know anybody who believes you can reliably take a bus home from work or to go out at night with any predictability after 5:30 ...

I think there’s predictability. I think it’s just not that frequent. And that’s a function of the cost. The buses run until well after 1 o’clock in the morning. It’s a very long span of service. It’s not just every couple of minutes ...

It’s not every couple of minutes. During the day it’s still every half hour on most lines.

Off-peak ...

At night it’s 45 minutes or an hour. Most lines shut down well, well before 1 o’clock.

And that’s very traditional, and it happens everywhere.

So basically are we telling people in Connecticut, ‘We’d love you to take buses or trains, but we’re going to make it pretty much impossible on your schedule’?

No. Frankly if you take a look at Connecticut’s investment in subsidizing public transportation, it’s extraordinary. It’s one of the most significant public contributions from a state toward sustaining the extensive nature of our system for a small state.

We have a very, very elaborate rail and bus system. And we’re going to continue to advocate for more.

But if that’s true—if we’ve made such a big investment—and it’s still pretty much impossible for most people I know to reliably count on getting a place to park to take a train ... Most people feel they can’t take a train or a bus ...

That’s not true. I think you have a lot of people taking it. And many people do avail themselves of it. And for most people it’s actually a convenient, wonderful, inexpensive way to get around. And you always have to have a vision for more. And I do.

Anything planned upcoming [to make changes] with the buses in New Haven?

No. Not immediately.

So you’re not going to change anything [in] the way New Haven’s buses run?

Not this minute.

So basically if you want to shop in New Haven or work past 5 o’clock, forget it ...

If they want to initiate conversations with the city to talk about options for take a look at reroutings, I’m happy to do that.

The View From The Green

You can find the highest concentration of bus riders during rush hour at the main connection point on the New Haven Green. I brought Redeker’s sunny view of the system to a random sampling of riders waiting for the bus Wednesday afternoon. Almost all of the riders agreed with his view, not mine.

True, the sampling didn’t include the many people who choose not to take the bus. But still, Redeker clearly has some happy customers.

“Yes, for the most part” the bus works quite well for him, said Roger Weeks, who relies on the F and O lines to travel from his home in West Haven for doctor’s appointments and visits with friends.

The same holds for Alicia Money, who said she regularly rides in from Hamden to New Haven to catch buses to Ansonia and Milford, with no problem.

Home-schooler Kweku Aidoo, 17, takes “maybe four to five” rides a week on G, O, and D buses to travel from his home on Hamden’s Woodin Street to his job at Subway in North Haven or to the Milford mall. He encounters no problems, he said. And the drivers are always friendly to him.

Hamden’s Phil Ragozzino rides to B on Whalley Avenue to the Green, then makes a connection to his screen-printing job in Hamden. “On the main routes, it’s good service,” he said, although the bus rush hour does “get a bit crowded.”

“It’s always on time. The bus drivers are always nice to me. So I like it,” said John Emery, who buses Monday through Friday on the B, then switches to the Z for a different suburban screen-printing position.

Bianca Santiago was not the only rider who has trouble with multi-town travel for a work schedule that runs later than 5. Rashiem Smokes rides the J bus from Waterbury five times a week to work at a New Haven pizza place. He gets home fine, he said—if he gets out in time. “The last bus leaves at 6,” he said. Several times a week he finds himself having to call a taxi or find “someone [to] come get me.” He considers the overall bus service “pretty good,” he said. But the buses should run “a little later.”

The last word on the subject goes to CT Transit General Manager David Lee, who responded by email Thursday to follow-up questions. He reported that bus ridership statewide is up 1 percent so far this fiscal year; it rose 1.2 percent the previous fiscal year, when total ridership (passenger boardings, including transfers) was 27,439,653. New Haven area passenger boardings accounted for 9,562,320 of that total. Each passenger trip cost the state $4.44; it collected an average fare of $1.30 per rider.

And Lee had this to say:

“Over the past several years, we’ve made many service changes to reflect that fact that people are no longer just working (or going to school) from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. More and more commuters work earlier and later hours, and on weekends. We tweak schedules at least three times a year (per the union contract), so there is constant fine-tuning to best serve demand.

“You’re right about New Haven having a radial route structure in which all buses converge at a central location downtown. That arrangement is ideal for people traveling downtown, or to locations along the corridor, but less so for people traveling between suburbs. We’ve experimented with a couple of crosstown routes in Hartford that I would say have done well, but not spectacularly. There isn’t any strong consensus on where a crosstown route should go if there was one in the New Haven area. Having everything converge at one central downtown location also facilitates transfers at nights and on weekends when service is less frequent. At those times we go to a ‘pulse’ mode in which buses come downtown, transfer passengers, and then all depart at the same time.”

The conversation, with its myriad perspectives, will continue. Meanwhile, I’m back on my Fuji Crosstown 3.0 to pedal to work.

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 9, 2014  12:36pm

Bianca Santiago might agree—if she didn’t have to turn down extra-hours work because she has no way to get home.

There are a lot of people out there like her.We need 24Hr Transit.

posted by: ElmKaren on May 9, 2014  1:25pm

Good article. What would help everyone tremendously is the faster introduction of GPS-based tracking on all the buses. That way people can stay in their workplaces / homes, check the tracking app on their phone, and only pop-out right before the bus comes.

Five years ago, I’d have been worried about a digital divide with lower-income people not being able to afford smartphones but I don’t think that’s a problem anymore.

posted by: LorcaNotOrca on May 9, 2014  2:01pm

I live in the Beaver Hills/Edgewood part of town, and I would often take the buses downtown while attending some classes at Gateway last year or into work in Fair Haven. For the most part, they are quite fine and dandy, though the 45 minute ride into/out of Fair Haven does seem a little long, with connections.
I could only imagine the ordeal for those going to farther places. At least a few main lines should run at a more frequent rate.

I wholeheartedly agree about going out after 5 p.m. though.
Realize it or not, there are young people in New Haven who live in the cheaper neighborhoods who DO go out at night all week long, which is a very good thing (we do want a city young people actually want to live in and enjoy living in, right?). But when the buses essentially stop running or run so infrequently, you’re left with no other option but to drive.

I found it especially frustrating that if I wanted to meet a friend at a bar on a Saturday night, the buses into town only ran on the hour, and basically I’d have to find another way home if I planned on staying past 11 p.m. or midnight. On a Saturday!

A “world class” city like New Haven ought to have more reliable and common-sense transportation. The city has been improving by leaps and bounds and is even giving people reasons to want to hang out into the night. Shouldn’t the bus system reflect that?

posted by: Nathan on May 9, 2014  2:10pm

There are two aspects to the topic of this editorial essay: the technical discussion of the logistics of public transportation including scheduling; and how social, cultural, and economic class affect the need or desire to use the service and the ridership experience.  The first aspect is “safe” to discuss and will attract many comments, as the observations made by Mr. Bass seem to be factually correct and bring up obvious area for improvement (e.g. GPS technology, expanding frequency of service past current peak hours, etc.)

The second aspect is far more sensitive, so many readers of this essay may be inclined to avoid it.  This quote is what Mr. Bass has to claim about the ridership experience:

“Occasionally a mentally disturbed person will make noise on a bus. But pretty much all the time riders are considerate and well-mannered. They tend to keep to themselves rather than talk to strangers; the back of the bus tends to be a more comfortable, relaxed and friendly spot.”

A better crafted, yet more evasive of the nature of the more negative experiences reported by some riders would be hard to find.  One of those riders blogged years ago for NHI and had quite a few less happy passenger experiences on a regular basis; I know this not just from reading about them, but from hearing them on a daily basis, as I’m married to that author.  There are complex issues that lead to sometimes uncomfortable ridership experiences that will continue to encourage the use of personal vehicles.  I’m not sure the brilliantly worded goal expressed by Mr. Bass—“It can become a transportation option of choice, not of last resort”—can be reached by any technical adjustments on the part of CT Transit.

posted by: absolutmakes on May 9, 2014  4:09pm

Like Paul, I live in Westville and commute to work (downtown) in a variety of ways. First option is to bike the 2 mile trek. I’ve also begun walking to/from for a change of pace, and in inclement weather (or if the timing is right) I’ll take the Q bus.

I probably take 2-3 weekly bus trips and agree with most of Paul’s observations. I moved here from Chicago, where at I rode the bus system (actually preferred it to the El) on a daily basis.

Here are my thoughts to improve New Haven’s buses:
* More frequent trips (at best, the Q runs through westville every 20 mins)
* extended service hours coupled with #1 (i only use the bus for a daytime work-commute, there is no chance i would rely on it during the evenings or weekends)
* fewer bus stops (very specific here, but there is a bus stop on almost every block from Westville to downtown. just use a stop on every other block - having them every block slows down the trip)
* don’t have every bus connecting through the Green
* GPS monitoring (essential, glad to hear it’s in the pipe)
* better bus cards (online re-loading please)
* better website (i can’t tell you how many times I’ve struggled to figure out where buses run, and at what times)
* I think riders need some bus etiquette education as well.
* Westville needs a bus that runs down Chapel (the F bus travels down Chapel from the Green but turns and bypasses Westville on its way to Orange/Ansonia/Derby on Rt 34 - same thing on the return trip, it skips Westville before getting into downtown)
- riders in New Haven rarely utilize the rear exit door (exiting through the front only slows everybody down!)
- when the bus hits standing room only, move to the back of the bus to accommodate new riders!

posted by: DingDong on May 9, 2014  4:19pm

If only New Haven had better buses, I would live further away from downtown.  There are lots of neighborhoods I would love to live in but won’t move to because it’s too far to walk from downtown and I know the buses are just unreliable, especially after hours.

posted by: David Backeberg on May 9, 2014  5:50pm

I really enjoyed this article, and agree with all of it.

The New Haven buses are least bad at peak times, where there are enough buses that it doesn’t matter that they’re not on their schedule; you’ll still see another come through soon enough.

The schedule is a joke at peak, and then it’s just a vague guide at off-peak. My babysitter tries to use the bus to pick up my kid from preschool; not reliable enough. Grandma is the backup plan for when the bus comes 15-20 minutes late.

The most reliable non-person-car transit solution in New Haven is the personal bicycle, as the author concluded. Lots of us have come to the same conclusion.

And no, James Redeker, it’s not “like this everywhere”. Boston has amazing bus service, which I relied upon happily when I lived there, and it ran late and early. The only time it was better to walk there than wait for the bus was during a 20 inch snowstorm where I caught up to and passed a bus I normally would have ridden. If there was dedicated lanes and less gridlock, the bus would have won even then.

posted by: DingDong on May 9, 2014  6:09pm

I don’t know what Redeker is talking about when he says “We have a very, very elaborate rail and bus system.”  What’s elaborate about it? 

There are basically two rail lines: Shoreline East and Metro North.  It’s a straight line; nothing particularly complicated.  Most of the State has no rail service run by the State, let alone any rail service at all.  And then there a bunch of bus services scattered across the State that aren’t integrated or coordinated into the rail service or with each other. 

In Europe, the transfers are timed so that the buses leave\arrive at stations around the same times as the train do.  There is often fare integration—so if you paid for a train ticket you can get on the bus for free.  Or, at least, as in many cities in the U.S., you can use the same payment system like Clipper Card or a Metro-Card.  What’s elaborate here in Connecticut?  Not much: it’s pretty rudimentary and second-class, if not worse.

Meanwhile, the State is spending millions to widen I-84 and on road projects throughout the State.  See:

posted by: NewHavenRocks on May 9, 2014  9:51pm

The bus rides must be a dream compared to the bus stops. Maybe the Bus Boss should have taken up residence at some of the stops. Taken a tour of the community urinals. Half the equation is getting people where they need to go. The other half is making the stops themselves community friendly. Where does the Bus Bosses responsibilities end? When the passenger step off? Cities like New Haven are left clean up, pay for and police. Whats the Bus Boss going to say? We have problems? Let’s build a transit hub with proper facilities and central administration so people can be comfortable.

posted by: Pat Wallace on May 9, 2014  11:55pm

Another issue as the number of older adults increases is the problem of snow removal at bus stops.  It doesn’t always happen reliably, and that makes an unsafe situation.  It is the job of whoever owns the building where the stop is located.  Tracking down who that is can be quite a project.  Another thing not covered in this excellent piece is the bus shelter issue.  One disappeared across from River Run, apparently taken down because of vandalism.  That was tough this winter.  Traffic and Parking was going to revisit the question after the weather warmed up.  All these things point to the need for information for bus riders about a simple, single central point of connection for these ancillary problems too.  I find the trip planning function on the website way better than before, when there was none, but it is not as fast and simple as it could be.  To the kudos already given to the drivers I would add that the first time I took my bike on the bus, the driver was very helpful.  There should be a youtube video showing how to do it, though.

posted by: Ravenclaw on May 11, 2014  6:16pm

Yes, New Haven bus service is slow and often falls off schedule. That’s true most places. Unless you have frequent service (say, every 15-20 minutes) people get stuck waiting - or, with GPS, find out they’re going to be late to their appointments ahead of time.

More frequent service, especially evenings and weekends, would be nice. But yes, it would cost. The radial plan bothers me more. You won’t find many people on the Green for whom it doesn’t work, because they just have to find some other way. And it isn’t mainly about linking outer suburbs. Just try to get from Westville to Newhall, or East Rock to Fair Haven.

posted by: Scot on May 12, 2014  6:03pm

Could the city/state incorporate a small bus terminal as part of the Coliseum site, or Rte 34 area?  It wouldn’t have to be huge, just big enough replace the green as a central hub. A small hub could have an indoor waiting area with some bathrooms, plus outdoor seating for nicer days. That would make things much more comfortable for people transferring during cold winter months or inclement weather.

posted by: robn on May 13, 2014  1:26pm

People expect a carnival of souls on public transportation…that’s just what it is; the real psychological barrier is predictability and only GPS can cure that.

More important than extended hours is the routes. CT transit continues to use an antiquated bare bones hub and spoke system radiating from one hub…the Green. The system needs one or two outer rings to maximize its potential as a web. Its a total waste of time an productivity for people to make huge acute angle trips when they could be more quickly navigating a web.