A Message For Our Walls

YCBABus shelters, blank walls and shop windows lined with colorful posters advertising products, local activities and a suggestion for a convenient route to get there—that is not so farfetched an idea for CT Transit’s New Haven lines. For inspiration, check out the new exhibit just a short bus ride and walk from one of the many routes passing by the Yale Center for British Art on Chapel Street.

The exhibit showcases various posters from the early 1900s up until the 1970s that would have been displayed all over London-above and below ground-to advertise the transit system as well as a various products, parks, and activities.

Entitled “Art for All: British Posters for Transport,” the exhibit opened last week and runs through Aug. 15. It offers a glimpse into not only the urban reality that was 20th century London, but the urban reality that can be New Haven in the 21st.

The Underground Railways of London, commonly referred to simply as “The Underground” even though about half the rail was above ground, were monopolized in the early 20th century by consolidating many separate, privately owned, rail lines that operated in the city of London. The single ownership allowed for rapid expansion, uniform upgrading and more accountability; while this choice sacrificed competition for convenience, the improvements in service were noticeable. A comprehensive system plan with all lines and stops could now be developed out of what was previously a series of disconnected lines that had to be experienced to learn them.

Frank Pitts, the creator of the poster campaign, saw the artwork advertisements as a way of compensating people for the inevitable inconveniences of transit-rail repairs, accidents, maintenance, etc-by providing waiting passengers with interesting, beautiful and informative pieces of art. Posters were typically either about 2’ by 4’ or full size 4’ by 6’, which could be displayed in tunnels, passageways, along waiting decks, or incorporated into building facades on the street. Originally, the posters advertised the various rail lines that a passenger could take for a fun afternoon at any number of locations around London. There might be boat races advertised one weekend and a day at the beach the next along with the most convenient rail line that could take you there.

Another important function of the posters was to encourage smart usage of the transit system. This was accomplished by promoting off-peak use of the rail lines to reduce discomfort and cramped conditions during commuting times.

Professional artists, many of whom also made art for magazines and traditional advertisers, were employed by The Underground to create drawings that could be sent to printers for transferring to the posters. Lithography was the most common technique used to create the posters and mass produce them, but the silk screen process was also deployed in the later years of the poster campaign. These techniques allowed modifications to be made to the posters; new layers for captions, titles or backgrounds meant that posters could be tested out and improved upon or different versions of the same poster could be released simultaneously.

During World War II, many of The Underground’s tunnels were used as bomb shelters and after the war, the posters were a powerful social tool to showcase the collective spirit and strength of the London people. A poster from 1949, produced by Walter Ernest Spradbery, shows one of the city’s magnificent churches still standing tall and proud even as the surrounding blocks are visibly bombed out in the background of the poster. Instead of hiding reality, the poster triumphs in the face of adversity by implying that London will rebuild stronger and not forget.

While the war never reached the continental United States and our cities weren’t bombed to smithereens, many of our neighborhoods look like they might as well have been. The vacant lots and rotting or burned out frames of a once proud and defining New Haven building stock are a constant reminder of the problems that face this city and cities across the country. However, with an effective ad campaign, these problems can be turned into opportunity, as every lot and every abandoned house provides development potential that is unmatched in terms of cost efficiency, energy output, material use and long-term adaptability anywhere else in the country.

Much of New Haven’s tourism and entertainment initiatives consider modes of transportation very little when considering how to make this city a vital center once again. Aggressively pursuing transit as a viable alternative to driving would decrease demand for expensive and wasteful parking garages and lots, decrease the need for high capacity roads with many lanes, improve air quality, reduce obesity and asthma, increase demand for development due to increased transit-associated pedestrian activity, and numerous other benefits. New Haven has a plethora of long, blank walls that are calling for some type of activating presence like posters.

In order to get private interests to feel that advertising on relatively small posters is worthwhile, there has to be a solid transit ridership of middle class people, who happen to be the key consuming demographic in our society. The posters may have to start off as publically funded to advertise bus routes and destinations, but once service improves and the stigma that is often associated with transit is lifted, the general public will likely flock to this affordable and convenient transportation model. In the long term, for transit to be an adequate replacement for driving, the car-oriented developments of the post World War II era will have to be dealt with through retrofitting, complete remodeling or, in some cases, demolition. If Downtown Chapel Street is the ideal for a commercial center, then we have to allow for the creation of new commercial districts that are just as successful and this cannot be accomplished if numerous side streets have to be decimated to make way for parking. Transit is the only transportation model that allows for continuous networks of dense urban street frontage and spacious living standards because once mass car usage is required, the storage space replaces urbanism.

All it takes is a hop on the D bus to visit beautiful Front Street Park overlooking the Quinnipiac River, or a ride on the B bus to the Westville Farmer’s market and commercial Main Street. The O bus can take you to work at Science Park, while the J route goes by Edgerton Park and Z will drop you off at the Historic City Point neighborhood. There is a sizable artist community in New Haven and the posters would be a great way for young artists to get free publicity, and the general public can be informed about upcoming events, year round activities and convenient bus routes while enjoying local art.

Even if London-inspired transit posters seem unrealistic or irrelevant for New Haven the exhibit is an fascinating showcase of some of the most influential and recognizable European artworks at the British Art Museum for people interested in modern art, transit history, or time-consuming weekend activities. There is another summer-long exhibit at the Yale Art Gallery of Italian paintings from a private collection that has works dating back seven centuries. You can get there by bus.

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posted by: Cedarhillresident on June 2, 2010  1:41pm

Great Read!

posted by: Nan Bartow on June 3, 2010  7:25am

Great article by Jonathan Hopkins!! I hope to see more of them from this promising young writer!

posted by: Townie on June 3, 2010  8:19am

New Haven public transport is a joke because it is not privatized and the non-existent competition means one bus service that can afford to be inconvenient and poorly managed. I am a frequent CT Transit rider, not by choice but out of necessity. The buses are frequently late and the service seems poorly planned. One bus stopped on Temple Street and sat there idle for 15 minutes! Privatization would mean a competing company could provoke greater customer service and a rapid and significant improvement of the public transport system.
To me New Haven’s greatest mistake was getting rid of the street cars, unlike the buses, they were environmentally friendly and faster.
Improved public transport is a pipe dream, Americans love their cars, as the saying goes, every cowboy needs their horse, right.

posted by: David Cameron on June 3, 2010  12:00pm

Great article, Jonathan!  Maybe the exhibit will inspire someone to do something similar for the New Haven and Yale bus routes.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on June 3, 2010  12:33pm

There are both benefits and downfalls for a private busing system. I agree that ripping up the trolley lines was one of the biggest mistakes ever made in this country, and it could have been avoided if we had better zoning and building codes during the period of massive construction following WW2. I am hopeful that we will get some fixed path lines back in coming decades because of their development benefits that could be realized along Whalley through downtown and out to Fair Haven Heights along Grand (and other thoroughfares that could support much higher density and building heights than they currently have).
The good thing about one public system is that there is a unified map of connecting lines and routes, whereas private companies would likely discontinue many routes that aren’t as profitable (but are necessary for many people).
I think the best way to move forward is to increase ridership, which can be accomplished through an effective ad campaign (that would hopefully be financed privately with the incentive being advertising space for products, companies, etc.), dedicated bus lanes where possible, and low cost improvements that make bus rider more comfortable. Once ridership is substantially high, then I think larger moves can be made like privatizing the system.
It would be nice to have the big improvements made first but those are much more expensive and may not get the results we want.

posted by: William Kurtz on June 3, 2010  12:35pm

Agreed that CT Transit, at least in my observation and the experiences of people I know who use it regularly, is not always doing a great job.  But good public transportation doesn’t have to be—and shouldn’t be—a pipe dream.  I’m not a genius urban planner or a highly-paid consultant, but the solutions seems pretty obvious to me: discourage individual car usage and encourage public transit usage by providing appropriate and meaningful incentives.  People love their cars because for decades, city planners, engineers, and business interests have ensured that the private automobile is the easiest and in many cases only feasible way to travel between places while paying no attention to the effects that traffic and the need for massive amounts of parking are having on public spaces.

posted by: Townie on June 3, 2010  1:49pm

Multiple private bus or public transport companies would probably not effect service in high demand areas, the argument that one company can better serve the demand does not follow logic. If there were multiple private companies than the competition would compel them to remain in service in the high demand, i.e profitable areas. As it is now, CT Transit runs routes in places that probably only see one or two riders a day, on the weekdays. When I was going to SCSU I couldn’t catch a bus that ran from the University to Upper State Street after 7:00pm, it was a huge pain to walk from the Green to State Street, at 9 or 10pm, after a long work and school day. One would think State Street would be a route kept open well after 10pm, at least (since the Bus depo is right off of State Street). Anyway, my point is that CT Transit knows that there will always be a bottomless well of customers, the working poor who cannot afford cars. They also know they will continue to be subsidized by the State government, so they are going to do as little as possible in regards to customer service. It’s the Amtrak model of public transport. Privatization would force improvements. I know more people would ride the bus if the service was better. I don’t own a car, but most times I would rather walk than take the bus, if I can’t walk somewhere I usually don’t go, the bus service is that bad. Example: it takes me 1 hour to go to the grocery store, from State Street to Westville (one way). 1 hour for what should be a 20-40 minute trip (both ways).

posted by: Johnny on June 3, 2010  2:41pm

Wonderful article, Hopkins. I, for one, take the bus whenever I can (which is frequently - and I hate it. Rules aren’t enforced, buses are always late (if they even show up!)..

In my opinion - we should just secede from the rest of the state in using CTTransit and talk to the MTA. See if they’d expand into New Haven. The MTA would never let bus service be so neglected. We’d have advertisements in bus shelters (and, it really doesn’t have to be just art - which is nice. Just have some classy ads in the shelters). Buses wouldn’t be skipped (I once had to wait 45 minutes because four buses didn’t show up).

But that’s not going to happen, as far as I’m concerned. I think that really what needs to happen is that the City of New Haven (transportation office) needs to get involved in all of the buses. Have the fleet modernized, things in the control of the NHTA..

posted by: transitsavvyuser on June 4, 2010  8:01am

A naive article by yet another writer who doesn’t use public transit as a primary source of transportation.

posted by: Lynne Shapiro on June 4, 2010  8:37am

I’ll feel like a prophet in the desert writing this as once again I write into a blog about the true owner-management of CTTransit bus services in New Haven, Hartford, and Stamford. ConnDOT owns the buses and has a 38-year transit management contract with First Transit of Cleveland that it does not supervise well. For example, a complaint about CTTransit services to ConnDOT is just forwarded to a CTTransit clerk.
A google search for “First Transit” reveals that it is a subsidiary of First Group an international publicly traded like Enron transit management conglomerate, that it runs buses all over the country and is part of transit advocacy groups so that transit advocates cannot call them on their poor services. Until recently, the First Transit website provided lists of its specific transit management contract areas. Clicking on the name of a contract area revealed the area’s specific managers and other info about the contract. Now First Transit just has a map with dots for his contract areas and one has to write in for specific information which is probably a FOI Act violation.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on June 4, 2010  6:54pm

I’m flattered that you called me a “writer”.
Define “primary source of transportation” because I walk most places, bike some, but when weather is bad or the distance is larger than I feel like biking, I use buses or trains. I use transit at least once a week, usually more. I do not use it to commute, because my daily needs are within a short geographic distance of where I live and with each other, but when necessary transit is my first option.
Also glad to hear your input and ideas(?).

posted by: transitsavvyuser on June 6, 2010  6:38pm

My ideas and input were just that—we in CT keep having those who don’t depend upon mass transit as their primary means of transportation write articles about transit over and over again. How can this practice help advance the cause of transit and clean air quality/lower carbon emissions more or help transit users by providing expertise beyond surface issues?

Look at it another way.  Who would be best to write expert articles about budgetting to feed a family during a recession—the family’s summer weekend barbecue griller or its year-round grocery shopper and meal preparer?

posted by: abg on June 10, 2010  1:27pm

Actually the name of the London Transport poster pioneer was Frank PICK, not Frank Pitts.  Pick was obviously a far-seeing and aesthetically sensitive guy, with an apparently genuine interest in promoting the work of women artists. But there’s a pretty obvious class bias in the work he commissioned—from this exhibition it would seem that life in Depression-era London was mainly about shopping in Piccadilly, watching tennis at Wimbledon, going to bathing spas, and smelling the asters and bluebells at Kew Gardens. Not exactly geared towards the working man. (Plus the fact that all the figures, except maybe the jolly fisherman from Skegness, look so damn Aryan.) And the idea that disgruntled riders are going to be soothed when their train is half an hour late by a pretty poster with children carrying colorful balloons? C’mon, what was this dude smoking?

posted by: transitsavvyuser on June 13, 2010  9:02am

Yes, and paying artists to advertise First Transit dba CTTransit questionable services—like an earlier but at 6:05 a.m. Temple Street Union Station shuttle that still leaves riders scurrying to the 6:17 and 6:23 a.m. express trains—is taking away funds for the more important investments in more buses and more frequent services.
Such artists poster grants are like the artist grants for the Orange and Chapel Streets bus stop “Art Park” where funding is lacking for decent shelters. Bus riders need to choose between sitting on benches in the elements or standing in a shslter.