With an unexpected day off, I decided to finally run an errand at Best Buy in Orange. I don’t have a car—so you can imagine why I’d put it off.
I knew from the many times I had Google-mapped the bus route—and the one ridiculous time I attempted walking there, reached the West Haven city limits, and had to call an Uber—that getting to this store was going to be a pain in the tuchus.
The Best Buy travel experience was my latest personal reminder of how, if you don’t own a car, Connecticut’s transportation system makes it as hard as possible for you to get around. The governor claims his 30-year $100 billion plan to remake Connecticut highways for drivers will also improve the transit system for the rest of us. Less than a year of navigating the state on foot and on two wheels has shown me that there’s a lot of work to be done—to improve simple bus commutes to stores or to work, to better connect city residents to airports, to make public transit more efficient for the car-less like me.
Some simple fixes don’t need a three-decade, 12-figure plan.
I live in Westville. Traveling round trip between the bus stop in front of my house and Orange involves four bus rides.
Mind you, my destination in Orange lies on a major artery—Boston Post Road— less than five miles from where I live.
I would have biked the route, but it was a rainy day and I didn’t want to put the trip off any longer. The lack of sidewalks and major traffic along the road takes walking out of the equation, even on a nice day.
I have a Zipcar membership. But if you can imagine something more inconvenient than the bus, you would have the sum total of my experiences with Zipcar.
Compared to the $1.50 bus fare, renting a Zipcar is pretty expensive at between $7.50-$9.50 per hour. Plus, the state treats renting a Zipcar the same as renting any other car for leisure, tacking on a 3 percent rental surcharge, a .28 percent sales tax on the rental surcharge, a $1 a day tourism account surcharge and a 9.35 percent vehicle rental tax. I’m not touring anything. I’m not renting this car for a joyride. These surcharges are not cool, Connecticut. Not cool at all. The state clearly doesn’t want people to rent cars.
Second, the per-hour fee for renting a Zipcar includes picking up the car and returning it to where you borrowed it, which means returning it to a Yale or Southern Connecticut University-centric location. I understand the rationale for parking a Zipcar on a college campus. I really do. What’s not to love with all that surface area parking and a built-in client base? But, with the exception of a lot at Union Station, what about the rest of us?
Technically, the SCSU Zipcar location is “near” Westville—if you call 1.2 miles “near.” In most instances, I actually do call that close. But getting there in less than hospitable weather or at night is a problem. And having to return a Zipcar exactly where you got it from is just barely OK if you’re going somewhere downtown, and definitely not ideal when you are driving to any of the surrounding neighborhoods or cities.
Third, I’d still have to walk, bike, or bus to a Zipcar location, which is as much of a time-suck as actually taking the bus. At least the bus picks me up in front of my house.
I once used Zipcar for a late-night reporting assignment at Long Wharf Theatre. I picked the car up at Union Station. I work downtown, so this didn’t feel like a huge deal. I usually walk to Union Station, but it was dark, so I took a bus. You have to inspect your Zipcar before you drive off, and this one looked like whoever had driven it before me had side-swiped at least two or three cars on the way back to the station.
I lost precious minutes taking photos and calling Zipcar to let them know that I had not damaged the car. I had to pick up my co-worker and then get us to the theater all in time for the show we were heading to see. Four hours later, I had to drop my co-worker off in Wooster Square and then drop the Zipcar off at Union Station just after 10 p.m., which meant that there was no possibility of taking a bus and arriving home before midnight. Major bus routes run every hour or less after 7 p.m.; the Q route I take home stops altogether at that time. So I called Uber.
When I finally did the calculations on the whole adventure, I realized I could have rented a car for a weekend given what I spent for those four hours.
If I had taken Zipcar to Best Buy on Monday, I likely would have rented it for two hours and would have had to pick it up from SCSU’s campus or from Whitney Avenue. That means I would have had to take a bus, because it was raining, to a location that in both cases is more than a mile in the wrong direction from where I needed to go.
On average it would have cost me between $20 and $25, when all fees are considered. A round trip using Uber costs about the same, but at least it would be door-to-door service.
So I figured: “Why in the world would I spend that much money when I could take the bus?”
I forgot. This is Connecticut.
No Room For Error
Monday was the perfect day to take the bus because, unlike on a Saturday or a Sunday, the buses run pretty regularly during the week.
I once tried to take the bus to the Westfield Connecticut Post Mall on a Sunday. I was excited to hear there was an express bus there. The local bus takes a pretty scenic route past a beach, but stops every few minutes—I just wanted to go to the mall.
First I headed downtown (in the opposite direction of the Post Mall) to catch the express bus. I waited nearly an hour for a bus that my mind warned me was never coming. But I still had hope in my heart. I was even prepared to hop on the slow-moving O if it showed up.
Both buses finally made their way down Temple Street, one right behind the other. I was peeved, but relieved and in a forgiving mood—until the drivers neglected to stop. The drivers of both buses flew right past me as I jumped up and down at the bus stop. I will let you fill in the blanks of the various expletives that I muttered while shaking my tiny fist of fury.
But, on Monday, I was feeling optimistic. Google Maps said, depending on when I left and which buses I took, my trip to Best Buy on Boston Post Road would take from 55 minutes to an hour and 13 minutes one way.
I decided to set out in the morning since even the predictable Q bus gets a little less regular during the early afternoon, when many people are already at work. My goal was to not spend my whole day riding buses.
To say that I missed the goal would be an understatement—in part thanks to the transit system, but also because of my own stupid human fault.
With buses to the ‘burbs, there is no room for human error.
I caught the Q bus at some time after 10 a.m. As usual, it was right on time.
Rather than heading directly toward Best Buy, which is four miles away, the Q took me to the corner of Elm and Temple Streets so that I could transfer to the O bus. That first leg of the trip with traffic takes about 22 minutes.
The dreaded O bus with its multitude of stops was running a little late. But it was raining, so that’s understandable. Time was on my side.
It took every bit of about another 35 minutes, but I arrived at Best Buy.
Let me be more accurate: I arrived at the bus stop, at the sidewalk outside the massive parking lot that is between me and Best Buy.
I don’t mind the bus stop being where it is; I do mind dodging cars that don’t expect humans to be walking across a vast parking lot (since parking lots are clearly designed for cars and sidewalks for people).
I managed to get into the store without being run over. I was there to replace my digital activity tracker, which I had somehow destroyed during these first six months of the year while walking and biking all over New Haven. I made my selection and took it to customer service.
The customer service rep asked me if I had the old digital tracker that I wanted to replace. Oblivious to what was about to happen next, I replied that I didn’t. This lovely young woman said the words that ruined my day: “Oh. We need the old device.”
Hello palm. Meet my face.
Rookiest of transit-riding rookie mistakes. In the unwritten rulebook of tedious commuting and transit riding it states, “Thou shalt always, always have everything you need before you leave home.” On Monday, I broke that rule and I was about to suffer the consequences.
If this had been any other day, I would have just bagged the whole thing and gone home. But the next bus wasn’t coming for a good hour.
I went to find some lunch. There aren’t many options in this ‘burb. It was either Wendy’s, McDonald’s, or inside Target, the Pizza Hut Express or Starbucks.
If At First You Don’t Succeed
I would have walked around more, maybe spent a few dollars to boost the local economy. But the town of Orange apparently hates pedestrians. When you cross those sub-Saharan Desert-like parking lots, you might find a sidewalk. You might not. The sidewalk where the bus dutifully deposited me earlier went on for maybe another 100 feet in one direction. It was nonexistent in the opposite direction. Nor was there sidewalk on the other side of the highway.
I thought I had been temporarily transported back to the South, where I grew up and spent most of my life. If you don’t know, in that part of the country, public transportation tends to be a dirty word.
Speaking of the South, I also learned that that region of the country is not the only place where somebody thought it was a good idea to put bus stops in dangerous places. To catch the O bus back to New Haven, one must stand at a bus stop that is staked out at the bottom of a hill, across a side street near the Target on Boston Post Road. More specifically, it is behind Wendy’s, where I had my lunch. There’s no sidewalk, or cement landing pad, or even a bus shelter. People either wait in the overgrown grass and bush, or they wait in the street.
I got to experience that on my return trip home twice. Yes, I took two buses back home, took a breather for an hour and charged my phone.
Then I started the whole journey all over again at just after 2 p.m. As I said, it was my day off, and I had the time. I made my exchange before the same customer service rep ended her shift, and made it home around 5 p.m. The whole ordeal cost me just under $5, and most of my day.
The two trips made me think about those people who don’t have the luxury of access to a car, or a day off during the week to leisurely navigate a bus system that just doesn’t make sense for a community considered an economic engine for the entire state.
I lived in the Washington, D.C. area before moving here last fall. For the first three years there I sat in traffic with everyone else, thanking my lucky stars that my commute was to the south, away from our nation’s capital, but still thinking it was ridiculous that every car, including my own, had only one person in it.
By my fourth year, I’d decided I had had enough. I lived in an area that was walkable and had decent public transportation. I asked myself why I was driving everywhere in the nation’s worst traffic, paying crazy gas prices and even crazier prices for car maintenance. I had an old car, and when it died, I didn’t replace it.
A year and a half after that I found myself here in New Haven, doing the two-step with a bus system that is inconvenient during the week, far worse after 7 p.m., and downright dysfunctional on the weekend. While Uber has been my default when all else has failed, it is an expensive solution to a problem that impacts the lives of so many people.When I think about what fixing this system could do to positively impact the lives of people like me and my fellow public transit users, I wonder what’s taking so long. (Click here, here, here, and here for links to stories exploring this question.)
When I try to navigate my new home without a car, I often wonder about my fellow commuters. How much of their lives are they losing in transit? Who is missing time with their kids because it takes so long to get home? Who is in danger of losing a job because they are chronically late? Who would take a job in the surrounding communities if they knew they had a reliable way to get there? Who has to cut things short because if they don’t get on the very next bus they will be stranded?
I think about a young woman I once interviewed who worked two jobs while finishing her degree at SCSU; how her mom had to get up before dawn to make sure she could get to her first job because the bus doesn’t run at a time that would allow her to get to work on time. I also think of the story of a woman who took a minimum-wage job at a Dunkin Donuts out on a highway and has to pay $25 for a cab every time she works a shift that doesn’t mesh with the bus schedule.
Like many working people in New Haven I’m committed to my car-free life for a mixture of financial and environmental reasons. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’d like to live a little less of my life in transit.
And when it’s time to catch a plane out of state ...
If someone would have told me that it would be harder to get from New Haven to Hartford then it would be to get from New Haven to New York, I would not have believed them.
Until one Friday afternoon this February when I tried.
I had lucked up on a $99 round trip ticket from Hartford to Washington, D.C. I usually take the train down to D.C. because it is so convenient. At most, the only extra step I have to take is to find transportation to the train station.
But if you’ve ever taken the train to the nation’s capital, you know it could run you about $150. I’m a working-class hero who likes to save money, so I went for the flight.
I should have known something was going to go wrong when I saw that there was no direct way to get to Hartford from New Haven that didn’t involve an expensive cab ride or airport shuttle.
But I found some fairly explicit instructions aimed at Yale University students. It included information about an express CT Transit bus that leaves from Union Station and goes to downtown Hartford and connects with another bus that would take me to the airport.
Google Maps confirmed these instructions by showing me that the 950 Hartford Express would drop me in Hartford and then I could pick up the 30X Bradley Flyer.
I was confident that I would not screw this up.
As evidence that I am not completely incompetent: I have managed on several occasions to get myself from Alexandria, Virginia, to Baltimore-Washington Airport using nothing more than public transportation, including city buses, Washington Area Metrorail, and Amtrak/MARC train. I’ve never missed a flight. I didn’t even mess up the sequence of actions the first time I did it.
On this adventure to Hartford, in February, I got to Union Station several hours before I needed to be in Hartford. I wanted to give myself room for error.
I looked around for signs that might tell me what I needed to do to catch the bus to Hartford. The new digital board in the train station was lit up with departures and arrivals for Metro North and Amtrak. I saw a sign for Greyhound and Peter Pan, but no signs for CT Transit.
I told myself not to freak out. Somebody had to know about this CT Transit bus to Hartford.
I asked a man who worked in the station where I could pick up the CT transit bus to Hartford. The blank stare should have let me know that a comedy of errors was about to ensue.
He said he didn’t know about a CT Transit bus to Hartford. But he told me that the Peter Pan bus goes to Hartford. That’s great, but I had not reserved a seat on a Peter Pan bus. I was expecting to take a CT Transit bus to Hartford.
He said if there was a CT Transit bus to Hartford it would probably pick up out front. I thanked him for his help and went to do a little inspection.
Sure enough there was a schedule for the 950 Hartford Express on the bus shelter in front of the station. I took a deep breath and relaxed a little, thinking that everything would be fine.
Just 10 minutes before the 950 Hartford Express should have made its appearance, I went outside to wait. At exactly the time that the CT Transit bus was supposed to show up, I saw the Peter Pan bus pull up.
For about 15 minutes, I watched passengers get off the bus and new passengers get on. Just before the driver pulled off he changed the sign in his window to “Downtown Hartford.” I thought, “Surely, my bus is right behind this bus.”
But no CT Transit bus came.
No need to panic, I had plenty of time. Maybe the schedule had been modified.
As an extra precaution I called CT Transit to ask about the express bus and to get clarification on where the bus actually picked up. The dispatcher told me that the bus would pick up in front of the station and the next one would be back in two hours.
So I waited. Sure enough the Peter Pan bus came right around the same time that the CT Transit Bus should have showed up and did the exact same thing.
Dropped off, picked up, flipped sign, drove off.
No CT Transit bus.
I wasn’t the only one baffled.
Two young men who were standing near the bus shelter appeared to be having the same problem. I asked them if they were trying to catch a CT Transit bus to Hartford. Yes. Did they ask people about the bus? Yes they did. They had received the same answers.
I called CT Transit back to essentially ask: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Is the Peter Pan bus the bus to Hartford.
Yes, I was told. It will be back in two hours.
I was tempted to yell: Are you friggin’ kidding me?
But that rarely solves anything. It also would not have changed the fact that it was too late to take the bus and make the subsequent
connections. I didn’t have two hours to spare. I needed to get to the airport in time to get through security. It also was rush hour.
I did what I had to do. I called Uber, and the lovely man who was my driver allowed me to share my frustrations all the way to the airport.
I got to Bradley International with time to spare, though I was $95 poorer for the experience.
Then a funny/not so funny thing happened: My plane had a malfunction. The airline was trying to fix it so that we could get down to D.C. We were grounded until it could be fixed.
It turned out it couldn’t be fixed. The flight was canceled.
It was a Friday night. The airline told us that it could get us down to D.C. Saturday if we could get ourselves to ... guess where? Tweed-New Haven Airport.
Yes. I spent a full day in transit hell, trying to get out of New Haven, only to be told that the only flight that I could be re-booked on to get to
Washington D.C., that weekend was in New Haven.
No, the airline would not pay for my hotel if I stayed the night in Hartford. No, the airline would not provide me a cab ride to New Haven—because New Haven is considered “local” to Hartford.
Cue The Price Is Right-loser music.
It was nearly 10 at night. I realized that I was not going to make it out of the state that weekend. I got a flight refund and booked a
hotel near the airport.
I called Uber once again, this time to take me to the hotel. I don’t have an aversion to taxis, but the taxi stand at Bradley International Airport clearly did not care that I was having a rough transit night. Being told to wait outside in the cold while someone got in the booth to assign me to a taxi had me at the end of my rope.
I spent the night in Windsor Locks, which, like most ‘burbs, closes up after 10. So there was nothing more to do but go to bed.
The next morning, I was determined to just get back to New Haven. I was going to Uber to downtown Hartford’s Union Station. But the woman at the front desk assured me that I could pick up the Bradley Flyer bus just outside the hotel.
Sure enough there was a bus stop just a few feet from the hotel ... buried in snow. Windsor Locks hates people who ride the bus.
I waited for the bus in the parking lot of the hotel. When I saw the bus a distance away, I grabbed my luggage and sprinted down one side of this four-lane highway hoping that the bus driver would see me and not run me over.
It worked: I made it to Union Station without incident. I walked up to the Peter Pan window to purchase a ticket, because now I know that it is the “CT Transit” bus that returns to New Haven’s Union Station.
The nice man in the window suggested that I take Amtrak, because it would get me there sooner.
He said I would otherwise have had to wait in the station for two hours, because it was Saturday and the bus doesn’t run that often. What helpful information. I secured a ticket from Amtrak and got back to New Haven in about 40 minutes. I called Uber and arrived in Westville by 2 p.m. a full 24 hours after the whole transit ordeal started.
I have since used a combination of a Greyhound bus and the Bradley Flyer to get to the airport. I also have since discovered the urban navigation app Roadify. But I still can’t help but think that nothing should be this complicated.
CT Transit being more explicit about the fact that it doesn’t operate the express bus to Hartford would have made a big difference.
After that ordeal, I finally found information about the route to Hartford that said Peter Pan operates the route, but there is no information about whether you need to reserve a seat, or if you can pay on the bus, or even use a bus pass.
An information desk staffed with a volunteer or an employee (or a
combination of the two) who knows all about the various transit options that operate out of Union Station would be a great help. Because not everybody has a smartphone. For those of us who do have smartphones, a trip planner app specifically for New Haven’s Union Station also would be helpful.
I know there are big hopes for reinventing Union Station in years to come, but many of these little fixes could help the city’s car-less right now.
Related Stories On Bus Service In New Haven
* Common Complaints: Crowding, Inconvenience
* Commute By Bus Must Start 2 1/2 Hours Ahead
• Can Bus Woes Be Solved?
* CT Transit Drove Me To Zipcar
* Fares Paid 22 Percent of the Cost of Running the Bus
* State Bus Boss: What Broken System?
* Report: Transit’s Not Keeping Up With “Job Sprawl”
*Cleaner Air, Upgrades Increase Maintenance Costs for CT Transit
* 28 CT Transit Bus Injuries Reported In City This Year
* CT Transit Can’t Count Crowding Yet
* Lost, Looking for the J Bus
* It’s Safer on the Bus
* 25 Years in, Eligio Keeps the Wheel Steady
* Class Waits For No Bus
* Guayquier & Terrier Board the G
* The Bus Gets Personal
* The Bus Helps Him Think
* Rafel Sanabria Has Big Plans
* Where Would You Really Want The Bus To Take You?
* With Whom Would You Want To Ride The Bus?
* Next Stop: Karma
* Resto Steers the O
* The Bus Stop is Quiet on Sundays
* Foley: Let People Drive
* Malloy Vows To “Build a Better Bus System”
* ‘I’m Sick of Driving’
* Work Search Starts With The Bus
* Der Bus Ist Gut
* Football Win Makes The Bus Ride Bearable
* Brenda Works Around the F Bus
* Where’d the Q3 Go?
* 3-Hour Commute Includes 3 Buses, 1 Train
* On Inaugural Ride, Student Meets the D Bus “Queen”