New Haven’s bus system is famously broken. The price tag to fix it, according to the years-long, state-funded Move New Haven transit study, would be about $15 million – plus another $7 million annually for operational costs.
By comparison, the redesign of a single I-95 exit in West Haven would cost between $59 million and $69 million. Considering how much the city and region would benefit, then the price of improving the bus system is a bargain. Better yet, some of the fixes being proposed for New Haven could be applied to bus systems throughout the state.
Bus systems are complicated beasts with deep roots in the communities they serve. Bus lines often run on routes that trolleys took a century ago, with their tires rolling mere inches above the old tracks buried in the asphalt. That’s part of why changing them can be arduous and time-consuming. Something as simple as shifting a route five minutes earlier can throw off riders’ schedules, break connections, and cause ripple effects across multiple routes.
Fixing a whole system, then, is not something to be undertaken lightly. The Move New Haven study took years, a thorough assessment of the current situation, conversations with riders and community stakeholders, and support from state and local leadership just to get to this point.
But, if funding can be secured and these recommendations are implemented, all that time and energy will have been worth it.
The New Haven plan envisions several changes that are at the forefront of transit thinking. The first is something you’ve heard of: bus rapid transit (BRT).
I can already hear the groans. Stay with me, though! When we in the Hartford area think of BRT, we think of the CTFastrak busway. But BRT doesn’t have to be an expensive, grade-separated road replacing an old rail line; a lot of what makes BRT effective can be placed right in the middle of the city on existing roads.
A good example of a BRT line that works is Cleveland’s HealthLine, which uses the city’s busy Euclid Avenue. The line’s clearly branded stations, which are located are much farther apart than local bus stops, have boarding platforms that are visible, sheltered, and raised above street level to allow people to board the bus without climbing stairs. Half of the street is reserved for buses only, and buses get signal priority to ensure they can move as quickly as possible through the city. Each station has arrival times and destinations for upcoming buses listed. Buses run every 10-15 minutes, and riders pay their fares before boarding.
HealthLine is advertised as having “rail-like convenience with the flexibility of a bus,” which is a good description of what BRT should be. It’s like light rail, except that the “trains” don’t have to stay on the tracks.
That’s what Move New Haven is proposing for two of its most-used routes: the Whalley Avenue/Congress Avenue corridor, and the Grand Avenue/Dixwell Avenue corridor. The study estimates that time saved versus the current routes could be as much as 43%.
Another improvement suggested by the study would be to decentralize the bus system, which currently has a single massive hub at New Haven Green where all bus routes connect. If someone wants to travel from one neighborhood to another, they have to go downtown and catch another bus heading to their destination – even if that takes them miles out of their way! Move New Haven recommends cross-town routes and “mini-hubs” where riders could transfer to a number of different routes.
There are lessons here for other cities in the state, like Bridgeport, Waterbury, and Hartford. BRT overlays can be implemented for fairly cheap in densely-populated areas with high transit ridership. Crosstown and suburb-to-suburb routes can and must be explored. Transit must follow demand, as well.
In fact, there was a study done by the Capital Region Council of Governments a few years ago that looked at exactly this sort of transformation for Hartford’s bus system – including a scenario that would add BRT to Franklin Avenue, Park Street, Farmington Avenue (to West Hartford Center), Albany Avenue, Main Street, and Burnside Avenue.
Why aren’t we talking about this study, too? Maybe it’s time we should.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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