Stacy pulls a sunscreen bottle from her tote while I retrieve my bag from below the Greyhound we’d taken from Hartford’s Union Station to the turnaround at Hammonasset Beach State Park. The driver reminds us that the two return buses will leave at 4 and 7 p.m. That gives us enough time to stroll the boardwalk, sit in the garnet-flecked sand, and visit Meigs Point Nature Center. We make this trip once or twice each summer. Takes about an hour there, an hour back. It’s not Waikiki, but it’s the Connecticut staycation we can afford: $20 round trip ticket.
Except, none of that happened. Stacy (not her real name) was telling me how neither she, nor her best friend – a lifelong state resident – have been to Hammonasset or any of the other coastal state parks; their children have also not stepped foot on Connecticut’s largest shoreline park. Why? Because they do not own cars.
This should have been the part of our chat when I told her about ParkConneCT and how this meant we could magically join in the all-American summer fun of watching waves while reading trashy novels on the shore, despite being part of the population who either does not drive or have access to a private vehicle. There was nothing I needed to tell her. She knew as well as me: public transit serves in a specialized and outmoded way. Whether it is intended to be exclusionary, the fact remains that if you are trying to travel to the shoreline from north of Middletown, you are not well-served by the system today.
How do I know? Let’s look at how our various transit systems function together.
Coming from Hartford, you would take the train or bus; if train, you begin on the Hartford Line and switch to Shore Line East in New Haven, and then at either the Madison or Clinton station, board one of the free Estuary Transit District shuttles to the beach. That’s not exactly convenient, but if schedules lined up, it could be doable.
But the schedules don’t align.
The earliest you can arrive in Madison by train, coming from New Haven, is 4:45 p.m. on the weekend. There is no return trip after that. Your options: stay overnight, use another station, or move east of Madison if you want to visit Hammonasset Beach by public transit.
What if you used the Clinton train station instead?
I plotted out the most likely options for weekend travel, and the choices are few.
The Clinton Trolley schedule does not list the train station as a pickup point, so if you’re unfamiliar with the area, you have to do the legwork to figure out where the shuttle stops and if you have to hail the bus or wait at a designated stop. The best guess is that the shuttle stops near the station, once an hour, at :37. It takes 20 minutes from there to deliver you to the beach. If you arrive early, you can enjoy the beach for less than an hour, then get on the shuttle to take the 3 p.m. train back to New Haven. Or, you hang out in the sand until 6, at which time you take the shuttle to the station and hopefully arrive on time for the 6:28 train. There are later Clinton Trolley trips, but the last train back from New Haven to Hartford on Saturdays departs at 7:30.
Those are your options: spend lots of time traveling in order to get less than an hour at the destination, or get sunburned and cut it close to missing your ride home.
What about on a Sunday? The Hartford Line and Shore Line East schedules don’t line up, so you’ll have an hour or more of waiting around in New Haven if taking any of the morning or early afternoon trains. Even though there are later trains back to Hartford on Sunday evenings, the beach shuttle stops running at 6 p.m., which seems to mean that you would need to be back on the Clinton Trolley at 5; the next train west is at 6:28. There is one after that at 7:56. You could grab dinner at a restaurant near the station. Once back in New Haven, you’re waiting around for about half an hour before getting back on the Hartford Line.
Those travel times do not include however far you are going from your home to the station. It does not include the price: $27 round trip, per person. This also does not take into account what happens if your train out of Hartford is half an hour late, causing you to miss the Shore Line East train, dramatically shortening the time you could have spent in the sand.
Your other semi-viable option? If you can make your trip on a weekday, then ride the CTtransit 55 bus from Hartford to Middletown and transfer to the 9-Town Transit/Estuary 645 Transit bus. It operates on Saturdays on a reduced schedule.
Currently, CTtransit buses are free through December 2022 and 9 Town Transit is free through November 22, 2022. Total travel time for a bus trip is around 4.4 hours. Park ConneCT suggests the 645 bus stops in the park; Google Maps does not reflect this, showing the closest stop on Route 1 across from the Shoreline Greenway Trail. There are no marked/fixed stops for the 645 bus, so you will be waving down the bus and pulling the cord whenever. Does that mean the driver will take you to the park or leave you to play Frogger on Route 1 where there are no sidewalks or crosswalks?
You don’t have to privatize a beach to keep poor people off the shore. All you need is a byzantine public transportation system.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
What if we started small by making schedules and stops easier to understand for the non-commuters? Be consistent in naming stops. Be clear where shuttle and bus stops are, especially near transit centers. Add tourist attractions – like Hammonasset Beach – to the schedule as a timepoint. If visitors need to hail the bus instead of standing by a sign, tell us that too.
What if we added one more Shore Line East train in the afternoon on weekends? What if we better aligned service between the Hartford Line and Shore Line East? What if a few more existing trains stopped at Madison Station?
What if in Summer 2023, Stacy and I could board a bus at Hartford’s Union Station and be at the beach a little over an hour later without changing buses or making more than one stop along the way?