Inside the Lines

Inside the LinesInside the LinesInside the Lines

G etting a handle on CTTRANSIT’s New Haven bus system is like trying to understand a foreign language. To someone already well-versed, it’s easy. To the unacquainted, it’s nearly unfathomable, presenting more questions than answers. Why are there eight different J buses? Why does the D6 take you to Hamden while the D14 brings you to East Haven?

From the New Haven Green—the functional center of the system, where all bus lines intersect, and where you can buy tickets and passes—CTT Assistant Director of Planning Philip Fry suggests looking at any individual bus line as a tree, where the line’s letter indicates its “trunk” and the number indicates a specific “branch.” Take the J, for example. All J-Whitney Avenue buses travel between the green and Edwards Street, with most continuing on to the intersection of Whitney and Dixwell in Hamden (so, if you’re going to the New Haven Museum on Whitney, not too far from the green, any J will do). But the J4 travels on to Cheshire and Waterbury, while the J2 and the J8 turn off towards Hamden Plaza at Skiff Street. Likewise, all B-Whalley buses go as far as Westville Center, but where the B1 turns on Fitch towards Southern Connecticut State University, the B2 continues on Whalley to Amity Shopping Center in Woodbridge.

Most of the routes are based on New Haven’s historical streetcar lines. D-Dixwell and B-Whalley lines are among the most heavily used, as is the O-Route 1 that travels along Boston Post Road to CT Post Mall in Milford. The L-North Branford line is the route with the lowest ridership in the system, primarily because it only runs three times daily.

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By the way, low ridership alone isn’t sufficient for elimination of a bus route. Two to three times per year, CTT’s Service Review Committee evaluates routes and schedules for possible alterations. Route productivity, bus overcrowding and potential cost of new routes and new services are all considered. Even when the committee agrees to alter a route, a public hearing would be held before any implementation.

The bus map, indecipherable at first, begins to make more sense after a day or two of riding—enough that I was able to find preferable alternatives to slow or overcrowded routes. For instance, a more scenic (but less direct) substitute for the Post Mall-bound O line is the J7, which also departs from the green but skirts the Sound via West Haven, reaching the mall in about an hour. Though the O’s schedule lists the trip as 40 minutes from green to mall, heavy traffic (on Route 1 inside and outside the bus) delayed my trip by 15 minutes, making the time commitment comparable. My J7 return trip, with fewer passengers and stoplights, ran ahead of schedule. Similarly, the Q-Edgewood bus was a quicker, leafier trip to Amity than the B2 or B3.

CTT fleets don’t just cover the New Haven area. While most urban transit systems in the US are locally owned (by counties, cities or both), CTT is instead a division of the Connecticut Department of Transportation. In addition to New Haven, the cities of Hartford, Waterbury, Stamford, New Britain, Meriden and Wallingford each boast their own local routes. Hartford’s is the most trafficked, clocking almost 15 million passengers in 2012-2013, while New Haven logged nearly 10 million.

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Jay Leno at Southern Connecticut State University's Lyman Center - May 9, 2014

Considering the systems are affiliated, it’s somewhat surprising that these city hubs aren’t better connected, though they are to a certain extent. On weekdays, seven CTT-sponsored Peter Pan buses (three before 8 a.m., three after 4 p.m., and one midday) travel from New Haven Union Station to Hartford Union Station for $5.15 each way. The trip takes a little over an hour, traveling on I-91 with stops near the freeway in Meriden and Middletown. The midday bus I took was almost empty; the 4 p.m. southbound coach was half-full.

In Hartford, I inquired about alternatives to New Haven using local CTT buses and found that there were none. Plan B would have been to take a local bus from Hartford to Waterbury (to catch a J bus from there to New Haven), but that doesn’t exist either. I could only get to that New Haven-bound J bus if I rode an express bus from Hartford to Southington, then transferred to a Cheshire bus in Southington. Wallingford is similarly unconnected to the capital via local bus (though the New Haven Express transfers to a Wallingford local at its Meriden stop).

In 2012, CTT trumpeted its commitment to green-ness by installing a 400-kilowatt fuel cell in its Hartford headquarters, generating enough clean power onsite to save over 800 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year.  Later this year, a similar cell will be installed at the company’s Hamden garage. Meanwhile, in the New Haven fleet alone, sixteen buses are hybrids (diesel-electric), with four more to be added to the fleet later in 2014. Stand on the Chapel Street edge of the green for a few minutes and you’ll probably see one.

An hour’s ride to Waterbury, whether spent reading a good book or simply gazing at Sleeping Giant, costs $3 round-trip. Same for a Sound-skirting jaunt to Guilford or Madison and back. Even at $10 and change, the round-trip downtown-to-downtown express bus from Hartford to New Haven is a reasonable, stress-free alternative to driving on I-91 or a $23 round-trip Amtrak Shuttle. It makes sense (and cents) to make sense of CTTRANSIT’s New Haven bus system.

Written by Will Gardner. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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Will Gardner is a writer and instructor who has written for The Portland Mercury, The Stranger and the Dallas Observer. He relocated to New Haven two years ago and has already visited 53 of Connecticut's State Parks, and refuses to move until he sees them all. He also has an unhealthy obsession with the Bee Gees.

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