Invisible Buses: Reducing Transportation Inequity at Wesleyan University

Waving at the M-Link bus in front of College Row.

It was a beautiful spring day in Middletown, Connecticut, and my cohort of Fellows at the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship was rushing down the stairs of the Allbritton center. “Hurry! Hurry!” I urged my classmates, as I ran ahead to find the perfect vantage point on the historic college row. A few moments after finding a grassy spot, the reason for our excursion was here — a blue Middletown Area transit bus with colorful decals bound for Middletown Plaza and Meriden Rail station.

We gathered around and found some sun-bathing students nearby to do us the favor of taking a video while we dorkily waved at the camera. Our photo opp was done, but the purpose of the seemingly silly excursion would reveal itself afterwards while we were playing some team bonding games. During one of our rounds of assassin, a cohort member simply noted “hey look, another bus,” to which I looked over and saw that another bus had indeed arrived. While a small thing in the grand scheme of things, her noticing the bus for the first time was just a preview of what was to come as I worked on substantially increasing the ease of use of public transit at Wesleyan. Over the past few weeks, many other students have started to notice the buses, with some even erroneously congratulating me for bringing the routes to campus. If only I could take credit for something that’s been around for years, but I was glad to hear things were starting to change.

Over the past six months I’ve been looking at ways to make transportation more equitable, meaning that getting places is affordable, time-efficient, and environmentally sustainable regardless of a person’s income level or background. Using this starting point I worked to breakdown the current options and perceptions for transportation on campus. Unsurprising to me, as someone who also doesn’t own a car, I found the non-car ownership options for students to be expensive, limited, or hard to use. At Wesleyan there are the school-run transportation options which include the shuttle to New Haven and the ride service around campus; the private sector which includes car ownership, Zipcar, Uber, and Lyft; and the public sector which includes Middletown Area Transit and CT Transit. Focus groups and objective metrics of each transportation option helped shape a rough chart that scores the different transportation options. The chart helps identify what improvements could be made to transit equity on campus that would be cost-effective and quick to implement. With significant parking changes starting next year for the campus, it will be even more critical that being car-less is an attractive option for all class years and not a huge impediment for many who have no choice due to cost.

Making buses visible is an important start for working towards transit equity, since it forms the backbone of many larger transportation improvements. The low initial rating for ease of use of public transit at Wesleyan also showed potential for small improvements that could create a big impact. I found that many students did not realize two bus lines went through campus. Of the few that did, they did not know if the buses stopped on campus or where they went. Other common pain points students brought up were trip planning and the cash-based fare payment. I divided these issues into the categories of trip planning, fare payment, and first-time user experience, which I will explore below.

Left: Chart Comparing Wesleyan Transit Options. Right: Wesleyan Shuttles.

Trip Planning in the Era of Google Maps

Trip planning with public transportation is really easy through Google Maps, and has become an expectation for many people that use transit. If the bus routes are not on Google Maps, then it does not matter how many buses pass by campus since students will not notice them. It is so easy now to search a destination and get the directions to go there on an app like Google Maps, but without the transit data loaded into the app, an important option is missing in every search.

Adding Middletown Area Transit to Google Maps has been in regional planning documents since 2011, and was slated to be completed in 2012 with the help of the Central Connecticut Regional Planning Agency. In 2015, I reached out to Middletown Area Transit via email and was told it was something that was being worked on, but two years later in 2017 Google Maps integration for the bus network was still not complete. So, feeling motivated, I decided to finish the Google Maps integration project over spring break and post the code and a how-to guide online as a way to generate publicity for the first stage of my project, while also getting the attention of the transit agency. About a week later, I had a meeting with Transit Agency head Andrew Chiaravallo, thanks to the efforts of administrators at Wesleyan and staff at City Hall that read my Google Maps coding piece. At the meeting, I had a chance to meet the contractor who recently completed and submitted the Google Maps project with live bus times to Google, and I was able to make recommendations on where the stops on Google Maps would show up for Wesleyan. While my code was not used, it was a valuable way for me to understand the bus system inside and out and while also showing that I was serious about this project.

Google Map Renderings with the old stop location of William/High Street. Stop is now at Fisk Hall.

The next stage of improving trip planning was more graphic design than coding: I created a subway system-style map for local and regional destinations accessible via public transit. The purpose of these graphics are to change the perception that being car-less means not being able to get off campus, in addition to outlining the core system so people can advocate for improving the hours and frequency of the system. For example, the rail network in Meriden is going to be drastically improved starting January 2018, but the Middletown buses will not run late enough to get to or from the station for many of the night trains. These graphics are a work in progress and have been improved after feedback from students and some design help from Philip Lau. After a few more iterations, the graphics will be sent out to various departments so that it can be included in next year’s orientation booklet, on some of Wesleyan’s websites, including Sustainability, Transportation, and Public Safety, and also emailed out at the beginning of the year to all students. I am currently working on some additional graphics that will list out actual business and destination names and the amount of time it will take to get there using the public transportation options.

Local and Regional Subway-Style Maps of Public Transit.

Fare Payments in a Cashless Society

Cash, like paper maps and PDF timetables, is also on a trek towards obsolescence among college students. Cash fare payments on buses are an obstacle for a student body used to paying for everything with their student ID card or through online payment apps such as Venmo. With generous funding support from the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship and the Wesleyan Green Fund, I was able to test distributing day passes for the bus from the Usdan Box Office, which accepts student ID, credit card, and cash. For an entire week, free bus passes were distributed through the box office to test student demand and behavior. The passes quickly kept running out, and by the end of the week over 55 day bus passes were distributed through the box office — a surprising amount given the previous lack of awareness of the bus system.

During the distribution trial I also ran a public awareness campaign of the routes and bus passes. Throughout the week, the local and regional destination maps were posted around campus along with posters advertising the free bus passes. Thanks to supportive University deans, the maps and promotional posters were also emailed out to all 2,800 students on campus. The Usdan Box Office worked well as a distributor of the day bus passes, and the full-time sale of day passes will be launched by the Fall 2017 semester. In the near future, month and semester bus passes can be sold at the Box Office as well, but the terms of those need to be negotiated with Middletown Area Transit and CT Transit. An alternative to handing out passes that would enhance ease of use would be to sell semester transit passes as stickers than can be put on ID cards, which is done at many other universities. To further support the program, the university could also give discounts to semester pass holders for Wesleyan-run transportation options, such as the weekly shuttles to New Haven and the school break shuttles to Bradley Airport and New York. I’m working with students who will be at Wesleyan next year to launch the day bus pass distribution and get started working on the more complicated bus pass options.

Student IDs from other Universities that sell transit pass stickers.

First Time User Experience in a Constantly Changing Community

Also important is improving the experience for first time riders of Middletown Area Transit or buses in general. The aforementioned improvements will help students plan trips, pay for the bus, and decide where they want to go, but these initiatives will only do so much to encourage potential riders to try the buses. This is especially important at colleges because of the constant arrival of new students every year. To address first time users I worked on creating two bus stops on campus and an orientation program proposal for Fall 2017.

Creating two stops on campus with signage and Google Map markers will make the bus system more in line with what students are familiar with using, provide publicity for the buses, and create a better first time experience. Currently, Middletown Area Transit runs on a flag-based system where riders stand anywhere along the route and wave at the buses to stop. However, there are exceptions in the current system, such as the downtown terminal and Middlesex Community College, where there are signs and bus shelters. At Wesleyan, this model could also work well. After looking at pedestrian traffic research that outside consultants did for Wesleyan and personally working with focus groups, I proposed a stop at Wes Shop that serves the C-Route Bus line and a stop at Fisk Hall that serves the C-Route Bus and M-Link Bus lines. These stops are also both near the Usdan Student Center where bus passes will be able to be purchased with student card. As with any small change at a large institution, I had to meet with several school departments and the transit agency to get approval for these stop locations. Thanks to another grant from the Wesleyan Green Fund, I was able to get funding for the bus stop signage installation and poles. The stops will be constructed sometime in the next one to two weeks.

The best way to learn how to use the bus is to take it. Creating an orientation activity where residential assistants take their residents to Middletown Plaza (where there’s a Starbucks, Price Chopper Supermarket, the Athenian Diner, and more) will help all incoming students to be comfortable with the bus system. I’m also working on a proposal for a one-month free ride program for students where the university would pay the transit agency a lump sum for the month of September and anyone with a current Wesleyan ID can hop on the bus. After the trial period, the day and month passes would be sold at the Usdan Box Office, which would allow the market for the passes to be larger, as more students will be comfortable using the bus system. The school will save money in the long run because they will not have to run shuttles to Middletown Plaza on Sundays, an extremely limited program (one round trip shuttle each Sunday) that is the result of students not knowing how to take the hourly buses.

Me riding the M-Link on the way to Meriden Rail Station.

Improving transit equity and ease of use of public transportation does not stop with the changes worked on this semester, and there are many future challenges for making transportation as easy and time-efficient as car-ownership. In making non-car options easier to use, I hope that future efforts can now focus on improving hours of operation, frequency, and other more structural issues with the non-car options for students at Wesleyan. Wesleyan transportation, for instance, could work on supplementing public transportation by running a bus-like service that goes to popular destinations off campus after Middletown Area Transit bus service ends at 6PM. Or during particular times that are popular such as Thursdays or Fridays, Wesleyan transportation could help add frequency to the public bus routes that are popular with students. These are just a few potential projects for the future, and I’m looking forward to seeing what students do next in making transportation more equitable in our community.