March 30, 2020

"Getting There" - Commuting Amid COVID

I have bad news and good news.

The bad news is we will all, eventually, probably get the COVID-19 virus.  It’s not an issue of “if” but “when”.   Connecticut’s state epidemiologist Dr. Matthew Cartter confirmed Dr. Anthony Fauci’s recent prediction that 70% of the US population will get the virus.

The good news is, for most of us the symptoms will be mild… maybe a fever and a cough.  But we will survive.  For the elderly, those in bad health or compromised immune systems, the risks are much higher.

So what officials are trying to do now is “flatten the curve”… to spread out the cases of infection over time so as to not overwhelm the healthcare system.  The prescription now is “social distancing”:  avoiding crowds.  And the effects of this on commuting are obvious.

As people either self-quarantine or are told to work from home, ridership on Metro-North is down by almost 90%.  Bus ridership in Connecticut is also down.  Even the ferry to Long Island is seeing a dip.  And the usually clogged highways are much less so.

The short term implications of this already include reduced train and bus service. But people who work in auto body shops can’t telecommute.  And neither can health care workers many of whom rely on buses to get to their now-crucial jobs.

For mass transit to keep running the folks who drive those trains and buses need to stay healthy as well.  Transit officials I’ve spoken to says they’ve long had plans in place if workers can’t show up.

So far the social isolation has meant more time with your family and nice walks in the sunshine.  But with schools, libraries, restaurants and the Y all closed, that’s going to get old really fast.  Then what do we do? 

Given that this pandemic will be with us for weeks, maybe months, what happens when we return to commuting and someone on your train coughs?  All the “deep cleaning” on the planet can’t stop airborne transmission of the virus.  Those people with symptoms (fever, dry cough) should be staying home or at least wearing masks, not us healthy riders.  Will people with springtime allergies be perceived as virus victims or vectors?

Longer term the implications are more ominous. The world of “getting there” will be changed forever.

Reduced mass transit ridership means reduced fare collection while fixed operating costs remain high.  Somehow the difference must be made up with fare hikes or fewer trains and buses.

And what if people find they don’t need to commute, that virtual meetings online are as effective and a lot less stressful than the daily commute to an office?  Is that day-trip to Denver really necessary?  How about going overseas?  Do you really want to get stranded in Vienna, however great the pastries?

Anybody for a cruise?  When those ships come back the fares will be ridiculously low… if you’re brave enough to get onboard.

I’m no doctor but I am following orders to stay home.  And though I fully expect to eventually get the virus myself, right now I’m doing what I can to stay healthy and boost my immune system… eating my fruits and veggies and getting as much rest as possible.

So excuse me now while I go wash my hands.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - Going The Green Way

With all the buzz about saving the planet, we’re certainly hypocrites when it comes to “going green” when we travel. 

We’ve banned plastic bags but feel smug as we drive away from the store with our reusable bags in our SUV, getting 20 miles to the gallon.  We pay taxes for school buses, but still chauffeur our kids to school.  We’re in denial and reluctant to change our selfish habits.

Transportation creates one-third of all greenhouse gases in the US.  So if you’re serious about “getting there” and doing it with minimum impact (and cost) to the environment (and your wallet), consider these ideas:

Live Closer To Work:       If we didn’t have to travel an hour to get to and from our jobs, the savings would be immense.  Of course, this assumes we can find affordable housing… another topic altogether.  But if you’re house-shopping, factor in transportation time and expense into the “total cost of ownership”.

Work From Home:           It works during a pandemic, so why not do it during the rest of the year?  You’ll save on harmful engine emissions and money for gas or train fare.

Car Pool:         Even if just occasionally, try sharing the ride to work or the airport.  Check out or, which can help you find someone to share the ride. 

Try A Bike:   For local trips in good weather, the exercise will do you good.  And if you bike to or from the train station you can chuckle as you skip the six-year waiting line for a $400 annual station car parking permit.  Not enough bike racks at the station?  Call town hall and demand they spend that parking money on this simple, green amenity.

Go Electric:    If you must drive, consider an all-electric or hybrid car.  You’ll save 50 -100% on gasoline, create far less pollution and still have room for Fido and the kids.

Take The Bus:    Our region’s bus service is improving and is increasingly popular.  “The Coastal Link” bus from Milford to Norwalk along Rt. 1 runs seven days a week and costs only $1.75 (vs. $4.50 on Metro-North).  And the “I-Bus” from Stamford and Greenwich to White Plains still costs only $3.20.  

Put Your Kids on the School Bus:    Your tax dollars pay for them, so why do so many parents insist on driving their kids to school each morning in “the SUV parade”?  What are we teaching our kids about avoiding mass transit?

Walk:     Health officials say Manhattan dwellers are healthier than their suburban counterparts because they walk so much.  Cars offer convenience, but going to the store for a quart of milk doesn’t have to involve moving two tons of steel.

 Take The Train:   Commuter rail is the most fuel efficient transportation alternative, far better than even the bus.  On longer journeys, an Amtrak Acela uses a third less fuel per passenger than a jetliner and emits 3 times less CO2 .  And by train, you don’t have to take off your shoes (unless you want to) or enjoy a TSA-pat down on your way to the boarding lounge.

If You Must Drive, Plan Your Itinerary:    Don’t just drive roundtrip from home to the store.  Save up errands and plan multiple stops along the way.

Clearly, there are alternatives to the single-occupancy, gas guzzling automobile. What’s your energy-saving transportation tip?  Share it with us and we will include it in a future column.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 21, 2020

"Getting There" - The Bridgeport Hovercraft

A little known part of Connecticut’s transportation history is that there was once a hovercraft service from Bridgeport to New York City.

If you’ve never “flown” on a hovercraft, it’s quite an experience.  The interior of the craft is filled with airline style seats and there’s often even a stewardess serving beverages. 

When it’s ready to depart, giant fans blowing downward, lift the craft onto a bubble of air, captured by a huge rubber skirt, while other fans push the hovering craft forward, guided by air rudders.

Think of an Everglades airboat on steroids, except this one floated above the  surface of Long Island Sound.

In June of 1976 I got to ride on a demonstration “flight” of the “Excalibur”, a $400,000,  51 foot long, 60 passenger hovercraft.  It was a weekend press junket showing off the soon-to-be launched private service built by Bridgeport native Robert Weldon, who founded Hovertransport Inc with family, friends and local investors.

From what I remember about the ride, it was smooth but noisy.  What was really impressive was the speed: about 40 mph. 

Weldon’s services was inspired by a British hovercraft service crossing the English Channel, which ran from 1969 until 2000 using two gigantic craft capable of carry 400+ passengers and 60 cars.  Each of these monsters cost 5 million pounds and could travel at almost 60 mph.

Weldon’s hope was to bring Long Islanders to Bridgeport’s newly opened jai alai fronton while also whisking Connecticut and Long Island commuters down the Sound to a dock at Wall Street.  This was to be the first commercial hovercraft service ever in the US.  The planned 35-minute run would cost $125 a month, a premium over the railroads’ then $80 monthly pass.

Paying passengers boarded the first regularly scheduled “flight” June 26 1976, departing Bridgeport at 6:45 am, enroute to Huntington LI and then New York City.  

On the first day, Huntington officials were miffed when the craft gunned the engines leaving the dock, ignoring the 5 mph harbor speed limit designed to avoid a wake, despite the fact that a hovercraft makes no waves but rides over them.  The Excalibur was regularly ticketed by the local Harbor Patrol.

But by November 1976, ridership had stagnated and service was suspended as passenger loads never exceeded about 30% of capacity, far below a break-even ridership.

Weldon then moved his craft to the Hudson River, launching commuter service from Nyack NY to Wall Street.  After a three-week run that Hudson River service was also halted when only six passengers had signed up.

In December 1976 Weldon suspended service, moving the Excalibur to Miami to dazzle the tourists.

The following year Weldon was running out of money. A 1974 IPO never generated enough investors’ interest.  Also, by early 1977 they’d also lost their docking space in Bridgeport as a waterfront park was under development.

In Spring 1977 the hovercraft was repossessed and Weldon filed for personal bankruptcy and moved on to another job.  He passed away in 1997 at the age of 68.  With him went the dream of commuting by hovercraft.

Why didn’t the hovercraft service work?  As with long-discussed ferry service on Long Island Sound, the problem is the existing competition.  Train service on Metro-North may not be perfect but it’s just as fast, more frequent and reliable in almost all weather.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 12, 2020

"Getting There" - Memoirs of a Metro-North Conductor

Did you ever wonder what it would be like to work for the railroad? 

That’s what Paul Holland did for 39 years, first with Amtrak, later with Conrail and finally as a conductor on Metro-North.  His self-published “My Life As A Rear End” pays tribute to his time in cabooses, but it’s his commuter rail stories that kept me laughing.

Like the colorful crowd from the psychiatric hospital on the Harlem line who’d escape, often in their pajamas, and ride his trains, obviously unable to pay.  Or the many times he was assaulted by knife-wielding thugs only to be rescued by his six foot seven inch cross-dressing frequent rider, “Rocky”.

Over the years Holland collected his stories, often scribbling them on seat-checks. Upon his retirement it took him less than a year to pen his “memoirs”, many of which are far too racy to mention in this column.  Let’s just say that the diminutive conductor was very popular with the ladies.  It must have been the uniform.

Because he truly loved his job, and had three kids bound for college, Holland worked six or seven days a week.  Railroad conductors can work split shifts of up to 16 hours a day, and with his OT Holland averaged about 80 hours a week.

Some passengers would ask him the stupidest questions, like the riders who would congregate in the front car for a fast exit at Grand Central.  A common query:  why can’t you add more cars to the front of the train?

Occasionally Holland would work the last train to depart GCT, the 1 am train making all local stops to New Haven, affectionately known as “The Vomit Comet”.  It was a quiet run, though getting inebriated passengers off at their correct stop was always a challenge.

He also tells the story of the German tourist who had parked his friend’s borrowed car at a remote station, returning late at night to find it had been stripped of all four wheels.  He thought it was the local cops penalizing him for parking without a permit.

Enforcing the rules in The Quiet Car was a thankless job, like the time a passenger kevtched about another rider eating a smelly egg salad sandwich.  Not a violation ruled Holland. 

Or the passenger angry about the woman in the Quiet Car talking, albeit quietly, on her cellphone.  “Tell her to shut the F up,” said the vigilante.  As Holland approached the woman he heard her say “Have a blessed Easter” before hanging up.  Holland returned to the complainant and said “She’s a nun, but I’ll relay your message.”  As he turned to approach the woman again the now-penitent passenger raced after him to say “never mind”.  Holland said “He must have gone to Catholic school.”

Holland insists all his stories are true.  “I have witnesses,” he told me.

Retired and living in New Milford, Holland obviously misses his job and his passengers, some of whom he still keeps in touch with.  He says that over the years passengers have changed.  “These days they don’t seem to show any respect (for authority), especially the kids.”

As “the face of the railroad” Holland says he never minded facing angry passengers, upset about delays.  “I just always told them the truth and treated them the way I’d want to be treated.”

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 05, 2020

"Getting There" - Micro-Transit Alternatives

You can’t beat the convenience of on-demand ride services like Uber and Lyft.  But wouldn’t it be great if a similar ridesharing service was available locally… and for free.

We’re not talking about existing ParaTransit services for the disabled or even senior transport services like At Home in Darien’s driver service.  No, the newest “microtransit” services are much more for the masses.

Just such a service has met tremendous success in Norwalk and is soon to launch in Westport and several other eastern Connecticut towns.

The Norwalk program is called Wheels2U and is run by the Norwalk Transit District using the agency’s paratransit minibus fleet.  You download the app of the same name and when you’re ready to roll, you summon a rideshare.

The service began in the fall of 2018 with about 300 trips per month.  They’re now up to 2200 rides per month.  Available Thursday through Sunday evenings, you can ride anywhere in a three square mile area (about 25% of the city), from the train stations to Merritt Seven, from the old downtown to the new (Washington St.).

So far the service is free though they may convert in April to a flat rate of $2 per passenger per ride with a discount for groups.  Because it’s a ride sharing service you may have to wait anywhere from 10 to 12 minutes for your pickup and a make a few stops before yours, but it’s a lot cheaper than driving or taking a cab.

The service has been so popular they’re testing an expansion to Westport this summer, replacing existing commuter shuttles with an on-demand service to the train stations. Subsidized by the Town, rides would cost $1.75.

The Stonington microtransit service is branded as SEAT HOP and requires the free TransLoc app.  Replacing the current Route 10 bus, SEAT HOP will run from 6:30 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday in the Mystic to Pawcatuck area of the coastal community.

For the first month rides will be free.  After that the fares will be the same as the SEAT bus:  $2 per ride, $1 for seniors and the disabled.  The bus route it replaces had less than 600 riders a month.

In Old Saybrook and Essex, the Estuary Transit District ran a successful test of their Xtramile service last summer, averaging 30 – 40 riders per day, running six days a week.

Ride services are especially popular with young people who don’t want the hassle and cost of car ownership.

While many riders use these services to run errands, others use it for what transit planners call “the last mile”, getting them to and from the train station.

Critics of the low ridership of Metro-North’s branch lines go so far as to suggest that the trains be parked and similar ride-sharing apps take their place for commuters.  

Because of the high fixed costs of running a railroad, the per-rider subsidy on non-mainline trains is pretty high… on the Danbury branch $17, Waterbury $24, Shore Line East $50 and on the new Hartford Line $56.  Cynics suggest it would be cheaper to give each rail rider a microtransit voucher… assuming, of course, there’s room on the roadways for those added vehicles.

Of course it’s also easy to cut those train subsidies:  just increase ridership!  Add more trains, make them faster and more reliable and ridership should increase.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


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