September 23, 2021

Pedestrians Rule!

Some big changes are coming for pedestrians and motorists alike starting next week:  a new set of Connecticut laws giving far more power (and, hopefully, safety) to those traveling on foot vs vehicles. 

Long before we had cars (or even horses) and trains, folks took to the roads on foot to get where they were going.  But with motorized transport came the inevitable conflicts.

Why the new laws now?  Because something like 1500 pedestrians and 500+ bike riders get hit by cars each year in this state.  Many towns don’t even have sidewalks and those that do still seem to favor motorists over folks on foot.

Effective October 1st, these are the new rules:

1) At crosswalks, drivers must yield to pedestrians who show intent to cross by extending an arm or moving into the crosswalk.

2) A driver or passenger cannot open a vehicle door in a way that hits or gets in the way of a pedestrian or bicyclist.

Violators could face a $500 fine. They’re not kidding.

The new laws remind us that pedestrians and bicyclists matter.  And while they should exercise caution, too, it’s motorists who will have to start paying more attention as they careen down the roads.

Mind you, these new street crossing laws only affect designated crosswalks, not the mid-block impatience of jaywalkers.  I mean, let’s be reasonable, right?

Of course, it’s all going to take some getting used to here in the “land of steady habits” where motorists have always taken priority.   But it will be like deja vu all over again for me…

I grew up in Toronto where pedestrians were always granted supremacy over cars.  I distinctly remember as a child when the first Pedestrian Crosswalks opened.  They were mid-block and designated by large, illuminated signs and all-too-visible paint on the roadways.

All a walker needed to do was approach the curb at a crosswalk and point in the direction they wanted to cross.  For a kid, that was a lot of power:  a single pointed finger would bring traffic to a halt so you could then safely cross the streets.

Pedestrians had the power, not motorists.

Of course, the drivers all obeyed.  Never once do I remember a car crossing my path as I triumphantly marched to the other side.  I didn’t even need to make eye contact with the drivers or wave franticly “stop, you idiot”.  They just did.  Of course, they were Canadians.

If anything, I might give them a wave or nod.  Pretty cheeky for a 10-year-old kid.

Contrast that willing compliance with Connecticut where drivers regularly cruise through stop signs and run red lights with apparent impunity.  If drivers don’t know and observe these new laws, someone’s going to get seriously hurt, regardless of age or cheek.

September 17, 2021

Commuting Amid the Unmasked

Why is Metro-North shooting itself in the foot?   While adding more trains and encouraging (no, praying!) that commuters will come back to the rails, the railroad is still refusing to make those passengers feel safe by enforcing the Federal and State mask rules.  Sure, they’ve been passing out masks on trains, but what good are they if they’re not worn?

I hate to keep harping on this issue, but we’re talking about a serious public health threat.  Unmasked passengers, even if they’re vaccinated, can be asymptomatic and spread the COVID virus to hundreds of fellow riders in a matter of minutes, let alone the hour-plus ride to NYC in a sealed tube.

Appeals to Metro-North, the MTA, to Governor Lamont and even our federal officials have resulted in no change.  The MTA seems determined to not enforce the mask rules, endangering existing riders and discouraging others from returning.

Weekday ridership is still only 46% of pre-COVID levels and doesn’t seem to be increasing as fast as hoped, what with the delta variant keeping many offices closed and those who are commuting only doing so a couple of days a week.  Heavy traffic on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway hint that many still prefer to drive to the city rather than take the train, if they have to commute at all.

Nick, an IT professional who used to commute from Stamford, posted on Twitter:

“I got a new job which is 100% remote so between train pass, station parking and gas I just pocketed $5000.  Commuting is so 1990’s”

But many don’t have a work-from-home option, like oncology nurse Casey (who asked me to hide her identity).  She rides daily from Norwalk to Manhattan and, working in healthcare, is frightened by what she sees.

I have been riding the train through the first wave of the pandemic when I first noticed cars were being closed to group passengers together rather than allow them to spread out.  Despite multiple tweets, online complaints, and calls to Metro North my concerns were never addressed.” she told me. 

Her complaints to conductors and to the railroad directly have brought lip-service.  One recent incident left her upset:

“A passenger refused to wear his mask after being asked to put it on by me and another rider.  He stated that he had been eating and that it was outrageous to even ask him to wear a mask while eating.  The conductor agreed with him stating that he could put on his mask after he was finished eating.  Mind you, at no point did I see the passenger eating and he made no effort put on his mask when arguing with me and the other passenger.  What really disturbed me was the announcement the conductor made following this encounter.  The conductor announced over the loud speaker that “masks are to be worn except when eating and drinking because there is no rule that states you can’t”.  I found the conductor’s announcement unnerving.”

A New Haven attorney finds better mask compliance on some trains more than others:

“I tend to observe more mask compliance on the Hartford Line compared to the New Haven Line. It is frustrating that passengers refuse to comply with the rules, which are implemented for our safety. When passengers refuse to wear a mask, I manage to distance myself such that I feel safe despite the maskless passenger. If the mandate were not in place, I'm sure even fewer passengers would wear masks and it would be more difficult to distance from them.”

But as trains become more crowded, social distancing may become a real problem. And Metro-North says it plans no more changes in its schedule until 2022.

As the MTA reminds us, if we “see something” we should “say something”.  That’s what commuters worried about their safety have been doing.  It’s a shame that nothing seems to be done in response.

September 05, 2021

"Gettin There" - Bus Ridership Returns Slowly

Much has been written about Metro-North’s slow return to “normal” service as commuters ponder a return to their New York City offices.  But what matters as much, if not more, is bus ridership within the state.

Pre-COVID busy systems like GBT (Greater Bridgeport Transit) served as many as 15,000 bus riders in communities from Westport to Milford.  Recent statistics show 10,000 riders per day, about a 33% drop from pre-COVID.

“We reached 10,000+ boardings on some weekdays this past July.  I expect to see that gap partially close as the high schools, universities and colleges resume in-person learning,” says Doug Holcomb, Executive Director of GBT.

CT Transit ridership in Stamford, New Haven and Hartford has equally held up, recently down only 40% compared to Metro-North’s 60% drop.

Why the difference in returning ridership between trains and buses?  Because bus riders are much different than train riders.

Most can’t work from home:  nurses and blue-collar workers can’t telecommute.  And many don’t even have access to cars. (GBT says 90% of all passengers are going to or coming from school or their job.)  If the bus doesn’t keep running to get them to work, they can’t get to class or lose their jobs and go on unemployment. 

Bus riders are also less affluent. Even though bus fares are only $1.75 (closer to $1 for those with discount passes), that daily expense represents a bigger chunk of their weekly pay compared to “gold coast” residents taking the train.  While Metro-North riders enjoy a one-seat ride from their home station to Grand Central, many bus riders must take two or more connecting routes.

In other words, bus service in this state is essential.  It keeps service jobs staffed, our hospitals running and cars serviced.

But what will it take to get even more riders back on the bus?

First, they need to feel safe.  And here the bus companies are doing a much better job than the railroad both in cleaning and in enforcing recently extended federal and state mask-wearing rules.

We have only had one reported incidence of refusal (to wear a mask) that resulted in a driver/rider confrontation. We focused on encouragement and outreach – signage, announcements, newsletters, social media, mask giveaways, persuasion. This seems to have worked as well as anything,” says GBT’s Holcomb. “If there’s a group of people who really know we’re in this together, it’s bus riders.”

To encourage their staff to get their vax, GBT held a lottery with prize money.  Vaccination rates went way up to 70%.  They’re also building service resiliency by keeping the staff healthy and are even hiring new drivers.

As crucial as bus service is, there is a lot of anti-bus prejudice in Connecticut.  I regularly see social media posts complaining about “empty buses” driving our roads, often posted by the same people opposed to highway tolls as being too burdensome for the working class.

When Southington was recently considering restoring bus service for the first time since 1969, a local resident wrote a letter to the local paper declaring “Towns that have bus service are towns that frankly have a lesser quality of people.”

Really?

Forget about community college students who need their U-Pass to bus to class every day.  Or the people who come and clean your home, if you’re so fortunate. Bus riders are what keep the state, literally, moving.

Kudos also to the bus companies’ drivers and technicians who, as Holcomb says “are courageous and dedicated people with a commitment to this community."

Amen.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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