January 29, 2022

COMMUTING IN A WHEELCHAIR

You think you have a bad commute?  Try doing Maclean Sarr’s hour and a half trip each way… in a wheelchair.

Unable to walk since contracting cerebral palsy as an infant, the 22-year-old Sarr is now a student at Gateway Community College in New Haven but lives in Westbrook.  That means a 28-mile trip each way, in his motorized wheelchair, in a bus, a train and another bus.

Sarr lives within “walking distance” of the Westbrook station serving Shore Line East trains, but there are no sidewalks and too much traffic, so the Nine Towns Transit bus is his best option.  Arriving at the “beautiful new (train) station” he drives his chair up a ramp and positions himself for the rear car of the train where his chair can be accommodated.

But last Monday when the train arrived, nobody could find the metal bridge plate to cover the six-inch gap between the platform and the railcar.  So the train left without him.  That’s when he went to Twitter.


I saw his cry for help and forwarded it to the right folks at CDOT who immediately contacted Amtrak (which operates Shore Line East trains) and addressed the issue.  Thank you, CDOT!  

But this incident got me thinking of what it must be like to commute without being able to walk.  Chatting with Maclean, I found him to be smart, articulate and in no way bitter about his lot in life.

“It’s like an adventure every day,” he told me. “I don’t get out much, being something of a homebody,” so studying at Gateway is obviously the high point of his day.

Maclean travels alone without the assistance of an aide, juggling books and a laptop on his 500 pound motorized wheelchair.  He doesn’t describe himself as handicapped and certainly not disabled, just “wheelchair bound”.

Bad weather is a challenge especially on icy surfaces. “I feel safe,” he says. “It just means you have to take extra time.”  Heavy rain is more of a hassle as he can’t carry an umbrella but has to keep his chair’s joystick controls dry.

The reason Maclean and almost 3 million other wheelchair users in this country can get around is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which became law in 1990 and turned transportation into a civil right.  Any transit agency accepting Federal money to buy trains or buses must make them accessible.

“It’s hard enough to find a job let alone get there,” says Doug Holcomb of Greater Bridgeport Transit.  “So many of these people have nobody to help them.  Our paratransit service even takes people to the hospital.”

Organizations like The Kennedy Center in Trumbull offer free “travel training” courses for clients with all kinds of mobility challenges, from the physical (like being blind or unable to walk) to the emotional (phobias or inability to read a timetable).  The mobility their clients have achieved has changed their lives.

How can we help a fellow commuter we might come across, someone who is blind, in a wheelchair or otherwise physically challenged?

“Ask first,” says Maclean.   “Other commuters are very nice,” he says. “But they think they’re helping me when they may actually be getting in the way”.

Even if those in need decline your help, chat them up.  You’ll enjoy getting to know your fellow commuters.

 


Photos courtesy of https://highhopestr.org/


January 23, 2022

A TALE OF TWO... TRAINS

When I read two very different news stories about our trains last week, Charles Dickens came to mind:  

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” – A Tale of Two Cities

Oh, it’s our winter of our despair, alright, especially for Metro-North when the NY Times last Friday so cogently summarized the commuter line’s near-term future as being “Devastated by Remote Work”, almost verbatim repeating my predictions of one year ago:  commuters are not coming back.

Late in 2021 the weekday ridership on Metro-North peaked at about 50% of pre-COVID numbers but has now slid back to about 37%.  Sure, you can blame Omicron, but the shift is so much more fundamental:  the very nature of work is now different and always will be:  there’s no longer a need to go to work to do your work.

Former daily commuters told the Times they don’t miss their daily three-hour ride or their $500 monthly tickets.  Many have even closed their NYC offices for good and say they are reveling in saving time and money.

The railroad claims it’s “incentivizing” hybrid commuters to come back to the city by offering lower, more flexible fares.  But listen to commuters and they say it’s less the cost of the ride than its slow speed (and lack of mask-wearing enforcement) that’s keeping them home; so if they must go into the city a few days a week, they do so by car.

As the Times reported, Metro-North’s parent, MTA, took in $346 million from commuters in 2019.  In 2021 that was down to $49 million.  Pre-COVID the railroad was losing money when trains were standing room only.  With ridership cut by two-thirds, what happens when Federal bailout money dries up?

The worst of times, the winter of despair, indeed.

But what then was the love-fest that broke the darkness on Friday afternoon in New Haven’s Union Station?  What drew the media to hear Elm City Mayor Elicker, US Senators Blumenthal and Murphy, CDOT Commissioner Guilietti and Governor Lamont who all juggled their calendars to all talk trains?  Why, a visit of Amtrak’s new CEO Stephen Gardner, just three days into his new job!

The media event was a rail advocate’s fantasy with all the talk of faster, more frequent service facilitated by huge Federal investments in bridges and track.  The pols were falling and fawning over each other seeing who could promise more.

Ironically there was no “news” at this news conference, just a reprise of promises with no improvements yet to point to.

But like the cool kids in high school who decided to have a party, some of those less-loved and not as cool were noticeably absent:  anyone from Metro-North or the MTA.

While some who wanted to attend (like pro-rail Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro) but couldn’t be there were noted in their absence, not a word was spoken about Metro-North President Catherine Rinaldi or acting MTA Chair Janno Lieber… the very people Connecticut pays to run our trains.  Why?

Truly, a tale of two railroads in a spring of hope and all-too frigid winter of dark despair.

 

January 16, 2022

TRAVEL ON THE NIGHT TRAIN

In an age of ever-faster trains connecting major cities globally, is there any future for anachronistic night trains with sleeping cars?  Why, yes!

In the old days you used to be able to travel long and relatively short distances on overnight trains, either in coach or a comfy sleeping compartment.  On the New Haven Railroad you could board your train at Grand Central before midnight and awake the next morning in Boston, Cape Cod or Montreal.  It was like combining the cost of travel and a hotel in one package.

Accommodations in the sleeper cars ranged from upper or lower berths to single roomettes and even drawing rooms… in addition to the joys of trying to sleep sitting in a reclining, albeit cheaper, coach seat. 

As a sixteen-year-old growing up in Canada I have fond memories of traveling from Toronto to Vancouver and back on “The Canadian”, the CPR’s famous streamliner replete with sleeping cars, diners and dome cars.  The scenery and comfort could never be beat by flying.

Fast forward to the introduction of Amtrak in 1971 and in the US the overnight trains continued, albeit with less luxurious sleeping options.  At one point Amtrak restored sleeper service on the Boston to Washington “Night Owl” (affectionately called The Night Crawler because of its slow speeds and multiple stops) with an added twist.

A New York “Executive Sleeper” car was added to and from Washington DC, which could be boarded in NYC as early as 9:30 pm.  While you slept the car was coupled to the southbound through train and left trackside in DC’s Union Station until 8 am.


“The Night Owl” service resumed last year from Boston to Washington but minus the NYC sleeper’s pick-up and drop-off.  There was only
one sleeping car and it wasn’t cheap: $284 for a roomette, $376 for a bedroom, one way.  Alas, the Amtrak timetable now says that train has been cancelled for the moment due to COVID, but it may come back.

Of course, long distance Amtrak trains have always depended on sleeping cars given the length of their journey:  New York to Chicago is 19 hours and from The Windy City to LA takes another 43 hours.  Yes, they offer coach seating but sleeping car passengers get “free” meals and access to onboard showers.

But the real growth in overnight trains is, ironically, happening on the continent with some of the world’s fastest trains:  Europe.

There are renewed overnight trains between Berlin and Sweden, Scotland and London and from Vienna to 25 destinations in Italy, Germany and France on the Austrian

Railroad’s “NightJet” fleet.  Accommodations are in brand new railcars with everything from 6-berth couchettes (great for families) to private bedrooms.

So, night trains still make sense, especially using underutilized tracks during the overnight hours.  And given European concerns over global warming, fuel-efficient trains have a great future compared to flying.  In France they’ve even banned short-haul domestic flights where trains offer a much “greener” alternative.

January 08, 2022

FREE PARKING ISN'T REALLY FREE

Our love affair with the automobile depends on one thing:  free parking.  After driving on our “free” highways, we have to park someplace, and we all hate to pay for what’s really a privilege.  It’s as if there’s some constitutional right to free parking.


But free parking is actually expensive and paid for in more than just dollars.

The industry standards setting group known as the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) has defined 266 different types of businesses and has determined the amount of nearby parking they require.  So when your local Planning & Zoning Commission is looking at proposals for, say, a new restaurant, they consult the ITE manuals on what parking would be needed.

Mind you, a fast food joint like a McDonalds will require less parking than, say, a fancy steakhouse, given the number of patrons and how long they stay there dining.  But when it comes to the rules of parking, we’re talking about more than restaurants.

Consider convents.  For whatever reason the ITE’s “bible” says religious convents must have one parking space for every ten nuns or monks in residence.  Hello?  They’re in a religious retreat!  They’re not going anywhere!  Wouldn’t it be smarter for the convent to be able to use its land for better purposes than an empty parking lot, like growing its own food?

Or how about hotels?  Their parking regulations are based on the assumption that they are sold out, something that certainly doesn’t happen very much.  Wouldn’t it be easier for the hotel to make special arrangements on those sold-out nights than have acres of asphalt baking in the sun most of the year?

Drive up the Boston Post Rd and see the bitter fruits of this short-sighted planning.  Thanks to zoning regulations a lot of big-box stores devote 60% of their land to parking and 40% to the stores themselves.  Just think of what that means to how they price things.  Isn’t it any wonder that Amazon can compete on price?

Awhile back I drove through New Britain where I once lived.  I hardly recognized the downtown with its empty stores and sidewalks next to a ten storey parking structure.  They “built it” (the parking), but nobody came. The downtown looks empty.

If you look at the communities with the liveliest downtowns you’ll see people, not cars.  People attract people as they go into shops, walk along and window-shop.  It’s pedestrians we want, not parking lots.

UCLA’s Donald Stroup wrote a great book, “The High Cost of Free Parking”, and made his point with a tale of two cities:

Decades ago both San Francisco and Los Angeles opened new downtown concert halls.  LA’s included a $10 million, six storey parking structure for 2100 cars.  But in San Francisco, they built no additional parking, saving developers millions. 

In LA after a concert the music-lovers scurry to their steel cocoons and drive away.  But after a show in San Francisco, (at least pre-COVID) patrons would  leave the concert and stroll the streets, spending tens of thousands of dollars in nearby bars, restaurants and stores.  Guess which city’s economy has benefited most from its investment in the arts.

The buzzword these days in development circles is TOD, Transit Oriented Development.  By putting stores, mixed use office buildings, housing and amenities near train and bus stops, people will use mass transit to get there instead of their cars.  That doesn’t mean we don’t need parking at train stations.  But even a parking structure can have stores at street level and maybe affordable housing too.

City planners need to remember that human beings come with two legs, not just four tires.  

 

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