Sustainability hits the streets

As Yale’s first-ever director of sustainable transportation, Holly Parker says her role is to offer more transportation options — or, as she puts it, “lots of tasty vegetables.”

“It’s like you’re telling people to ‘Eat your vegetables’ — carpool, ride a bike,” she said. “[But] people get tired of being reminded. What you have to do is give them lots and lots of tasty vegetables to choose from. Then, it’s not ‘You can’t drive anymore.’ It’s ‘Try this, it’s delicious.’”

The creation of a sustainable transportation director last April is one of the latest developments in Yale’s ongoing sustainability efforts, which have affected its dining halls, dormitory rooms and now — more than ever — New Haven’s roads. Edging the University closer to the city government, Yale’s latest forays into transportation planning have drawn both criticism and praise from community members, who all agreed that Yale plays an important role in keeping the city green.

“For smart growth to really happen, there needs to be a concerted interest … in making New Haven as desirable a place to work and to live as possible,” New Haven resident Heidi Green said. “And Yale’s not moving anywhere, so the stronger a player in the smart growth dialogue Yale becomes, then the more likely it is that smart growth will happen.”

Green’s organization is a statewide group dedicated to promoting urban planning that will benefit the environment.

Parker, who worked at Harvard for six years on its transportation program before coming to Yale last spring, said in addition to coordinating transportation reform initiatives between Yale and the city, she will be promoting an ever-growing list of sustainable transportation options to the Yale community.

“Part of the goal in hiring Holly was to work more closely with the city of New Haven in our transportation infrastructure and figure out how we can improve the modes of transportation, [since] the effect of cars on Yale and the city of New Haven honestly is one and the same,” said Bob Ferretti, the education and outreach manager of Yale’s Office of Sustainability.

Town-gown collaboration

Twelve days ago, the University introduced Zipcar, a self-service car program which will provide six cars for the Yale community to share. About 50 people per car — or 300 people total — can sign up for Zipcar membership at Yale, and as of yesterday, 149 students and 57 faculty members had registered, Parker said.

The development has city government officials buzzing. Michael Piscitelli, the city’s Department of Transportation Traffic & Parking director, said Yale’s partnership with Zipcar has given the New Haven community an opportunity to consider car-sharing programs that also happen to align with residents’ sustainability interests.

“By aggressively sharing the Zipcar program in the community [Yale is laying] the groundwork to bring the car-sharing program into the community as a whole,” Piscitelli said. “We’re hearing a lot of interest in bringing more car-sharing programs, bike pedestrian access. There’s a real push to be a more sustainable community.”

The University is also working with Piscitelli to redesign the city trolley’s route so that the trolley can be used by more residents as well as students in order to get around the city, particularly to Union Station, Parker said.

Although support for sustainability exists in the community, Parker said she would like to see a larger “culture of public transportation” in New Haven. Due to the city’s urban design, she said, many citizens are habitually disinclined to use public facilities, whereas citizens in Cambridge, Mass., for example, are far more willing to forego cars because the everyday subway encourages them to use other forms of transit, she said.

“Is New Haven a pedestrian-friendly environment?” she said. “They built [the] 91 and 95 [highways] to cut off the ocean, and they even built a lot of these major thruways like Church and Whitney. The major arterials of the city are built to get people out of the city quickly. It was designed for cars, and that’s one of the challenges [to sustainability].”

A serious push for sustainability?

But New Haven Environmental Justice Network Chair Lynne Bonnett said Yale itself may be hindering New Haven’s path to sound transportation planning. Yale’s latest efforts to increase its environmental friendliness are an improvement, she said, but to make a positive difference the University still has a long way to go, and it cannot go it alone.

The University needs to be more involved and engaged with regional organizations and less isolated from the community, Bonnett said. Instead of restricting Yale shuttles to Yale students, the University should combine forces with the other nearby schools to establish routes serving all New Haven students, she said.

“Why isn’t Yale working with the regional council of government, which is analogous to a county government?” Bonnett said. “They could help bring schools together … so that we’re not all using different shuttles and there could be something like a U[niversal] Pass system.”

Parker said the University is in conversations with CT Transit to provide a “Universal Pass” system for Elis so that after individual students or the University pays a fee at the beginning of the year to CT Transit, Yale IDs can be recognized on their bus lines.

Residents are also carefully watching over Yale’s upcoming projects, such as the in-the-works Yale-New Haven Cancer Center and the University’s recent purchase of the 137-acre Bayer HealthCare campus in West Haven.

Pointing to “Lot E,” a lot slated to serve as a parking garage for the cancer center, Bonnett said abandoning plans for the parking structure would represent an actual commitment to sustainability on the part of the University. Citizens in the surrounding Dwight and West River neighborhoods do not want more cars polluting the area and endangering pedestrians, but the University is going ahead with plans to construct a parking lot it does not need, she said.

The NHEJN and the New Haven Urban Design League have asked the city to implement Parking and Traffic Demand Management, which includes measures that would conserve land, promote public transportation and reduce traffic and pollution, but Bonnett said she is doubtful of Lot E’s ability to fulfill the goals of PTDM.

“I think they are trying to do it but they don’t really believe in it,” Bonnett said, referring to Yale’s efforts to increase sustainability. “It’s not consistent for them to keep asking for so much more parking if they truly demand that the traffic demand management is going to work. They’re planning for parking as if traffic demand management is not going to work.”

According to the Yale-New Haven Hospital Community Investment Program’s Web site, its traffic and transportation initiatives for the cancer center include subsidizing “mass transit options for its employees and … approximately 50 percent of all parking fees for employees.” As for Lot E, the Web site reads: “Several organizations suggested Lot E as the preferred location for a parking garage to support the Cancer Center as a way to minimize impact on the community.”

Green, who is also the president of 1000 Friends of Connecticut, an organization that advocates at the state level for sustainable community planning, said last week’s purchase of the Bayer complex in West Haven is commendable because the University is reusing an existing building. But the site could potentially pose problems in the future since it is currently not accessible by mass transit; a new train station, if built, could ameliorate the problem, Green said.

“There’s a move at the state level to build a new train station in West Haven,” she said, “and if the station were sited near the former Bayer site, that would make it a piece of transit-oriented development and that would be good for the New Haven region.”

In the wake of Yale’s purchase of the Bayer parcel, Yale is also now in a position to promote inter-town cooperation, which is critical to smart growth policies, Green said. Because municipalities qualify for state tax revenue based on the amount of taxable property they have, she said, towns usually compete with each other, rather than work collectively, to draw in property-buyers.

“If the region were thinking and acting cooperatively to encourage sustainable development, then West Haven and New Haven would bridge and towns would be working together to focus development in instead of competing to pull development out,” Green said.

Top-down and bottom-up advocacy

The city and Yale will meet together Oct. 9 to consider creating official Yale shuttle bus stops, which will include bus stop signs as well, Parker said. The issue is tricky, she said, because to create bus stops the city must remove parking spots and consider the impact a stopped bus has on traffic.

Currently, Yale shuttles going up Prospect Street cannot stop for long periods of time, Parker said. Forced to keep up with the traffic flow, the shuttles have difficulty controlling their timing and can miss students who get out just a little late.

Yale shuttles recently added bicycle racks to their front sides, and Parker said the University is also looking to provide plasma GPS screens at designated locations for students who would like to see where the Yale shuttles are. The Medical School and Bass Hall, located on Science Hill, both have screens already.

But Yale can only improve the environment insofar as New Haven can; car-sharing may help, but cars themselves still contribute to carbon emissions, Green said. For long-term sustainability to succeed — through means such as green building techniques — municipalities such as New Haven need state funding, which Green said Yale can and should push for.

“One thing that Yale could certainly do is advocate for a more progressive tax structure that picks up more municipal costs at the state level than at the municipal level,” she said. “The state of Connecticut is supposed to pay cities and towns for the money that they lose for hosting these really valuable services, but the state has failed to meet its obligation.”

The stronger a proponent for smart growth that Yale becomes, the more the community and Yale benefit, Green said. From an institutional perspective, Parker said, structural changes in Yale’s buildings and nearby roads cannot happen unless calls for reform happen from the ground-up. But ascertaining these demands can become a chicken-and-egg chase, she said.

“It’s also hard to get changes done unless you have people who want them. But maybe they’re not demanding them because they don’t think they’re feasible,” Parker said. “How can you detect the demand of bicycle lanes, when you don’t have a lot of bicyclists because there aren’t bicycle lanes? What if a lot of people aren’t bicycle advocates because there aren’t any bicycle lanes to ride on in the first place?”

As Yale’s new sustainable transportation director, Parker said she has the opportunity to build such interests by promoting communication between Yale Parking & Transit and the student and faculty population.

“Yale grows by 2.13 percent per year in terms of population, and students turn over every four years and grad students [every] two years,” she said. “So it’s always very important to do the communication, because there’s always a new community.”

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