Community activists and New Haven residents came together Tuesday night to discuss a topic that has found a renewed relevance in urban politics: racial and socioeconomic inequities in mass transit.
The panel discussion, held at BAR Restaurant, drew roughly 100 people and featured community leaders and civic activists, including state Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass ’82 and Anstress Farwell GRD ’78, the president of the New Haven Urban Design League — an independent planning and zoning organization. Recent developments in New Haven’s bus and bicycle networks were a main point of discussion, with panelists arguing that urban policy should aim to create equal access to mass transit opportunities for all city residents while reducing the city’s dependence on car ownership.
“How do I get there if I don’t have a car? Is the bus going to be running late?” asked Winfield, posing questions that he said occur to his constituents on a daily basis as they commute to their jobs. “There’s a lot that we should have done, but the conversation needs to be about, ‘What do we do now about these people?’”
Farwell agreed, adding that city and state authorities should seek to make businesses and workplaces easily accessible through mass-transit systems so that employees do not have to depend on cars.
Bass, who moderated the discussion, asked the panelists about the prospect of merging Yale’s bus system with the city’s CT Transit system. Director of Transportation, Traffic and Parking Doug Hausladen ’04 said the city is currently working to combine the two systems. But he said any merger is still in the works
Hausladen said the question that motivates discussions in city government is about how New Haven can provide the same services in a public bus system as Yale does in its private system.
The city’s current dual-bus system, Farwell said, is a classic example of “separate but unequal”: certain residents — especially on the city’s west side — have access to lower-quality transportation options than other residents do.
The city’s burgeoning system of bike lanes provided a focal point for the discussion.
Bike lane systems — which are prominent in millennial-friendly cities like Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. — have grown in New Haven throughout Hausladen’s tenure at the helm of the Department of Transportation, Traffic and Parking. In fact, the city put out a request for proposals for a bike-sharing network throughout the Elm City just a week ago.
Still, bike lanes have remained a controversial issue in the city. Bass suggested that most bike lanes, which are not separated from the rest of the road, may not have had the intended positive effect on bike usage in the city.
Winfield, meanwhile, said bike lanes fully separated from the street — which Hausladen recently championed — may hold more promise.
“A couple of years ago, I was running for an office in the city, and I was asked a question about separated bike lanes and I thought they made a lot of sense to me,” he said. “If we’re thinking about safety, I think a physical barrier does a lot for the safety of the people who are in that lane.”
Farwell noted that though bike lanes are plentiful in East Rock and Downtown, majority-minority neighborhoods like the Hill, Newhallville and Fair Haven have sparser networks.
Caroline Smith ’14, co-organizer of New Haven Bike Month, agreed with Farwell.
“One thing we’ve really, really heard is that there are lots of neighborhoods that don’t get a lot of attention from the major biking communities,” she said.
The inclusiveness of the biking community’s discussions was a major point for panelists. Bass — who noted that New Haven has the highest rate of people biking to work of any other city in New England — added that biking is most common in white and wealthier neighborhoods.
Winfield, whose state senate district covers half of New Haven, said conversations about biking and alternative transportation often fail to reach residents from a diverse racial and socioeconomic background. Seila Mosquera, a panelist and executive director of NeighborWorks New Haven, said activists should reach out to a broader spectrum of residents, suggesting they teach students in public schools how to bike.
Near the end of the discussion, Hausladen said the city’s plans envision a transformation of transportation over the next two decades. He said he believes mass car ownership will only last for five or 10 years before being replaced by widespread mass transit options.
Data compiled by DataHaven — a New Haven-based data analytics nonprofit — show that 4 percent of city residents commute to work by bike.