City residents call for permanent free buses
After enjoying free public transport for the past seven months, New Haveners and alders spoke in support of permanently eliminating bus fares.
Neehaar Gandhi, Senior Photographer
Following months of free rides, New Haven’s elected officials and bus riders are advocating for fare-free buses to become a permanent state fixture.
The state of Connecticut first introduced the suspension of bus fares in April 2022, hoping to make public transportation more affordable for residents amid rising gas prices and inflation. As bus ridership across the state increased to exceed pre-pandemic levels over the next few months, Gov. Ned Lamont announced in May that the state would extend the free fare program until Dec. 1.
As the program approaches expiration, though, New Haven’s residents have raised calls to make bus rides across the state permanently free, citing issues of economic equity, accessibility and environmentalism. After dozens of New Haven residents publicly testified in support of fixed free fares at a committee meeting and in writing, the Board of Alders City Services and Environmental Policy committee unanimously approved a resolution encouraging the state to adopt such policies on Nov. 3.
“Personally, my rent has gone up $400. … Myself and many others, I’m sure, have basically during this time, barely — during the time when buses were free — adjusted to this inflation,” said New Haven worker Dan Bevacqua at the meeting. “I was barely able to make ends meet. I feel like it’s going to be difficult for many to conceive of making ends meet with another expense on top of the present economy.”
After speaking with his constituents, who voiced strong support for free bus transport, Ward 7 Alder Eli Sabin ’22 presented the resolution at the Nov. 3 meeting for committee review. He first submitted the resolution to the board in April, immediately after the state announced the new temporary policy.
Before the other alders, Sabin testified that New Haven bus usage rose 12 percent between August 2019 and August 2022. He said the free fares brought economic relief to those with transportation needs, encouraging more residents to ride the bus in their daily lives.
“It’s had a really big impact — not just in terms of ridership, but also in terms of dollars and cents,” Sabin said. “If you work five days a week, 52 weeks a year, then you’re paying $3.50 for a bus ride to work and a bus ride home. That’s almost a thousand dollars — over 900 bucks per year you’re spending if you take the bus — and that’s not counting other trips you might take to the grocery store, to get around town, to see family and friends.”
One resident, Joe Fine, remarked that New Haven has some of the “worst, biggest disparities between wealth and poverty” of any city in the state, making affordable transportation an effective way to address the needs of the poor. The 2020 U.S. Census reported that while Connecticut’s poverty rate stands at 10.1 percent, 25.2 percent of New Haven residents live in poverty. The city’s working class, according to Sabin and the dozens of residents who spoke up, have benefited greatly from free rides in the face of record inflation rates and high costs of living.
“Free transportation is a way to fight homelessness, unemployment and increase access to healthcare and other life-saving services,” noted Eric Goodman, a member of the Local 777 union and organizer with the New Haven Socialist Revolution. “This is a bandaid for the problems inherent in capitalist systems, but an important one.”
Beyond the topic of economic equity, many speakers portrayed the issue of free buses as one of accessibility for those with disabilities and other medical problems. Lorena Mitchell, coordinator for the city’s Community Mental Health Initiatives, emphasized that in the city, nearly half of those who are “transportation insecure” have missed a medical appointment due to a lack of transportation access.
According to the CTtransit website, all buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts and ramps, and they accommodate most types of mobility devices, including wheelchairs and walkers. Resident William Long, who uses a wheelchair, additionally brought attention to the economic hurdles many disabled people face when buses charge for rides.
“From my standpoint being disabled, a lot of disabled people can’t afford even the 85 cents they charge,” Long said. “They have to go to the doctor’s. They have to go to the grocery store. They are trying to be independent, but it’s a very difficult thing.”
In promoting public transportation over automobile use, a permanent free bus program would also entail positive environmental impacts, according to some who spoke at the Nov. 3 meeting. Alice Sara Prael, an archivist at the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, stated that free public buses would help address the city’s climate impact and represent a commitment to sustainability.
Several other residents reflected on the relationship between buses and the city’s environmental conditions through email statements sent to the committee, including Kiana Flores ’25. Writing on behalf of the New Haven Climate Movement, Flores stressed that transportation is both the city and state’s top source of carbon emissions, making the free bus program “essential” to New Haven’s goal of becoming a carbon-zero city by 2030. Others tied the rise in emissions brought by automobile use to public health problems.
“That means reduced traffic and emissions during a climate crisis,” resident Adam Callaghan wrote of the free bus policy. “That means cleaner air in neighborhoods where the rates of asthma and pollution are higher because of the harms of private car dependency.”
Mayor Justin Elicker has lent his full approval to fare-free buses at the state level, making several social media posts championing the policy throughout the past year. Len Speiller, the city’s director of communications, confirmed Elicker’s support.
“The Mayor, who takes CT Transit buses to commute to and from City Hall from time-time, is in full support — and, in fact, called to make free fares permanent several weeks ago,” Speiller wrote to the News.
The committee, after voting in support of the resolution, sent it to the full Board of Alders for review. At the full board’s Nov. 10 meeting, the item received acknowledgement, but a full vote will remain pending. Meanwhile, Gov. Ned Lamont has not commented on the prospect of making the free bus program permanent across the state after Dec. 1.
As of 2019, about 29 percent of families and households in New Haven have no personal vehicles.