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Carpooling, Shuttles, Bikes Are New Way to Commute in a $4 a Gallon World

June 15, 2008

By Mary E. O’Leary, New Haven Register, Conn.

Jun. 15–It might accurately be called the “party bus.”

New friends on the Yale-New Haven Hospital Shoreline shuttle celebrate each other’s birthdays with early morning coffee and cheesecake, there is always some treat around the holidays and most greet each other with a joke as they settle down for the trip to work.

The 6:20 a.m. ride, which begins in Guilford and makes stops in Branford and East Haven, is attracting more workers as word of the free service gets around the hospital.

Paula Burns, who works in informations systems at Y-NH, said the recent gas hike and traffic congestion on Interstate 95 pushed her to try the shuttle this summer.

With gas prices in Connecticut averaging $4.36 a gallon as of Friday, and more Americans conscious of reducing their “carbon footprint,” workers and their bosses are looking for ways to get people to carpool or, even better, convince them to leave their vehicles home.

Two years ago, Lillian Quevedo, who is a blood lab employee at the hospital, often was the lone passenger on the shuttle trip from Guilford. Now, 15 people on average, and sometimes more, ride the 24-seat van, which makes the run four times in the morning and again in the afternoon for the return trip.

“That’s 15 cars less on the road and it does make a difference,” said Burns. “It’s a nice transition to work. You can relax in the morning,” she added, although sometimes she clears her e-mails and phone messages to get a jump on her day.

North of the city, Kathleen Schomaker, 58, arrives at her office at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, after bicycling in from Hamden.

“In the nice weather, it is sort of a no-brainer to hop on the bike and come in,” she said Friday.

Schomaker, who also represents the 5th District on the Hamden legislative council, said she only drives her car to work a few times a year, opting for a combination of biking, walking, carpooling and buses to get to her office.

As the largest employers in New Haven, Yale University and more recently, Yale-New Haven Hospital, offer a number of incentives to help workers make more cost-efficient, healthful and “green” decisions about transportation.

And these two employers are not alone.

Rideworks, which covers the entire state, and is funded by the state Department of Transportation to promote ride sharing and public transportation, has seen a 17.5 percent jump in ridership on the Shoreline East train from April 2007 to April 2008; overall inquiries for car pooling and van pooling in the same time period are up 35 percent, according to Director Jean Stimolo.

NuRide, an online service that also matches riders and offers points for discounts on goods and services provided by sponsors, has seen “a huge increase in activity in the last four to six weeks,” as gas prices have skyrocketed, according to account executive Lisa Sattler-Biesak.

Holly Parker, director of Sustainable Transportation Systems at Yale, said in a survey taken last November, she found that 44 percent of faculty, staff and graduate students, over 10,000 workers, drive alone to reach the Yale campus.

But this means that more than half already, even without the added incentive of rising gas costs, were walking (23 percent), taking public transportation (19 percent), sharing a ride (6 percent), bicycling (5 percent) or telecommuting (3 percent.) She is eager to compare figures from the second survey set for the fall.

Across town, at Yale-New Haven Hospital, Steve Merz, vice president for administration, said the hospital has been providing shuttles from the train stations for a number of years. It also started the popular multiplepickup commuter shuttles along Interstate 95 north to Guilford in 2006, as well as along some of the I-95 south corridor. In the fall, Y-NH will set up a shuttle schedule for Interstate 91.

The zero cost to the employees for this service, as well as the 50 percent discount on trains and buses up to $45 a month makes them popular options, Merz said.

A transportation strategy for the 7,500 workers at Y-NH was part of the agreement reached by the city and the hospital when the new Smilow Cancer Center was approved in 2006.

Added to that, in the fairly compact medical area to the west of the Route 34 connector, are 3,000 more workers affiliated with the Yale Medical School.

Merz said they set a goal of 1 percent participation by 2007, but they reached 3 percent and expect that to keep growing.

Its shuttle system to surface parking lots, from the train stations and now off commuter lots, in addition to rental payments to the city’s parking authority, cost the hospital about $7 million a year, Merz said.

That investment however, “just makes perfect sense,” Merz said. “It reduces traffic, it reduces pollution, it saves on employees costs and it avoids us having to build garages where we don’t need them.”

At $100,000 per space for underground garages and $44,000 per space for above ground facilities, they are expensive investments, Parker said.

The hospital and the university realized they had to go one step further to entice people to stop traveling alone, although that is complicated by medical personnel on changing, late shifts.

At Yale, architect Jo Cohen, health services manager Lynne Borsa and sustainability office project manager Keri Enright-Kato, get a 75 percent reduction on monthly parking costs since they started to travel together from West Hartford.

They have developed new friendships and save on gas, but the deciding factor was the flexibility of the system. If any of the three has an emergency and has to get home early, Yale will reimburse a cab ride home. Also, they each have three free parking passes a month to use in the event they have to drive in, rather than carpool.

“We recognize that people’s lives are complicated. We were trying to remove as many barriers (to carpooling) as we could,” Parker said.

Mary Lou Gargiulo, who takes the Y-NH Shoreline shuttle, said in an emergency, someone from the hospital will bring you back to your car in the DOT commuter lot so you can get home.

Merz doesn’t know the number of workers who bike to Y-NH, “but that would be a key thing to work on in the future.” They do have more than 200 bike racks around the medical area, while the new Howe Street garage to accommodate the cancer center will have bike racks.

At the university, Parker said she wants to work bike safety into orientation for new workers and sees increasing interest in this mode of transportation.

The university just purchased 10 bicycles that 10 departments will have available for intra-campus travel and already other departments are on a wait list for bikes.

More than 200 people showed up at a recent bicycle breakfast on the campus and twice as many came to a workshop on commuting to work by bike.

Parker, who came here last year from Harvard, where she performed essentially the same job for six years, has developed a map that shows a one-mile radius around the campus, which takes 15 minutes to walk.

A three-mile radius extends half-way up West Rock Park on one side, to the New Haven Country Club to the north, Alling Memorial Golf Course on the east and Morris Park in West Haven.

“If you live anywhere within this area, it’s a 15-minute bike ride,” said Parker, who sees this as part of the solution to the high cost of driving and parking.

She would like to see more people on bicycles as a way to build up advocacy for improvements to make this form of travel safer.

Parker and Merz meet regularly with Michael Piscitelli, the city’s director of parking, transportation and traffic, on the issue and discuss, among other things, traffic calming methods and striping bike lanes.

Parker has another graphic that helps her focus on where changes in people’s behavior might occur.

She has plotted the 1,892 workers in Greater New Haven towns with public transportation, who drive to work and pay for parking. Despite an extensive bus network, 915 employees from Hamden drive to work, while 360 come from Branford, which is a 15-minute Shoreline East ride, and 330 are driving from Guilford.

More than 100 cyclists showed up Friday at a Bike to Work event sponsored by Elm City Cycling, an influential grassroots group that is working on safety and development issues to make New Haven more walkable and accessible for bicyclists.

“I just think this is critical for the long term prosperity of our city,” said Mark Abraham, a member of the group and a planner by training.

Probably the most ambitious rider at Friday’s event was Alienne Morrione of Bridgeport who bicycles 30 minutes from her home to the Metro-North train there. After the 25-minute trip to New Haven, she cycles to the Yale Medical School, where she works in the brain tumor center.

Morrione, 31, a dedicated rider, has sometimes been blocked from peak-travel times on Metro-North, so she cycles almost two hours between the cities.

“As a single mom, it’s the greatest way to save money,” Morrione said as she pedaled away to work.

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