Transit and the Rockview Problem

On Wednesday the New Haven Independent reported on the challenges facing residents at the city’s recent rebuilt Rockview public-housing development who wish to catch a bus into town:

It doesn’t matter if it’s freezing cold, or broiling hot, whether you can walk or have to use a wheelchair. If you want to catch a bus, you have to make your way to the intersection of Wilmot Road and Brookside Avenue, which is nearly a mile away.

“It makes no sense,” she said. “This neighborhood used to have a bus stop.”

That was before the old West Rock housing development was razed and rebuilt with $33 million, reopening with a sparkle in December 2013. Now the residents of this pocket of West Rock have shiny new homes, but still lack one of the all important amenities that officials said they would receive as part of a master plan to revive the area: bus access.

Now people need to walk seven-tenths of a mile uphill to catch a bus, seven-tenths of a mile back up to head home.

To the residents facing a challenging and punishing walk to a local bus stop, the lack of bus service to Rockview seems–appropriately–like an obvious example of poor planning. That the development should re-open for residents without one of the basic components of urban life–transportation options–is indeed an affront to good planning, and, above all, to those residents. But the challenges facing Rockview residents also illustrate a broader issue within the world of planning: how to successfully integrate housing, land use, and transit, and above all how to make transit function in an environment that is fundamentally hostile to its efficient operation.

The walk from Rockview to the nearest bus stop. Exhibited line is 4/19 of a mile; other homes not shown on satellite imagery are further.

The walk from Rockview to the nearest bus stop. Exhibited path is 4/10 of a mile; other homes not shown on satellite imagery are further.

The defining characteristic of Rockview–and its neighboring developments, Brookside and Westville Manor–is their isolation. Adam Wolkoff wrote of the area’s remoteness in his excellent Connecticut History article (and Columbia University senior thesis) on the developments, “Creating a Suburban Ghetto: Public Housing at New Haven’s West Rock“:

Geography, combined with the institutional history of the site, meant that the Springside Farm had never been developed within the broader pattern of New Haven’s pre-war residential sprawl. In the shadow of the picturesque glacial moraine of West Rock Ridge State Park, and removed from shopping areas, employment centers, and mass transportation, it possessed a suburban quality, which one writer lamented in 1937, should have made it a choice location for first-class residences instead of a home for the indigent. Yet even after New Haven brought infrastructure and a critical mass of people to the site, it retained this secluded character, largely because the site was too inaccessible to attract investment. Geography, however, did not have to determine the fate of this community and to a great extent the development’s failure to become an integral part of greater New Haven was the product of political choices. Through a series of decisions, the city, in cooperation with the neighboring suburb of Hamden, walled off the project’s residents from the surrounding community. (pp. 70-71)

Rockview, Brookside, and Westville Manor were built to be “out of sight, out of mind”–to store New Haven’s needy in suburban greenery far from the grime and grit of the city’s inner neighborhood. Perhaps the outdoorsy benefits of the site were thought to outweigh its isolation; certainly, midcentury urban renewal in New Haven exhibited a fierce strain of the environmental determinism that infected renewal projects all across the country. More likely, the connection between land use and transportation needs was never considered. At that time of seemingly boundless political will, energy, and money, overcoming any obstacle–even sending buses miles out of their way to a remote development–certainly would have seemed possible.

Housing Authority of New Haven developments in 1953, via Wolkoff (see below). Brookside towards top left.

Housing Authority of New Haven developments in 1953, via Wolkoff. Brookside towards top left.

It is, sadly, not an unusual story; scattered-site public or designated-affordable housing, while seemingly  an attractive concept, is often later found to be sadly isolated both in terms of both social context and infrastructure needs. And so it was with the West Rock developments, which gradually slipped into decline–and then worse. But that story has been told many times over. I want to talk here about the impact that Rockview’s isolation has on CTTransit’s ability to serve it efficiently with transit, because, well, it’s not a pretty story.

Here’s a snip from CTTransit’s New Haven system map showing the Rockview/Brookside area and the adjoining Pine Rock neighborhood of Hamden:

Snip from CTTransit's New Haven system map,

Snip from CTTransit’s New Haven system map,

The West Rock area is served by the B1 variation of the B bus, the trunk route serving Whalley Avenue, one of New Haven’s main drags. The B1 leaves Whalley at Blake Street in Westville Village (map), and meanders over to terminate in Brookside after wandering past Westville Manor and the entrance to Rockview. It doesn’t connect to the G bus (technically, the G4 variation–maybe you’re getting a sense for why New Haven’s bus system is in need of a major revision) because, well, there’s no physical connection in the street grid. When Wolkoff writes that New Haven and Hamden combined to “wall off” the new developments, he means it literally; a fence was put in along the city-suburb border to forbid passage. The fence became such a symbol of contention and rancor that when it was finally taken down last year, even the New York Times paid attention. Neither bus comes with any particular frequency; the B1 operates with widely variable 10-25 minute headways at peak hours, and 30-minute headways off-peak, while the G4 condescends to circle through Pine Rock six times per day.

The problem, of course, is that it’s virtually impossible to serve such a remote development with efficient transit. Brookside and Rockview are being rebuilt to a fairly dense, New Urbanist-y standard, but they’re not big enough in and of themselves to be a major traffic generator on their own, and they’re not on the way to anything at all.  Reopening the connection from Wilmot Road to Woodin Road in Hamden, and the G4 bus, is a start, but a bus that operates that infrequently is just of very little utility to residents. The B1 provides decent service to the area–probably more than ridership really justifies–but it’s a prime example of some of the drawbacks of branching; every bus that turns to serve Brookside is a bus that doesn’t serve the far denser Whalley/Amity corridor, where buses often run full at rush hour. It’s not that Brookside and Rockview don’t deserve service. It’s just that the decision to site the developments there 65 years ago, and the much more recent decision to rebuild them in place, means that every bus serving them is a bus that doesn’t serve corridors with more demand. At the same time, it’s hard to justify serving the West Rock developments frequently enough to really build ridership, so they get service at somewhat random, not all that useful intervals.

In other words, Rockview’s bus problem is really an example of the coverage-ridership tradeoff. Succinctly put, this principle states that transit agencies and planners face a tradeoff in deciding how many of their resources to devote to “coverage” (trying to make sure as many geographic areas as possible have transit service, regardless of ridership potential), and how many to devote to building ridership in core areas that are likely to attract riders. A closely related phenomenon, labeled the bus complexity tradeoff by, is also at work here, as it is all across the New Haven bus system; a rider from downtown seeking to get to the Stop & Shop on Amity, say, could easily board a B1 rather than a B2 or B3 and wind up at Brookside, or vice versa. The coverage-ridership tradeoff means that serving Rockview and Brookside depresses ridership on core routes likely to attract more riders; the bus complexity tradeoff means that the complexity inherent in a system with as many branches–and twists and turns on those branches!–as New Haven’s is itself overwhelming and a turn-off to potential riders.

In the short term, improving Rockview’s access to transit really shouldn’t be that hard. Creating road and pedestrian access to Woodin Road and the G4 bus will help residents get to shopping, jobs, and amenities on Dixwell Avenue–but CTTransit will have to increase that bus’s frequency for it to be useful. In the meantime, residents seeking a ride down to the Green should not have to walk all the way down to Wilmot and Brookside. As can be seen in the Master Site Plan illustration above, plans at one point existed to link Brookside and Rockview with a road bridge that would give access to the bus stop at Brookside Ave. and Solomon Crossing. While site plans and road layouts have changed somewhat since then, in the short term a pedestrian bridge that would allow Rockview residents to reach that stop–a much shorter walk than the one to Wilmot and Brookside–seems eminently achievable. When I reached out to city transportation chief Doug Hausladen about that idea on Twitter, he responded enthusiastically:

The long-term challenges are more severe. Rockview’s citizens have been disadvantaged, and the political and policy leaders serving them put in a difficult place, by decisions made over half a century ago. The failures of urban renewal and midcentury “rationalist” planning are myriad, but perhaps none is greater than the assumption that automobility had broken the connection between transportation and land use forever and that government would always be able to sustain rump transit service as a politically acceptable social service program. As we have learned, neither of those things was close to true. And as transit regains–through cultural shift or economic necessity–some of its past popularity, policymakers will be increasingly faced with the legacy of places like Rockview: physically isolated communities, crying out for service, but fundamentally hard to serve on a basis of rational efficiency. Rockview is a reminder of how long the planning mistakes of the past can linger, but it is also a warning for the future.