You know those big brown trucks that are keeping us well-delivered during this time of COVID-19? Well, there’s some interesting history and tech to United Parcel Service, or UPS. Founded as the American Messenger Company in Seattle in 1907, the company made most of its deliveries back then to stores, not customers, and made them on foot or by bicycle. Adding a Model T to their fleet in 1913, the company started serving neighborhoods. By 1930 the company expanded to most cities in the East and Midwest, adding delivery by airline cargo partnerships to their modes of transportation.
In the post-COVID-19 world (whenever that may be) commuters will be asking themselves one question: Is this trip really necessary? Sure, when the quarantining is lifted and the life threatening virus seems to have passed (at least until it returns next fall), we may look forward to getting back on the train and on the crowded highways. But the weeks of not commuting have changed our attitudes toward work and the necessity of travel. Going forward, I think we will be making that daily trek a lot less often and that will have a profound effect on transportation. Sure, plumbers can’t telecommute, but knowledge workers can. And they make up a large portion of southwest Connecticut’s population. They’ve been working from home just fine in recent weeks. So they’ll be asking themselves (and their employers) if a daily schlep into their New York City office is really necessary, or if they can continue to work from home two or three days a week. Being self-employed, I have worked from my home office for over 35 years. I sure don’t miss the daily grind, nor the office politics, and love my work so I end up doing it six or seven days a week: it’s not a job but a passion.
The road ahead for commuters may be less crowded, or maybe more. One theory has it that, as people gradually return to work, they will shun mass transit out of safety concerns and commute, instead, by car. That could create problems on our roads if people try to drive five days a week. The other speculation is that the “new normal” will mean less commuting overall as people have found they can be just as productive from home and will commute less than the normal five days a week. Work hours may also be staggered, asking employees to go to their jobs every other day to avoid crowding in the office.
Our “aw shucks, golly” Governor seems to have a mean streak. While he probably deserves all the credit he’s getting for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, what he did recently at the Bond Commission seems uncharacteristically mean and vindictive. Somehow a promised $72 million investment in badly needed replacement rail cars for the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines of Metro-North got derailed as the item was deleted from the agenda. Those lines won’t be getting new cars anytime soon. What happened?
Have you ever taken a cruise? According to that industry, something like 28 million people worldwide took to the high seas last year. But that still leave 80% of Americans who have never cruised, enjoying the midnight buffets, spas and casinos at sea. Obviously, cruising has lost its allure since the megaships became epicenters of COVID-19 outbreaks, trapping passengers in their cabins for days as some ships searched for a port that would let them dock with their contagious human cargo. Even before the current pandemic cruise ships were notorious hotspots for simpler bugs like the norovirus which caused “acute gastrointestinal illness.” It’s hard to share a confined space like a ship without touching surfaces that harbor the virus.
I’ll admit it: I love driving fast. I’ve even been known to drive faster than 55 mph on I-95, but who hasn’t? (And I’ve never been given a ticket). When the road’s not crawling along bumper-to-bumper at rush hour, driving the speed limit almost seems unsafe, you’re getting passed so often. A couple of years ago I had a reporter “ride along” on I-95 with a state trooper.
“In my 30 years in the transit business I never thought I’d be asking people NOT to take the bus,” says Doug Holcomb, CEO of Greater Bridgeport Transit, the operator of 57 buses carrying 5 million passengers a year. But not this year. Like most transit agencies, GBT is asking people to stay home and to ride their buses only if it is essential. So ridership on those buses has dropped 65%. On Metro-North the ridership is down 90 to 95%.
When it comes to transportation, Joe McGee is often the smartest guy in the room. If I want a vision of our state’s mobility future, he’s the first man I turn to. McGee served as then Gov. Lowell Weicker’s commissioner of economic development. For years I worked with him on the Connecticut Metro-North Rail Commuter Council. And until recently he was the Fairfield Business Council’s vice president for public policy, specializing in the intertwined issues of transportation and economic development.
My usual beat is writing about transportation. And some of you, faithful readers, often tell me I’m too negative and cynical. That might be true. So how’s this for a change? We all know these are stressful times.
Did you ever wonder what it would be like to work for the railroad? That’s what Paul Holland did for 39 years, first with Amtrak, later with Conrail and finally as a conductor on Metro-North. His self-published “My Life As A Rear End” pays tribute to his time in cabooses, but it’s his commuter rail stories that kept me laughing. Like the colorful crowd from the psychiatric hospital on the Harlem line who would escape — often in their pajamas — and ride his trains, obviously unable to pay. Or the many times he was assaulted by knife-wielding thugs only to be rescued by his 6-foot-7-inch cross-dressing frequent rider “Rocky.”
Over the years, Holland collected his stories, often scribbling them on seat checks.
You can’t beat the convenience of on-demand ride services like Uber and Lyft, but wouldn’t it be great if a similar ride-sharing service was available locally and for free? We’re not talking about existing ParaTransit services for the disabled or even some Connecticut communities’ senior transport services. No, the newest “microtransit” services are much more for the masses. Such a service has met tremendous success in Norwalk, and will soon launch in Westport and several other eastern Connecticut towns. In Norwalk
The Norwalk program is called Wheels2U and is run by the Norwalk Transit District using the agency’s paratransit minibus fleet.
Maybe the NoTollsCT folks (and the recent Hearst editorial) are right: The current toll proposal should be scrapped. Mind you, I’m still pro-tolls and have been for years, but the governor’s latest plan is so insipid and compromised as to be a waste of time. It raises too little money, doesn’t toll millions of out-of-state cars, and most importantly it seems that most people don’t want it. Nor do they trust it will be limited to trucks. I once described NoTollsCT founder Patrick Sasser as a “bully” because he threatened to oust any legislator that voted for tolls.
“Buckle up, folks. There’s some bumpy air ahead,” the pilot said on a recent flight. No need to remind me; my seat belt is always fastened, as “bumpy air” — a euphemism for air turbulence — is my worst fear in flying. It’s the whole “fear of death” thing. Intellectually, I know that modern aircraft can survive all manner of stress from changing or violent winds, but can I?
Trains make noise, especially when they blow their horns entering stations and at grade crossings. But for folks who live near the railroad branch lines, which have dozens of such crossings, the noise is too much. Those neighbors crammed a Stamford meeting this week seeking solutions. What they got was an education — and maybe some hope. The New Canaan Branch has seven grade crossings in a two-mile stretch, each requiring (under Federal Railroad Administration safety regulations) 10 seconds of horn blasts at 110 decibels.
Remember Rodney Dangerfield, the comedian always complaining that he “gets no respect”? That’s how Waterbury line commuters (and local officials) feel. Their little branch line gets no respect. In fact, the Waterbury branch of Metro-North is the longest of three branch lines — 27 miles from the mainline (at Devon) to Waterbury. It carries about 1,000 passengers a day, the same as a single 10-car train on the main line.