I spent my winter break visiting family across Budapest, tracing the concentric streets that encircle the heart of the city and venturing down the veinlike avenues that expand outwards. By foot, bike, and bus, I familiarized myself with the space around me; but it was this final mode of transportation that showed me the most about the characters who inhabited the city. Buses standardize a portion of pedestrians’ commutes; the paths of tourists and teachers, joggers and journalists converge for a time before splintering back out into the multitude of surrounding apartments, parks, and offices. From the back seat of a shuttle, I internalized the bustle of Budapest.
I’ve long been an idealist about public transportation. In sixth grade, I wrote a deeply mediocre story called “Isolated Together,” in which seven strangers become trapped on a subway train in Brooklyn during a power outage and overcome selfishness and prejudice by working together to escape (also, two characters turn out to be long-lost ex-lovers, and one of them is an exact rip-off of Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada). I loved the idea of transportation as an opportunity for serendipitous connection, as a chance for both independence and interconnectedness.
In reality, of course, public transit often does not reach this lofty goal. One late night in Budapest, having wandered beyond my typical orbit, I waited at a bus stop in the twenty-second district near the edge of the city. My dead phone sat heavy in my pocket. I paced back and forth, noting the elderly woman who calmly sat at the bus stop, grocery bag in hand. For what felt like hours, the two of us remained separate but together. When the bus finally arrived, we silently boarded through separate doors.
But there were a few moments out of the many hours I spent on Budapest buses that left me thinking that perhaps my romantic views of the merits of public transit were not so far-fetched. One stands out in particular—a gaggle of teenagers boarded a tram heading towards the ninth district, hollering and joking as they entered the car. When they noticed a sleeping baby sitting on her mother’s lap, the merrymakers shushed each other, patiently waiting for the infant and mother to get off at their stop before resuming their revelry.
If Budapest is a polar graph, its origin buried at the bottom of the Danube, then New Haven—both my hometown and my collegetown—is a three-by-three Cartesian graph that expands outward into a set of radial lines spreading outward from the structured center. This design is intentional: the Elm City is “the first planned city built on a grid system,” a fact that New Haven residents and Yale tour guides alike proudly tout (even though Savannah, GA makes the same claim). The grid model was meant to impose a sense of precision on the city, allowing for efficient movement; the city’s structure makes it easily “explored on foot through a network of pedestrian-friendly streets” that interleave the main avenues. (On the other hand, Professor Maureen Brady claimed in her paper “The Failure of America’s First City Plan” that this structure actively “stunted New Haven’s growth” and was “problematic from [its] inception because [the squares] were too large and improvidently located.”) Whether or not New Haven is truly “pedestrian-friendly” is uncertain—but either way, it is frequented by commuters who do not use motorized vehicles. According to a 2017 review conducted by the CTtransit company, approximately 14 percent of New Haven residents walk to work—a higher percentage than all other large cities in New England except Boston. At Yale specifically, the vast majority of students choose to explore New Haven by foot, patronizing the cafes and restaurants that line the south and west edges of campus. Indeed, the ‘Yale Bubble’ is so tightly bound to the clearly-defined borders of campus and the couple blocks surrounding it that relying on a bus rarely feels necessary to undergraduates.
However, this is not, and has not been, the case for the broader New Haven community. When the bus system took over the preexisting trolley network in New Haven in the 1940s, these new vehicles were hailed as “sleek, streamlined vehicles” by the New Haven Sunday Register. Buses possessed not just style, but also substance, changing “the whole layout of the metropolitan area… almost irrevocably,” according to an essay by Jacob Wasserman ‘16. Nowadays, although New Haven’s buses do not prompt these same expressions of awe, they remain essential to the functioning of the city. 28 percent of New Haven residents rely on public transit as their primary means of transportation—in some neighborhoods, up to 38 percent of households have no personal vehicle, instead depending on buses to commute.
Yale offers its own shuttle system that connects the hospital, the medical school, and the School of Public Health, as well as Yale’s West Campus, to the rest of campus. The existence of a separate university transportation system makes sense to some extent—Yale’s campus extends over two miles from the divinity school at the north end to the medical school at the south end, and the discontinuous nature of the campus requires reliable ways to move between sections. Unlike the radial setup of New Haven, “Yale’s campus is unusually long and narrow,” as the “Framework for Campus Planning,” published in 2000, pointed out. But it is undeniable that the existence of two entirely separate systems of transportation speaks to a larger pattern of lack of coordination between town and gown. The CTtransit report only mentions the Yale transit system briefly, dryly explaining that “in some cases, the Yale University service overlays CTtransit New Haven routes.” The existence of a separate mode of travel for Yale-affiliated individuals is innocuous in intention—but in practice, it furthers the ever-widening gap between Yale and New Haven, precluding the possibility of serendipitous interactions and limiting opportunities for shared experiences. Transportation is always a political matter—questions of what should be connected to what, and who should be allowed to travel between point A and point B, have shaped the development of neighborhoods and cities, nations and empires.
One weekday morning in March, missing my travels across Budapest, I buy a bus pass and board a random bus departing from the Green towards suburban West Haven. The bus is mostly empty, and silent: each person sits in their own row and in alternating seats, interspersed evenly throughout the space. The bus back into New Haven, however, is directly antithetical to the solemn sojourn in the opposite direction. The windows are cracked open in an attempt to reduce risk of COVID transmission, but warm livelihood fills the shuttle. A family of three sits together near the back, a toddler pointing out the windows and babbling. A woman boards and takes a seat next to a man, and they begin a conversation about a mutual friend. A mother reads a book, one hand stabilizing her baby’s carriage as the bus lurches about in the city traffic. As the mother pulls the stop cord, three different people volunteer to help the mother safely bring the carriage down the stairs. Throughout the shuffling and maneuvering of the carriage, the baby remains sleeping. Watching this scene, I feel immensely grateful for the city bus system, flawed as it may be, for giving me an ideal viewpoint of my community.