Panelists got on the move at a University-hosted discussion on Wednesday, Feb. 11 titled “The Future of Travel: A New Way Forward.” The panel, sponsored by the Office of Sustainability, featured representatives from CTrides, Wheeli, and Assistant Visiting Professor of Transportation Planning at Pratt University Georges Jacquemart. Casey Pickett, Director of Innovation for the Department of Economic and Community Development, moderated the discussion.
The panel focused on how the current car-centric status quo of American transportation is environmentally unsustainable. The panelists spoke about how their respective services fits into the changing landscape of transit.
Director of the Office of Sustainability Jen Kleindienst discussed the University’s motivation behind the panel.
“There are a lot of exciting innovations happening in the world that are changing the way we can get from place to place that we wanted to share with Wesleyan students,” Kleindienst said. “At the same time, we wanted to make students aware of the opportunities for off-campus travel that are available right now.”
Jean-Pierre Adéchi, one of the featured panelists, is the founder and CEO of Wheeli, a ridesharing service that matches users with either drivers or passengers who are going to the same destination at the same time. He spoke about the inefficiency of single-occupancy vehicles.
“I think, honestly, it’s about efficiency,” Adéchi said. “At any given time at Wesleyan, you have people making a beer run, going to the store, going to the hospital, going to New Haven…so there are people that might be looking for a ride, or thinking about taking a cab, but they don’t have the option to know that, ‘Hey, there’s another student, a freshman, a sophomore, a junior, that’s going the same way as me. Let me hop a ride with that person, it’s cheaper, and it’s a lot more efficient.’ Essentially, we are trying to make hitchhiking cool again [and] trying to make it smart.”
Although their execution is different, CTrides and Wheeli have similar concepts: to encourage carpooling and provide a digital, real-time service in order to match people with similar destinations and timeframes. However, while Wheeli caters to college students (the service requires a valid .edu email address), CTrides is aimed more at adult commuters. Moreover, Wheeli is conducted via app, while CTrides is website-based.
Kellyn Maves ’16, a student who was in attendance, was keen to hear what the panelists would discuss.
“I’m really interested in environmentally sustainable ideas and new plans people are putting together, so I thought it would be interesting to come hear people talk about [transportation changes], especially because travel is one of the biggest things that needs to be changed,” Maves said.
The panelists brought the audience into the conversation several times as they discussed many different roadblocks to transportation reform. A major topic was the sprawling nature of population distribution in Connecticut, a factor in the state’s relatively poor public transit syste. Maves agreed with the sentiments expressed.
“It’s not that we’re not capable of developing [more efficient and extensive public transportation] or using it, but that there’s no practical way right now, like a monetarily sustainable way to create public transit that services enough people for it to be worth it because so many U.S. cities are so spread out,” Maves said. “It would have to be a huge public transport for it to come often enough and service enough places for the people who need to be able to come and get where they need to go.”
Ideas discussed included a new FasTrak bus corridor from Hartford to New Britain, which will use a bus-only highway in order to ensure rapid and reliable transit. The frequency of arrival was estimated to be about seven minutes, but as construction has yet to be completed, the veracity of this estimate is unclear. Also discussed was the need for pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly cities. The example cited was New Haven, which has added several bike lanes to the city’s streets. However, as one audience member noted, the walk from Union Station to downtown New Haven is often undesirable.
The panelists emphasized the importance of planning in enabling commuters to find more environmentally friendly ways of transit. Among the ideas discussed were increased bus frequency, screens to indicate next arrival time, smaller parking lots, and commuter networks like Wheeli and CTrides. However, Adéchi noted that single-occupancy vehicles have remained the status quo largely for cultural rather than logistical reasons.
“I was taking a bus going from New York to Vermont, and there were maybe 10 people on this 60-seat coach bus, and I’m looking at cars on the highway to the right, all moving in the same direction, and there’s one driver and three empty seats,” Adéchi said. “I think that’s just ridiculous. And what makes it even more ridiculous is that governments spend money subsidizing these routes just to keep them open.”
Still, much of the setbacks remain logistical ones. Kleindienst stated that the University is in the midst of drafting a plan for green transportation and sustainability in general.
“Wesleyan is in the process of writing its first comprehensive sustainability action plan, which will include a section on transportation and may include changes to transportation policy,” Kleindienst said. “The plan will be open for campus-wide public comment later this spring.”