New bus route shakes up late-night transportation

Posted by Gabe Weintraub

The fall semester invariably presents returning students with a changed campus. Some are subtle: new window blinds in Scribner apartments, a new milkshake machine at the Burgess Café. Others require more of an adjustment.

This year, returning students accustomed to being shepherded home late at night by free rides from Saratoga Taxi, are forced to adjust to a revised policy that, from Thursday through Saturday, does away with the taxis in exchange for a bus service.

The new system does not abandon cabs completely. From Sunday through Wednesday, starting at midnight and running until 6:30 a.m., Saratoga Taxi provides free rides back to campus from the area traditionally defined "Downtown Saratoga." That area covers, from north to south, the college campus to Crescent Street, and from East Avenue to West Avenue. The program also includes the Wilton Mall and, during the day, provides rides to and from the college stables and boathouse for the riding and crew teams respectively.

On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, however, CDTA will provide a bus beginning at 9 p.m., running until 4:15 a.m. the next morning. The "Night Loop" bus follows a revised version of the 473 route, which departs outside Case Center every half-hour during the day. Affectionately dubbed "The Drunk Bus" by CDTA drivers, the bus follows essentially the same route as the daytime route, traveling down Clinton Street, Van Dam Street and onto Broadway, making a loop at Spring Street and Putnam Street before returning to campus. The bus eschews regular daytime stops at the Embury Apartments and Saratoga Gaming and Raceway.

The idea for the change originated two years ago when, facing a tumultuous economy, the college sought ways to reduce expenses. Mike Hall, the college's director of Financial Planning and Budgeting, Purchasing Services and Residential Life, audited the taxi program and began work on developing an alternative. "They felt they could come up with something that would be better and more cost-effective for the college, while still succeeding in providing safety for our students coming from downtown back to campus," Director of Campus Safety Dennis Conway said.

Before unveiling an alternative program, however, the college began by altering the existing taxi program. Starting in the fall of 2009, the program was reduced to covering only its current area.

"The intent, always, of [the taxi service], had a particular scope, mostly down North Broadway and into some of the neighborhoods," said Rochelle Calhoun, dean of Student Affairs. "But when we looked into where the taxi services were actually serving it was way beyond that. We really just reestablished what had been the contractual agreement with the taxi service about the areas we were serving.

"What we tried to do, in talking to CDTA, was to recreate those areas, the areas that the taxi had been servicing, in as close an approximation as we could, so that service would be similar to what the taxi service had been. That was our goal in working with CDTA. They came back to us with a proposal that seemed to address what we were asking for, so we decided to give it a try."

The college was also concerned about the safety of the taxi program. "We heard students talk about the fact that sometimes they did not feel like they were being treated well by the taxi drivers," Calhoun said. Last year a student went to authorities complaining of an assault by a taxi driver. The college has been unable to determine whether the driver was from Saratoga Taxi or another service. According to Calhoun, the college also received numerous reports from students of taxi drivers cramming as many as 15 students into a single car.

The hope is that the new program will be safer and more reliable. "It's important to say that we're piloting this," Calhoun said. "We'll be reviewing it and we'll be talking again with students and getting their opinions."

Some students have expressed dismay over the limitations of the bus system, particularly that it does not provide easy access to and from off-campus house parties. "Students need to take responsibility for thinking through how they're going to preserve their own safety and wellness when they are making choices about what they're going to do," Calhoun said. "So know the bus schedule, know what the route is.

"As I hear students and their concerns, it raises for me an additional concern about students' own relationship with alcohol and other drugs. I'm not naïve enough to believe that that's not going to happen, but I do want to encourage them to not rely on a cab or this kind of service to be the point at which they are making responsible decisions.

"Are students really saying to themselves, ‘I can go get blasted because I have a free cab ride home?' Is that how we're making choices about our own health and wellness? If it is, I think that's a huge question. I think part of what we also need to be thinking about, institutionally and collaboratively with students, is what was the cab service actually serving?

"Was it serving a population that was saying ‘It's important that I feel safe and well and can enjoy the downtown and be responsible and not have to drive' or is it serving a population that is being excessive in a way, and the cab service was a way to support that behavior. I don't know the answer to that, but I do think as a community we have to ask ourselves that question."

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