The COVID-19 pandemic has affected student life in far-reaching ways. While the lion’s share of discussion revolves around hybrid classes and the gradual reopening of campus, important but overlooked facets of the Wheaton experience are falling to the wayside. One of those is off campus transportation. While Wheaton has advised students to limit travel in light of the virus, there are still situations that necessitate venturing out. For students without cars on campus, the GATRA used to be a reliable option. Unfortunately, Coronavirus has markedly impacted GATRA’s utility. Its most essential line, route 140, has been shuttered, and Wheaton has since worked alongside GATRA to provide alternatives.
In the pre-pandemic era, the GATRA was an ideal way to get out into the greater Norton area for just about any reason. This was largely due to GATRA route 140, which took students to the Great Woods Plaza, Mansfield Crossing, and the MBTA train station. Beyond shopping and recreation, route 140 quickly shuffled students to a grocery store and other necessary establishments. It was an integral part of the campus ecosystem. Unfortunately, route 140 was shut down in the Fall of 2020. Edward Burnett, Associate Dean for Student Life relayed this message last year by informing students that “GATRA notified the College that the Route 140 bus service is not currently in service. We were not provided an explanation, but this route was suspended in April due in part to a decline in ridership created by the pandemic.” This was an unsurprising move in the context of COVID’s impact on Massachusetts.
However, this decision was not emblematic of GATRA’s partnership with Wheaton, or its commitment to the community. Kimberly Lavallee, Wheaton’s Manager of Business Services, offered comments on the shifting role of the GATRA on campus during the pandemic, and its longstanding importance to the college. Lavallee noted that “Wheaton and GATRA have developed a great partnership over the years … As a public transit authority they have always tried to incorporate the transportation needs of the Wheaton community into the services they provide.” This is particularly clear in the GATRA’s ability to adapt itself to the current pandemic.
During the Fall 2020 semester, Wheaton and GATRA collaborated on a modified route that delivered students directly to the Big Y and Target plaza. As Lavallee stated, “when GATRA announced last fall that the Route 140 bus would no longer operate, we began working together to provide students with a way to access essential items such as groceries,” and this bus schedule was an attempt at that. However, it proved to be unsuccessful.
Lavallee outlined the issues with this plan. She said that “although some students used the shuttle in the fall, ridership was much lower than we expected. The shuttle ran for 7 hours each Saturday in the fall and a total of 45 students utilized the service. We were also concerned that the wait time for someone to ride could have been impacted by the shuttle’s capacity limits. From a sustainability standpoint, it didn’t make sense to have a shuttle making the trip back and forth all day without a passenger or sitting idle on Howard Street.” As such, the Spring 2021 schedule saw a much more feasible plan implemented.
Currently, students can use a free and modified version of GATRA’s Dial-a-Ride service to reach the same Big Y and Target location. Essentially, the route is the same. However, instead of GATRA running in perpetuity each Saturday for several hours, the GATRA now waits until students book a trip to arrive on campus. Upon making the phone call, students can choose they’d like to leave campus and be picked up from the shopping plaza during the window of 11:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. As Lavallee clarifies, this Dial-a-Ride option was proposed by GATRA as a response to the issues with last semester’s route.
On paper, the Dial-a-Ride structure addresses the administrative issues with off-campus transit while also addressing the needs of Wheaton’s students. From a quantitative perspective, it’s unclear how much more use GATRA is seeing during this Spring semester in comparison to last Fall. After all, the semester is still underway. However, Lavallee did provide the following ridership data to the Wire.
Fall (11:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.)
Spring (11:30 am – 3:30 pm)
In practice, however, the Dial-a-Ride service may be better servicing those administrative issues that the students themselves. Anecdotally, the student opinion is split. Some, like Chloe Olsen, find the GATRA just as effective now as the pre-COVID era. Chloe noted that “[she has] used the GATRA a lot in the last three years and [has] had excellent service every time. The GATRA is very convenient and always shows up on time. Other than the new guidelines, [she feels] the experience was the same as it was pre-COVID.” Others, like Jeanne Specht, felt differently. Jeanne noted that “[she likes] being able to schedule [her] own pickup times with the new Dial-a-Ride service, but [thinks that] it’s at the cost of being able to access a wider range of locations, such as the Dollar Store at the Great Woods Plaza and the Michaels or Five Below in Mansfield Crossing, which [she believes are] the better alternative to Target and Big Y.” There is no clear consensus among students.
Managing the needs of all concerned parties is challenging. The tensions between the realities of running the GATRA, the needs of the students, and the omnipresent risk of COVID-19 are difficult to reconcile. Ultimately, the current strategy implemented by Wheaton and GATRA is an imperfect but effective response to the current situation. As Lavallee remarked, “Covid-19 has presented many challenges with transportation. We have seen both GATRA and the MBTA Commuter Rail, which are both public transit authorities, eliminate routes and reduce hours of operation based on low ridership as well as reduce capacity to ensure social distancing. As a campus that relies on public transportation, we realize that these changes have had an impact on our students. Our challenge has been trying to balance the variety of transportation needs that we are aware of with the transportation options that are available during Covid-19. With this in mind, we were able to coordinate with GATRA to provide transportation for students who need a way to access essential items. We will be looking for student feedback on the shuttle and Dial-A-Ride service when we plan for the Fall 2021 semester.” With any luck, the tenor around COVID-19 will have shifted by Fall 2021 and such travel compromises won’t have to be made. At the moment though, the Wheaton community must work with what it has.
Thank you to Kimberly Lavallee, Chloe Olsen, and Jeanne Specht for their time and insight.