11/19: A Shuttle Odyssey

Better communication could have saved the Undergraduate Council’s post-Game shuttles

You know, we’re probably too hard on the Harvard Undergraduate Council (UC). Between boat cruises that run aground, rain-soaked after-parties that lack star acts, and concerts that don’t, but that fail anyway, it really is easy to criticize the UC. But that a group of college students can even contrive to undertake the kind of massive projects that the UC regularly does is a pretty remarkable feat.

Even this knowledge, however, was insufficient to keep me calm on a sunny Saturday afternoon in New Haven, when the UC’s plans for a 5:30 p.m. shuttle back to Cambridge dissolved into chaos.

According to Campus Life Committee (CLC) Chair John F. Voith ’07, organizers learned Thursday evening that the Yale Police Department (YPD) had decided to deny the UC’s shuttles permission to pick up their passengers at Phelps Gate, in the center of Yale’s campus. Instead, they would need to depart from the Yale Bowl itself, some 15 minutes’ drive from the dormitories where a significant number of students had spent Friday night. The last-minute change left stupor-sullied students scrambling between the Bowl and their hosts’ dorm rooms, frantically retrieving their possessions before returning to the Bowl.

The CLC’s response, which Voith acknowledges was “very last minute,” was inadequate. Failures to communicate with both shuttle users and the powers-that-be in New Haven left many (including me) literally in the dark on Saturday evening. In this case, the devil was in the details: some basic common sense could have spared hundreds of Harvard students an afternoon of stress, worry, and uncertainly in an unfamiliar place.

Given the trust that hundreds of students had placed in the UC by purchasing shuttle tickets, it would have hardly been unreasonable for the entire UC to be called into action Saturday morning, distributing flyers about the change at the game and the tailgate. Signs announcing the change could have been posted at every House tailgate, at the Harvard food tent, and at the entrances to the Yale Bowl.

Instead, the CLC relied on the word-of-mouth generated by e-mail messages sent to House lists late Friday to announce the change. Now, I’m not entirely sure how UC reps spent their time away at Yale, but of all the things that I was doing on Friday evening, checking my e-mail wasn’t one of them. And as for word-of-mouth, hearing from a friend that someone (I forget who) thought they saw something posted to the Greenough list about shuttles leaving from the tailgate doesn’t exactly give one a great deal of confidence.

But the problems didn’t end there. By the time the second half of The Game got underway, I had heard the same vaguely articulated rumor from enough different sources to be convinced that the shuttle’s pickup location had, indeed, changed. Because, silly me, I hadn’t brought all my stuff with me to tailgate, I had to find a way back to my host’s dorm room to retrieve it in time to make it back to the Yale Bowl for my shuttle’s departure time.

This proved rather difficult. After waiting half-an-hour for a Yale-provided bus back to the campus, driving fifteen minutes, wandering the streets of New Haven for another fifteen minutes, trying to figure out where I was in relation to my stored belongings, struggling to find a Yalie willing and able to buzz me into the dormitory where I’d slept the night before, and schlepping my things to where Yale’s bus to the Bowl had been picking people up earlier in the day, I discovered that the bus service that had been getting students to The Game all day was no longer operating regularly. It was only after a confused wait that I was finally able to get on the bus I was looking for—by chasing it down in traffic.

Why the CLC assumed that Yale’s shuttles would continue to run regularly after The Game ended is beyond me. Needless to say, they didn’t, leaving many Harvard students stranded and causing the rest to act completely recklessly, just minutes before their scheduled 5:30 p.m. departure time. A phone call to New Haven on Friday is likely all that would have been needed to extend the buses’ schedule.

Certainly, some of the blame for Saturday afternoon’s mishaps ought to be reserved for the authorities at Yale, whose tardiness in rendering their decision unduly put the CLC in a very tight spot. According to Voith, however, the CLC found out about Yale’s decision not from the YPD itself but from the charter company hired to operate the UC shuttles. It’s impossible to say whether or not the CLC would have found out about the change sooner, had it dealt with the powers-that-be at Yale directly. But even if direct communication with the powers-that-be at Yale hadn’t given the CLC more time to adjust, many of Saturday’s problems could still have been averted by a more conscientious UC response.

In Voith’s words, Saturday evening’s shuttles “went off really well, given the situation.” That may be, but when a series of easily preventable communications failures sabotages what has always been one of the UC’s most valuable services to the Harvard student body, there’s hardly cause for celebration.

Adam Goldenberg ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.