One of the most essential—but least popular—services the university provides is free transportation within Waltham through the Branvan. It is common to hear students complaining about the Branvan being late, slow or crowded—in fact, it’s a running joke. But with long, cold winters and an unsolved housing shortage forcing students off-campus, university-provided transportation, particularly the evening Waltham Branvan, is more important than ever. The off-campus van is, in general, more useful than it gets credit for, but there are a couple of noticeable flaws. The Branvan often skips its scheduled stop at Charles River (Grad) if no students reserve rides from the off-campus housing area. This is meant to save time, but at the end of the day, skipping Grad means leaving students out in the cold.
Predictability is a major flaw in the Branvan system. The shuttle makes a habit of skipping entire sections of its route both on campus and off campus, throwing the van off schedule and missing people who are waiting at the stops it skips. The Branvan often skips the Charles River stop if no one specifically requests it and instead goes directly into Waltham. While it is true that people hoping to catch the Waltham van are supposed to make a reservation, the reality is that students use the vans like regular busses, just getting on and off without reserving them. The problem with the reservation system is that people do not always cancel their reservation when their plans change. As a result, people who try to make a reservation are unable to because the website says the van is full, but when they wait at the stop and just get on, there is room. This is actually good for the Branvan—it means people are using it and trips in and out of town are not wasted. It is understandable that the drivers may think that nobody at Grad wants a ride because nobody has made a reservation. However, this demonstrates that they have a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the student body uses their service.
It is possible the Waltham van makes a habit of skipping Grad to keep it from running late. If this is the case, then the solution should be to adjust the schedule so that the van has time to drive the entire route rather than skipping parts of the route that it is supposed to drive. It is unfair to riders to post a schedule and route that includes the stop at Grad and then skip the stop altogether.
Not only does skipping the Grad stop deprive residents there of the opportunity to catch the van, but it can also cause the van to arrive at other stops too early. It is not unreasonable to expect people waiting for the van to get to their stop a couple minutes early, but imagine getting to the stop three minutes early only to watch the van blow past because it was four minutes early. It is incredibly frustrating.
This is even more of a problem when it comes to skipping sections of the route in Waltham. Oftentimes, when the van reaches the intersection of Moody Street and Maple Street, the driver will ask if everyone on the van is going to campus. If they say yes, then the driver will skip the part of the route that goes up to the Burger King. Nevermind that people getting on at this section of the route are most in need of a ride because they are farthest from campus. This change in the route throws off the schedule again and causes people getting on later in the route to miss the van as well. And while skipping Charles River only changes the route time by a few minutes, skipping both the Grad section and the Burger King section can make the van up to 10 minutes early when it reaches the Art Studio stop on Prospect Street. Even if someone made a reservation for this stop, they might still miss the van because they would never be at the stop 10 minutes early. And using the Transloc tracker app, which is usually helpful, does not solve this problem because the app makes its predictions assuming that the van follows the route.
Furthermore, the Branvan sometimes takes alternate routes because of bad traffic. Although there is value in saving time for everyone already on the van, taking detours causes the van to skip stops, and people waiting on cold street corners in Waltham are left without a ride to campus.
Patrons of the Branvan don’t expect it to be perfect. We know that it is driven by student workers and that the ride is free. We know that the drivers cannot help delays caused by traffic or extra stop requests. We know that if we lose our seat when the van is too crowded, it is our own fault for not making a reservation. But expecting it to drive the whole route on the route every run does not seem like too much to ask. And maybe if the Branvan behaved like any other public transportation method with a set schedule and route, then the student body would have more appreciation for the van service and more patience when things go wrong.