Some End-of-the-Month Observations on the Bus

 

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Ride the Bus Month in Bangor is winding down. November featured two free Tuesdays and a handful of events designed to raise awareness of the Community Connector and the essential service it provides to area residents without cars. But one does not need to live without a car, as some do by choice and others do by necessity, to use and appreciate the bus system.

I’ve spent a lot of space singing the praises of the Community Connector, formerly known as the BAT (Bangor Area Transit) bus. In this week’s post, drawing on ideas I’ve heard from other bus supporters, I’m going to gently suggest some areas for improvement.

Number one, of course, is the need for later evening hours. Everyone who uses the service regularly seems to agree on this. Many is the night I’ve wanted to stay downtown, or at the University of Maine, for some evening event, but have been discouraged by the prospect of a walk or a cab ride home. Later hours would be a boon to businesses along bus routes. In winter, especially, later bus service would provide a transportation option to those who don’t like to drive in the dark or shovel a car out of a snowed-in driveway.

The Community Connector could do more to connect to other public transportation services – those that exist now as well as in the future. A good place to start is with the Concord Coach depot on Union Street, from which two buses depart at seven in the morning, bound for the middle Maine coast, Augusta, Portland, and Boston. The Community Connector’s Capehart route can get you there Monday through Friday, but only from downtown, and on Saturday the local bus starts too late to make the connection. The situation in the evening is worse, because Concord’s 6 p.m. arrivals leave you hung out to dry out on Union Street, fifteen minutes after the last inbound Community Connector bus has gone by.

Greyhound, the other long-distance bus service, is even less connected. It’s been uprooted from its formerly convenient location steps from the Community Connector’s downtown hub, and exiled to Dysart’s Truck Stop out on the interstate in Hermon, five miles away. This is bad enough, but the lack of any sort of shuttle service between the two is unconscionable.

In a similar vein, I’ve had people who live in surrounding towns tell me that they would ride a bus, were one available, to work in Bangor. Imagine a fleet of small commuter buses serving, say, Dedham, Holden, Hermon, Orrington and Winterport, for starters. These buses would connect with the Community Connector at the outer edges of its existing routes, enabling commuters to leave their cars at home, or in a convenient park-and-ride lot.

A worthy long-term goal for the area is a downtown public transportation hub, expandable to include future train lines and additional bus services, as we move toward a more sensible infrastructure less dependent on the idea that everyone should own a car.

Another rider suggested that some of the existing Community Connector routes should be split up, in order to serve high-demand destinations more frequently. Eastern Maine Medical Center is on the Old Town route, with one bus per hour in each direction. The other popular destination on this route is the University of Maine. Might it be more efficient to split the route in two? The loop between the University and Old Town could continue to run hourly, while the more densely populated part of the corridor, including the hospital, could be served twice an hour instead of once.

Many of my University students complain that it’s almost impossible to get to the Bangor Mall and back by bus. Currently, they have to take a bus downtown, then transfer to the Mount Hope or Stillwater bus, and then reverse the process to get home. A direct route between the University and the Mall, or a connection out by Hogan Road, would help to alleviate this problem.

This all may read like a holiday wish list, a prayer to a public transportation Santa with limited space in his shop. But these aren’t just my wishes. They’ve been culled from a number of conversations I’ve had this November with people who want to see the Bangor area seriously invest in improved bus service. If Ride the Bus Month has done nothing else, it’s gotten people to talk about these and other ideas, and to think about how we want to get around in the future.

The Best Things in Life are Free, including (sometimes) the Bus

 

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The American Automobile Association estimates that the average annual cost of owning and operating a car is around $9,000. At $1.50 per ride, that equals six thousands rides on Bangor’s Community Connector bus system.

Since I ride the bus about 300 times a year, that means that one year of owning a car costs as much as 20 years of bus rides.

But since I work at the University of Maine, the bus costs me nothing. The University pumps $15,000 per year into the Community Connector – less than the annual cost of one adjunct professor – in order to offer this benefit to students and employees.

As I’ve suggested before, other area businesses could get on board with this. The University reached the eminently sensible conclusion that it’s cheaper and more effective to throw a little bit of money at the Community Connector than to build and maintain more parking lots at substantially higher cost. Large employers like the hospitals and business parks would do well to follow the University’s example.

Those of us who support expanded public transportation are often told there is no money for large-scale improvements. The Community Connector is funded through a combination of federal funds, local taxes, and fares. Raising money from local businesses wishing to offer their employees an alternative to driving to work would seem like a win-win proposition for everyone.

Entrenched attitudes, however, often get in the way. It can be difficult for habitual drivers to see that the bus benefits them even if they don’t use it. And employers may take it for granted that they need to provide parking for all their employees, whether they drive to work or not.

I once had a conversation with a nurse at one of Bangor’s hospitals. She was trying to save money by taking her lunch to work rather than buying lunch in the company cafeteria. I do the same thing at the University. What would happen, I asked her, if the hospital began charging a nominal parking fee, as the University does?

“There would be a revolt,” she said. “People wouldn’t stand for it.”

But consider this: No one expects to get a free lunch at work. Why should there be an expectation of free parking? Shouldn’t the company offer incentives to employees to leave their cars at home?

The University does this. The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor does this. Hemmed in on a small piece of land between Acadia National Park and the ocean, the Lab long ago decided that providing bus service is better than covering its scenic surroundings with parking lots. In cooperation with Downeast Transportation, they run buses from Bangor, Ellsworth, and Washington County, year-round. And the beautiful part of it is that these buses are open to the public, for a nominal fee. If you can adapt to the schedule and get yourself to the pickup point, you can take a round trip between Bangor and Bar Harbor for six bucks – the best public transportation deal in Maine that nobody knows about. (The bus leaves the Odlin Road Park & Ride at 5:15 a.m. and leaves the Jackson Lab at 3:40 p.m.)

The only reason parking at work is free at most jobs, and lunch at work is not, is that we’ve been doing it that way for years. There’s no logical reason to subsidize cars over food. In fact, there’s more reason to provide free lunch. All employees have to eat. Not all employees have to drive.

A fellow adjunct at the University of Maine (who lives away from the bus route) suggested that our union should go after what he called “low-hanging fruit” in contract negotiations. “They could at least give us free parking,” he said.

“If you get free parking,” I replied, “I want an extra fifty bucks in my paycheck.”

That’s what an annual parking permit costs – fifty bucks. Spread over a school year, it’s a pittance, but it sends a message. When parking is free, there’s no incentive for employees to help alleviate congestion by taking the bus.

Other incentives are there for the picking. The Community Connector could run a bus from Bangor to home hockey games, and the University could offer a small discount to fans who ride it. The stores at the Bangor Mall could offer discounts to bus passengers, as could downtown businesses. Park-and-rides at the ends of bus routes could be established.

And every little bit of publicity helps. On Tuesday, November 22, the Community Connector will be free all day to everyone. If you are a habitual driver and reluctant bus passenger, I encourage you to try it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I Found My Writing Process on the Bus

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I’m writing this essay on the bus up to Orono. As summer stretches toward its inevitable conclusion, a professor’s thoughts turn toward fall semester classes and the composition of syllabi and the makeup of class rosters. Much work needs to be done before students even set foot in a classroom.

I don’t ride the bus much during the summer, preferring to get around by foot and bicycle, and to spend as much time on the water as I can squeeze in. But the bus is a great place to get work done.

It takes about 35 minutes for the bus to get from Bangor to the University of Maine campus. It takes perhaps 20 minutes to drive, but factoring in the time it takes to park and walk to my office, the total trip length is about the same. And on the bus, these are productive minutes, which behind the wheel would be lost.

I suppose that if I drove, I could dictate this into a recording device, but I’ve never worked that way. And I would have to transcribe it afterward, which amounts to writing it twice. Plus, I have to believe it would be distracting. Driving requires concentration, as does writing. On the bus I don’t have to pay attention to anything.

On the bus, I’ve read and graded countless student papers. I’ve written dozens of these essays. I’ve even written most of a novel, a sprawling saga of more than 700 pages. Whether or not it will ever see publication remains an open question, but it’s finished, and currently in its fourth draft.

A few years ago at Western Connecticut State University, I attended a lecture by the author Dan Pope on “The Writing Process.” As the author of five published novels, I thought I knew all about process. To complete a novel manuscript in a reasonable portion of your lifetime, you must do three things. You must devote time to it every day. You must set achievable deadlines. And, hardest of all, you must write forward, from beginning to end, despite the temptation to revise flawed early sections before you’ve finished a first draft.

Pope’s presentation struck me, at the time, as a penetrating glimpse into the obvious. He told us of various authors and their varied routines, and how messing with their process often messed with their ability to turn out finished work. Big deal, I thought. Every writer has a process. Tell me something I don’t know.

Thing was, though I didn’t know it then, I was a writer without a process. I had this idea for a novel, but it had been a while since I’d written one, and even longer since I’d published one. What I needed was the time to get it done.

As a younger man, I used to get up at five in the morning and write, before going to whatever job was paying the bills. Often these were manual labor jobs that didn’t require much thought outside working hours. Teaching and journalism aren’t like that. And as I’ve aged, I’ve come to value my sleep.

But I did have those 35 minutes every weekday morning, and many afternoons. When I set out to write my sprawling family saga, I decided that every time I got on the bus, I would open my laptop and work on the novel. No more reading of books or student papers. No more yakking with my fellow passengers about politics or current events. No music in my ear buds. Just the novel.

Obviously, I worked on it at other times, too, but bus rides became sacrosanct. And I thought back to Pope and his meandering lecture, and realized that I owed him a big nod of thanks. Because, bizarre as it was, I had discovered a process that worked for me, and his talk was the inspiration.

The proof is in the finished manuscript, down from its original 830 pages to, at this writing, 758. It’s a lot of work to write a long novel. I wasn’t sure I could do it. And, as I’ve said, I’m not sure it will ever be published. My longest published book tops out at 309 pages.

But if I owned and drove a car, like most adults I know, I don’t think I could have finished it. The desks of many writers are littered with half-novels. Life gets in the way. I’m glad I don’t waste too much of it behind the wheel.

A Groundswell of Support for Feet, Buses and Bicycles

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I’ve been in Bangor ten years now, since moving upriver from Belfast in the spring of 2006. By January 2007, I’d given up my car, happy to be someplace I could finally do it.

It’s gratifying to walk around downtown Bangor on a weekday, and see all the people getting around on foot, bus and bicycles. There are cars, to be sure, but Bangor has few of the chronic traffic problems that plague much smaller Maine communities like Ellsworth, Camden, Freeport and the coastal towns south of Portland.

(I hasten to add that I lived in and around San Diego for 16 years, and I can attest that Maine does not have traffic, in the Californian sense of the word, except on an occasional weekend at the bottom of the Maine Turnpike. We are fortunate.)

Seldom in my life do I find myself in sync with popular movements, but this is one of those times. Over the past decade, Bangor has begun to embrace alternatives to the private automobile. As a consequence, it’s a nicer place to live, work and play.

That didn’t happen without a groundswell of people who want to walk, bus, and bicycle. I am but one of them, tossing pebbles into the pond of public discourse. Others are doing real work to achieve real improvements. Here’s a thanks and a tip of the cap to a few of them.

If you’ve noticed the recent proliferation of bicycle route signs around town lately, thank Walk-n-Roll, an advocacy group promoting pedestrian and bicycling safety in the greater Bangor area. They also lead moonlight bike rides and help provide free bike parking at public events.

Thanks to some new signage, designed and installed by Justin Russell and Keirie Peachy of Walk-n-Roll, I now know that it’s 1.6 miles from the bus stop at Pickering Square to the Cross Center, a distance I can walk in about half an hour. That means my average walking speed is 3.2 miles an hour. I can do it in under ten minutes by bicycle, an average speed of around 10 mph. By bus, from the time I get on to the time I get off, it’s about fifteen minutes, or 6.4 mph. I’ve never timed it by car, but for a fair comparison, you would have to account for the time to walk to and from your parked vehicle at each end of the trip.

I’m betting that bicycling is fastest. Proximate bike racks make it more convenient, too, when you think about parking downtown, or at the Cross Center for a major event. We aren’t conditioned to think that way. We’re used to getting into our cars for even the most minor trip. But awareness is changing.

Friends of Lower Kenduskeag Stream (FOLKS) has been improving one of Bangor’s best walking corridors. I happen to live in a neighborhood served by a spur of the Kenduskeag Stream Trail, and often walk into town that way. For the past few years, FOLKS have been out with chainsaws, shovels, rakes, weed whackers and whatnot, building drainage ditches, cutting brush, and shoring up soft spots. New trash cans and benches have been placed and are mostly used.

FOLKS organizes periodic trail days, usually Saturdays, when volunteers gather to work on the trail. The improvements are already impressive.

Transportation For All recently marshaled more than 30 people to a city council workshop on the Community Connector bus system. TFA is an offshoot of Food AND Medicine, a social justice group founded in 2001 to assist laid-off workers.

I’ve been riding the bus since 2007, when it was still called the BAT. On my first day of employment at the University of Maine, I received a Maine Card, which functioned as, among other things, a bus pass. But I can’t stay on campus for evening events, because the last bus leaves at 6:30.

In ten years I’ve talked with a lot of bus passengers. Though we all use the bus for different reasons, there is near-universal agreement on one thing: the need for later hours. And thanks to the ongoing support of TFA and others, it looks like it’s finally going to happen. Though the council is moving cautiously, there seems to be a consensus for expanding the bus service, on an incremental but ongoing basis, over the next few years.

Transportation For All meets on first and third Thursdays from 9-11 am at the Hammond Street Congregational Church.

Bangor is becoming a friendly place to walk, bus, and bicycle. It’s getting better all the time, and a lot of local people deserve credit.

You Can Get There From Here By Bus

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Earlier this week, I took my first bus ride of the season from Bangor to Rockland and back. In the summer I ride this route a lot, because Rockland Harbor is where I moor a small sailboat.

The bus is uber-convenient, perhaps by coincidence as much as design. At any rate, it suits my purposes perfectly. On a weekday morning, I can take a Community Connector bus from near my house to the Concord Coach station on Union Street. The coastal bus leaves promptly at seven and pulls into the Rockland ferry landing before nine. From there it’s a short walk to Main Street and a smashing breakfast at the Rockland Café, and another short walk to Hamilton Marine, the public landing, and the harbormaster’s office.

The public landing and adjacent park host the big events of the summer: the North Atlantic Blues Festival, the various boat shows, the annual Maine Lobster Festival. From here, it’s a short uphill walk to the train station, and the end of the line for Maine’s only passenger train north of Brunswick.

In the off-season, Concord Coach runs one bus a day each way up and down the swath of coast between Portland and Bangor. It stops in Searsport, Belfast, Camden, Rockland, Waldoboro, Damariscotta, Wiscasset, Bath, Brunswick, and Freeport. I can spend the day in Rockland, get on the return bus at 4:15 pm, and be back in Bangor at six.

Between Memorial and Columbus days, a second bus leaves Bangor at eleven, and gets to Rockland at one. A late bus leaves Rockland at 9:30 pm, and pulls into Bangor just before midnight. You can take either morning bus, spend a day in Rockland, go sailing, have dinner, and take the late bus home. You can have a drink with dinner and not worry about driving.

There are a few glitches. I can’t take a Community Connector bus home from Union Street at six because the two bus schedules don’t overlap on that end. And they don’t overlap on Saturday morning, when the first Community Connector bus leaves downtown at 7:15, after the Concord bus has already left.

Still, I’m fortunate and thankful that a convenient way to travel between Bangor and Rockland exists at all. It doesn’t work so well in the reverse direction. If I lived in Rockland and had to spend a day in Bangor, I couldn’t do it by bus without staying over night.

I could go to Portland, though – just as I can from Bangor. Another bus leaves the Concord Coach station at seven every morning, an express that touches at Augusta and stops in Portland on the way to Boston and the world.

This bus is usually more than two-thirds full. I’ve used it many times. The coastal bus might have two or three passengers. The most I’ve ever seen get on in Bangor is seven. On some mornings, I’ve been the only one.

The bread-and-butter of the route is the section between Rockland and Portland, particularly serving the Bath-Brunswick area and Bowdoin College. When I get off in Rockland (five minutes after the first ferry departs for Vinalhaven – another missed opportunity), there’s usually a crowd waiting to get on.

If public transportation in these parts of Maine is to proliferate, supporters – even those who own cars – must demonstrate that it will be used. An opportunity to do this exists around the many summer events on the coast. Bangor-area residents attend the blues festival, for example, but how many do it by bus? It’s much more convenient than driving. You don’t have to navigate tourist traffic on Route One. You don’t have to find a parking space. You don’t have to buy gas. You can leave early or stay late. A round-trip ticket to Rockland is only $34; it’s less to Belfast or Camden, which hold numerous summer events, too.

But people coming to summer events in Bangor have little choice but to drive. I hope that this will someday change, as more people discover the convenience and cost savings of public transportation.

If you haven’t taken the Concord Coach for a day on the coast, or to Portland for a Sea Dogs baseball game, I recommend it. The trip is comfortable, convenient, and cheap. You can read, write, use your computer, or doze if you want – none of which you can do behind the wheel. And you’ll be removing one car from the traffic mix, making yours and everyone else’s day just a little bit easier.

The Late Bus is Coming Soon

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We all get excited about presidential elections, but local government is where the action is. As I have written in this space before, the members of the Bangor City Council have more immediate impact on my life than the occupant of the Oval Office.

Case in point: While the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (better known as the Obama stimulus package) provided funds for a few new Community Connector buses, only the Bangor City Council can extend the operating hours.

And after last Wednesday’s budget workshop at City Hall, this council seems to be committed to getting it done. The meeting brought out a crowd of bus supporters. They heard a majority of the council approve the idea – if not yet the funding – of later evening hours.

I left the meeting filled with cautious optimism. All seven of the nine councilors present expressed support for later bus hours. It’s going to happen. As councilor Nelson Durgin said, “We’ve reached a point where we can’t go back. Let’s put our heads together and work on this.”

I also gained a sense of appreciation for the work involved in getting even modest proposals enacted. Bus supporters, including me, have been lobbying for later hours for some time. The group Transportation For All brought a dozen or more people to the meeting, and handed the council a petition signed by local residents.

But as councilor Gibran Graham reminded us, agitating is the easy part. There’s more to consider beyond the obvious need for more money to pay more drivers for more hours. For instance, the buses that run all day are currently serviced between 7 and 11 at night. Pushing the hours back two hours also pushes back the service time. Extra hours means keeping the downtown bus depot open longer, and more hours for dispatchers, and so on. Someone has to clean the buses on a regular basis. The fleet itself is aging.

Still, the will to do it is there. A real city should have a real public transportation system, and the members of this council seem to be on board. A viable bus system running in the evening, as council chair Sean Faircloth pointed out, helps stimulate the local economy. “There’s a business value to getting folks downtown at night,” he said. Councilor Joe Baldacci said longer bus hours will make Bangor more attractive to people contemplating a move here.

The cost to extend all routes in the system by two hours – until 9 p.m. – is an estimated $203,492. Finance director Deb Cyr said that money is not yet in the budget. But some of it could be recouped from savings in fuel costs. The Community Connector locks in its fuel prices a year in advance, and prices are substantially lower than last year.

But councilors also urged patience. “We need to commit to a plan,” Baldacci said. That plan would include less expensive but equally necessary things like a larger and better Community Connector office, and improvements to the waiting area downtown. Councilor Ben Sprague noted that the council has heard from many groups abut the need for downtown public restrooms, not just at the bus station.

Sprague and Baldacci both floated the possibility of trial runs, over a few routes for a limited time. This makes a certain amount of sense. As a regular bus passenger, I can tell you that some routes are more heavily used than others, and at different times of the day. But I would also caution the council not to pull the plug too quickly if the new hours don’t immediately entice large numbers of new riders.

It’s hard to take something away from the public – though that didn’t stop the city from prematurely killing the Odlin Road route, nor did it stop Hampden’s town council from sacrificing the Saturday bus to its petty spat with Bangor. If it takes the time it needs to establish a comprehensive plan for expanding the bus hours, then the council should also commit to the plan, long-term, once it’s implemented.

It’s even harder to influence changes in personal habits. We live in a society where every incentive is to drive. Persuading a significant percentage of the population out of their cars is long, hard work, but it’s worth doing right, and it’s worth paying for. The reward: more attractive pedestrian-friendly communities, a robust economy in which everyone isn’t driving to work to make the car payment, and a healthy natural environment.

The Community Connector hours are going to be extended. Not right away, maybe not even this year, but soon. Like most lasting changes, it’s happening incrementally. Public transportation is the future, and the future starts now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Put the Bus Depot in the Path of a Flood?

 

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I suppose I should write about baseball, since the season’s started, amid rainouts and snow-outs and two good games between last year’s World Series contestants. But the wind is yowling outside my office window as I write; rain mixes with a dab of snow, all hurtling sideways. A can bangs around in the wind on the roof of the next building over. The sky is the color of chipped silver radiator paint. It doesn’t feel like baseball weather.

From my window I can see the Kenduskeag Stream, confined between two concrete banks, and the back of the parking garage that fronts onto Pickering Square. The city has closed this area to parking tonight. One or two inches of rain are expected in the storm, on top of an already high tide close to the new moon. The National Weather Service has issued a flood warning for much of the area.

The Kenduskeag is hemmed in here, at its confluence with the river. The water has no place to go but up. The parking lot behind the parking garage is the first place to flood in a storm. And while Bangor is not South Florida, it happens often enough.

This parking lot is where the Community Connector buses will pick up passengers at the downtown hub in the future, under a plan being considered by the city council that will re-make Pickering Square. The first meeting on the plan took place earlier this week, as reported by Nick McCrea of the Bangor Daily News.

I have to wonder at the symbolism, intentional or not, of siting the bus terminal at the lowest point in town.

Tanya Emery, Bangor’s economic development director, said the plan’s architects wanted to separate the uses of the space at the front of the parking garage, where currently drivers and pedestrians and bus passengers interact with occasional confusion. Fair enough. But I worry about the perception. Why put the central bus stop where bus passengers will be the first people displaced when the water rises? It’s bad imagery, if nothing else.

I worry, too, about the bus stop becoming neglected out behind the parking garage, while the city focuses its efforts on the square. Will there be any amenities back there? Any places to sit, any outdoor benches? Will the waiting area appear even less welcoming than the current one, a place, in the public mind, to be avoided?

A city’s attention to its public transportation system reflects its values. I ride the Community Connector more than 300 times a year, and will sing its praises to the rafters. It’s convenient, safe, pleasant and reliable. Bangor has a good bus service.

But it could be better. And it would be better, if public decisions like the location of the bus terminal encouraged more people to ride. Public transportation works when it becomes popular. It becomes popular when it becomes attractive. And it becomes attractive when public officials dedicate public resources to make it so.

On June 8, Bangor will play host to Ringo Starr and his All-Stars at the Cross Center and the Dave Matthews Band at the Waterfront. It’s going to be madness. It’s going to be a cluster crunch of cars. I wouldn’t want to be driving in or near Bangor that day. Where is everybody going to park?

When you take the Concord Trailways bus to Portland, you arrive at a convenient station connected to other buses, trains, and the local bus system. The Community Connector isn’t hooked with any of the three long-distance bus services that serve Bangor. You can take the bus to Portland, hop on the number 5 bus to a Sea Dogs baseball game, go out for a bite downtown, and grab the local bus back to the station in time for the return trip to Bangor, all without using a car. But you can’t do anything like that when you come up to Bangor for a concert.

With a little foresight, Bangor can develop a public transportation hub downtown linked to all available bus services. Ideally it should be near the Cross Center, the Waterfront, and downtown businesses. The city could employ a local shuttle bus, similar to the Black Bear Shuttle in Orono, with a small route and frequent service. The Greyhound Lines could be encouraged to return from its exile in Hermon, out of the Community Connector’s reach.

Public transportation is one of the best investments a city can make. One bus can remove dozens of cars from the traffic and parking mix. Buses make cities more pleasant places to live and work. They ought to be kept visible, and out of the way of the flood.

Friends, They May Think It’s A Movement: Buses Gain Traction

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I do love a groundswell.

Writing can often feel like shouting into a strong wind, especially when taking on entrenched interests like the Americans car culture. The suggestion that many of us don’t need to own cars, and that our community might benefit from reduced car use, is enough to elicit outrage and ridicule. Thus it’s gratifying to find others on board the same philosophical bus.

Last week I wrote about bus stigma, the negative stereotype of public transportation that suppresses funding for more and better bus service. In my experience, once people try the bus, their impression of it improves. But many people who could use the bus don’t.

Now a group of Bangor area residents is trying to change that. To that end, November has been designated Ride The Bus Month in the greater Bangor area.

Martin Chartrand, an organizer with Faith Linking in Action, a group of Bangor-area congregations and other institutions working to address root causes of poverty, says that several members of faith communities have pledged to give up their cars and use the bus for all or part of the month, and are inviting City Council members and candidates to do the same.

If just a few people do it, they may think it’s an organization.

“Ride The Bus Month is a joint initiative of Transportation for All, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor, and other congregations,” Chartrand says. “Transportation for All, which brings together bus riders, drivers and supporters to expand and promote public transportation in Greater Bangor, originated from a year-long listening process undertaken by Faith Linking in Action, which identified transportation as a key obstacle to accessing good jobs.”

In press release announcing the initiative, Chartrand stated that Bangor Councilors Ben Sprague and Pauline Civiello, and candidates for Bangor City Council Sarah Nichols and Meg Shorette, have committed to ride the bus during the month. Other Bangor Council members and candidates have voiced support.

Can you imagine? Several new people a day, throughout the month of November, riding the bus. Friends, they may think it’s a movement.

And that’s what it is.

During November, volunteers in Transportation for All will be available by appointment as bus ambassadors. “With support and training from Community Connector staff, these regular riders will accompany new bus patrons and offer advice on how to navigate the system and ride safely,” Chartrand says.

Public transportation is often a bootstraps problem: people will use it if it improves, and governing bodies will pay to improve it if more people use it. I’ve been riding Bangor’s buses since 2007; a year of living without a car has turned into nine. I’ve saved a ton of money. Many other cash-strapped households are beginning to figure this out.

But if it is to succeed, public transportation must have the support of the general public. People who never ride the bus need to be shown that the service still benefits them, by reducing traffic and easing parking problems. Prospective new riders need to be reached out to. And our representatives in city government need to find the money to make sensible but steady improvements to Bangor’s bus system.

And that means that supporters have to show up and ride the bus when someone takes the time and effort to put together a promotional campaign like Ride The Bus Month. This November, resolve to ride the bus at least a couple of times, to run an errand, or to get to work and back.

Yes, the bus takes longer. But I was surprised to discover that riding the bus freed up time. On the bus I read, write, and work on this laptop. I’m on the bus right now as I write this. The route between Bangor and the University is pretty direct. From point to point, you only save a few minutes by driving. And after that, you have to sit down and do the stuff you could have done on the bus.

Slower Traffic is not a political blog, and does not do endorsements. But it’s heartening to hear candidates for city council calling for extended bus hours and other upgrades. Contrast this with the penurious and mean-spirited cancellation of Saturday bus service earlier this year in Hampden, when a handful of bean-counters punished passengers for a petty dispute between two local governments.

Better bus service will come to Bangor if enough people want it, and demonstrate their desire by using the service that’s already here.

Chartrand can be reached at martin@foodandmedicine.org.

What Is Bus Stigma, and How Does It Affect You?

busstation

When my kids were in high school, and we lived four miles outside of Belfast, they couldn’t wait to drive to school. The school bus went right by our house. But the cool kids drove their own cars. Bus stigma starts early.

A few years ago, I overheard a student at the University of Maine refer to the bus I was waiting for as “the Loser Cruiser.” The entire Community Connector system is free to them, but many students have never used it.

A Google search for “bus stigma” will turn up hundreds of thousands of hits. Buses have a seedy image that has permeated the popular culture. People who have never ridden a public bus tend to view them negatively.

Public transportation expert Christopher MacKechnie defines bus stigma as “the belief that people who ride city buses are a lower class of people than those who drive their own cars.”

And it’s not just an American phenomenon. “Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, once famously stated that a man who still found himself riding buses after his mid-twenties could count himself a failure,” MacKechnie writes. “By making that statement she vocalized the bus stigma that works to limit transit ridership in many cities by fomenting a belief that only those with no other choice – the ‘losers’ of society – ride the bus.”

Thatcher said this in the 1980s, when there were far fewer cars in the world. Since then, it’s become evident that continuing to choke the landscape with motor vehicles is immensely inefficient (and a squandering of resources, and an environmental disaster). People are seeking alternatives to the automobile. But while bicycling is enjoying a renaissance, and trains will always have their aficionados, buses retain a reputation as refuges for the downtrodden.

Why? Part of the reason is, I think, self-fulfilling; buses depend on public funding, and if people view something negatively, their representatives aren’t going to fund it. This results in bare-bones budgets, buses that break down, and schedules that deter people from using the service.

I use the Bangor bus system all the time. I sing its praises. I talk to passengers of all ages and incomes and education levels. And they all seem to agree on one thing: the buses should run later in the evening. It’s not a new issue. But it isn’t a pressing one to the people who determine the budget.

It should be. Because buses stimulate the economy.

I’ll say it again: Buses stimulate the economy.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s true. Local and federal subsidies for buses are more than offset by the benefits they bring: job creation, access to jobs, access to commerce, neighborhood revitalization, and – perhaps most importantly – easing of traffic congestion.

In the Age of the Automobile we’ve grown used to thinking of buses as subsidized services for a small percentage of the population. But every new bus passenger represents one fewer car on the road. Less congestion leads to speedier commerce, which leads to economic growth. If people could get over their bus stigma, more of them would ride, and everybody would be the richer for it.

But the best way to banish bus stigma is to make the service more attractive. That takes money, which takes the will of elected officials. The Bangor bus system is woefully underfunded. If city officials want the system to attract more riders, I have several suggestions for investment:

First, the schedule. Extended evening hours will enable more people to do more business at more times of the day. It’s such an obvious win I’m a little surprised it isn’t yet done.

The waiting room at the parking garage could use some physical improvements. It’s about the least friendly physical space you can imagine: hard plastic chairs, vending machines, nothing on the wall besides a bus schedule and signs that warn you you’re on camera. It reinforces every bus stigma stereotype. A little money could provide a room with comfortable chairs, a table or two, a magazine rack, a bulletin board – anything to make the place a tad more welcoming.

There’s no connection between the city bus and the long-distance bus lines. When you come in on the Concord Coach at 6 pm, you’re hung out to dry on Union Street. The Greyhound stop, over the horizon in Hermon, isn’t served by the local bus at all.

Ultimately, Bangor needs a downtown bus hub that connects all three services. But that will depend on public support for buses. And that will depend on overcoming outdated stigmas.

 

 

Saturday Bus Service, Part 2

Hampden bus

One of the most gratifying things to come out of last week’s Hampden Town Council meeting was the revelation of a groundswell of support for public transportation in the greater Bangor area.

Between 20 and 30 supporters of Saturday bus service showed up at the meeting, and bus superintendent Laurie Linscott presented the council with forms signed by an additional 34 supporters who were unable to attend. A citizens’ group called Transportation For All, of which I was previously unaware, sent representatives. This show of support is all the more impressive, given that the meeting was held after bus hours, in a location that discourages access by any other means than car.

Perhaps the best comment of the evening came from an older woman who left before I could get her name. She said that while the bus is necessary for those who can’t afford a car, it’s also a boon to young people discovering that a car-free lifestyle may be worth pursuing. “I think we should support this growing movement,” she said.

And that’s what it is: a movement.

Within a month after giving up car ownership at the beginning of 2007, I began to notice the benefits. I walked everywhere, and shed extra pounds. I stopped buying gas, and had more money at the end of the month. I felt better, because I wasn’t always on the defensive, ready to be peeved at a driver in front of me who might not be moving as fast as I’d like. Over the next few months, my life improved so dramatically that I wanted to share the news with the world, or at least my friends and neighbors. Somebody should write a book about this, I thought.

It didn’t take me long to discover that somebody had. In fact, an entire body of literature is devoted to the notion that cars, rather than setting us free, have created their own kind of entrapment. I read Jane Holtz Kay’s Asphalt Nation, published in 1997, which gives an overview of American gridlock and how it happened. I read Katie Alvord’s Divorce Your Car, published in 2000, which contains an admiring foreword by her car-addicted ex-husband. I skimmed Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking, a tome published in 2005 by a UCLA economics professor on that particular form of welfare for cars.

These and other titles take various approaches to the problem of car saturation and car-centric public planning. But for practical advice, the best book I’ve found so far is How to Live Well Without Owning a Car, by Chris Balish, published in 2006. Balish is a television journalist from St. Louis, and at the time of the book’s publication, he was single and in his mid-thirties. His book is short but comprehensive. His premise is summarized in the sub-title: “Save money, breathe easier, and get more mileage out of life.”

Balish’s book is as fun as it is informative. He provides a worksheet that enumerates the many hidden costs of owning a car. He writes about his active, car-free dating life. He outlines strategies for accomplishing tasks like grocery shopping and taking your dog to the vet without a car. And he provides testimonials from dozens of people across the United States and Canada who have given up the illusory freedom and convenience of owning car for the real freedom and convenience of NOT owning one.

But why should the mostly car-owning taxpayers of Hampden pay for a service used by a very few people? Sadly, the perception of public transportation as a subsidized service for the poor persists. Hampden taxpayers pay approximately $7.70 per year for Saturday bus service, the equivalent of about three gallons of gas. Critics contend that half the route lies in “South Bangor,” and that few Hampden residents use the Saturday bus.

I’ll make two points here:

For some the bus is an essential service, much like the police department, the post office, and the public library. Does a lonely country road “pay for itself”? It’s unfair to hold the bus to a higher standard than the subsidized car culture.

Many sympathetic car owners give armchair support to the bus. As one person said after the meeting, “It’s nice to know it’s there when my car breaks down.” But for the bean counters, it’s all about the numbers. If you support public transportation, get out there and use it. Leave the car at home occasionally and take the bus. Otherwise it might not be there when you need it.

Saturday Bus Service

Bike on Bus

An Open Letter to the Hampden Town Council

[The council will vote Monday June 15 at 7 p.m. in the Hampden Municipal Building, 106 Western Avenue, on discontinuing Saturday bus service between Hampden and Bangor.]

Dear Councilors;

I’m dismayed that you’re considering cutting Saturday bus service again, less than a year after voting to keep it. The Community Connector is an important resource for the people of Hampden and neighboring communities.

I live in Bangor, but I use the bus to do business in Hampden, often on Saturdays. I keep a boat at Hamlin’s Marina, and I use the bus to get to the hardware store, the grocery store, and the Dunkin’ Donuts, all Hampden businesses that lie on the bus route.

By limiting the bus service to weekdays only, you are harming many people who rely (or would like to be able to rely) on this essential service. It will be particularly hard for those who can’t afford a car. These are the people who can least afford the extra money for a taxi to a low-paying job. Less bus service also harms those who can’t drive for physical reasons: sight impairment, disabilities, old age. Finally, there are a growing number of people who, like me, have begun to question the accepted wisdom that everybody needs a car.

Some have cited the route’s low ridership as reason to discontinue Saturday service. But that is circular thinking. I firmly believe that more people would use the bus if it became attractive to use. You can’t offer minimal service and then complain that it is getting minimal use.

Others have cited the price tag: $28,000 to run the Saturday service annually. But I wonder how much the city of Hampden has invested in infrastructure for cars over the past year. Public transportation is also an investment. I chose the boatyard in Hampden in part because it is convenient to get to by bus. All the money I have spent there, and at other nearby business, can be considered a return on the town’s investment in the bus system. Not everybody does business by car. The town should not make it more difficult to choose alternatives.

Bus passengers are an under-represented constituency. Even the timing and location of your Monday meeting discourages their participation. The bus stops running an hour and half before the meeting begins, and your municipal building is on the outskirts of town, difficult to access by foot or bicycle.

We are so used to the favoritism for cars that many people don’t perceive things like bus service cuts as disenfranchisement. Any transportation planning for the future must include a robust public transportation system. It’s only fair. As I wrote earlier this year on my blog:

The public perception of public transportation as wasteful subsidy is as old as it is inaccurate. In her landmark 1997 book Asphalt Nation, the late Jane Holtz Kay points out that your car is more subsidized than the bus. Half the money to support our addiction to cars comes from general taxes, whether you own a car or not. We all pay for free parking, law enforcement associated with the car, health care for accident victims, and the myriad environmental costs wrought by the car. So who is subsidizing whom?

The meeting is at 7 p.m. Monday, June 15, at the Hampden Municipal Building. The building is near the intersection of routes 202 and 9, diagonally across from the Hannaford. I plan to arrive early by bus; I hope I can get a ride home.

For those who cannot attend, here are the names and e-mail addresses of the members of the Hampden City Council, to whom I have sent copies of this letter.

Stephen L. Wilde       wildetowncouncil@hampdenmaine.gov

Dennis R. Marble       marbletowncouncil@hampdenmaine.gov

Terry McAvoy            mcavoytowncouncil@hampdenmaine.gov

David. I. Ryder, Mayor          rydertowncouncil@hampdenmaine.gov

Carol S. Duprey         dupreytowncouncil@hampdenmaine.gov

William Shakespeare, deputy mayor          shakespearetowncouncil@hampdenmaine.gov

Gregory j. Sirois         siroistowncouncil@hampdenmaine.gov

 

In Praise of the Bus

P1040169

This week I’m writing two significant checks to the state and federal government, which will leave precious little money in my checking account for things like beer, baseball tickets, and business cards to promote this blog. Thankfully, I don’t have to throw a temperamental automobile into the mix. When I owned cars, they always seemed to need repairs when I could least afford them.

No one likes paying taxes, and we all like to complain about some of the ways our tax dollars are spent. Depending upon your political persuasion, (and this is NOT a politically partisan blog), these may include: military adventures and equipment, foreign aid, welfare to able-bodied citizens, large-scale public art projects, public television, and sports stadiums.

Public transportation often encounters the same sort of criticism. Bangor boasts a pretty good bus system that operates six days a week, twelve hours a day. But the buses stop running at six o’clock in the evening, which makes the system unusable for many working adults. Ask a Bangor City Councilor or a representative of one of the other communities served by the bus about this, and you will get a variation of the same answer: It’s too expensive. Taxpayers don’t want to pay for it.

The perception of public transportation as wasteful subsidy is as old as it is inaccurate. In her landmark 1997 book Asphalt Nation, the late Jane Holtz Kay pointed out that your car is more subsidized than the bus. Half the money to support our addiction to cars comes from general taxes, whether you own a car or not. We all pay for free parking, law enforcement associated with the car, health care for accident victims, and the myriad environmental costs wrought by the car. So who is subsidizing whom?

Even if you never set foot on a public bus, your life on the road is improved by public transportation. Think about it. Every bus passenger represents one less car. Would you rather wait behind 25 cars at a traffic light, or a single bus? Would you rather spend half an hour competing with other drivers for a downtown parking space, or spend a few pennies in taxes toward freeing up more spaces?

More importantly, public transportation stimulates the economy. When I stopped owning cars and started regularly riding the bus, I found I had more money at the end of the month to shop at local businesses, to take my sweetheart out to dinner, and to purchase necessary items and services for my home. All those businesses benefitted. And I am far from alone. Longer bus hours would enable more people to remain downtown after work, or to get to and from work without a vehicle, or even to reduce the number of vehicles in the household. More money in the hands of consumers translates to a better bottom line for area businesses.

So why aren’t more people on board with this? Why does the image of public transportation as “skeezy” and “sketchy” persist? One reason might be that we’ve been brainwashed by advertising to think of our cars as status symbols. Another could be that bus passengers are often marginalized in the public mind as losers who can’t afford a car. A third reason is that municipalities and businesses are loath to encourage bus use. When was the last time the Bangor Mall, say, held a “Bus Rider Appreciation Day” with things like discounts and prize drawings? We are, after all, helping to pay for the parking lot without using it.

I work for one of the few entities in the area that gets this. The University of Maine provides free, unlimited bus rides for all students, faculty and staff. Recently, Husson and Eastern Maine Community College have followed suit. Bus tickets are a whole lot cheaper than parking construction. I see no reason why other major employers, such as Cianbro, the hospitals, and business parks, can’t do the same thing. Later transit hours would also help shift workers and people taking evening classes.

And one more thing: let’s bring back the BAT. I still don’t know whether it stood for “Bangor Area Transit” or “Bangor Area Transportation,” but the concept was cool, including the large bat stencils on the side of the bus. Who thought up the bloodless moniker “Community Connector”? It sounds like a therapy session. Who wouldn’t want to ride in a BATmobile?

 

 

Traffic slowly in the World you wish to Change, or something like that

 

 

“Beam me up, Scotty.”

“Billions and billions…”

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

These famous quotes are attributed to Captain James T. Kirk, Carl Sagan, and Mohandas Gandhi. None of them ever uttered the actual words.

The closest Kirk ever came was: “We’re very tired, Mr. Scott. Beam us up home.” The Sagan quote comes from Johnny Carson, who was an astronomy enthusiast as well as a late-night television host.

Altruists cite Gandhi’s quote as an admonishment to do good work in the world. Though my motivations aren’t entirely unselfish, I like to think there’s a little bit of Gandhi in my life without a car. I want to see fewer cars on the road and therefore don’t own one. It may seem like a small thing, subtracting one car from the vast American traffic picture, but small increments can add up to overall change.

Here is the actual Gandhi quote, and its source:

We but mirror the world.  All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body.  If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.  As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.  This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.

[From VOL 13, Ch 153, General Knowledge About Health, Page 241, Printed in the Indian Opinion on 9/8/1913 from The Collected Works of M. K. Gandhi, published by The Publications Division, New Delhi, India.]

Bumper-sticker folk wisdom has condensed it to a single sentence, a phrase we can all remember. It’s not bad advice, especially the last part. I’m not waiting for public transportation to get better or for drivers to get friendlier toward bicyclists; I’m riding the bus and the bicycle now. I’m not sure that giving up cars has changed my nature in the sense that Gandhi meant, but it has changed my outlook on life.

 

I’ve just wrapped up another semester at the University of Maine, where I teach creative writing. Though I’ve spent much of my life in journalism, I think of myself as a fiction writer first. My novels still sometimes turn up in used bookstores.

Many of my students are not English majors and do not plan on careers as writers. Nonetheless, I’m convinced that writing fiction can help a college graduate in any field, because the creation of story imparts a valuable human skill: the ability to see things from other points of view.

College students are generally good at describing their feelings and fantasies. They do less well with observation and reportage, and they struggle mightily with point of view. This is, of course, a generalization, but it’s mostly true.

It’s a difficult thing to ask a twenty-year-old to do: put yourself in the mind of another individual, with different experiences, goals and values. Then give that character a challenge of some kind. People react differently to challenges. As students begin to consider this, they look up from their cellphones and into the real world and its real people. Why? Because fiction gives us insight into our differences. It makes us more understanding and compassionate. It helps promote a better world.

They have grown up in a world of bumper stickers and Twitter, video games and high-speed Internet. Seeing from a different point of view is new to them. And so they struggle. Most become better writers by the end of the semester, and maybe better citizens, too, if empathy has anything to do with citizenship.

 

We Americans like things simple. We like “high-concept” movies like Jaws and Snakes on a Plane that we can describe in a few words. We like cars, because we can seemingly go unencumbered from one place to another at any time we wish. We reduce the wisdom of Gandhi to the pithiness of a bumper sticker.

I’d like to see a lot of changes in the world that I’ll never do anything about. The designated hitter has to go, for instance, and the Dakotas should be one state, with two senators. I’ll leave the fighting and losing of those battles to someone else.

But I can keep my name off a car registration, and I can continue to expose young minds to the reading and writing of fiction. It’s not much, but it’s the least I can do.

Spring in Maine is like a Baseball Argument in a Traffic Jam

The only things more tedious than awaiting spring in Maine are: waiting for the umpires to review a replay in a baseball game, and sitting behind the wheel in a line of stalled traffic. Whose bad idea was it to replace an umpire’s eyes with a barrage of camera angles? And whose bad idea was it to herd everyone into cars?

It doesn’t make much sense to complain about things over which you have no control. That didn’t stop generations of Red Sox fans from bemoaning the sale of Babe Ruth, the trade of Sparky Lyle for Danny Cater, or Grady Little’s decision to leave Pedro Martinez in game seven of the 2003 ALCS an inning too long. I don’t complain about baseball anymore. The Red Sox have won three times, the Cubs won last year, and the apocalypse may be upon us. I don’t have any control of that, either.

The weather in Maine is a lot like baseball. We can watch, we can whine, but we can do very little, at least in the short run, to change the outcome. The Earth Day event to celebrate the Community Connector bus system has been postponed until the tenth of June. We can only hope that the sun might shine on that day– and on the future of public transportation in Maine.

What did I expect when I moved back here after nearly two decades in sunny southern California? I told myself I didn’t mind the snow as long as I didn’t have to drive in it. I took up cross-country skiing. I wore out a couple pairs of boots, and I learned to dress in layers when I left the house in the morning.

But April is the cruelest month. It wears you out with anticipation as it delivers one gray day after another. The weather smiled on the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race and my family’s annual Easter gathering. I missed them both with the flu. I never get the flu, and in my arrogant assumption of ongoing good health, I never get a flu shot, either. I’m not complaining. Illness happens, and this year it happened to me.

I used to complain about California traffic. “This is no way to live,” I muttered to myself while taking the kids to school in the morning, two freeway exits away. Maine does not have traffic. Last week I had a conversation about this on the bus with a man who had lived in Houston. We discussed Maine’s idea of traffic, which might occur on the odd tourist weekend at the base of the Maine turnpike. But even that is mild compared to San Diego – or Houston or any other Sun Belt city – on a normal day.

When I came to Maine as a child, my family drove up Route One, through Brunswick and Bath, where the divided road still ends, and Wiscasset, which wasn’t so much of a bottleneck then. There’s a huge car dealership just outside Wiscasset that wasn’t there during my childhood. Route One can be slow through there in the summer, but it’s nothing Californians would call traffic.

Is it any wonder, then, that Mainers are cool to the concept of public transportation? The automobile saturation that plagues so much of our country is barely in evidence here. What is the problem, on a collective level, with everybody using a car? On an individual level it’s not so great – many people make themselves poor by failing to imagine a life without car ownership – but Maine’s roads are mostly uncongested, even in the summer.

Still, public transportation is something I can do something about – by using it as much as possible, by refusing to own a car, and by writing this blog. Even in Maine, many people do not need cars every day of their lives. Many households can reduce the number of vehicles in the dooryard and see significant savings as a result. It’s in everybody’s best interest to reduce our overall dependence on cars, and good public transportation is integral to that goal.

So I’ll keep lobbying for later bus hours, expanded routes, passenger trains, and a less entrenched car culture. Every person on the bus represents one less car stuck in traffic, a chunk of a paycheck that can be spent on something else, and a small reduction in greenhouse gases. It’s good for all of us.

 

What is the true meaning of Earth Day?

 

In June 1989, five months after running aground and spilling its cargo all over Alaska’s Prince William Sound, the Exxon Valdez limped home to San Diego, still leaking a trail of oil.

I went down to see it at the shipyard, but the public wasn’t allowed in close and there wasn’t much to see. The costs of the American car culture are often hidden from view.

I’m reminded of this as Earth Day approaches, on the heels of Easter. The two celebrations of spring occur within a week of each other this year, thanks to the configuration of the Earth and Moon.

Though only 47 years old, Earth Day is now observed in more than 180 countries. Which makes sense when you think about it. Humanity has many religions, but, so far, only one planet.

The first Earth Day was a response to a massive oil spill near Santa Barbara, twenty years before the Exxon Valdez disaster. It was the brainchild of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat and early opponent of the Vietnam War. Nelson toured the California coastline in the aftermath of the spill and thought that the energy of the anti-war protests could be brought to bear on environmental issues.

From Nelson’s 2005 obituary in the New York Times:

More than 20 million Americans marked the first Earth Day in ways as varied as the dragging of tires and old appliances out of the Bronx River in White Plains and campus demonstrations in Oregon. Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York closed Fifth Avenue to vehicles. Congress shut its doors so lawmakers could participate in local events. Legislatures from 42 states passed Earth Day resolutions to commemorate the date.

Senator Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 by President Bill Clinton, who praised him as “the father of Earth Day.”

The Santa Barbara disaster occurred in the heart of America’s car culture, within view of the Pacific Highway. More than 3 million gallons of crude oil fouled some of the most popular beaches in the world, and killed untold thousands of birds, fish and sea mammals.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

The Jan. 28, 1969, blowout was caused by inadequate safety precautions taken by Unocal, which was known then as Union Oil. The company received a waiver from the U.S. Geological Survey that allowed it to build a protective casing around the drilling hole that was 61 feet short of the federal minimum requirements at the time.

The resulting explosion was so powerful it cracked the sea floor in five places, and crude oil spewed out of the rupture at a rate of 1,000 gallons an hour for a month before it could be slowed.

It was the worst oil spill in the nation’s history – until 20 years later, when the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude off the coast of Alaska.

In those twenty years, California and the United States, with bipartisan support, passed reams of environmental legislation. There is little doubt that these laws have improved all of our lives. Los Angeles still has smog, but not like it did in 1969, thanks to the requirement that all vehicles pass an emissions test before they can be registered. We still have bad oil spills, like the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, but we also have an enhanced awareness of our impact on the planetary ecosystem.

In the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill, Greenpeace ran an ad campaign with the slogan: “It wasn’t the tanker captain’s driving that caused the Alaska oil spill. It was yours.”

Even the car-happy cities of southern California are starting to take this to heart, and invest in public transportation. If we are serious about the environment – and the expanding observance of Earth Day shows that we are – there is no mission more important than promoting alternatives to the private car.

And that’s why I’ll be down in Bangor’s Pickering Square from noon to 2 pm on Saturday, April 22, Earth Day, to help celebrate the Community Connector bus system. There will be free food, activities for all ages, information and entertainment. The event is hosted by Transportation for All, a volunteer group working to improve bus service in the greater Bangor area.

Every bus passenger represents a car not driven, a tank of gas not purchased, a reduction in the risk of another oil spill. Bangor’s bus system dates back to 1972, just two years after the first Earth Day. Both traditions are worth honoring.

 

A Great Country Needs a Great Train System

 

Many years ago I took my kids on a cross-country train trip. Amtrak was offering a great deal: I paid full fare for myself, half fare for the first kid, and the second kid rode for free. We bought a pass that allowed us three stops and 45 days to complete the trip, though we did it within the month of July. We visited family in Maine and Minneapolis, and spent a couple of days in San Francisco before returning to San Diego.

My son and daughter were seven and five, small enough to sleep comfortably in their seats. I don’t sleep much when I travel, but I did doze off in the observation car as the train sped through Kansas in the dead of night. We bought a pack of Amtrak playing cards, which I still have. The kids walked up and down the train during the day and made friends. On the third evening of the trip we pulled into Boston and took the subway to Fenway Park, where the Red Sox, who had a lousy team that year, won in eleven innings. The next day we took a bus to Maine.

The trip was not glitch-free. On the way back west, we decided to use a 90-minute layover in Chicago to visit the nearby Sears Tower, then the tallest building in the world. I hadn’t realized that going to the top involved a lot of standing in line and waiting for elevators. We watched helplessly from above as our tiny train pulled out of the station without us. My sister met us the following morning at the Greyhound station in Minneapolis, after an overnight ride on a crowded bus. In San Francisco I dropped my acoustic guitar on the stone floor of a hotel lobby, breaking its neck.

But my kids remembered that trip so fondly that ten years later, when we were living in Maine and planning a spring break trip to California, they insisted we go by train.

The experience was exponentially more pleasant that getting onto an airplane. We saw parts of the country you can’t see from the air or the Interstate. There was room to move around and get away from one another. Yes, the trains were late, and yes, federal subsidies kept the fares affordable. Amtrak’s critics are quick to point out the system’s costs and shortcomings. But as an American taxpayer, I want the opportunity to see my country by train, even if I only take advantage of it once a decade or so.

When I moved to California in the 1980s, I became involved with a group of people promoting high-speed rail in the corridor between Los Angeles and San Diego. Jerry Brown had already served two terms as governor and made two unsuccessful bids for the presidency. He had already earned the nickname “Governor Moonbeam” for backing high-speed rail and other futuristic projects. Today he’s governor again, throwing his weight behind a high-speed line connecting the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas, and he’s still being ridiculed for it. The governors of Florida and Wisconsin rejected federal funds for high-speed rail projects that would have created jobs and alleviated traffic in their states.

A great country needs a great train system. We have a mediocre one – which is still better than nothing. But why is it so hard to build and maintain modern, high-speed passenger train service in the United States? Why does it take so long? And why the unreasonable expectation of profitability, when we don’t apply the same standard to cars and trucks and airplanes?

In the years following World War II, while Europe and Japan were modernizing and developing their rail infrastructure, the United States built the Interstate Highway system, at a cost of more than $500 billion in 2008 dollars. The federal government subsidized 90% of this cost. Annual support of the Interstates costs more per passenger mile than keeping Amtrak running at its present, minimal level. And yet despite this massive government giveaway to the owners of cars and trucks, Amtrak continually faces threats of budget cuts or outright elimination.

It would be a shame if the federal government eliminated long-distance rail service and forced more people into cars and crowded airports. It would also go against the flow of history, at a time when Americans are waking up to the wastefulness of our car culture. I’m glad my kids got to see the country by train. I want tomorrow’s kids to have that same opportunity.


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Are we Driving Ourselves to the Poorhouse?

 

Maine is famous for low wages and small towns. Those small towns have been losing population for decades. When I was growing up in Blue Hill, families with five, six, or more children were common. Last year, deaths outnumbered births in all but two of Maine’s 16 counties.

My parents had five kids and two cars. My father drove one of those cars a mile and a half to work, where it sat in a parking lot all day. My mother used the other one to haul groceries and to take us to doctor’s appointments and such. Almost everybody we knew lived like this.

It’s hard to question a lifestyle when you’re living inside it. I anticipated that I would buy a car as soon as I got my license, and that I would spend my working years as a car owner. It took many years of driving and pouring money into a series of vehicles before I began to think seriously about alternatives.

Thus I sympathize with the young woman whose story appeared recently in the Bangor Daily News, my hometown newspaper. She is by all accounts a skilled elder care worker with a full-time job at a Bangor facility. Her salary – about $1,600 per month – barely covers her basic living expenses. Her story is repeated all over the state.

And yet, according to the BDN, those basic expenses include a monthly car payment of $233 and an insurance premium of $135. Before she puts gas in the car, or buys a set of tires or has an oil change or a minor repair, she has to make a monthly “nut” of $368 just to keep the thing in the driveway. And that doesn’t include registration, inspection, wiper fluid, parking tickets or any of the other little expenses that crop up from time to time. She is paying more for her car than for her monthly rent, and many Mainers are in the same boat.

Her hours may not align with the schedule, but her place of employment is right on a bus line. A monthly bus pass is $45 – a far cry from what she’s paying to keep a car.

If Maine employers want to keep skilled workers, they could raise their wages, of course – or, they could encourage them to use public transportation. The University of Maine has been doing this for years, and Husson and Eastern Maine Community College have recently followed suit. As an adjunct professor, I have months during the year when I make less than $1,600. Those times are tight, but I never have to worry about getting to work.

Municipalities can help retain workers by expanding bus schedules and encouraging employers to offer incentives like the schools do. Even small towns can do this, with a little creative thinking

Most employers willingly offer free workplace parking. What if they offered free transportation instead? This is essentially what the University of Maine does and, except for evening hours, it works splendidly. Some companies (though few, if any, in Maine) offer their employees parking offsets, where the price of a parking space is reflected in the paychecks of workers who don’t use one.

The Jackson Lab in Bar Harbor partners with public agencies to run several daily buses. This reduces traffic on Mount Desert Island and the need for more on-site parking. The bus is a boon to the employees who use it, too, because every dollar they don’t spend on a car trickles into other areas of the economy. It’s good for everybody.

We need to think differently about the way we use cars. We don’t all need our own private chariots all of the time, and we certainly can’t keep doing it forever. But it will take time to convince most Americans of this. Most of us have spent our whole lives believing exactly the opposite.

A changing mindset about our use of automobiles will produce other long-term benefits. We won’t have to keep filling our cities with parking lots. We won’t have to keep paying oil companies to drill for more and more oil in fragile ecosystems like the Arctic. And perhaps we can fight fewer wars over this finite resource.

Yes, Maine needs better wages. But businesses and local governments can also expend a little capital to promote ride-sharing, public transportation, and smart development. This in turn can encourage more Mainers to get out of the cars that are keeping them poorer than they should be.

The Designated Driver is a better Idea than the Designated Hitter

I am a Red Sox fan. I’ve been lucky to live long enough to see them win three World Series, a feat that eluded Ted Williams, my father’s hero, and Carl Yastrzemski, mine.

At the center of those three championship teams was David Ortiz, widely regarded as the best designated hitter ever to play the game. Unlike the rest of baseball, the history of the DH doesn’t go back very far – only to 1973, when the American League decided that casual fans were bored by watching pitchers try to hit.

Next to playing the World Series at night – another dubious legacy of the 1970s, a decade full of them – the designated hitter is the worst idea ever foisted on the best team sport in the world.

I’m probably on the losing side of this argument. The DH has permeated all levels of the game, down to college and high school. It was used in the recently completed World Baseball Classic. Many pitchers like it, and so do aging hitters who can’t get around so well in the field any more.

I would trade the championships of 2007 and 2013 (but not 2004 – that one I’ll always cherish) to make Ortiz play first base and John Lester swing the bat. Watch a National League game, and it becomes clear that baseball is a better sport when the pitcher bats.

Barry Zito was a soft-tossing lefty who won a Cy Young Award with the Oakland Athletics in 2002. Six years later, he signed a lucrative free-agent deal with the cross-town San Francisco Giants, and his career promptly tanked. But in 2012, the Giants, down 3-1 in the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals, gave the ball to Zito, having no one else.

Zito’s fastball topped out at 85 miles per hour, and if he couldn’t throw his curve for strikes, he often got pounded. In the second inning, the Cardinals put runners on second and third with nobody out. Zito struck out the number-seven hitter on a curve. That brought up Pete Kozma, a rookie on a hot streak. Zito walked Kozma intentionally. Lance Lynn, the Cardinals’ pitcher, promptly grounded into a double play to end the inning.

There was no score at the time, and had the Cardinals plated those two runs, they may have gone on to win the game and the series. Instead, Zito took a shutout into the eighth to save the Giants’ season. They went on to win the World Series.

There’s more. The Giants put together three runs in the fourth before Zito came to the plate with two out and runners on first and third. Seeing that the third baseman was playing back, he laid down a bunt and beat the throw to first as the fourth run scored.

In an American League game, neither of these scenarios would have happened. The Giants would not have been able to manipulate the Cardinals’ batting order around the pitcher to get out of a jam, and Zito would not have come to the plate at all.

A good National League game is baseball at its best. The pitcher is not an automatic out, but he is a built-in soft spot in the batting order, and opposing pitchers work the innings accordingly. Fernando Valenzuela was a master at this. He was also a pretty fair hitter.

Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka drove in two crucial runs in the 2007 World Series with his only hit of the year. In 1985, an obscure relief pitcher named Rick Camp hit his only career homer to tie a Fourth of July game in the 18th inning, only to give up five runs in the top of the 19th and lose the game. Knuckleball pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm hit a home run the first time he came to the plate, played for 20 more seasons, and never hit another one.

The designated hitter robs baseball of these delightful anomalies. A manager no longer needs to decide whether to leave his pitcher in a tight game or lift him for a pinch-hitter. It makes a subtle sport a little less so.

Much of baseball’s appeal lies beneath the surface of the action on the field. A good ballgame is like a good novel, which is why the sport is so beloved by writers. It asks the audience to flesh out scenarios with their imagination, to anticipate rather than to simply watch.

I guess maybe I am a purist, about some things.

“Slow” is just a Four-Letter Word

 

I’m watching the World Baseball Classic in the middle of a Maine snowstorm. Venezuela is playing Italy, and I don’t know many of the players, but I don’t care. Baseball’s back, after a dark winter.

When the time changes in March I often take my bicycle out, but the wintry weather discourages me. I skied home instead. There are many ways to get around without a car – almost all of them slower.

I named this blog Slower Traffic, as in “slower traffic keep right” on the road signs, but also because that was literally what I intended to write about: walking, bicycling, and public transportation. All of these are usually slower than driving.

But so what? Baseball is slow. Yet it’s also the most interesting sport we have, because there is more going on beneath the surface in a baseball game than in a season of hockey, football and basketball rolled together.

Maine is slow. When I moved back to Maine after 16 years in southern California, the phrase I heard most often was “quality of life.” This means that you can work well and still have time to sail, go camping, or enjoy a backyard barbecue. Everyone doesn’t live on top of everybody else, and we aren’t all rushing to get somewhere. Mainers make fun of people from Massachusetts, because they always seem to be in a hurry. Life should be less frenetic, and in Maine it is.

Willie Nelson is slow. His songs ooze out of him like warm maple syrup over a stack of blueberry pancakes. Who doesn’t like Willie Nelson? Even people who say they don’t like country music like Willie Nelson. He’s in his eighties now, but he was 28 when he wrote “Crazy,” a slow song for the ages.

Writing is slow – real writing, that is. Consider the paragraph, what E.B. White called the basic unit of composition. A piece of writing is composed of paragraphs, strung together like strands of DNA. The paragraph now finds itself in peril. We live in the age of Twitter, where wit passes for wisdom and the bulk of the population doesn’t read books. If we want to stop the dumbing down of America, here would be a good place to start.

How long did it take Charles Dickens to write Great Expectations? It took me a few months to read it, on the bus in half-hour installments. I wrote much of my own long novel on the bus. I can’t read or write in a car, though I know people who listen to books on tape while they’re driving. But I would have a hard time paying attention, I think, and an even harder time flipping back a couple of pages to catch something I might have missed.

Sailing is slow. So are badminton, curling, and cross-country skiing. What else is good but slow? Chess, and poker, and the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by Arthur C. Clarke.

When did “slow” become a bad word? Maybe we could all use a little less speed in our lives. Maybe we would live in a saner world if we took the time to do slow things on a regular basis.

I confess that I drove to Belfast recently, and became annoyed at a slow driver on the way back through Hampden. But then I remembered the driver who passed us earlier that morning when we pulled over for an ambulance, just so he could nose into the drive-thru at Dunkin’ Donuts. Fast can be annoying, too.

On the other hand, I like my high-speed internet, and I’m a proponent of high-speed rail, though I’ve never ridden on a so-called “bullet train” like they have in Europe and Japan. When I moved to California in the 1980s there was talk of building such a rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Thirty years later, it still isn’t done. I guess high-speed rail is slow, too, at least in the United States.

But is there anything slower than the month of March in northern latitudes? “Just kill me now,” Julius Caesar said, on another cold gray day in Rome without a hint of spring in the air. The Romans knew about the slow precession of the equinoxes, but they knew nothing of Daylight Savings Time, or baseball. They just sat around in their villas drinking wine and waiting for spring. Only their Mediterranean climate saved them from sheer madness.

Pedestrian Road Deaths and One Near-Death Experience

 

Years ago, I almost ran down a homeless man in San Diego. I don’t know for sure that he was homeless, but he wandered across the four-lane Pacific Highway one night, dressed all in dark clothing, in front of my car. I only saw him at the last second, and I don’t think he saw me at all. He had long dark hair and an old army overcoat. I might have missed him by two feet.

That’s not much margin for error. I could have as easily hit him as not. I would have stopped, and I would have likely been arrested. My life would be different today. I’d have the death or grievous injury of a human being on my conscience, and probably a record, too.

I’m reminded of this every time I see a news story about a pedestrian killed by a car. It could have been me, in either position. Nowadays chances are better that I’d be on foot, and thus my chances of surviving such an accident would be worse. But it could happen to anyone.

Recently, two regular readers (thank you, readers) sent me two links: one from Maine, the other from Ireland.

Writing in the Portland Press Herald, James Hettenbach and Lauri Boxer-Macomber lament the public tendency to side with drivers:

“All too often after the death of a pedestrian or bicyclist, the media and public ask questions like: Why was she wearing dark clothing at night? Why wasn’t he using a light or a flashlight? Why was she in a dimly lit area? Why was he riding his bike on that street at that time? The discourse evokes a blame-the-victim mindset, suggesting that pedestrians and cyclists on Maine’s roadways somehow invite their own deaths by walking to the grocery store in jeans and a parka instead of a neon orange reflective jacket.”

Theirs is a valid point, and I’ll return to it in a moment. But some pedestrians and cyclists are hard to see. As a walker and cyclist I am every bit as invested in my own safety as is the driver of a car. When I drive, I don’t run red lights for fear of getting T-boned, and when I walk I don’t recklessly wander into lanes of moving traffic. I use lights on my bike at night and wear bright clothing.

But I empathize with drivers who get annoyed when people ride bikes without lights or cross the street in the middle of the block on a dark night. At the same time, drivers must accept most of the onus for safety, because they are the ones operating a lethally powerful machine. That’s why we license drivers but not bicyclists, and why we don’t tell pedestrians what to wear.

It’s up to the driver, ultimately, to look out for pedestrians and cyclists. With greater power (a motor vehicle vs. a bicycle or a human body) comes greater responsibility.

The piece from Ireland, written by Cian Ginty, contains a revealing short video, an “awareness test” that demonstrates how easy it is not to see something you aren’t looking for. I wasn’t looking for a guy crossing the Pacific Highway on foot that night in San Diego. But it would have been my fault if I had hit him.

Unexpected things can happen on the road at any time. Drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists are all capable of erratic behavior. Animals can come out of nowhere; ditto children and homeless people.

The best way to increase pedestrian and cyclist safety is for more people to walk and bicycle, and for drivers to be constantly aware of them. Ginty concurs:

“One of the most quoted bits of research is from public health consultant Peter Jacobsen, who studied data from Europe and North America. Jacobsen established that: ‘A motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking and bicycling if more people walk or bicycle. Policies that increase the numbers of people walking and bicycling appear to be an effective route to improving the safety of people walking and bicycling.’

He says this result is “unexpected” as it is ‘unlikely that the people walking and bicycling become more cautious if their numbers are larger, it indicates that the behaviour of motorists controls the likelihood of collisions with people walking and bicycling. It appears that motorists adjust their behaviour in the presence of people walking and bicycling.’”

I’ve left intact his Irish spelling. It behooves us all to behave better, on either side of the ocean, or the windshield.

 

 

 

Lessons from the Slow Lane

 

The beginning of March marks two years since I began this blog. This is my 105th weekly post, the first of Slower Traffic’s third year. I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read and comment. I’ve always seen this blog as a pebble thrown into the pond of a larger conversation.

I gave up car ownership in 2007, initially for a year. It’s the only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept. A decade later, I can honestly say it’s changed my life.

Only after I began to do some research did I realize that I was part of a movement, small but growing, a pushback against the ubiquity of the car and the car culture. I seldom questioned my need for a vehicle, even as I simmered in San Diego freeway traffic, or scraped the bottom of my bank account to buy snow tires. It wasn’t until I gave up owning cars that I saw how unnecessary it was for me to own one.

Can everyone do it? Of course not – but that’s not the point. Many of us can. Many of us only think we need a car at our disposal, all the time. I know. I was one of them.

Cars always kept me broke. They got me to jobs, but they also sucked up a good part of my paychecks. In his seminal 2006 book How to Live Well without Owning a Car, Chris Balish elucidates the economic case: “Car ownership can rob you of a secure retirement. It can destroy your ability to save for college, start a business, or invest for the future.”

Consequently, when I came to Bangor and discovered that the bus could take me to and from my new job at the University of Maine, I sold my last car. Since then, I’ve been divorced, lived alone, and now live in a two-person household with a driveway barely big enough for one car.

But you can’t give up owning cars without making a few adjustments. I’ve been able to find places to live near bus lines and businesses that I can walk to. This isn’t true of all areas even within city limits. I’ve written about food deserts among Bangor’s neighborhoods, where the location of grocery stores almost mandates the use of a car. There are parts of the city that the bus doesn’t serve. It’s hard to get to the Cross Center on a Saturday, for example, because the Hampden Town Council eliminated Saturday bus service.

It isn’t hard to live without owning a car. You will be amazed at the money you save. And you will feel better physically. Here are a few words of advice, from insights I’ve gleaned over the past ten years:

Invest in a good pair of walking shoes. In the winter, this means boots. You’ll walk more. But that’s okay, because walking is good for you. I dropped ten pounds in two months without even trying. I dislike gyms and ritualized exercise. But it’s a rare day that I don’t walk the half-mile between home and downtown at least once. I shop on foot. A walk is a good way to clear your head, meet your neighbors, and get out into the natural world.

Ride a bicycle. This I do in the warmer months, though I see intrepid souls out there throughout the year. Everything I said about walking goes double for a bicycle. It’s great exercise, and the more cyclists there are on the roads, the safer the roads are for everyone.

Use public transportation. Bangor has a great bus system, with friendly drivers and convenient routes. I have long advocated for later evening hours, and when that happens, Bangor will see an uptick in ridership and an increase in commerce. The bus is free to anyone affiliated with the University of Maine, Husson University, and Eastern Maine Community College, and even if you pay for a monthly pass, it’s way cheaper than driving.

Be nice to the car owners in your life. I’m not a purist. I’ve renewed my driver’s license twice since giving up car ownership. Sometimes friends will give me rides; I make sure to do something for them in return. When I borrow the lovely Lisa’s car, I buy her a tank of gas. We live among cars, especially here in Maine. That is only going to change gradually, one former car owner at a time. But that’s how most lasting change happens.

Is there a Compelling Reason to Move Bangor’s Bus Hub?

 

 

I went to the recent city council workshop on alternative hubs for Bangor’s Community Connector bus system. The city has come into some money for the revitalization of Pickering Square, and the council is debating whether the bus depot should remain there or be relocated.

Some 60 people attended the meeting, on the day after digging out from one snowstorm in anticipation of another. The workshop had been postponed from Monday to Wednesday, and bus riders would either have to walk or find a ride home afterward. Nonetheless, they showed up in substantial numbers and made their voices heard.

The tone of the discussion remained positive throughout. City staff presented three options, all of which would keep the bus in the general downtown area. Though Councilor David Neally briefly brought it up, a fourth idea, siting the bus hub out near the Airport Mall, seems to have died the death it deserves. It ought to have a stake driven through its heart, just to be sure.

Another option, Abbot Square across from the Bangor Public Library, received little support, mostly because of traffic issues.

At meeting’s end, two options remained on the table: improve the bus hub at its present location, or build a brand new depot up the hill on Washington Street near Walgreen’s, about half a mile away.

The Washington Street plan would include a small, continuously circling shuttle bus, serving downtown (something that also makes sense where the bus is now, and that I’ve proposed in this space). The site is also large enough to incorporate out-of-town bus services and possibly “intermodal” transportation of the future.

Though the idea is sexy – a real public transportation hub in Bangor, with a nice waiting area and an office staffed by real human beings, maybe in the far future connected to a train – but Councilor Gibran Graham warned about getting “stars in our eyes.”

Graham cited the example of Portland, which is well served by the Concord Coach bus lines and the Amtrak Downeaster. Portland also has a robust local bus system, the METRO, which I’ve used in visits to the city. The hub of the METRO is in the heart of downtown. The station for the trains and long-distance bus is on the edge of town, along the number 5 route, which continues on to the Portland JetPort and the Maine Mall.

This is the way most cities do it, Graham said. Bangor is a hub, and the spokes of the wheel radiate from Pickering Square. This is a compelling reason to keep the nexus of the system where it is, and to make needed improvements in its present location.

I can think of no equally compelling reason to move the bus hub off-center.

Pickering Square provides convenient access to downtown businesses. Owners of those businesses ought to be the biggest boosters of a central bus hub, especially if we get the hours extended into the evening (which I realize is a separate, but equally important, issue). A single bus can deliver as many as 30 customers in the space it takes to park three cars. Every time I come downtown by bus instead of using a car, I free up a parking space for someone else. Multiply me by everyone on the bus, and you can see the mitigating effect the bus system has on traffic and parking.

A few people at the meeting alluded to the presence of drug dealers and other seedy elements in the square. But it would be a mistake to conflate those issues with the presence of the bus. They really have nothing to do with one another. The presence of police on foot and bicycles has already done much to address those problems.

I still like the idea of a downtown shuttle, and a connection to the Concord Coach and Greyhound buses is needed as well. And there needs to be a comfortable waiting area, staffed by a representative of the Community Connector. I’m not opposed to a downtown depot for all forms of public transportation. But the re-design of Pickering Square needs to start with the bus station and proceed from there.

Downtowns thrive when municipal governments take proactive steps to encourage alternatives to the automobile. We are seeing this happen all over the country and the world. Bangor needs to get onboard with this burgeoning movement by making a modern bus hub a centerpiece of new, smart development.