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.

Snowstorms are much more Fun when you don’t Drive in them

I call that an epic snowstorm.

In Bangor, the snow began at six o’clock Sunday evening and ended around the same time Monday. Two feet of snow fell during those 24 hours. We never lost power or heat. Two different cable channels were running marathons of the original Star Trek and Star Trek: Voyager. When both channels showed commercials, we shoveled.

We shoveled a lot. We shoveled out a place for the dog to pee, and a corridor from the front door to the street. The snow came down as fast as we could move it. The car in the driveway became an island, the overturned dinghy in the back yard just another drift.

At the height of it, I slapped on cross-country skis and headed downtown. I’ve never seen the city so paralyzed. Streets were covered in a foot or more of snow, and I’m not talking small side streets. Court Street and Union Street were barren fields of white. It was like sailing in the fog, past familiar landmarks, struggling to recognize them in the murk.

I’ve seen more snow accumulate in Bangor over a month, but nothing like this. We were warned. Husson University and the University of Maine, normally among the last holdouts, canceled Monday classes at 2:30 Sunday afternoon. Neither campus opened until noon on Tuesday.

There were only two cars parked on lower Main Street, both in front of Paddy Murphy’s. I laughed when I saw the collection of skis and snowshoes outside the door. Perhaps a dozen hardy souls were inside. The bartender said they were closing at three-thirty.

A few other places were open. I saw someone trudging back from our small neighborhood store with a gallon of milk. The lights were on in the post office when I skied past. But the center of town was eerily deserted, silent except for the wind.

The storm reverberated through the whole week. Monday’s city council workshop on the Community Connector bus hub was canceled, of course, and rescheduled for Wednesday, when a follow-up storm was due. I shuffled due dates for my classes and sent e-mails out to my students.

On Tuesday morning, Valentine’s Day, we shoveled out the lovely Lisa’s car. I’ve observed here that my attitude toward winter storms has changed 180 degrees since I stopped owning cars. I disliked driving in snow, I disliked buying snow tires and antifreeze, and I disliked shoveling out the car.

But I pitched in cheerfully, and next week when my shift at the basketball tournaments ends at 11 o’clock on a cold winter night, she’ll be happy to come pick me up. Of such small compromises are lives constructed.

By Wednesday morning, the University still didn’t have most of the walkways plowed. Students and teachers marched to classes on makeshift footpaths. A few customary routes were blocked. Parking was a nightmare – or so I heard from a fellow bus passenger.

On Wednesday evening, I attended the bus hub workshop, which I will write about next week. Despite the snow on the ground and the threat of more, some 60 people showed up, indicating the importance of public transportation in Bangor. I walked home after the meeting feeling hopeful.

On Thursday morning I awoke to find our beautifully shoveled walkway blocked with a plug of plowed snow taller than I am. New snow had fallen, but only a few fluffy inches. No, this was the work of the snowplow in the night. It had left another wall at the end of the driveway.

By Thursday afternoon, I figured the ski trails at the University of Maine would be groomed – at least the primary ones. I took my skis, boots and poles up to campus on the bus. The conditions were perfect.

I am continually thankful for the land-grant university where I work. Anyone can use these trails. During the winter months I often keep my skis in my office, a short walk from the trailhead. Among the tall pine trees you can barely feel the wind. It lacks the delightful anarchy of skiing down Main Street in Bangor, but it more than makes up for it in access and serenity.

You don’t need a car to enjoy a Maine winter. Looking over this piece just now, I realize I haven’t been in a car since the day before the storm. We went grocery shopping, like everyone else. But for the past few days it’s been boots, bus and skis. And shovels. A car may not be a necessity, but a snow shovel surely is.

How Wasteful is our Transportation System?

 

I’m sitting on the Community Connector bus as I write this, stuck behind a line of cars trying to turn left out of the University of Maine campus onto College Avenue. Snow is flying and starting to stick. It’s 12:50 p.m. Afternoon classes and meetings have been canceled. Everyone’s bailing.

The bus is full, but not to capacity. In the line of cars ahead of us, I see several solo drivers but few passengers. We creep along. The road is getting slick, and people are being cautious, as they should. Still, in the time it’s taken to write two paragraphs, we’ve barely moved.

How wasteful is the American transportation system? If the bus is three-quarters full, the cars in front of us must be, on the average, three-quarters empty. At this moment I’m glad I’m not behind the wheel of one of them. Here on the bus I can at least write.

I’m reminded of my life in Southern California in the 1990s. In Maine we don’t have much traffic. It takes a snowstorm or a Phish concert to stir it up. But in San Diego it was a daily experience. And I found myself wondering, as I do now, why we persist in moving ourselves around in the least efficient way possible.

San Diego has made improvements since I left. The trolley has been expanded and proven popular. Carpool lanes on the freeway encourage drivers to double up. But traffic jams are still a daily way of life.

Anyone who criticizes spending on public transportation has likely never looked at a line of cars stuck in traffic and counted up the empty seats.

In Maine, we don’t have to think much about all the unoccupied space in cars that drivers take with them everywhere they go. We don’t think about it until we’re stuck in line behind 20 or 30 of them – less than the capacity of a single bus – and we realize that if those people were on this bus instead of in their cars, this miniature traffic jam would be entirely eliminated.

And 20 or 30 people could be constructively occupied, as the passengers around me are, in reading, texting with their friends, conversing with one another, and maybe even writing something that someone else will want to read.

The bus has just crossed the Veazie-Bangor line; we’re passing Mount Hope Cemetery now, and it’s snowing on the dead. I hope to have most of this post roughed out by the time we get to Pickering Square.

Bus drivers are unsung heroes on days like this. They do the best they can to stick to a schedule as conditions worsen; meanwhile, passengers become antsy and frayed at the inevitable delays, and the drivers must deal with them, too. I’m happy to have the time to write, and to leave the stress of driving in the snow to someone else. Always be friendly to bus drivers. Their job is harder than it looks, even in good weather.

And now we’re almost there, only fifteen minutes late to the downtown terminal. The bus was almost ten minutes late leaving the Memorial Union, which means that the trip from the University to Bangor took only five minutes longer than normal. Some people missed their connection and will have to wait for the next bus, fifteen minutes hence. Still, for my money, it beats being stuck in traffic behind the wheel, inching forward, looking for every possible advantage. After half an hour of that, my neck would hurt. And I wouldn’t have written a word.

The University is shutting down for the day. College professors get the rest of the day off. Bus drivers aren’t so fortunate. Perhaps their job is a little more important.

* *

The Bangor City Council will hold another hearing on the Community Connector bus hub at 5:30 on Monday, February 13, at City Hall. Councilors are likely to discuss the so-called “Joni Mitchell Option” for relocating the bus hub out of Pickering Square in favor of a parking lot.

This bad idea needs to be put to rest, for reasons that become evident when you’re trying to get home in a snowstorm. A separate vehicle for each commuter is a highly inefficient use of road space. A bus can bring 30 customers to a downtown business in the space it takes to park three cars. The bus system is central to Bangor, and should remain visibly at its center.

Cars on Mars: Where a little Global Warming is a Good Thing

The dance of the moon, Venus, and Mars in the western sky after sunset last week had me taking the long view – and not just across the ecliptic plane. For three nights in a row I watched the crescent moon, fat with earthshine, climb past brilliant Venus and fainter, more distant Mars. In my lifetime, human beings and human machines have been to all three places. Little robotic rovers are rambling around on Mars right now.

I wonder now if I’ll live long enough to witness the next giant leap for mankind: a human landing on Mars. It’s a massive undertaking, and it would have to be an international effort. But perhaps it could also be a unifying one.

Mars is an order of magnitude farther away than the moon, and that much harder to get to. It’s also cold, airless, and exposed to harmful radiation from space. But these obstacles could all be overcome in time. The important thing is getting there.

The Earth is now home to more than seven billion people. Collectively, they own and operate some 1.2 billion motor vehicles. Sixty million new cars are built each year, with metals pulled from the planet’s crust and rubber wrenched from its rainforests. Most of them run on fossil fuels, which are probably, at least in the solar system, unique to Earth. There won’t be any fossil fuels on Mars, because there probably weren’t any plants, let alone plant-eating dinosaurs.

The machines we’ve sent to Mars and the other planets come from the same place all those cars do. They are made of Earth-stuff. To go into space, humanity had to first invent heavy industry. Two centuries of heavy industry have begun to change the planetary climate in ways that we are just beginning to see.

But the inner solar system is abundant with materials. And, because of our ability to extract stuff from the earth and turn it into spaceships, we can now get there. Mars is closer to the main body of the asteroid belt, and asteroids are rich in metals. Even the surface of the moon contains usable stuff. The sun provides the energy, which small nuclear reactors could augment. In the future, much of the building material for space missions will come from space itself.

On Mars, if we don’t find any indigenous life, a little man-made global warming might be a good thing. Mars does have an atmosphere, though it’s tenuous and mostly made up of carbon dioxide. But if we could somehow make more air, a small greenhouse effect would take hold and the planet would begin to warm. Subsurface ice would thaw. Lichens and other hardy plants could be introduced alongside industrial sites. Eventually, through a process called terraforming, the air could become breathable – in a thousand or so years.

But what if the process could be sped up by the introduction of cars? From what I’ve seen, a lot of Mars looks like New Mexico, minus the cactus. New Mexico isn’t at all unpleasant to drive through, though it is kind of eerie in its emptiness.

Those places are disappearing on Earth. Seven billion people in more than a billion vehicles can get just about anywhere. But Mars remains largely unexplored. Most of what we know about the place comes from a few friends with wheels: Opportunity, Spirit, and Curiosity.

The car has beaten humankind to Mars. Perhaps the rovers should bear plaques that read: “We came in peace for vehicles everywhere.”

The last man to drive on a world other than Earth, Eugene Cernan, died in January at the age of 82. He and geologist Harrison Schmidt explored their lunar landing site in a rover that looked like a dune buggy. Cernan had piloted the lunar module to within ten miles of the surface in the dress rehearsal Apollo 10 mission, and returned as commander of Apollo 17. When he stepped into the lunar module for the final time on December 19, 1972, it marked the end of an era. Human beings have not been back to the moon since.

But we sure have manufactured a lot of cars. Imagine if we diverted a quarter of that mass and energy to space. We could build space stations and mining ships. We could ensure our long-term future by inhabiting multiple worlds. We could have walkable cities here on Earth, and introduce industry and motor vehicles to Mars, releasing greenhouse gases on a planet where climate change would be welcome.

The Numbers are in, and they aren’t Pretty

 

Last year I kept a rough transportation log. I did it because somebody gave me one of those little blank books for Christmas, and I never know what to do with those things. I decided to keep track of how I got around, by jotting down where I went and how I got there.

The year is over, and the numbers are in.

First off, I didn’t go much of anywhere. I did not travel internationally. I left Maine only twice: three days in Connecticut in January and a week in California in March.

As regular readers know, I live in a one-car household. The car is not mine. It belongs to the lovely Lisa, who is kind about giving me rides in inclement weather. Last winter, when I had an early class, we developed a ritual in which she dropped me off in Pickering Square on her way to work in time for me to catch the 7:15 a.m. bus. On many days, this was my only contact with a car, but I am compelled to include them in the statistics.

These numbers would be different if I lived alone, traveled more often, or moved closer to a city with trains. I didn’t get on a train at all in 2016, though I love trains. I don’t get much opportunity to ride them. The last time I took a train was on a trip to a conference in Tennessee in 2015, and before that, to see Bob Dylan in Boston the previous autumn.

So although these statistics may not represent the typical life of an average American non-car owner (is there a such a thing?), I present them anyway, for whatever they’re worth.

Out of 366 days in 2016 – a leap year – I spent time in a car on 128 of them. Most of that time was as a passenger, but I got behind the wheel and drove on 45 days. That means I drove roughly every eighth day, an average of less than once a week.

I took my bicycle out of the basement on April 9, and I used it on 131 of the remaining 296 days of the year. I used a bike three more days than I used a car, nearly every other day after I brought it out of storage. I used it more frequently than that in the warmer months: 20 days in September and August, 19 in May, but only four in November and one single outing in December.

I used some form of public transportation on 189 days – more than half the days of the year. The bulk of this was on Bangor’s Community Connector bus system. I took 18 trips on the Concord Coach bus, mostly to Rockland and back. I spent parts of three days on airplanes, and two riding the San Diego Trolley. I don’t think I rode a subway anywhere. There were two cab rides but no Ubers.

Obviously, on many days, my modes of transportation overlapped. I took the bike on the bus, and accepted rides in cars when they were offered. I used the bus less when I used the bike more. I rode the bus just four days in July, and eight in August and June. These were also my months of most frequent bicycle use. When the bike is out and the weather is good, I tend to use it, because it’s the most convenient way to get around town.

I should also note that I spent all or parts of 28 days on a boat, sometimes going from one place to another. (This does not count the days spent working on it to get it ready to float.) Maine may not have much in the way of train service, but it’s a great place to see by boat.

Can any conclusions be sucked from this statistical soup? Perhaps. Despite the presence of a car in the driveway and the willingness of its owner to hand me the keys, I still only drove on 45 days. There was never a day when we needed or even wanted a second car. It’s easy for two people with two different work lives and two different schedules to live with one car. It’s probably easy for a household of three or more to do it, with a little planning.

Giving up car ownership need not be an all-or-nothing proposition. Cars aren’t going away anytime soon, but there’s no reason we can’t live with fewer of them.

 

What’s Left of our National Conversation?

 

I was going to write something else.

I was going to write about 2016 as my tenth year of living without a car, and how I managed to navigate my day-to-day life in a world filled with motor vehicles. I spent some time compiling the data in the travel journal I kept, and I can tell you that out of 366 days (remember, it was a leap year), I drove a car on 45 of them. Once was to move a car some 200 feet to load it up after a musical party. “You gonna blog about that?” my host joked.

But I can’t bring myself to laugh today. I got a ride to the University of Maine this Friday morning from my son, who is visiting from California, in a rental car he picked up at Logan Airport. I’m taking the bus back to Bangor, which makes me feel a little better. But as I’ve stated here often enough, I’m not a purist.

When I started this experiment in car-free living, I was ten years younger than I am now. I was married to a woman who owned a car, and I had parted with my last vehicle, a Ford Escort I bought from the same son, who had headed off a few months earlier for his first semester of college. The car blew a head gasket six weeks after he sold it to me, and I had it hauled away as junk.

I haven’t owned a vehicle since. But I have renewed my driver’s license twice in those ten years, and I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. For three of those ten years I lived alone, but I still occasionally found myself behind the wheel. Friends hired me to take care of their pets while they were on vacation and left the car for me to use. I sometimes rented a car to travel on magazine assignments, or to visit relatives in rural areas. But I have never been tempted to buy one.

Now, once again, I live with a car owner. Sometimes I’ll use the car to go grocery shopping or to meet my son at the bus station. When Lisa and I went to San Diego last March, he rented us a car for the week, perhaps to atone for selling me the Escort. He’s a good son, and I didn’t turn him down (though we did spend a day riding the trolley).

Critics can contend that I’m not really living without a car, that I enjoy the benefits of a motorized culture without buying into it. But they would be missing the point. If I were to take the position that cars are evil and that every car owner is contributing to the destruction of the environment, I would not be able to sell many readers on the more subtle idea that diversifying our transportation system is good for all of us.

And that’s what saddens me about the contentious political year just past. I’ve always considered myself a thoughtful person, and I find myself living in a culture that does not value nuanced thought. I know a good number of people across the political spectrum. I try not to let politics get in the way of personal friendship. The people I have the hardest time with are the true believers, those so convinced of the rightness of their cause or candidate that they are unwilling to budge or listen.

Americans preferred politicians who offered simplistic solutions to complex problems. Build a wall! College for free! Those who advanced more thoughtful approaches found themselves vilified and marginalized.

It’s also why I refuse to use Twitter, because it’s the antithesis of thoughtful. It’s a sucker-punch way of communicating, reactive and reductive, and it does great harm to what’s left of our national conversation.

I don’t want to uninvent the automobile, or stigmatize people who continue to own cars. But neither do I want to turn every available open space into a parking lot. The dominance of the automobile over every other transportation option is shortsighted and ultimately detrimental. Walking communities and robust public transportation make life better for everyone. I want to use my own experience as an example, to illustrate that we all can re-examine our relationship with cars. I want a public policy that honors pedestrians, bicyclists, and bus riders, and gives them an equal say amid all the traffic noise.

A Tale of Walking in Two Cities: Rockland and Bangor

Recently, I was invited to participate in a conversation about “Walkable Cities,” hosted by WRFR-FM, Rockland’s community radio station.

The evening included an appearance on the radio show, “Rockland Metro,” followed by a dinner symposium and a continuation of the discussion among a dozen people.

I traveled by bus, of course, as I do fairly often – regular readers of this blog know that I keep a small sailboat on a mooring in Rockland in the summer. But January is a different animal. It was dark and pouring rain when I left Bangor on the Concord Coach at 7:00 in the morning. When I arrived in Rockland an hour and fifty minutes later, the clouds were clearing, the tide was high, and even from the ferry landing I could see waves crashing over the breakwater at the mouth of the harbor.

Rockland is the seat of Knox County, and, for boaters, the unofficial capital of Penobscot Bay. Like Bangor, it’s a regional hub. Also like Bangor, it’s a small city dealing with the dominance of the automobile in day-to-day life.

With a population of around 9,000, Rockland is less than one-third Bangor’s size. Yet many of the issues are similar. Both cities have concentrated downtown districts that are navigable on foot, surrounded by outlying commercial areas in which cars rule. Both downtowns offer a limited variety of services. As Rockland city councilor Valli Geiger put it, “You can walk to a bar or restaurant, but it’s hard to walk to the grocery store.”

My hosts invited me for a noontime walk around town, from the post office down to the waterfront and along the unfinished Harbor Trail. Rockland’s Main Street is also US Route One northbound. Through the center of town, it’s a two-lane, one-way street, flanked by parking spaces and hemmed in by buildings on both sides. There is no place to ride a bicycle except in the travel lanes. The sidewalks in the summer are often thick with pedestrians.

A footbridge is under construction behind the sewage treatment plant, which, when completed, will enable people to walk from the public landing at the south end of Main Street to the ferry terminal without competition from cars. A grand vision for the trail is to extend it north of the ferry landing, eventually all the way out to the breakwater.

The idea is superficially similar to the development Bangor has done along its waterfront. But though Rockland is a smaller community, its waterfront dwarfs Bangor’s. Rockland Harbor is immense. It’s a true working harbor, home to the Coast Guard, a fishing fleet, a dozen or so windjammer schooners, state ferries to three islands, a handful of marine yards, a boat school, a public landing and yacht club, and an assortment of scattered homes and business.

What’s similar is that people in both Bangor and Rockland are talking about this issue of walkability. North of the ferry terminal, Route One becomes two-way again, and both trail and sidewalk disappear.

On the shore next to the ferry dock, Knight’s Marine is packed with boats up on stands this time of year, but a trail through the yard leads to a small beach I’d never seen before. By now the sky had cleared and the temperature was in the forties. I looked out at the breakwater and imagined the harbor full of boats.

We walked back along the highway, with some difficulty in the absence of an adequate sidewalk. Outside of the immediate downtown, Rockland is wanting for sidewalks. On both ends of town, storefront businesses quickly give way to chain stores and parking lots, unfriendly to pedestrians.

Joe Steinberger, a retired lawyer and former city councilor who founded the radio station and invited me to be on the show, pointed out that parking rules discourage walkability. In the heart of downtown, stores aren’t required to provide parking. But just beyond this central core, businesses must build parking lots for, in his words, “every customer they’ll conceivably ever have.” On the north end, the dividing line runs right past the ferry landing, and it just happens to be the place where walking becomes difficult.

It reminded me of the argument we’re having in Bangor over the pernicious proposal to pave Pickering Square and put up a parking lot. Rockland, like Bangor, has a downtown that emerged semi-intact from the car-centric era of freeways and shopping malls. It has a bus station, a train station, a ferry landing, and an airport. It should be a great place to walk, too.

Looking at my City through a Windshield

 

On the last day of 2016, I borrowed the lovely Lisa’s car to take care of some business within a five-mile radius of home.

I began by driving down to Hampden to check on my boat, up on stands and buried under the latest round of snow. Then it was back to Bangor, up past the Cross Center and over to the Airport Mall. Next, I took Griffin Road to the Broadway Shopping Center, where I dropped off some unwanted stuff at the Salvation Army. Then it was on to Bed Bath & Beyond on Stillwater, and finally to our nearby Rite Aid, for some salt to melt the ice on our front steps.

Midway through this excursion, it occurred to me that this is how most people see the city I call home: through a windshield. The late Jane Holtz Kay, author of Asphalt Nation, reported that this type of trip is the most common use of the automobile. Not driving to work, not going on road trips, but running errands, a phenomenon she called “trip-chaining.”

In the parking lot on Stillwater, I waited out a long line of traffic and two light changes before I could escape. My frustration mounted. This, too, is something I don’t experience much anymore, though I remember it well from my years as a car owner. Flashes of irritation (or at best, impatience) are part of the daily life of any habitual driver.

The item I’d gone there to purchase – a hanging paper towel dispenser – weighed no more than a pound and would have fit easily on the back of my bicycle. Had I been on my bike, I reflected, I would have been out of the parking lot and half a mile down the road in the time it took waiting for the lights to change and the cars in front of me to get out of my way.

As the saying goes: “You aren’t stuck in a traffic jam; you are the jam.”

I relate this experience because it’s something I almost never do any more. But habitual drivers and car owners face a similar scenario almost every day. And it relates to the ongoing debate about parking in downtown Bangor.

Ideally, I would like to be able to buy something like a paper towel dispenser from a store that I can walk to. The same goes for ink cartridges, screws and nails, and fresh fruit and vegetables. But most people drive for those easily portable things. Without a car, errands take some planning, because stores are located for the convenience of drivers. For at least the past half-century, businesses and local governments have catered to car owners. Downtown businesses die or move to outlying streets for more parking, which coerces more people to drive. It’s a vicious circle.

But the pendulum has begun to swing back. Bangor already has an active, walkable downtown. It needs more diversity of business, to be sure, but one thing it does not need is more parking.

Instead, the city needs to do all it can to encourage use of the public parking garage for those who drive, and the Community Connector bus system for those who don’t. Improved pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure will also improve the quality of the downtown experience, even in a car. Every driver who chooses another way to navigate downtown frees up a parking space for someone who truly needs it.

When people walk more and drive less, they are healthier and leave a smaller carbon footprint. They probably experience less stress, too. New Yorkers, who live much of their lives on foot, are healthier and happier than their car-bound compatriots.

Bangor is not New York. But nor is it Holden, Millinocket, or Blue Hill. At just over 30,000 residents, Bangor is a small city. But it is also a metropolitan center for some 150,000 people. Many of them drive in from small towns, where they are used to being able to park in the dooryard of any business they might patronize. They aren’t used to things like parking garages, paid parking, and public transportation.

The Age of the Automobile is gradually giving way to a movement toward more centralized, mixed-use communities. Cars will still be around for the foreseeable future, as long as people live in rural areas and commute to the city for jobs. But more and more people are discovering that the personal vehicle is not the necessity they once thought it was. Smart municipal governments must keep that in mind as they plan for the future.

* *

NOTE: This Wednesday, January 11, I’ll be discussing pedestrian friendly downtowns on the Rockland Metro show on WRFR radio from 5-6 pm. WRFR can be heard in Rockland at 93.3 FM and in Camden at 99.3 FM.

A Positive Vision for Pickering Square

 

Last week I wrote about the proposed “Joni Mitchell Option” for paving Pickering Square in downtown Bangor and putting up a parking lot. This plan was presented at a meeting of the city council’s business and economic development committee.

I wrote that the Joni Mitchell Option was by far the worst of four plans presented at the meeting, because of its over-emphasis on the automobile. The Pickering Square parking garage is almost never full, and adjacent parking lots behind the garage and in the nearby Key Bank complex offer plenty of additional spaces.

The last thing the Bangor City Council should be considering is adding more parking spaces to a pedestrian-friendly downtown. More parking encourages more driving, and a downtown choked with cars discourages business.

Toward the end of the meeting, Councilor Cary Weston, a proponent of the Joni Mitchell Option, said the city should move forward with some sort of plan for the square.

Any plan, however, should include the hub for the Community Connector bus system, as I wrote last week. The Joni Mitchell Option fails this central requirement.

In answer to Weston’s challenge, I’d like to put forth a few modest proposals.

The entrance to the parking garage is problematic. Cars enter and exit the garage right in front of where the buses load. This creates a confusing flow of traffic during those twice-hourly times during the day when the buses converge. Moving the car entrance would seem to be the most workable solution to this.

But before the city commits to wholesale physical changes, it should look at less intrusive (and less expensive) measures to improve the parking system downtown. For instance, extending the bus hours later into the evening would not require a dime for new construction, and would immediately ease parking congestion. People could commute to their jobs by bus and be able to stay downtown later than 5:45 in the afternoon, without dragging their cars along for the ride.

Another improvement requiring no new construction would be a downtown shuttle, similar to the successful Black Bear Express in Orono. A small bus could circle the downtown area every half hour, taking people from Pickering Square to, say, Shaw’s, the Post Office, the area around the Library, and the Waterfront. It would be used by both bus and car commuters, and would be a great help to people with mobility challenges.

This shuttle would alleviate parking congestion by enabling people to park at the garage, or in an outlying parking area, and to enjoy the downtown at the personal, pedestrian level. As I wrote last week, the commendable goal of bringing more people downtown should not be conflated with efforts that end up bringing more cars downtown, thereby worsening parking problems.

The bus needs a real downtown depot, with a staff person on duty. As things stand now, the parking garage has an office, carpeted, with information brochures out, and someone behind a counter available to help.

The waiting room for the bus, across the entrance to the garage, is all tile and plastic chairs. The contrast couldn’t be starker. There’s no one to answer questions, and the staff at the parking garage office has no affiliation with the Community Connector and is understandably reluctant to assist bus passengers.

An expanded bus terminal and waiting area could be developed in the lower level of the parking garage, where presently there is nothing. A few comfortable chairs, a table or two, maybe a magazine rack and a coffee kiosk, and a representative of the Community Connector on duty – all these things would enhance the bus experience and encourage more people to leave their cars at home.

Ideally, Bangor should have a centralized public transportation facility that offers access to shuttle buses, taxis, the Community Connector, and the two long-distance bus services that serve the city. In the short term, this could be addressed with a shuttle that runs between Pickering Square and the Concord Coach depot on Union Street, timed to meet Concord’s arrivals and departures. But a long-term vision that brings Greyhound back into town and leaves room for future train service need to be considered, starting now.

As a regional hub, Bangor has great potential to become a public transportation nexus for the 21st century. Its central areas need to be planned in anticipation of a new age of transportation, one that does not emphasize the individual car at the expense of every other alternative. The City Council needs to keep this focus in mind as it plans for Bangor’s future.

 

Bangor is a Hub, and the Bus Belongs at its Center

The public debate over Pickering Square encapsulates the essence of this blog.

(For readers unfamiliar with Bangor, Maine, the small city where I live, Pickering Square is a public area in the heart of downtown, dominated by a parking garage. It’s also the nexus of the Community Connector public bus system.)

A recent meeting of Bangor’s business and economic development committee, which reports to the city council, highlighted opposing views on how best to develop Pickering Square to meet Bangor’s future needs. Four options were presented, but most of the debate centered on two of them. One would keep the bus depot where it is, which was the recommendation that emerged from a recent three-year study. The other, quickly dubbed the Joni Mitchell Option by a member of the audience, would pave Pickering Square and put up a parking lot.

The Joni Mitchell Option makes no specific provision for the central bus depot, other than moving it out of Pickering Square to some as-yet unspecified location.

There’s more parking behind the parking garage, and at the Key Bank complex adjacent to Pickering Square. The parking garage itself is rarely full. Yet some people want to tear out the heart of Bangor’s public transit system to make room for even more parking. The committee heard from several downtown business owners on the purported need for additional downtown parking. It also heard from several bus advocates, including me.

Toward the end of the meeting, Councilor Cary Weston expressed frustration that the city has talked about renovating Pickering Square for the past six years but has not committed to a plan. “I’m tired of hearing what we shouldn’t do,” he said. “I’d like to see a solution brought to the table.”

In my next post, I will take Councilor Weston up on his challenge, and present a positive, forward-looking vision for Pickering Square. But first, I have to address a pernicious idea that won’t die but could cripple downtown for decades to come if implemented: moving the bus depot out of the downtown area.

As councilor Gibran Graham pointed out, Bangor is a hub, centered on the area around Pickering and West Market Squares. All the major transportation arteries radiate from this center. Any viable bus system needs to be built on the framework of this existing reality. It’s natural for the buses to congregate downtown, because all roads lead there.

The worst idea floated at Tuesday’s meeting was to move the bus depot to Outer Union Street, near the Concord Coach bus station and the airport. This would take the bus hub far from the city’s real hub, creating a lopsided route system in which one could conceivably have to ride one bus out of downtown to connect to a bus going to the University of Maine, in the other direction. It’s an unworkable idea that should be buried, once and for all.

What troubles me most is that a downtown business owner promoted it, and that a significant number of downtown business owners don’t see the bus as an asset that delivers potential customers to their doors. I hear business owners when they say, “We need to bring more people downtown.” I agree. It does not follow that we need to bring more cars downtown. Studies show that public transportation, pedestrian space, and bicycle infrastructure boost business much more effectively than adding parking spaces. Many cities have subtracted parking, or raised the price, and found that businesses have thrived as a result. Why? The shopping experience is better in an area that isn’t choked with cars.

And yet it’s hard to get people past the prejudice of the bus as the “loser cruiser” whose passengers don’t have the money to spend at downtown businesses. I shop downtown because it’s easy to get there by bus, or on foot, or by bicycle. Judging from the turnout at Tuesday’s meeting, I’m not alone. The Community Connector, for all its limitations, is a tremendous asset to Bangor that the city needs to promote and improve upon. It needs to be at the center of town, because it is central to town.

I started this blog as a pebble tossed into the pond of assumptions about the way we use our cars. Bangor has a magnificent opportunity to create a future with a vibrant downtown where people walk and greet each other on the street, instead of honking at each other at traffic lights. A visible bus depot, at a well-traveled central location, is essential to that future.

Continued next week…