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

Orono

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.

 

 

Why Is There No Pedestrian Road Rage?

 

Calming1

São Paulo, Brazil is the largest city in the Western Hemisphere and the 13th most populous city in the world. It has also been, until recently, “a case study of dystopian sprawl,” according to a recent feature story by Simon Romero in the New York Times.

But Romero reports that a new mayor with a vision is changing things.

“Drawing inspiration from policies in New York, Bogotá, Paris and other cities,” Romero writes, mayor Fernando Haddad has “embarked on the construction of hundreds of miles of bicycle lanes and corridors for buses to blaze past slow-moving cars, while expanding sidewalks, lowering speed limits, limiting public parking and occasionally shutting down prominent avenues entirely to cars.”

I’ve never been to São Paulo, but the principle of “traffic calming” has applications worldwide, including here in Maine, where the renovation of Bangor’s Main Street is already enhancing safety and quality of life.

Most definitions of traffic calming, according to the web site trafficcalming.org, focus on engineering measures that change driver behavior. Rotaries are an example of this. In my old hometown, Blue Hill, a rotary has replaced an intersection once notorious for gruesome accidents. In Bangor, the raised islands on Main Street give drivers something to look at besides other cars. They slow down as a result. Not only does the former four-lane strip look a whole lot better than it did a year ago, it’s a whole lot safer, too.

Traffic designers all over the world are discovering that a mixture of automobiles, pedestrians, bicycles, buses and trains makes communities more efficient and more livable. Still, there’s a learning curve for drivers accustomed to having everything designed around the car. Some drivers respond angrily when they can’t find a parking space, or when they have to cede a lane to a bicycle. In São Paulo, Romero reports, results have been mixed. Accidents are down, traffic is flowing a little less sluggishly, but incidents of road rage are common.

In her book Divorce Your Car! Katie Alvord poses the question: Why is there no pedestrian road rage? A British study suggests several answers. The inside of a car straddles the line between public and private space; we’re on our best behavior in one but not the other. When you’re stuck in a traffic jam, you’re stuck, unlike pedestrians and cyclists, who can simply go around; impotence leads to frustration. Drivers can’t directly communicate with each other beyond easily misconstrued gestures; it’s easier to apologize or express good will face-to-face and on foot. Driving is stressful; walking releases stress. And so on.

Traffic calming is designed not only to make driving less stressful, but also to encourage people to explore alternatives. For decades, public traffic policy has meant building more roads and parking lots, while public transportation and pedestrian infrastructure languished. Drivers and car owners have become accustomed to having it their way, like a hamburger handed out a drive-through window in less than a minute. That is beginning to change, and some people don’t like it.

I was once asked by a friend I’d invited sailing: “Are you one of those nice guys on land who turns into Captain Bligh on his boat?” No, but I have been Jekyll and Hyde behind the wheel. I’ve experienced road rage. So have most drivers, at one time or another.

I’ve screamed at engines that wouldn’t start. I’ve flipped people off in traffic. I’ve leaned on the horn when the cars ahead of me won’t move. I behaved badly at times in my driving life. I’m not normally that way. Most people aren’t. A car seems to convey a degree of immunity from the norms of everyday behavior: courtesy, and respect for one another.

But that’s what the car culture hath wrought: a harried world where we’re all in a hurry to get somewhere. It’s more important to get from driveway to drive-through to office than it is to stop and greet a neighbor, or look at the trees.

Alvord’s author picture shows her on a bicycle towing a trailer, wearing a tee shirt that reads: One Less Car. It’s a reminder that every bicyclist – along with every bus passenger and pedestrian – potentially removes an automobile from the traffic mix. This means less crowded streets, less demand for parking, fewer traffic jams, fewer opportunities for road rage.

The next time you’re driving – or walking, or bicycling, or riding a bus – down Bangor’s Main Street, take a moment to admire the surroundings. Slow down, look around. Beautiful, isn’t it: the river, the new buildings, the autumn leaves? And the street itself looks good. The traffic seems… calmer, somehow.

 

Bicycling Through a Bad Intersection: Seize the Lane

Intersection

As more people discover the convenience and cost savings of commuting by bicycle, we will see more bicycles on the road, especially during the spring, summer and fall. A few intrepid souls continue to bicycle in the winter, but I usually put my bike away when the snow flies. Last year this happened two days after Halloween. In other years I’ve bicycled into December.

My commute is about ten miles, between my home in Bangor and my job at the University of Maine. Frequently I fling my bike onto the rack on the Community Connector bus for the morning trip up to Orono, and bicycle back to Bangor in the late afternoon. Most of the route has wide paved shoulders and good visibility. Drivers, perhaps used to the presence of bicyclists along this primary route between Bangor and UMaine, are almost always courteous and considerate.

The only place I ever have a problem is at the intersection of Route 2 and Kelley Road, pictured above.

Southbound Route 2 splits into two lanes at the intersection. The right lane turns onto Kelley Road, toward the Interstate; the left lane continues straight on toward Bangor. A bicyclist going straight must get out into the left lane, to avoid the cars turning right. A green arrow on the traffic light allows cars to turn without stopping after the light for the left (straight) lane turns red.

Experience has taught me to be super-careful when approaching this intersection. The speed limit through here is 35. A slight rise precedes the intersection, and since I am of, shall we say, a certain age (and don’t wear Spandex), I’m not going fast when I approach the light. Using the side mirror on my left handlebar, I first check to make sure no cars are coming up fast behind me. Then I give a broad arm signal and move from the right side of the road out into the left lane.

Here’s where the problems start. I can’t use the right lane because I would impede the drivers turning right. And if I keep to the far right edge of the left lane, speeding cars will attempt to pass me on the left. I’m in danger of being passed at the same time by a car on either side, neither giving me the three feet of space required by law. I’ve even had cars pass me on the left, then zip in front of me to make the right turn at the light.

This is a classic situation in which the bicyclist must and should “control the lane” in traffic parlance. I need to get out into the middle of the left lane, and any car coming up fast behind me will be unable to pass. I’ll try to do this when the light is red, but if it turns green, I’ve got to keep going. As soon as I’m safely through the intersection, I can move to the right side of the road and allow the car(s) behind me to pass.

I can do everything right – mirror, hand signals, lane control – and still be honked at and yelled at by drivers who apparently don’t want to slow down for a bicyclist, for any reason. Never mind that this necessary maneuver takes at most thirty seconds. In less than that time, I’m though the intersection and back over on the far right. Are those few seconds really worth the aggravation?

The danger at that intersection, and intersections like it, stems not from the presence of bicyclists, but from the aggressive behavior of a few drivers. Bicyclists are here to stay, because the option of bicycling rather than driving to work makes sense in many ways and many places for many people. It’s a growing movement, and a beneficial one. As the popularity of bicycling grows, roads become safer for cyclists and drivers alike.

In some areas of the country, municipalities have replaced the vague and generic “Share the Road” signs with signs that read: “Cyclists May Use Full Lane.” But many Maine drivers, unaccustomed to bicycle traffic, don’t know what that means.

Education is part of any worthy movement. Orono probably has more bicycles per capita than most Maine towns; as the seat of the state university, it ought to take a leadership role in things like transportation. A good start would be to put up such a sign on southbound Route 2 at Kelley Road

It might just save somebody’s life.

FullLane

What’s the Official Car of the National Football League?

carfootball

I’m taking a break from writing about cars this week to write about sports, although as you will see, cars come into it at the end.

Every October the television sports schedule frustrates me, because of the networks’ obvious bias toward football. October is the month of the baseball playoffs, but try to find a game during the day on a weekend, or on a major network before the World Series, when a game on the east coast starts after 8:30 on a cold autumn night to accommodate the football schedule.

I get it – football is more popular. I’m not sure why. A football game contains about 12 minutes of action to about 25 for a typical baseball game. Football fans have no standing to complain about baseball’s slowness. Neither game is really about action, anyway. Football is about violence, and baseball is about story. If I want action, I’ll watch hockey.

I grew up watching sports and playing sports. Football was the first sport in our house. My father coached a high school team; my mother, a graduate of Ohio State, never missed the Michigan game, or the Rose Bowl if the Buckeyes were in it. But I think now that George Carlin had it right: football and baseball reveal different sides of the American psyche, and it says something unflattering about our national soul that aerial assaults and ground attacks and shotguns and blitzes enjoy greater popularity than the quest to be safe at home.

Recent books and articles about the damaging effects of football have done little to dampen enthusiasm for the game. I’ve stopped watching, and so have others, but the NFL sells just as many cars and cases of beer as it ever did, and its schedule has expanded from Sundays to Monday and Thursday nights and just about any other night of the week, making it hard to find a baseball game on TV even during the playoffs.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why we watch sports. I belong to an organization called the Sport Literature Association, a group of writers interested in sports and their cultural import. The annual conference features presentations on the major sports, but also on less popular sports like long distance sailing, bocce, and chess boxing, which is exactly what it sounds like – alternate rounds of chess and boxing, in which one can win by checkmate or knockout. Why isn’t that on TV?

One’s view of sports depends on perspective: the athlete, the announcer, the promoter, the fan. As the writer Leigh Montville has pointed out, it also changes with age. When you are a kid, athletes are heroes and role models. In your twenties and thirties they are your peers. Finally, the players are the kids. The last baseball player older than me was Jesse Orosco, a lefty reliever who finally hung up his cleats in his late forties. Football players don’t last nearly that long.

I divide sports into five rough categories. My favorite sports are baseball and hockey, which conveniently overlap at both ends of their seasons. I know the teams and the players and will sometimes plan an evening around watching a game. I’ll also sometimes talk to the television.

Second are the sports I don’t really follow but consider cool, for a variety of reasons: curling, skiing, sailboat racing, track and field. In this category I’d also include tennis, rowing and other sports you can enjoy as a participant well into middle age.

Third are the sports to which I’m indifferent, but I’ll watch if there’s a compelling story line attached. Boxing with and without Muhammad Ali. I put basketball and soccer in this category.

Fourth are the sports I dislike. These include football and golf. What I said above about tennis and rowing also applies to golf, hence all the old people out playing it. But is there anything more tedious than televised golf? At least baseball has hecklers, and the ball is moving when the batter tries to hit it.

In the last category go the sports that probably shouldn’t be sports any more, like bullfighting and auto racing.

See – I told you it was going to get back around to cars.

Auto racing is environmentally unconscionable. Worse, it’s terrible TV. And yet it’s right up there with football as America’s most popular sport. They’re neck and neck.

A country that prefers football and auto racing to baseball is a country that has already lost its taste, and is in danger of losing its soul.