Community Connector Conundrum: The Chicken or the Egg?

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Which comes first: extended hours or increased ridership?

It’s a chicken-and-egg problem as old as technology: the tension between supply and demand. Extending Bangor’s Community Connector bus hours later into the evening will almost surely increase ridership, but some officials want to see better numbers before approving longer hours.

And thus we come around again to November, Ride the Bus! Month (exclamation point theirs) in Bangor. The effort’s laudable goal is to get more people to ride the bus and boost numbers for the month. It’s sponsored by Transportation for All, a partnership of Faith Linking in Action, Food AND Medicine, Power in Community Alliances and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 714.

A kick-off event is scheduled for Monday, October 31, from 3 to 5 p.m. in Pickering Square, next to the downtown bus depot. There will be a costume contest, speakers, and information about the bus system, food, and maybe even some Halloween candy.

The event ends at 5:00 to allow participants to take the last buses home before darkness descends on Halloween night. The following weekend, the time will change, and the last buses of the day will be leaving downtown in the dark.

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been a consistent advocate for later bus hours. But as I’ve delved more deeply into the subject of public transportation, I’ve found that things are often more complicated than they seem. Buses are expensive, for one thing. A single new bus can cost the better part of a million bucks. And they aren’t cheap to maintain, either, considering how hard they’re used.

And yet, it’s money well spent. The entire economy benefits from buses. A bus frees up parking spaces and traffic lanes. A bus enables the sight-impaired and other non-drivers to get to jobs, encourages students to save money, and delivers customers to businesses. Even if you never, or rarely, ride the bus, it has made your life better and will continue to do so in the future.

Still, public transportation suffers under the popular perception that it should pay for itself. Why? We don’t hold cars to that standard. All taxpayers contribute to car infrastructure, whether or not they own a vehicle. Public transportation is in the public interest, and should be publicly funded.

The Community Connector is funded roughly by thirds: from the federal government, local communities, and the passengers themselves. Fares are kept low, though in ten years in Bangor I’ve seen three or four increases. Still, it makes little sense to charge higher fares that would discourage low-income people from riding.

The University of Maine and Husson University help to alleviate the local tax burden by paying into the system so that students, faculty and employees can ride for free. Why can’t other area businesses get in on that – Cianbro, the hospitals, the stores at the Bangor Mall?

I’d like to see a direct route between the University of Maine and the Mall. Many of my college students tell me they would use it. If a bus ran until the stores closed, they could take it home from their jobs. I’d also like to see a small shuttle in Bangor downtown, similar to the Black Bear Express in Orono. The bus could make a small circuit of the downtown area every half hour until ten or so at night. Businesses would support it, because it would alleviate parking congestion and make it easier for customers to get to their doors.

But all these improvements, however worthy, take time and money. I’m on board with a cautious approach that anticipates extending the Community Connector’s hours over the long term. Ridership may not increase right away, but it eventually will, as people discover the new schedule. The other communities served by the bus need to get on board as well. Almost everyone I’ve talked to in my years of riding the bus agree that extended evening hours should be first priority.

Later routes would also enable local users to connect more easily with the Concord Coach and Cyr buses services, and the airport.

Bangor needs a convenient, comprehensive bus service. The best way to get there, I believe, is to build on what we have now, with constant, incremental improvements.

These are some of the ideas I would like to explore in greater detail during Ride the Bus! Month. I welcome any and all comments.

 

 

 

 

The Gales of November Come Early

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November is Ride the Bus Month in the greater Bangor area. I’ll be writing a series of pieces on the Community Connector bus service. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, there’s another event in November we’ve all been anticipating for some time now. The Community Connector will provide free service on November 8, all day, to anyone. Make sure to get to the polls and vote for bus-friendly City Council candidates, those who have expressed support for later hours and improved service.

Slower Traffic is not a political blog. The long process of weaning Americans from car dependence is, or should be, a bipartisan issue anyway. It is smart fiscal policy and good for the environment. It promotes individual health and spawns new jobs and new community development. You don’t have to be liberal or conservative to see this.

But there’s so much invective flying around in these last weeks that some of it even hits harmless little blogs like this one. I especially get flak when I write about the rights (and plights) of bicyclists.

I’m ready for the arguments to stop, and for us all to take a deep breath and to realize that compromise is not a bad thing. Then perhaps we can get to work making things better. More public transportation means more options and more available parking for everyone – a win for drivers and non-drivers alike. Increased bicycle traffic leads to safer, better-marked roads, another win-win. As I wrote last week, transportation policy should nudge people gently away from their cars. Not all, or even most, will respond, but some will, and everyone will benefit.

The same principle governs our politics in the best of times: compromise between regional or ideological differences, leading to workable solutions. These are not the best of times. This endless election cycle has been dominated by talk of revolution, accusations of election-rigging, threats of jailing political opponents, sleazy sexual pasts. It’s been ugly.

I think the word I’m most sick of hearing, and reading, is “hypocrite.” I’m sick of seeing it spelled wrong in online comment sections, for one thing. And I’m tired of seeing it used as the first line of argument, on everything from guns to climate change. We seem to have lost the sense that public policy has nuance, that it is often complicated, and that public officials, like the rest of us, don’t always match their actions with their ideals.

I’m a hypocrite 20 times a day. I believe in preserving the environment, but just yesterday I used a plastic fork and tossed it in the non-recyclable trash when I was done. I’m committing heresy to my cause every time I borrow or accept a ride in a friend’s car. Worse – I’m a freeloader. I wouldn’t work in a slaughterhouse, but I’ve eaten many a burger that began in one. We should be courteous to one another in our day-to-day interactions, but sometimes I want to snap at the rude bus rider a few seats away yakking on a cell phone.

None of us are ideologically pure. And is rigid adherence to an ideology what we want in our public officials – or in our friends? Why do we demand it of our public officials?

In a few weeks the hysteria of the presidential election will be over, and we can all go back to being friends. It seems that the level of hysteria rises with the level of the office. Local elections aren’t usually that rancorous. That’s because the candidates are your neighbors, people you might see at a bar or an event, faces you can talk to about the need for longer bus hours and better bicycle infrastructure. They are real people interested in solving real problems. We often lose sight of that in the media storm that surrounds a national election.

Meanwhile, there’s a new bike rack outside the atrium at the reopened Bangor Public Library. A gift from Bangor Greendrinks, Lowly the Bookworm Bike Rack doubles the bicycle parking capacity in the immediate area, and manages to look good doing it, too.

For some reason this pleases me, in this rancorous season. People coming together in small groups can still get things done, and move the world forward in small ways. I want to see more of that, after we’ve weathered the gales of November.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where I’m Bound I Can’t Tell

 

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In 1960, two years before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, John Steinbeck drove his camper/truck up the coast of Maine, accompanied by his dog, on their way around the periphery of the United States. He wrote a book about the trip: Travels With Charley (in Search of America). In it, he observed that the then-new Interstate Highway System would soon make it possible to drive across the country without seeing anything at all.

Bob Dylan, 56 years before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, set out from Minnesota to New York that same year, hitchhiking some of the same highways Steinbeck drove. It’s highly unlikely their paths ever crossed, but the young Dylan had read Cannery Row, and would later reference it in “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

Remember when people used to hitchhike, both locally and long-distance? I hitchhiked all over Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont as a teenager. I went to college in Wisconsin in the late 1970s and thumbed back and forth several times. I hitchhiked, alone and with friends, to northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada. There were some uncomfortable situations and a few cold nights, but I was never threatened with any physical harm.

In the early 1990s I lived near the railroad tracks in southern California. I met a couple of hobos, who hopped freights and traveled the country. I was amazed that there were still people like that – characters straight out of Tortilla Flat, or “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”

The Interstate spawned its own hobo culture, too, but it seems to be mostly gone now. Hitchhiking is widely perceived as dangerous, and illegal on all interstates. I don’t drive much, but I see the occasional hitchhiker in the summer, mostly along the coast. I suppose it was always dangerous. But as a young white male in New England I could afford to be oblivious to the danger. I think also that the culture has coarsened.

Steinbeck regularly engaged strangers along his route. He was curious about his surroundings and the people he met. He picked up the occasional hitchhiker. He stopped in small towns and ate at local diners and engaged in conversations. In his memoir, Chronicles, Volume 1, Dylan comes across as nothing so much as keenly observant, soaking in all the musical and literary influences around him.

Are people less friendly these days? Have they seen too many gory hitchhiker movies? Are we more isolated from one another, in spite of our electronic gadgets? Has the world become a meaner place? I don’t know. But Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize is the best news of this stormy season.

I first saw him perform on Thanksgiving night in 1975, in the Bangor Auditorium, a building he has now outlived. My mother drove my sister and me and a few friends through howling wind and outrageous snow from Blue Hill to Bangor because she wanted to see Joan Baez, who was also on the bill.

Even then he was revamping his songs. He played a hard-rock rendition of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” a song I’d only heard on one of my mom’s Pete Seeger records. He did new songs like the epic “Isis” and the haunting “Simple Twist of Fate.” The whole show, an ensemble billed as the Rolling Thunder Revue, knocked me out. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Thirty-four years later, when I next saw Bob Dylan in Bangor, I was able to walk from my house to the show at the Waterfront. The last time I saw him, in 2014 in Boston, I took a train. I missed the first half of a Dylan show in Los Angeles in the 1980s because I misplaced the tickets and then got stuck in traffic. I saw him at the first Farm Aid concert in Illinois when I was driving across the country alone.

I’ve caught up with him in concert maybe a half dozen other times. He never does a song quite the same way twice. They have more in common with plays than poems. His songs, like our world, are stuffed with characters. They come alive because so many people live in them.

By now you might be wondering what all this has to do with my usual topic of the American car culture, but if you start over you’ll see I’ve worked in transportation here and there. Now I’m going to go listen to some Nobel Prize-winning literature.

 

For a Bicyclist, a Stop Sign is a Suggestion

 

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I’m going to plunge back into this argument with both feet – on the pedals. A recent article by Tom Babin in the Los Angeles Times suggests that laws requiring bicyclists to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, as cars do, should be amended. I agree.

We all do it anyway. I like to say to that I’m a conscientious bicyclist. I wear visible clothing. I use lights at night and hand signals to indicate upcoming turns. I ride as close to the side of the road as I safely can. But I’ve rolled through a thousand stop signs, and I’ll likely roll through a thousand more.

It’s legal to do this in Idaho. The “Idaho stop” law, adopted in 1982 and in force ever since without incident, allows bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs. But most jurisdictions are still hung up on the idea that bicyclists and cars should be treated identically under the law.

This means that bicyclists should come to a complete stop at all stop signs and red lights, as drivers of motor vehicles are required to do. It sounds fair, but in reality, the idea flies in the face of physics and common sense. Boise personal injury lawyer and bicycle activist Kurt Holzer recently wrote on his blog (as quoted in the Times story) that he has “never seen a car versus bike collision or a bike versus pedestrian collision that was attributable to road users following the stop-as-yield statute.”

As one commentator on a Facebook site devoted to cycling issues put it: “Adhering to the Idaho stop is how any rational person rides a bike.”

Should bicyclists be expected to ride in a way that promotes safety on the road for everyone? Obviously. It’s in our own self-interest to be courteous to our fellow users of the road. Most drivers of motor vehicles respect this.

But a bicycle is not a car. Coming to a complete stop means loss of momentum, and without an engine, all the energy on a bike comes from the human being riding it. On a bicycle, I am traveling slowly enough to gauge any danger at an intersection in plenty of time to react. The primary purpose of stop signs in most neighborhoods is to reduce the overall speed of traffic by not allowing cars to accelerate to dangerous speeds between them. Since bicycles travel much more slowly than cars, bicyclists rightly treat a stop sign as a warning rather than a requirement.

Operators of buses and trucks, an order of magnitude more massive than cars, are required to obey different regulations. Why should bicycles – an order of magnitude less massive, and therefore less dangerous – be different?

But there are motorists who want bicyclists off the road entirely. One of their repeated refrains is that bicyclists should get licenses and register their “vehicles” and pay excise taxes. I would have hated this as a kid. And it’s ridiculous, anyway. Like the calls to ticket bicyclists who roll through stop signs, this is a transparent attempt to reduce the number of bicyclists, in the mistaken belief that roads should be for the exclusive use of motorized vehicles.

Bicycles do no damage to the roads, which cyclists are already paying for through property and sales taxes. Only half the costs of roads are covered by fees and taxes directly levied on drivers. Bicyclists are already paying more than their fair share.

Besides, as I’ve pointed out before, the increased presence of bicyclists makes the roads safer for everyone. More bicycles make safer roads. Study after study bears this out. The most important effect of increased bicycle traffic is that it mitigates the behavior of drivers. When drivers get used to the idea that they will encounter bicyclists frequently, they slow down and drive with more awareness. How can that possibly be a bad thing?

But bicycle registration should be discouraged for another important reason: the idea tacitly discourages using a bicycle instead of a car. In this age of oil spills and fracking and human-induced climate change, we should all be looking for ways to live more lightly on the planet. One way is to reduce car ownership and car use.

A law requiring the registration and taxation of bikes is counter-productive. As Gordon Black, director of the Bicycle Coalition of Washington, told a Seattle news site: “We want as many drivers as possible to give up using their cars.”

Traffic laws should nudge – not shove, but nudge – responsible citizens in that direction.

 

 

 

 

 

The Human Attention Span is Shorter than This Warning…

 

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I’ve always wanted to write one of those pieces composed of random thoughts, connected with ellipses… a “three-dotter,” as newspaper columnists of old called them in the days before blogs. It’s an easy way to fill space without a cohesive theme, and it also appeals to the brevity of the American attention span.

Have you seen those new car commercials that practically condone distracted driving? In one, a tone-deaf driver imagines herself winning a singing contest; in another, an average guy behind the wheel daydreams of sports stardom. The ads seem to say: Go ahead and let your mind wander, because our new high-tech sensor system can recognize danger and auto-correct before you’ll get in trouble.

Now, I’m all for technology. If cars can borrow the concept of “sensors” from Star Trek and apply it to everyday life, I think that’s great… even more so if it prevents accidents. But how complacent should we be, and how much complacency should we tacitly encourage? When I’m out on my bicycle, I want the drivers around me alert, aware of my presence on the road, and not off in some private fantasy.

Sensors didn’t prevent another horrible accident recently on Route 1A between Bangor and Ellsworth. This is a deadly stretch of road. It’s also a well-traveled corridor, especially in the summer and fall, as it’s the main route between Bangor International Airport and Acadia National Park.

Over the years, this road has been periodically widened in spots, new lanes added, better signage erected… but accidents still happen, and traffic continues to increase. That highway is notorious for speeders and tales of tailgating and aggressive driver behavior. All the improvements in the world won’t change that.

In fact, continuing to expand road capacity only encourages more people to drive, worsening the problem. A more sensible plan for the corridor should focus on connected, comprehensive public transportation between Bangor and Bar Harbor, with the long-term goal of removing a significant percentage of vehicles from the traffic picture.

Maine doesn’t really have traffic… I lived in southern California for most of the 1980s and 1990s and cannot seriously apply the word to the small, temporary pockets of congestion I’ve encountered here. We do have a fair number of drivers with entitled attitudes who don’t think they should ever have to slow down for a bicyclist or a pedestrian.

As a bicyclist I can’t afford to get distracted. I have a side mirror so that I see cars behind me. At certain intersections in the greater Bangor area, I must get into the left lane so as not to impede traffic turning right. In these situations, my proper, legal move is to “control the lane” until I’m safely through the intersection. (Two examples: southbound Main Street in Bangor at its junction with I-395, and southbound Route 2 in Orono, at its junction with Kelley Road.) Drivers are required by law to follow me through the intersection before they pass. Yet many will zip around me on the right, into the other lane, rather than wait those few seconds. This creates danger for everyone involved.

Drivers are also required by law to give bicyclists a three-foot buffer space in all situations. Again, it takes seconds, not minutes, out of a driver’s day to wait until it’s safe to pass. What’s the rush?

It’s not all on the drivers, of course. Especially during autumn’s dwindling daylight, bicyclists and pedestrians have an obligation to make themselves seen, and to make sure drivers see them. But the difference is that a distracted bicyclist or pedestrian might dent a fender or scratch a paint job, but a car can kill. The onus for safety, I think, is properly placed on the operator of the more powerful vehicle.

Those car commercials are ultimately irresponsible. Driving a car is an awesome responsibility, because you take into your hands not only your own life, but the lives of everyone within the immediate vicinity of your vehicle. Because the culture is saturated with cars, we’ve marginalized other means of transportation to the point where many drivers feel that everyone on the road should defer to them.

A smarter path forward is to promote pedestrian neighborhoods, bicycle lanes and infrastructure, and public transportation. I see nothing wrong with sensors in cars, if people use them sensibly… and if people begin to come around to the idea that they don’t always have to drive.