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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s so great about the Community Connector?

 

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I’m going to continue to say nice things about Ride the Bus Month in Bangor, and the Community Connector in general, throughout November. Those big red buses (some are white and others are wrapped in advertising) continually make me feel good about living here. They are one of the area’s unheralded assets. Regular riders must not forget to appreciate them, even as we push for improvements.

Public awareness of public transportation is the point of Ride the Bus Month. The cheerful orange flyers announcing the event provide several good reasons to use the Community Connector this month even if you own a car.

SAVE MONEY. The American Automobile Association estimates that the average American spends $725 per month to own and operate a car. A monthly bus pass is just $45.

AVOID PARKING HASSLES. Bus passengers never have to troll for parking or worry about getting a ticket if they stay too long.

INCREASE YOUR “ME” TIME: On the bus you can read, write, knit, listen to music, do the crossword, meditate, or even nap. You can prepare for a busy day, or regroup from a stressful one, between home and work.

AVOID DRIVING IN BAD WEATHER: When storms rage, leave the driving to trained professionals in vehicles that hold the road.

SAVE THE PLANET: Want to reduce your carbon footprint? Every trip you make in a bus instead of a car reduces the amount of greenhouse gases released into the Earth’s atmosphere.

The flyer also contains information on fees (a single ride is $1.50; a strip of 5 tickets is $6), transfers from one route to another, hours of operation, where to buy tickets, how to download the Community Connector smartphone app, and other contact information.

I’ve been using the Community Connector for ten years now, for all those reasons and more. I’ve made friends on the bus. I’ve engaged in interesting discussions on a wide rage of subjects. I’ve graded papers, and gotten some of my own writing done.

As an adjunct professor at the University of Maine, I get to ride for free. Students and employees at Husson University, New England School of Communications, Eastern Maine Community College, and the University of Maine at Augusta get the same deal. I consider it a benefit of my job on a par with the free parking most car commuters get at theirs.

What’s it worth? A single ride costs $1.50, you can buy a strip of 5 tickets for $6, and a monthly pass is $45. As regular readers of this blog know, I don’t own a car. I do have a bicycle, and I live in a household where a car is available if I need one. I ride the bus about 300 times a year. That works out to 25 rides per month, which would cost me $450 per year if I paid for them individually, $360 if I bought the tickets, and $540 if I bought a monthly pass.

Clearly, the best deal for me would be the strips of tickets. Even without a car, I don’t ride the bus enough to justify the cost of a monthly pass. But I use my bike and walk and sometimes borrow the lovely Lisa’s car – though not to go to work. Why would I take a car to the campus when it’s so easy to access by bus? Later hours would make the bus option even more attractive.

But someone who commutes to a job by bus five days a week, fifty weeks a year, requires 500 rides, which individually would cost $750 and would consume $600 worth of tickets. For that rider, the monthly pass makes sense.

It also makes sense for employers to reward employees for using the bus, as the colleges do. Every bus commuter means one less parking space the company has to create and maintain.

The Community Connector offers discounts to several members of the community. Seniors (60+), SSDI disability recipients and K-12 students can qualify for half-price fares through the Community Connector website.

And there’s an organization called GoMaine, which co-ordinates emergency rides home for passengers who use public transportation at least three times a week.

Ride the Bus Month is co-ordinated by Transportation For All. They can be contacted at tfa@foodandmedicine.org.

 

Unlike Everything Else you will Read this Week, this isn’t about the Election

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Ride the Bus Month is underway in the greater Bangor area.

Halloween afternoon blew cloudy and cold into Bangor, but people gathered in Pickering Square nonetheless, to eat, compare costumes, and talk about public transportation.

Since I ride the Community Connector bus about 300 times a year, I thought I’d go express my support (and grab some free food) at the event, which launched Ride the Bus Month in the greater Bangor area. Several members of the Bangor City Council attended, and State Senator Geoff Gratwick emceed a costume contest for the kids. Most of the grownups talked about how to make the bus system better.

I’m one of the lucky ones whose work schedule coordinates with the Community Connector’s daytime hours. Others aren’t so fortunate. Many more people could use the bus to commute to their jobs if the hours were extended later in the evening. This applies in particular to workers at the Bangor Mall and retail businesses that stay open after five o’clock.

Everyone I’ve talked to in my ten years of riding the bus agrees on the need for extended evening hours. And we’re working toward that as a community. I believe it will happen within the next couple of years. True, lasting progress is almost always incremental. At the same time, I appreciate the expense involved in expanding the bus service. Our public officials have difficult choices to make and limited funds at their discretion.

If there’s one message Ride the Bus Month can effectively communicate to the general public, I think it should be this: better bus service boosts business. (That could be a bumper sticker – but where would I put it?)

I’m just one person riding the bus instead of driving a car, but consider:

Every month I don’t make a car payment, or an insurance payment, or fill up a gas tank, that’s more discretionary income I have to spend at local businesses. The bus makes the community more business-friendly. A mixed transportation picture that includes cars, buses, bicycles and pedestrians is more conducive to business and social interaction.

Every time I use the bus instead of a car, that’s one less occupied parking space downtown. It’s one less car in line at the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru, one less car backed up at the traffic light, one less car trying to negotiate an event at the Cross Center or on the Waterfront. Even if you never use the bus, it has made your life better.

Now multiply me by everyone who could make the same choice if the hours were extended. A regular rider told of her friends who drive to their downtown jobs because they aren’t ready to leave at 5:15, when the last bus currently departs. Another suggested splitting the Bangor-Old Town route in half so that a bus would pass Eastern Maine Medical Center in each direction every half hour. I said a direct route between The University of Maine and the Bangor Mall would help a number of my employed students.

But the reality on the ground is that such changes, however desirable, come slowly. The money to improve the system has to come from somewhere. We supporters of the Community Connector should focus first on extending the hours. That should be the first and most immediate priority. Other improvements will come in time with increased support. Ongoing outreach efforts like Ride The Bus Month can help keep the bus system in the public eye, and convince taxpayers that it’s worth the expense.

Public transportation is not a subsidy. It is an investment in a community. I call on the general public, and the business community in particular, to support the ongoing expansion and improvement of the Community Connector bus system.

The University of Maine and other area colleges are doing their part. Paying for students and employees to ride the bus alleviates the need for additional, expensive parking. Why can’t other large employers in the area – the hospitals, Cianbro, the Mall – get on board with this?

The future of transportation in the Bangor area does not belong exclusively to the automobile. In addition to people who can’t drive, for physical or financial reasons, the bus system serves those of us who want a functional and convenient alternative.

Whether you ride the bus regularly, infrequently, or not at all, the Community Connector deserves your support.

For more information on Ride the Bus Month, contact Martin Chartrand, 989-5850 or martin@foodandmedicine.org.