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.