A Subtle Bias against the Bus

Last week, our local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, reported some good news for public transportation in the area. The Community Connector bus system has acquired several new buses. Several officials speculated that the new, reliable buses could lead to an eventual extension of service hours later in the evening. This would be a welcome development, and not just for bus passengers.

But if you read the BDN online, as I do most of the time, you might not have seen this story. It went up on the main web page on June 15. By the end of the day it was gone from the main page, and by the morning of the 17th comments had been closed.

I imagine there’s an electronic algorithm somewhere keeping track of the number of “hits” a story generates, and that this influences the placement of information on the BDN web site. But some pieces seem to stick around forever, while others blink into and out of visibility within a day or two.

This happens regularly to stories about the Community Connector bus system. I hesitate to attribute motive, but I wonder if there isn’t some sort of subtle bias at work. Although the BDN offices are right next to the downtown bus depot, reporters don’t tend to be big bus users. I get it – I’ve been a reporter. You’ve got to be able to jump in your car at any moment to get out to the latest house fire or car accident or meth arrest. It may seem like an inconvenience for the employee parking lot to be tangled up with the bus depot. Still, the buses were there first.

Advance notice of meetings concerning the Community Connector often don’t make it onto the BDN website until the day of the meeting itself. Of course, these meetings are usually held at night, when the buses aren’t running, which, while not the BDN’s fault, further discourages bus riders from participating.

Many of the comments that squeezed through the small time portal during which the recent piece appeared were critical of extended bus hours. Here’s an example:

“When bus riders are willing to pay for the additional cost then and only then should the city make this change. Riders should pay for all the cost not just a small token amount. Bangor tax payers are already stretched to the limit.”

And yet I imagine that the author of this comment (who apparently has an aversion to commas) would scream bloody murder if Bangor were to saturate its streets with paid parking meters. Shouldn’t drivers pay for “all the cost” of storing their vehicles on public streets?

Sadly, this attitude seems to permeate discussions about public transportation. Why? Taxpayers who don’t read books don’t complain about supporting the public library, and taxpayers who have never had a house fire don’t whine about paying for the fire department. Property owners who don’t have children nonetheless kick in for public schools.

The cost of the Community Connector bus system is shared roughly in thirds, among the federal government, local municipalities and employers, and fare-paying riders. This keeps fares low, which in turn makes using the bus an attractive alternative to the car.

The “public” part of public transportation means that anybody can use it, and everyone benefits from it. The bus delivers customers to businesses and employees to jobs. It frees up parking spaces that would otherwise be occupied. It reduces the number of cars on the road. It makes life better for those who use it, and for those who don’t – exactly what a public service is supposed to do.

But many people look at the bus and see an obstacle instead of an asset. A member of my group at a recent “Innovative Neighborhoods” workshop told me that he thought the bus depot attracted panhandlers. Every city of any size in the world, from San Diego to Athens to little ol’ Bangor, has panhandlers. If the downtown bus depot vanished tomorrow, not one panhandler would disappear. But a lot of available parking spaces would.

Bangor has a chance to create a centerpiece of good, viable public transportation for a small city and the smaller communities immediately surrounding it. We can set an example for the rest of Maine, by building on the decent bus system we already have, and adding incremental improvements: newer buses, later hours, better community outreach. Our local newspaper has a vital part to play in that last one.

First there is a Fountain, then there is no Fountain, then…?

As I was walking in Pickering Square, heading for the bus with early summer in the air, from another direction I heard the sound of jackhammers. Orange-clad workers were reducing the fountain at the corner of the square to rubble.

“They’re taking it out,” said a man I recognized from shared bus rides. “Too many people were vandalizing it.”

Our local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, essentially confirmed this in a story on June 5, quoting a local official that people had been bathing and throwing trash into the fountain. The city stopped running water in the fountain in the summer of 2016 because of these problems.

Still, I’m sad to see it go, and a little apprehensive, too. I had no idea the fountain was coming down until I heard the howl of the hammers. There was no announcement that I was aware of, certainly no ceremony. The fountain will be replaced, according to the BDN, with a concrete platform containing electrical outlets. This will create more space for a variety of outdoor events.

The fountain, restored to working order, would have made a pretty counterpart to the spruced-up benches around the square, newly painted by students at Bangor High School. I’m not sure that the way to prevent vandalism is to remove objects of beauty from public spaces.

And I worry that the sudden removal of the fountain presages a “stealth” campaign aimed at the most frequent reason I go to Pickering Square in the first place: it’s the hub of the Community Connector bus system. BDN writer Danielle McLean linked the fountain’s removal to the city’s potential long-range plans for Pickering Square, including a proposal that would remove the bus hub from the square entirely.

It’s worth noting that the BDN’s main office abuts Pickering Square, cheek by jowl to the bus depot. I wonder how many of their employees get to and from work by bus.

Not only is Pickering Square the hub of the bus system, it’s the center of town, and by extension, the greater Bangor area. It’s the nexus from which all the major roads radiate. Were you to start a public transportation system from scratch, you could find no better central location.

But you can also find litter and graffiti and vandalism, along with sometimes loud and unpleasant behavior, occasionally warranting the attention of the police. These occur in any small city. It’s hardly a reason to relocate the bus.

Downtown business (including the Bangor Daily News) ought to the biggest supporters of keeping the bus depot in Pickering Square. Why? Every bus delivers potential customers downtown, minus the congestion of their cars. A bus can hold 30 people comfortably (I’ve been on a University run with 54). Eight buses arrive in Pickering Square every hour, and four more half an hour after that. Imagine 360 more cars passing through downtown every hour. Anyone who complains about parking in downtown Bangor should be thankful for the bus, and be looking for ways to improve it.

I will grant that most people still do business by car. But 20 years from now, will that still be the case? Long-term plans for Pickering Square and for Bangor must take into account the efficacy of public transportation, the wastefulness of the car culture, and our responsibility to the planet. We are living in the Late Automobile Age, and it behooves us to start planning now for what’s next.

The Pickering Square parking garage contains a lot of wasted space. A part of it could be made over into a modern, state-of-the art bus depot. More painted benches could adorn the outside, giving people waiting for the bus a place to sit in good weather.

Instead of looking at the bus depot as an obstacle, we need to treat it as the asset that it is, and design improvements to the square accordingly. If the goal is to bring people downtown, nobody does it better than the bus.

You can read my prior posts about the Pickering Square bus depot here and here.