A Positive Vision for Pickering Square

 

Last week I wrote about the proposed “Joni Mitchell Option” for paving Pickering Square in downtown Bangor and putting up a parking lot. This plan was presented at a meeting of the city council’s business and economic development committee.

I wrote that the Joni Mitchell Option was by far the worst of four plans presented at the meeting, because of its over-emphasis on the automobile. The Pickering Square parking garage is almost never full, and adjacent parking lots behind the garage and in the nearby Key Bank complex offer plenty of additional spaces.

The last thing the Bangor City Council should be considering is adding more parking spaces to a pedestrian-friendly downtown. More parking encourages more driving, and a downtown choked with cars discourages business.

Toward the end of the meeting, Councilor Cary Weston, a proponent of the Joni Mitchell Option, said the city should move forward with some sort of plan for the square.

Any plan, however, should include the hub for the Community Connector bus system, as I wrote last week. The Joni Mitchell Option fails this central requirement.

In answer to Weston’s challenge, I’d like to put forth a few modest proposals.

The entrance to the parking garage is problematic. Cars enter and exit the garage right in front of where the buses load. This creates a confusing flow of traffic during those twice-hourly times during the day when the buses converge. Moving the car entrance would seem to be the most workable solution to this.

But before the city commits to wholesale physical changes, it should look at less intrusive (and less expensive) measures to improve the parking system downtown. For instance, extending the bus hours later into the evening would not require a dime for new construction, and would immediately ease parking congestion. People could commute to their jobs by bus and be able to stay downtown later than 5:45 in the afternoon, without dragging their cars along for the ride.

Another improvement requiring no new construction would be a downtown shuttle, similar to the successful Black Bear Express in Orono. A small bus could circle the downtown area every half hour, taking people from Pickering Square to, say, Shaw’s, the Post Office, the area around the Library, and the Waterfront. It would be used by both bus and car commuters, and would be a great help to people with mobility challenges.

This shuttle would alleviate parking congestion by enabling people to park at the garage, or in an outlying parking area, and to enjoy the downtown at the personal, pedestrian level. As I wrote last week, the commendable goal of bringing more people downtown should not be conflated with efforts that end up bringing more cars downtown, thereby worsening parking problems.

The bus needs a real downtown depot, with a staff person on duty. As things stand now, the parking garage has an office, carpeted, with information brochures out, and someone behind a counter available to help.

The waiting room for the bus, across the entrance to the garage, is all tile and plastic chairs. The contrast couldn’t be starker. There’s no one to answer questions, and the staff at the parking garage office has no affiliation with the Community Connector and is understandably reluctant to assist bus passengers.

An expanded bus terminal and waiting area could be developed in the lower level of the parking garage, where presently there is nothing. A few comfortable chairs, a table or two, maybe a magazine rack and a coffee kiosk, and a representative of the Community Connector on duty – all these things would enhance the bus experience and encourage more people to leave their cars at home.

Ideally, Bangor should have a centralized public transportation facility that offers access to shuttle buses, taxis, the Community Connector, and the two long-distance bus services that serve the city. In the short term, this could be addressed with a shuttle that runs between Pickering Square and the Concord Coach depot on Union Street, timed to meet Concord’s arrivals and departures. But a long-term vision that brings Greyhound back into town and leaves room for future train service need to be considered, starting now.

As a regional hub, Bangor has great potential to become a public transportation nexus for the 21st century. Its central areas need to be planned in anticipation of a new age of transportation, one that does not emphasize the individual car at the expense of every other alternative. The City Council needs to keep this focus in mind as it plans for Bangor’s future.

 

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