The public debate over Pickering Square encapsulates the essence of this blog.
(For readers unfamiliar with Bangor, Maine, the small city where I live, Pickering Square is a public area in the heart of downtown, dominated by a parking garage. It’s also the nexus of the Community Connector public bus system.)
A recent meeting of Bangor’s business and economic development committee, which reports to the city council, highlighted opposing views on how best to develop Pickering Square to meet Bangor’s future needs. Four options were presented, but most of the debate centered on two of them. One would keep the bus depot where it is, which was the recommendation that emerged from a recent three-year study. The other, quickly dubbed the Joni Mitchell Option by a member of the audience, would pave Pickering Square and put up a parking lot.
The Joni Mitchell Option makes no specific provision for the central bus depot, other than moving it out of Pickering Square to some as-yet unspecified location.
There’s more parking behind the parking garage, and at the Key Bank complex adjacent to Pickering Square. The parking garage itself is rarely full. Yet some people want to tear out the heart of Bangor’s public transit system to make room for even more parking. The committee heard from several downtown business owners on the purported need for additional downtown parking. It also heard from several bus advocates, including me.
Toward the end of the meeting, Councilor Cary Weston expressed frustration that the city has talked about renovating Pickering Square for the past six years but has not committed to a plan. “I’m tired of hearing what we shouldn’t do,” he said. “I’d like to see a solution brought to the table.”
In my next post, I will take Councilor Weston up on his challenge, and present a positive, forward-looking vision for Pickering Square. But first, I have to address a pernicious idea that won’t die but could cripple downtown for decades to come if implemented: moving the bus depot out of the downtown area.
As councilor Gibran Graham pointed out, Bangor is a hub, centered on the area around Pickering and West Market Squares. All the major transportation arteries radiate from this center. Any viable bus system needs to be built on the framework of this existing reality. It’s natural for the buses to congregate downtown, because all roads lead there.
The worst idea floated at Tuesday’s meeting was to move the bus depot to Outer Union Street, near the Concord Coach bus station and the airport. This would take the bus hub far from the city’s real hub, creating a lopsided route system in which one could conceivably have to ride one bus out of downtown to connect to a bus going to the University of Maine, in the other direction. It’s an unworkable idea that should be buried, once and for all.
What troubles me most is that a downtown business owner promoted it, and that a significant number of downtown business owners don’t see the bus as an asset that delivers potential customers to their doors. I hear business owners when they say, “We need to bring more people downtown.” I agree. It does not follow that we need to bring more cars downtown. Studies show that public transportation, pedestrian space, and bicycle infrastructure boost business much more effectively than adding parking spaces. Many cities have subtracted parking, or raised the price, and found that businesses have thrived as a result. Why? The shopping experience is better in an area that isn’t choked with cars.
And yet it’s hard to get people past the prejudice of the bus as the “loser cruiser” whose passengers don’t have the money to spend at downtown businesses. I shop downtown because it’s easy to get there by bus, or on foot, or by bicycle. Judging from the turnout at Tuesday’s meeting, I’m not alone. The Community Connector, for all its limitations, is a tremendous asset to Bangor that the city needs to promote and improve upon. It needs to be at the center of town, because it is central to town.
I started this blog as a pebble tossed into the pond of assumptions about the way we use our cars. Bangor has a magnificent opportunity to create a future with a vibrant downtown where people walk and greet each other on the street, instead of honking at each other at traffic lights. A visible bus depot, at a well-traveled central location, is essential to that future.
Continued next week…