Friends, They May Think It’s A Movement: Buses Gain Traction

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I do love a groundswell.

Writing can often feel like shouting into a strong wind, especially when taking on entrenched interests like the Americans car culture. The suggestion that many of us don’t need to own cars, and that our community might benefit from reduced car use, is enough to elicit outrage and ridicule. Thus it’s gratifying to find others on board the same philosophical bus.

Last week I wrote about bus stigma, the negative stereotype of public transportation that suppresses funding for more and better bus service. In my experience, once people try the bus, their impression of it improves. But many people who could use the bus don’t.

Now a group of Bangor area residents is trying to change that. To that end, November has been designated Ride The Bus Month in the greater Bangor area.

Martin Chartrand, an organizer with Faith Linking in Action, a group of Bangor-area congregations and other institutions working to address root causes of poverty, says that several members of faith communities have pledged to give up their cars and use the bus for all or part of the month, and are inviting City Council members and candidates to do the same.

If just a few people do it, they may think it’s an organization.

“Ride The Bus Month is a joint initiative of Transportation for All, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor, and other congregations,” Chartrand says. “Transportation for All, which brings together bus riders, drivers and supporters to expand and promote public transportation in Greater Bangor, originated from a year-long listening process undertaken by Faith Linking in Action, which identified transportation as a key obstacle to accessing good jobs.”

In press release announcing the initiative, Chartrand stated that Bangor Councilors Ben Sprague and Pauline Civiello, and candidates for Bangor City Council Sarah Nichols and Meg Shorette, have committed to ride the bus during the month. Other Bangor Council members and candidates have voiced support.

Can you imagine? Several new people a day, throughout the month of November, riding the bus. Friends, they may think it’s a movement.

And that’s what it is.

During November, volunteers in Transportation for All will be available by appointment as bus ambassadors. “With support and training from Community Connector staff, these regular riders will accompany new bus patrons and offer advice on how to navigate the system and ride safely,” Chartrand says.

Public transportation is often a bootstraps problem: people will use it if it improves, and governing bodies will pay to improve it if more people use it. I’ve been riding Bangor’s buses since 2007; a year of living without a car has turned into nine. I’ve saved a ton of money. Many other cash-strapped households are beginning to figure this out.

But if it is to succeed, public transportation must have the support of the general public. People who never ride the bus need to be shown that the service still benefits them, by reducing traffic and easing parking problems. Prospective new riders need to be reached out to. And our representatives in city government need to find the money to make sensible but steady improvements to Bangor’s bus system.

And that means that supporters have to show up and ride the bus when someone takes the time and effort to put together a promotional campaign like Ride The Bus Month. This November, resolve to ride the bus at least a couple of times, to run an errand, or to get to work and back.

Yes, the bus takes longer. But I was surprised to discover that riding the bus freed up time. On the bus I read, write, and work on this laptop. I’m on the bus right now as I write this. The route between Bangor and the University is pretty direct. From point to point, you only save a few minutes by driving. And after that, you have to sit down and do the stuff you could have done on the bus.

Slower Traffic is not a political blog, and does not do endorsements. But it’s heartening to hear candidates for city council calling for extended bus hours and other upgrades. Contrast this with the penurious and mean-spirited cancellation of Saturday bus service earlier this year in Hampden, when a handful of bean-counters punished passengers for a petty dispute between two local governments.

Better bus service will come to Bangor if enough people want it, and demonstrate their desire by using the service that’s already here.

Chartrand can be reached at martin@foodandmedicine.org.

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