In Praise of the Bus

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This week I’m writing two significant checks to the state and federal government, which will leave precious little money in my checking account for things like beer, baseball tickets, and business cards to promote this blog. Thankfully, I don’t have to throw a temperamental automobile into the mix. When I owned cars, they always seemed to need repairs when I could least afford them.

No one likes paying taxes, and we all like to complain about some of the ways our tax dollars are spent. Depending upon your political persuasion, (and this is NOT a politically partisan blog), these may include: military adventures and equipment, foreign aid, welfare to able-bodied citizens, large-scale public art projects, public television, and sports stadiums.

Public transportation often encounters the same sort of criticism. Bangor boasts a pretty good bus system that operates six days a week, twelve hours a day. But the buses stop running at six o’clock in the evening, which makes the system unusable for many working adults. Ask a Bangor City Councilor or a representative of one of the other communities served by the bus about this, and you will get a variation of the same answer: It’s too expensive. Taxpayers don’t want to pay for it.

The perception of public transportation as wasteful subsidy is as old as it is inaccurate. In her landmark 1997 book Asphalt Nation, the late Jane Holtz Kay pointed out that your car is more subsidized than the bus. Half the money to support our addiction to cars comes from general taxes, whether you own a car or not. We all pay for free parking, law enforcement associated with the car, health care for accident victims, and the myriad environmental costs wrought by the car. So who is subsidizing whom?

Even if you never set foot on a public bus, your life on the road is improved by public transportation. Think about it. Every bus passenger represents one less car. Would you rather wait behind 25 cars at a traffic light, or a single bus? Would you rather spend half an hour competing with other drivers for a downtown parking space, or spend a few pennies in taxes toward freeing up more spaces?

More importantly, public transportation stimulates the economy. When I stopped owning cars and started regularly riding the bus, I found I had more money at the end of the month to shop at local businesses, to take my sweetheart out to dinner, and to purchase necessary items and services for my home. All those businesses benefitted. And I am far from alone. Longer bus hours would enable more people to remain downtown after work, or to get to and from work without a vehicle, or even to reduce the number of vehicles in the household. More money in the hands of consumers translates to a better bottom line for area businesses.

So why aren’t more people on board with this? Why does the image of public transportation as “skeezy” and “sketchy” persist? One reason might be that we’ve been brainwashed by advertising to think of our cars as status symbols. Another could be that bus passengers are often marginalized in the public mind as losers who can’t afford a car. A third reason is that municipalities and businesses are loath to encourage bus use. When was the last time the Bangor Mall, say, held a “Bus Rider Appreciation Day” with things like discounts and prize drawings? We are, after all, helping to pay for the parking lot without using it.

I work for one of the few entities in the area that gets this. The University of Maine provides free, unlimited bus rides for all students, faculty and staff. Recently, Husson and Eastern Maine Community College have followed suit. Bus tickets are a whole lot cheaper than parking construction. I see no reason why other major employers, such as Cianbro, the hospitals, and business parks, can’t do the same thing. Later transit hours would also help shift workers and people taking evening classes.

And one more thing: let’s bring back the BAT. I still don’t know whether it stood for “Bangor Area Transit” or “Bangor Area Transportation,” but the concept was cool, including the large bat stencils on the side of the bus. Who thought up the bloodless moniker “Community Connector”? It sounds like a therapy session. Who wouldn’t want to ride in a BATmobile?

 

 

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