The American Automobile Association estimates that the average annual cost of owning and operating a car is around $9,000. At $1.50 per ride, that equals six thousands rides on Bangor’s Community Connector bus system.
Since I ride the bus about 300 times a year, that means that one year of owning a car costs as much as 20 years of bus rides.
But since I work at the University of Maine, the bus costs me nothing. The University pumps $15,000 per year into the Community Connector – less than the annual cost of one adjunct professor – in order to offer this benefit to students and employees.
As I’ve suggested before, other area businesses could get on board with this. The University reached the eminently sensible conclusion that it’s cheaper and more effective to throw a little bit of money at the Community Connector than to build and maintain more parking lots at substantially higher cost. Large employers like the hospitals and business parks would do well to follow the University’s example.
Those of us who support expanded public transportation are often told there is no money for large-scale improvements. The Community Connector is funded through a combination of federal funds, local taxes, and fares. Raising money from local businesses wishing to offer their employees an alternative to driving to work would seem like a win-win proposition for everyone.
Entrenched attitudes, however, often get in the way. It can be difficult for habitual drivers to see that the bus benefits them even if they don’t use it. And employers may take it for granted that they need to provide parking for all their employees, whether they drive to work or not.
I once had a conversation with a nurse at one of Bangor’s hospitals. She was trying to save money by taking her lunch to work rather than buying lunch in the company cafeteria. I do the same thing at the University. What would happen, I asked her, if the hospital began charging a nominal parking fee, as the University does?
“There would be a revolt,” she said. “People wouldn’t stand for it.”
But consider this: No one expects to get a free lunch at work. Why should there be an expectation of free parking? Shouldn’t the company offer incentives to employees to leave their cars at home?
The University does this. The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor does this. Hemmed in on a small piece of land between Acadia National Park and the ocean, the Lab long ago decided that providing bus service is better than covering its scenic surroundings with parking lots. In cooperation with Downeast Transportation, they run buses from Bangor, Ellsworth, and Washington County, year-round. And the beautiful part of it is that these buses are open to the public, for a nominal fee. If you can adapt to the schedule and get yourself to the pickup point, you can take a round trip between Bangor and Bar Harbor for six bucks – the best public transportation deal in Maine that nobody knows about. (The bus leaves the Odlin Road Park & Ride at 5:15 a.m. and leaves the Jackson Lab at 3:40 p.m.)
The only reason parking at work is free at most jobs, and lunch at work is not, is that we’ve been doing it that way for years. There’s no logical reason to subsidize cars over food. In fact, there’s more reason to provide free lunch. All employees have to eat. Not all employees have to drive.
A fellow adjunct at the University of Maine (who lives away from the bus route) suggested that our union should go after what he called “low-hanging fruit” in contract negotiations. “They could at least give us free parking,” he said.
“If you get free parking,” I replied, “I want an extra fifty bucks in my paycheck.”
That’s what an annual parking permit costs – fifty bucks. Spread over a school year, it’s a pittance, but it sends a message. When parking is free, there’s no incentive for employees to help alleviate congestion by taking the bus.
Other incentives are there for the picking. The Community Connector could run a bus from Bangor to home hockey games, and the University could offer a small discount to fans who ride it. The stores at the Bangor Mall could offer discounts to bus passengers, as could downtown businesses. Park-and-rides at the ends of bus routes could be established.
And every little bit of publicity helps. On Tuesday, November 22, the Community Connector will be free all day to everyone. If you are a habitual driver and reluctant bus passenger, I encourage you to try it.