What Is Bus Stigma, and How Does It Affect You?

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When my kids were in high school, and we lived four miles outside of Belfast, they couldn’t wait to drive to school. The school bus went right by our house. But the cool kids drove their own cars. Bus stigma starts early.

A few years ago, I overheard a student at the University of Maine refer to the bus I was waiting for as “the Loser Cruiser.” The entire Community Connector system is free to them, but many students have never used it.

A Google search for “bus stigma” will turn up hundreds of thousands of hits. Buses have a seedy image that has permeated the popular culture. People who have never ridden a public bus tend to view them negatively.

Public transportation expert Christopher MacKechnie defines bus stigma as “the belief that people who ride city buses are a lower class of people than those who drive their own cars.”

And it’s not just an American phenomenon. “Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, once famously stated that a man who still found himself riding buses after his mid-twenties could count himself a failure,” MacKechnie writes. “By making that statement she vocalized the bus stigma that works to limit transit ridership in many cities by fomenting a belief that only those with no other choice – the ‘losers’ of society – ride the bus.”

Thatcher said this in the 1980s, when there were far fewer cars in the world. Since then, it’s become evident that continuing to choke the landscape with motor vehicles is immensely inefficient (and a squandering of resources, and an environmental disaster). People are seeking alternatives to the automobile. But while bicycling is enjoying a renaissance, and trains will always have their aficionados, buses retain a reputation as refuges for the downtrodden.

Why? Part of the reason is, I think, self-fulfilling; buses depend on public funding, and if people view something negatively, their representatives aren’t going to fund it. This results in bare-bones budgets, buses that break down, and schedules that deter people from using the service.

I use the Bangor bus system all the time. I sing its praises. I talk to passengers of all ages and incomes and education levels. And they all seem to agree on one thing: the buses should run later in the evening. It’s not a new issue. But it isn’t a pressing one to the people who determine the budget.

It should be. Because buses stimulate the economy.

I’ll say it again: Buses stimulate the economy.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s true. Local and federal subsidies for buses are more than offset by the benefits they bring: job creation, access to jobs, access to commerce, neighborhood revitalization, and – perhaps most importantly – easing of traffic congestion.

In the Age of the Automobile we’ve grown used to thinking of buses as subsidized services for a small percentage of the population. But every new bus passenger represents one fewer car on the road. Less congestion leads to speedier commerce, which leads to economic growth. If people could get over their bus stigma, more of them would ride, and everybody would be the richer for it.

But the best way to banish bus stigma is to make the service more attractive. That takes money, which takes the will of elected officials. The Bangor bus system is woefully underfunded. If city officials want the system to attract more riders, I have several suggestions for investment:

First, the schedule. Extended evening hours will enable more people to do more business at more times of the day. It’s such an obvious win I’m a little surprised it isn’t yet done.

The waiting room at the parking garage could use some physical improvements. It’s about the least friendly physical space you can imagine: hard plastic chairs, vending machines, nothing on the wall besides a bus schedule and signs that warn you you’re on camera. It reinforces every bus stigma stereotype. A little money could provide a room with comfortable chairs, a table or two, a magazine rack, a bulletin board – anything to make the place a tad more welcoming.

There’s no connection between the city bus and the long-distance bus lines. When you come in on the Concord Coach at 6 pm, you’re hung out to dry on Union Street. The Greyhound stop, over the horizon in Hermon, isn’t served by the local bus at all.

Ultimately, Bangor needs a downtown bus hub that connects all three services. But that will depend on public support for buses. And that will depend on overcoming outdated stigmas.

 

 

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