Which comes first: extended hours or increased ridership?
It’s a chicken-and-egg problem as old as technology: the tension between supply and demand. Extending Bangor’s Community Connector bus hours later into the evening will almost surely increase ridership, but some officials want to see better numbers before approving longer hours.
And thus we come around again to November, Ride the Bus! Month (exclamation point theirs) in Bangor. The effort’s laudable goal is to get more people to ride the bus and boost numbers for the month. It’s sponsored by Transportation for All, a partnership of Faith Linking in Action, Food AND Medicine, Power in Community Alliances and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 714.
A kick-off event is scheduled for Monday, October 31, from 3 to 5 p.m. in Pickering Square, next to the downtown bus depot. There will be a costume contest, speakers, and information about the bus system, food, and maybe even some Halloween candy.
The event ends at 5:00 to allow participants to take the last buses home before darkness descends on Halloween night. The following weekend, the time will change, and the last buses of the day will be leaving downtown in the dark.
Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been a consistent advocate for later bus hours. But as I’ve delved more deeply into the subject of public transportation, I’ve found that things are often more complicated than they seem. Buses are expensive, for one thing. A single new bus can cost the better part of a million bucks. And they aren’t cheap to maintain, either, considering how hard they’re used.
And yet, it’s money well spent. The entire economy benefits from buses. A bus frees up parking spaces and traffic lanes. A bus enables the sight-impaired and other non-drivers to get to jobs, encourages students to save money, and delivers customers to businesses. Even if you never, or rarely, ride the bus, it has made your life better and will continue to do so in the future.
Still, public transportation suffers under the popular perception that it should pay for itself. Why? We don’t hold cars to that standard. All taxpayers contribute to car infrastructure, whether or not they own a vehicle. Public transportation is in the public interest, and should be publicly funded.
The Community Connector is funded roughly by thirds: from the federal government, local communities, and the passengers themselves. Fares are kept low, though in ten years in Bangor I’ve seen three or four increases. Still, it makes little sense to charge higher fares that would discourage low-income people from riding.
The University of Maine and Husson University help to alleviate the local tax burden by paying into the system so that students, faculty and employees can ride for free. Why can’t other area businesses get in on that – Cianbro, the hospitals, the stores at the Bangor Mall?
I’d like to see a direct route between the University of Maine and the Mall. Many of my college students tell me they would use it. If a bus ran until the stores closed, they could take it home from their jobs. I’d also like to see a small shuttle in Bangor downtown, similar to the Black Bear Express in Orono. The bus could make a small circuit of the downtown area every half hour until ten or so at night. Businesses would support it, because it would alleviate parking congestion and make it easier for customers to get to their doors.
But all these improvements, however worthy, take time and money. I’m on board with a cautious approach that anticipates extending the Community Connector’s hours over the long term. Ridership may not increase right away, but it eventually will, as people discover the new schedule. The other communities served by the bus need to get on board as well. Almost everyone I’ve talked to in my years of riding the bus agree that extended evening hours should be first priority.
Later routes would also enable local users to connect more easily with the Concord Coach and Cyr buses services, and the airport.
Bangor needs a convenient, comprehensive bus service. The best way to get there, I believe, is to build on what we have now, with constant, incremental improvements.
These are some of the ideas I would like to explore in greater detail during Ride the Bus! Month. I welcome any and all comments.