How Wasteful is our Transportation System?

BusinSnow

I’m sitting on the Community Connector bus as I write this, stuck behind a line of cars trying to turn left out of the University of Maine campus onto College Avenue. Snow is flying and starting to stick. It’s 12:50 p.m. Afternoon classes and meetings have been canceled. Everyone’s bailing.

The bus is full, but not to capacity. In the line of cars ahead of us, I see several solo drivers but few passengers. We creep along. The road is getting slick, and people are being cautious, as they should. Still, in the time it’s taken to write two paragraphs, we’ve barely moved.

How wasteful is the American transportation system? If the bus is three-quarters full, the cars in front of us must be, on the average, three-quarters empty. At this moment I’m glad I’m not behind the wheel of one of them. Here on the bus I can at least write.

I’m reminded of my life in Southern California in the 1990s. In Maine we don’t have much traffic. It takes a snowstorm or a Phish concert to stir it up. But in San Diego it was a daily experience. And I found myself wondering, as I do now, why we persist in moving ourselves around in the least efficient way possible.

San Diego has made improvements since I left. The trolley has been expanded and proven popular. Carpool lanes on the freeway encourage drivers to double up. But traffic jams are still a daily way of life.

Anyone who criticizes spending on public transportation has likely never looked at a line of cars stuck in traffic and counted up the empty seats.

In Maine, we don’t have to think much about all the unoccupied space in cars that drivers take with them everywhere they go. We don’t think about it until we’re stuck in line behind 20 or 30 of them – less than the capacity of a single bus – and we realize that if those people were on this bus instead of in their cars, this miniature traffic jam would be entirely eliminated.

And 20 or 30 people could be constructively occupied, as the passengers around me are, in reading, texting with their friends, conversing with one another, and maybe even writing something that someone else will want to read.

The bus has just crossed the Veazie-Bangor line; we’re passing Mount Hope Cemetery now, and it’s snowing on the dead. I hope to have most of this post roughed out by the time we get to Pickering Square.

Bus drivers are unsung heroes on days like this. They do the best they can to stick to a schedule as conditions worsen; meanwhile, passengers become antsy and frayed at the inevitable delays, and the drivers must deal with them, too. I’m happy to have the time to write, and to leave the stress of driving in the snow to someone else. Always be friendly to bus drivers. Their job is harder than it looks, even in good weather.

And now we’re almost there, only fifteen minutes late to the downtown terminal. The bus was almost ten minutes late leaving the Memorial Union, which means that the trip from the University to Bangor took only five minutes longer than normal. Some people missed their connection and will have to wait for the next bus, fifteen minutes hence. Still, for my money, it beats being stuck in traffic behind the wheel, inching forward, looking for every possible advantage. After half an hour of that, my neck would hurt. And I wouldn’t have written a word.

The University is shutting down for the day. College professors get the rest of the day off. Bus drivers aren’t so fortunate. Perhaps their job is a little more important.

* *

The Bangor City Council will hold another hearing on the Community Connector bus hub at 5:30 on Monday, February 13, at City Hall. Councilors are likely to discuss the so-called “Joni Mitchell Option” for relocating the bus hub out of Pickering Square in favor of a parking lot.

This bad idea needs to be put to rest, for reasons that become evident when you’re trying to get home in a snowstorm. A separate vehicle for each commuter is a highly inefficient use of road space. A bus can bring 30 customers to a downtown business in the space it takes to park three cars. The bus system is central to Bangor, and should remain visibly at its center.

 

Hank Garfield

About Hank Garfield

Hank's writing has appeared in San Diego Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Downeast, Bangor Metro, and elsewhere. He is the author of five published novels, and is now seeking a publisher for his recently-completed novel, A Sprauling Family Saga.