November was “Ride the Bus! Month.” The initiative was shaped by several groups who have been working for quite some time to raise awareness about the value of Bangor’s public transit system, the Community Connector; and to increase ridership and revenue so that it can fulfill its purpose of getting more people where they need or want to go when they need to get there. The aim is to create a culture where all people have access to affordable, reliable public transportation.
In November, we ramped up the volume: Bus ambassadors trained by the Connector staff helped new riders learn the ropes. The group 350.Bangor celebrated bus riders as Climate Heroes. The City Council proclaimed November, “Ride the Bus! Month.” The organizations Faith Linking in Action, Food AND Medicine and Dignity for All have been urging people to ride the bus, educating congregations and members of community groups such as Green Drinks and the Downtown Bangor Partnership.
I decided to see what it would be like to be a no-car family for November — what it would be like to walk and take the bus everywhere for a month, with an occasional request to a friend, but no asking my husband for rides. It has been eye-opening and challenging.
At first I was intimidated by using the system. Does it run on time? Yes. Do I have to be right on the corner of Mt. Hope Avenue and Elm Street to catch my bus? No. Do I need exact change? Yes. What are the bus drivers like? Amazingly helpful.
I can’t keep the same flexible schedule I’ve had with a car: what I do and when I do it is determined by when the bus runs — miss one and I have to wait a half-hour or hour, depending upon the route. If I want to get to the YMCA in the morning, I need to get the 7 a.m. bus or wait until 8 a.m. Unless I want to line up a ride in the evening, I’d better have a flashlight and good walking shoes. The same goes for Sundays. Walk, ask for a ride, take a taxi, or stay home.
It requires a lot of planning, juggling, waiting and sometimes canceling. I am impressed by the determination people need to get where they’re going on time, day in and day out. I spoke with one single mom who has to start her day an hour earlier and end it an hour later, just to get to and from work. Transfers take time, but there are no apologies accepted when you’re punching a time clock.
Riding the bus has made me a better planner. I can’t just drive back home mid-day to pick up a package or have lunch. I need to pay attention to the weather. Should I bring an umbrella, gloves, an extra layer of clothes? I’d better have some quarters in my pocket.
So given the challenges, what will I do now that November is over?
That’s easy. I have a new routine that starts with walking and riding the bus. I stop and think before taking my car, schedule appointments to jibe with bus schedules and pack carefully before leaving the house. It makes me feel closer to my community and a better steward of my environment.
I’m not suggesting it’s easy, but you don’t have to ride all the time to make a difference. If everyone took the bus once or twice a week, perhaps to a regular class or appointment, before automatically using their car, we might get the 10 percent increased ridership needed to expand hours and allow people to ride in the evenings to get to jobs or enjoy events taking place in our vibrant city.
We are fortunate to have the framework for a terrific public transit system, but to be the progressive, ever-expanding city we aspire to be, the system needs to work for everyone, whether it’s a choice or a necessity. As Sarah Nichols, a new city councilor has said, we need to change the bus culture. Remove the stigma. Take the trepidation factor out. Let’s turn “Ride the Bus! Month” into “Ride the Bus! Year.”
More to come. Get on board.
Suzanne Kelly is a Bangor businesswoman, chair of the Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor and a member of Faith Linking in Action.