Bangor likely won’t see longer bus hours or new routes for the Community Connector anytime soon. At the Bangor City Council’s budget workshop on April 27, city residents called on the councilors to extend bus service by at least two hours. While the councilors were in agreement that the bus service eventually should be extended, they concluded the price tag was too high.
There are benefits to investing in public transportation, from reducing carbon emissions and traffic congestion to saving local residents money on transportation costs. But the upfront cost can be prohibitive. To extend bus service on existing routes within Bangor by two hours would cost the city about $250,000, according to the city’s proposed fiscal year 2017 budget.
Ridership on the Bangor bus system has declined in recent years, from more than 1 million rides in fiscal year 2013 to 895,287 two years later.
Extending service is one way to spur more residents and visitors to the Queen City to ride the bus. After Lewiston-Auburn added limited Saturday service and lengthed service hours in 2011, use of the bus rose 31 percent, from 285,209 rides in fiscal year 2011 to 414,574 in fiscal year 2015.
As councilors weigh the bus service expansion, they indicated they might begin talks about a long-term plan for the bus system that could include longer hours. As this conversation goes forward, there are many options for improving public transportation beyond simply extending service hours. Many cities across the U.S. have taken creative approaches to make it easier for those without cars to get around and more convenient for those with cars to use alternative transportation.
Here are three ways cities are supporting public transit and increasing transportation options.
Bikes can go where buses can’t travel.
Public transit can’t reach every street corner. But about 53 percent of all Americans live within at least 2 miles of a transit stop, a feasible distance to bike, according to a 2013 study in the Journal of Public Transportation. An easy way to increase public transit use, then, while improving public health is to incorporate bike sharing into a city’s public transportation infrastructure.
Already, more than 50 cities across the U.S. have bike-sharing programs, including Boston, Minneapolis, New York and Seattle, to complement existing public transit infrastructure to bridge gaps between transit stops and passengers’ homes and destinations.
In Maine, the town of Norway began a bike-sharing program in April 2015, and Portland received a federal grant in 2013 to begin planning a bike-sharing program that could roll out sometime later this year.
Here’s how it works. With Boston’s Hubway bike-sharing program, which entered its sixth season of operation in March, users can sign up for an annual membership for $85 or get a one-time pass at any Hubway station for $6. They can use the bike to commute to work or run errands and, when they’re done, park the bike at any Hubway station in the city.
In 2015, Hubway had 13,248 annual subscribers, compared with 3,203 in 2011, according to Hubway. One-time passes for 24 and 72 hours rose to 102,445 in 2015 from 30,655 in 2011.
There’s some evidence that expanded bike sharing boosts use of public transit. One 2014 report, for example, found that a bike-sharing program in Washington, D.C., has increased ridership on public transit by 3 percent.
One city has started a public-private partnership with Uber to help residents get where they need to go.
In recent years, public transit agencies across the U.S. have partnered with the ridesharing service Uber to supplement public bus and rail options. MetroTransit in Minneapolis, for example, reimburses the cost of some Uber trips with its Guaranteed Ride Home if passengers need to travel outside rush hour for an emergency.
But the city of Altamonte Springs, Florida, is the first city in the U.S. to subsidize trips with the ridesharing service as a way to ease traffic congestion and offer residents another way to get around the city.
Under the agreement with Uber, the city pays 20 percent of any fare that begins or ends within city limits. And as a way to promote ridership on the SunRail, a central Florida commuter train, the city pays 25 percent of any Uber fare to and from the Altamonte Springs station.
While Uber might make public transit a more convenient option, its benefits will likely accrue to the wealthiest passengers. The average household spends $8,500 per year on personal vehicles and takes about 2,000 trips per year, according to federal statistics. Uber fares average about $20 per trip, while American households spend an average of $4 to $5 per car trip.
Because of the expense of Uber, people with incomes of less than $25,000 per year are three times less likely to use the ridesharing service than those who earn more than $50,000, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.
Even for wealthier passengers, completing 85 percent of trips on the bus and 15 percent with Uber just breaks even with the cost of owning a car, according to FiveThirtyEight. This makes it unlikely that Uber will replace public transit for now because it isn’t cost effective for low-income passengers, and it isn’t cost competitive for people who own cars.
In Washington state, cities work with large employers to encourage workers to not drive to work.
Instead of just trying to make public transit more convenient, Washington state has been trying to change drivers’ behavior by removing incentives to drive solo. Since 1991, the state has seen some positive changes with its Commute Trip Reduction program.
Under state law, businesses that employ more than 100 workers must implement programs to incentivize their employees to walk, bike, carpool or take the bus to work instead of making solo commutes.
Some businesses offer straightforward incentives, such as giving workers the option to telecommute, charging workers to park their cars at work and offering free transit passes. Other employers offer bolder incentives, including paying workers not to drive or giving mortgage discounts to workers who move closer to the office. Some even forgo building additional parking spaces.
The state offers $2.7 million in tax credits to employers to partially reimburse the cost of these incentives. For each tax dollar spent on the Commute Trip Reduction program, employers spend $18, according to the Washington State Commute Trip Reduction Board’s 2013 report to the Legislature.
It’s an investment that has shown some evidence of changing behavior. In 2014, 63 percent of workers at worksites affected by the program made solo commutes, compared with 71 percent in 1993, according to the board. Over that same 21-year period, the statewide rate of workers who commuted alone to work dipped only slightly, to 73 percent from 74 percent.
The impact is even more measurable in certain cities. Only 26 percent of workers at Commute Trip Reduction worksites in Seattle, for example, drove alone to work, compared with the citywide average of 30 percent, according to a 2015 survey by Commute Seattle. Instead of driving, about 41 percent of workers at Commute Trip Reduction worksites used public buses to get to work, compared with the citywide average of 37 percent.