Why would anyone choose to use the public bus system to get around the Bangor area instead of driving? There are many reasons — especially for older area residents who are served by the city’s Community Connector bus system.
Most obviously, said 68-year-old Bangor resident and community organizer Suzanne Kelly, a growing number of seniors are no longer able to drive safely for health reasons. Others can’t afford to own a car. The bus provides a convenient, affordable alternative that also helps maintain a level of independence.
But there’s more.
“It’s a good challenge, mentally and physically,” Kelly said. “You have to pay attention, learn the schedule and plan your route. You have to think ahead and pack what you need. Lots of good mental stuff.”
Physically, there’s the brisk walk to the nearest bus stop in the fresh air and the few steps up into the bus and off again when you arrive at your destination.
“And it makes you more part of the community,” she said. “You get more connected, more aware of our similarities.”
Kelly is a member of Transportation for All, a Bangor-based group facilitated by Food AND Medicine, a Brewer nonprofit, that aims to increase use of the city’s Community Connector bus system and, ultimately, expand its service area and hours of operation. The bus system also serves Brewer, Hampden, Orono, Veazie and Old Town.
In November, the group will partner with the city to promote “Ride the Bus Month,” with special outreach to older residents who may not be familiar or comfortable with using public transportation. This is the second year of the promotion, which began in 2015 as a simple public awareness campaign.
Still in the planning phase, this year’s promotion will include educational talks to build knowledge and self-confidence about navigating the system. Organized group excursions will use regularly scheduled buses to visit area landmarks. Some routes will feature an identified “bus ambassador” to help new riders find their way. And this year, on Tuesday, Nov. 8 — Election Day — everyone rides for free.
“It’s free fare for everyone, all day long,” said Laurie Linscott, Community Connector supervisor.
“All our buses already go right past a voting place. This will help a lot of seniors who haven’t yet voted early or absentee.”
In previous years, the bus system has offered free rides on Election Day only on the Hampden line that runs past the polls at the Cross Insurance Center. This year, free rides are system-wide.
Linscott said many Mainers have no familiarity with public transportation and suffer from misapprehensions about the experience.
“In other places, it is just the norm to use public transit,” she said.
But in Bangor, potential riders may not know how to use the system, how to read a schedule or how to transfer from one bus to another to reach their destination.
“But if they’d let us teach them, and take a ride or two,” they’d feel more at ease, she said.
Hank Garfield, 59, of Bangor, who writes a blog for the Bangor Daily News and teaches English at the University of Maine in Orono, said there’s a kind of “bus snobbery” at work.
“People feel it’s a lower form of transportation, the last refuge of someone who doesn’t have a car,” he said.
Some people fret, he added, at the idea of traveling with a cross section of the community that includes individuals and families, students and professors, working people and those seeking the services of social agencies and medical clinics.
“I have never found it at all intimidating,” said Garfield, who takes the bus to campus routinely, often loading his bike on the front so he can pedal home after work.
“We have a bias in American culture that cars give you freedom,” he said.
But Garfield, who holds a valid driver’s licence but doesn’t own a car, said he has been liberated of the costs of purchasing, maintaining, insuring, parking and fueling a vehicle.
“For the few times that I really need a car, it is much, much cheaper to rent one,” he said.
For Garfield, the greatest drawback to relying on the Community Connector is the system’s limited hours of operation, which prevent him from attending evening events on campus. If more people start using the bus system, he hopes the hours will be expanded.
Events for Ride the Bus Month are still being scheduled. Suzanne Kelly will present a free talk titled “Why Ride the Bus When You Have a Car?” at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25, at the Bangor Y. A downtown kick-off party will launch the promotion from 3 to 5 p.m. in Pickering Square on Oct. 31. Additional events and activities will be posted on the Community Connector website, bangormaine.gov/communityconnector.