Looking for our new site?

Thinking Outside the Bus

November 17, 2011 |
Click here to read this full article.

Until September of 2010, Pam Boucher’s life was small. Living in Brunswick, Me., a rural town of 21,000, she was dependent upon others to move. At the time, she used crutches or a walker to get around and seizures prevented her from driving. She’d get rides to medical appointments from a social service agency. Trips to buy groceries, or visit her husband in a nursing home, required the help of her adult sons or scheduling a social service staff member. A trip to the local Wal-Mart would cost $28 in taxi fees. Socializing outside her apartment was pretty much impossible. “I was very limited,” she says.

As we’re talking the airy green bus pulls up and extends the ramp so she can wheel her chair onto it. She yells jokingly at her friend, “Are you going to leave me here? Hah. Doug won’t leave me here.” She turns back to the phone to explain. “Doug’s the driver. He’s really good to me. He’s knows my condition and that I sometimes forget where I am.”But when Brunswick started running two small 14-seat hybrid buses around town,  Boucher, who is 59, immediately hopped on. The Brunswick Explorer travels a 7-mile route every hour in both directions. Now in a wheelchair, Boucher calls me from a bus stop, where she’s waiting with a friend. The bus has changed her life, she says, giving her independence, control over her time and the ability to socialize. “I take it at least once a day. Sometimes three times.” She meets friends on the bus, takes herself to her medical appointments, and goes shopping for groceries afterwards. A few months ago the bus extended its hours into the evening to accommodate more commuters; she can now shop for groceries in the evening if her day has been spent at medical appointments.

America’s famously car-dependent culture strands the Pam Bouchers among us: those too old, too young, or too sick to drive cars. Overall, only 5 percent of Americans use public transit to get to work and that number is somewhat distorted by the huge numbers of people in cities who commute by subway, train or bus. Outside of metropolitan areas, the number of Americans taking public transit falls to just 1.2 percent. With so few people on the bus, schedules become infrequent and inconvenient, and ridership drops further. As local governments have cut back in the recession, some buses have gone away. Options for rural commuters have been falling even as gas prices have been rising: Between 2005 and 2009 the number of America’s rural residents who had the option of taking any bus at all fell to 78 percent from 89 percent.

Lack of transit literally hurts many Americans. The 40 percent of American military veterans who live in rural areas report much lower health quality of life scores than urban veterans. The Veterans Administration attributes this in part to poor transit to medical facilities. Lack of transit to after-school sports means that rural kids are 25 percent more likely to be obese. And the future will be grimmer: by 2015, 15 million elderly people will be without access to transportation. In Atlanta, 90 percent of seniors will be without access to transit. Studies have shown that when seniors can no longer drive their cars, they cease participating in society: Visits to friends and family fall by 65 percent; shopping and eating trips fall by 59 percent. Boucher’s experience in Brunswick is the exception rather than the rule.

Conventional wisdom says that the way to create or improve public transit is to invest billions to engineer rails, trains and buses. But the Brunswick Explorer is one of many innovators that are seeing transit as more than an engineering problem and trying to  build transit that meets the needs of its residents. 

This week Fixes looks at this and two other small but intriguing transit initiatives. They operate on wildly different models: The Brunswick Explorer is public; it is paid for by riders, who pay a nominal fare, and a combination of federal and local sources, including the town of Brunswick. Another involves private entrepreneurs providing van service; and the third is a non-profit that has radically re-thought the terms of mobility. Together these three programs suggest that we could get a lot more out of our transit dollars — and more important, get a lot more people from place to place — if we approached potential transit riders as customers, and gave them exactly what they need.

In the world of public transit, the Brunswick Explorer is a radical idea. Its genesis came from a coalition of local social service agencies — organizations that work with the elderly, mentally ill, disabled, homeless, as well as with college students and local hospitals. They approached Coastal Transit, a nonprofit regional transit provider to be a part of their coalition. Coastal Transit’s executive director, Lee Karker, had worked on two other rural bus systems that fell apart. Both were designed to fill objectives other than helping riders; one was supposed to clear congestion out of a tourist town, and the other just drove from one end of town to the other without much regard for where riders wanted to go. Karker describes the process of setting up the Explorer as “more organic.”  “Before when we looked at bus routes we got input on traffic patterns, not input from the users,” he said. “Now we’re trying to be more entrepreneurial.” Working as part of the coalition,  rather than as transit engineers, changed their worldview. “We have a tendency to make a transit system look the way we think it should look rather than what the community needs and what they want,” Karker said.

What the community wanted was a system that ran every hour, that was easy for people like Boucher with mobility issues to use, was green,  and that went everywhere they’d like to go — from housing projects to doctors’ appointments to the town’s grocery stores, malls and Wal-Marts. Brunswick’s buses are small and have green hybrid drivetrains. While bus stops in other towns are often placed on access roads to malls, leaving riders to traverse acres of icy parking lots, the Explorer  pulls right up under the canopy of the Shaw’s supermarket so that a wheelchair user can easily roll off the bus and into the store without braving snow, rain or uneven pavement. And while the bus travels a set route, it will detour to make pickups if called in advance.

So far, Brunswick’s ridership has increased by 50 percent in the past year, to an average of 91 people a day in October of 2011. Stops were added to the route as calls from passengers increased. The hours have been extended — they now run from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. — so that more commuters can ride.

John Secone, the bus’s supervisor, who sometimes works as a driver, tells me about his customers as I sit in the town’s neat bus station in early November. One of the first riders of the day, he says, is a man who takes the bus to his job at Wendy’s. Students from Bowdoin College have started taking the bus to school. For a few riders it’s been a revelation:  a man in his early 20’s who’d only been able to take paratransit to medical appointments visited Wal-Mart on the Explorer for the first time. Secone describes the bus as a community, where people meet friends, and where people have expectations of the bus and its drivers that go well beyond boundaries of a typical bureaucracy.

The lesson of the Explorer is that when transportation finds the people who need to use it, and then gets them where they want to go, it can grow organically. In the next two years, the Explorer will have to stretch as a green industrial park opens at the site of an old naval base and the train line from Boston links to Brunswick. Anticipating this change,  some nearby towns have begun to design connecting Explorer links of their own. The challenge will be to expand the route according to the desires of its passengers, rather than to accomplish abstract goals of local governments. Here Karker suggests that empowered riders may just hijack the system for their own uses. The bureaucracy of one nearby town has been dithering for months about the pros and cons of linking their transit system to the Explorer.  Riders have been much quicker to improvise. One resident in a nearby town cobbles together rides to link up with the Explorer; she’s taking charge of her own mobility. “More power to ‘em,” laughs Karker, at her ingenuity. It’s emblematic, he says, of a larger question of how many people would really like to use the bus: “We really don’t have a sense of how big the potential could be here.”

But transportation does not have to be a public enterprise, as an example on the extreme urban side of the spectrum has shown: The hundreds of private “dollar vans” that zip around the streets of Brooklyn and Queens looking for passengers offer an intriguing model of transit that meets customers’ needs because drivers are the owners and operators of the vans. While many of these vans are legal and insured to carry passengers, some are not, and all of them suffer from archaic laws that prohibit them from picking up passengers at curbs. Trundling down Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue,  Winston Williams’s  Ford 350 van is worlds away from rural Maine. Like Williams, most of his passengers this weekday morning are former residents of Caribbean islands where jitney-style vans provide cheap transit,  and they’re familiar with the ritual of flagging down vans and paying two dollars to ride. Williams’s company, Blackstreet Van Lines, runs eight vans, collecting hundreds of people a day. One morning as I ride with Williams, he talks about business ideas — expanding routes to carry hipsters places where subways are inconvenient, branding vans to build a presence, putting advertising on the vans to increase profits. The biggest hurdle to increasing ridership, he says, is resolving the legality of the whole fleet — both legalizing pickups and eliminating the unpermitted vans.

Legal issues aside, private vans provide services no public system could support, says David King, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University. The concentration of vans along Flatbush means that sometimes there’s a van every minute, so riders don’t have to wait. Sometimes they’ll take a mother and child to daycare and then wait at the curb while the mother walks the child up to the door of the facility — something a city bus would never do. Always on the lookout for customers, the drivers make routes where customers don’t have other options. A van between Chinatowns in Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, for instance, can take as little as 20 minutes when the subway would take over an hour. King says that he sees potential to enhance transit options for everyone by incorporating dollar van type services.

For one thing, dollar vans quickly learn passengers’ desired routes, like traveling between Chinatowns. This sort of knowledge could help public transit planners design systems that keep up with riders’ real needs. Dollar vans’ ability to scale up dramatically intrigues King.  “According to our estimates, the dollar vans are carrying 120,000 riders a day in New York, which makes them the country’s 20th largest bus system.”

Still, many people do not want to ride the bus, and that’s where a third model comes in — this one a nonprofit that re-envisions the accepted ideas of transit for the elderly and disabled. ITNAmerica (Independent Transportation Network) is a 15-year-old nonprofit that has grown from a single program in Portland, Me., to a travel network of 18 cities providing 4,000 rides a month. ITN, which was founded by Katherine Freund after her 3-year-old son was hit by an 84-year-old driver (he was injured, but recovered), offers a radical rethinking of mobility. “The spark was that I tried to approach the problem (of senior mobility) in a businesslike way,” Freund says.

Freund decided to make ITN sustainable for the long term, by trying to avoid surviving on public money. “You can’t solve a problem without sufficient resources.” She decided to link needy riders with the “excess capacity” of other drivers willing to take them out and walk them arm in arm to their destination. To pay for the service, ITN created “transit savings accounts” which essentially standardize and financialize rides, making them transferable without currency. So I could give elders rides in California and transfer the credits I’ve “banked” to my mother in New England. Elders can also donate their cars to ITN and receive credits to their accounts. And recently retired drivers can “bank” rides for themselves later by driving others now. This fall, the program logged 330,000 rides, and Freund is working on a bold national plan to create dynamic ride-sharing for people of all ages.

Freund thinks most transit planners, focused on schedules and infrastructure investments, don’t really get what moves people.  “Mobility is not a car or a train, but really a primitive feeling — a value — of knowing you can move where and when you want. The ability to move is a basic as the difference between being a plant and being an animal. It’s these basic feelings — like love — that really motivate people,” she says.

With a baby boomer retiring every eight seconds, and gas prices and carbon emissions rising, the challenge of moving Americans around requires huge real investments of public and private money. In 2008 the National Surface Transportation Commission  found thatwe need to double or triple spending on transit to keep up with the growth in population over the next 50 years. But the potential for re-thinking what we think we know about transit, for concentrating on the mechanics of the human brain and our culture as much as the mechanics of bus lines, seems limitless. What innovations do you see? And how do you see transit changing or failing to change to meet your needs?

Related Programs