Bus stopped

Portland's public transit system gets around. So why are we still so tied to our cars?
By SHAY STEWART-BOULEY  |  April 12, 2006

PUBLIC TRANSPORT: Not always easy to deal with.It’s ironic that in a state where people can get pretty worked up by environmental offenses, tearing down trees to widen roads, and pollution creeping in, we are wedded to our cars, trucks, and urban tanks . . . er, SUVs. It’s not surprising of course, given that in parts of the state, you can drive more than half an hour from one highway exit to the next. Even in many of the cities and larger towns, walking to where you want to go might not be the most feasible option.

But while it isn’t surprising that people seem to need their vehicles to get around to most places — so much so that some people look at me oddly when I say that my husband and I only have one car for both of us — it is a bit dismaying that public transportation gets so little consideration here. Particularly in Portland and its environs, where the buses are frequent and plentiful enough to make them a viable transportation choice for at least occasional trips.

Yet even though it’s common in many other cities for people to do a mix of driving and public transportation or even eschew driving at all, that’s not the case here. The 2000 US Census made that abundantly clear when it reported a total of 900,000 licensed drivers in a state of 1.27 million people and noted further that 78.6 percent of Mainers commute alone, 11.3 percent carpooled, and a scant 4 percent walked. Oh, and where does public transportation fit in? At 0.8 percent of the population using it — and that includes taxis.

Oh, you can spy out people waiting for buses. But aside from a hot spot like Monument Square, where you can find a gaggle of people standing in and in front of the bus shelter as you drive by in your gas-guzzler, many public transportation riders stand alone by the side of the road, looking more like people contemplating crossing the street than people waiting for a bus ride.

It doesn’t help when, depending on the bus route you want to take, you may face a wait upwards of 35 minutes for a trip you could complete in about the same amount of time by taking your own vehicle.

Amy Emmons, a mother of two small kids with a third on the way, notes that the time can really get away from those who live farther out toward the edges of Portland, as she does. She takes the bus once a week, sometimes less often, to have lunch with her husband or just take some time in town — and the kids love the ride — but it’s a 20-minute walk just to get to her stop. Adding to her frustration is the fact that while she dares not be late to the stop, the bus often is.

“The bus is frequently not on time,” she says. “We are on the middle part of the route, so maybe that is a factor. We’re a one-car family by necessity, and I like the idea of public transportation, but it’s not always easy to deal with.”

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The Bus and I

Writing this article on public bus transportation in Portland isn’t my first experience with the system. Living in Saco and having had a job for a time in the Munjoy Hill area of Portland, I’ve done my fair share of taking the Zoom bus from the nearest park-and-ride lot to avoid driving on the turnpike, and then tooling around Maine’s “big city” on local bus lines when I had Portland errands to run and my feet weren’t feeling up to long walks and hilly streets.

But a commuter line that runs during morning and evening rush hours from Saco and Biddeford, aside from not being any new thing to me, hardly helps the average Portlander to better understand how it feels to use their bus system locally.

And so I did a little hands-on experience myself in March, to see how a little travel between Congress Street and the Maine Mall would work out. I admit, I opted for a somewhat lazy escape hatch by having my husband pick me up from the Maine Mall to return to Saco. Sue me.

The Zoom bus to Portland was uneventful, as it has always been for me.

Once I got to Monument Square, I had 15 minutes to kill waiting for the No. 1 Congress Street bus to get up the hill. It was cold, but that’s my fault for not dressing in enough layers for the occasion.

The bus arrived promptly at 9:07, but upon getting on the bus, I realized I did not know my exact stop, so I had to look at the street numbers to make sure I didn’t overshoot 73 Congress St. The bus turns off Congress Street before getting there, so I ended up getting off and walking. (Turns out the bus does a loop that would have eventually dropped me in front of my destination. Oh, well.)

After having a tasty breakfast, it was time for the next leg of the journey, heading down to Elm Street to catch the No. 5 to the mall. I had neglected to get times for the No. 1, so things started going downhill. With no bus in sight and realizing I was 15 minutes’ walk from Elm, I headed off on foot. With my 35 extra pounds of postpartum weight, Munjoy Hill was a killer. I got to Elm five minutes later than expected and had to wait a half-hour for the next bus. Fortunately, I could kill time at the Portland Public Market.

Once I boarded it, the No. 5 wasn’t too bad of an experience aside from my seatmate across the aisle who was having a rather lively conversation with herself. Notables of the No. 5 are that it stops at the Portland Transportation Center and on Congress Street across from the Jetport. At the end, I was dropped off by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles office in the Maine Mall.

The entire process of leaving Saco and ending up at the Mall, including my breakfast stop, took close to 3.5 hours. But it only cost me $5.50 and that includes the $3 from Saco to Portland on the Zoom bus. Obviously, a Portlander would save both money and time, and not missing the No. 5 would have also shaved a lot of time off my trip.

Not nearly as convenient as using the car, but I did get some reading done and it was one less car spewing exhaust into the Maine air. Also on the upside, the Metro workers I encountered were definitely friendlier than their counterparts I have dealt with in larger cities. I wouldn’t recommend the Metro as a lifestyle choice to most people, but it’s worth using.