Saturday, January 08, 2005


Get On The Bus

America would like to believe that it supports its own cultural progression through the constant pursuit of efficiency. Yet the ways in which we manifest our obsession with improvement are laughable, oftentimes embarrassing, and are in need of some serious reconsideration.

Americans love the fact that they can pay for gas at the pump, buy movie tickets online, and check out at the grocery store without having to interact with a single human being. After all, who has the time? Americans also loves their tiny cellular camera phones, and portable music devices (none of which are made in this country), because there convenient size makes it easier and more “efficient” to call their friends while simultaneously listening to sweet tunes and taking pictures of beautiful wilderness vistas from a remote mountain apex, which they traveled to in their bloated SUV. Oh, wait…that only happens in the commercials.

The sad reality is that our culture has placed itself into an entrenched pattern of existence that is built on the pursuit of efficiency (happiness?), which has become wholly inefficient. In other words, we’re the mad scientist who did not consider the unintended consequences of our invention. For example, the bigger roads that we build to transport us to bigger stores only create higher taxes and more traffic jams. The bigger cars we drive to shuffle more people to and fro use larger amounts of gasoline, which create increased amounts of pollution and as supplies peak, rising oil prices. And finally, the bigger meals that we feed our families while traveling on said roads to said shops only creates bigger people. My God! We’ve created a monster!

But seriously, the further use of all of our oversized cars, houses, stores, meals and tiny digital devices only serve as a distraction from the lack of real progressive ingenuity that pervades our civic and socio-cultural institutions. Thus, this is a call for the reconsideration of American inventiveness.

Today, my contribution to the reclamation of American ingenuity is going to come through an admittedly half baked idea (I’m not sure if it is original or not, so I welcome your feedback) that I have for rural, exurban, and suburban public transit, or the lack thereof. I’m from Maine and contrary to popular belief, I did not grow up in the woods sans electricity, and I certainly do not find my cousin to be a good source of future progeny. Nevertheless, I am extremely familiar with the beautiful bucolic nature of the state and am aware that most people need a car to obtain life’s necessities. Of course that does not mean that everyone indeed has a car, or likes to use one, which is why I believe a state like Maine could really benefit from some creative thinking.

Currently Maine is like most states in that it has severe budget issues. Federal funds have been scarce recently, and the state faces increasing demands on its public services – education costs have skyrocketed even though enrollment numbers have declined. Thus, the state could simultaneously combat some of its transportation issues while actually earning some income from the only public transit that exists in most rural locations – school buses.

Why should such expensive vehicles be used strictly to shuffle children around for two hours a day? Is there any reason why school buses are not used in communities to help shuttle the elderly, those without cars, and those who do not like driving? The ability to get on the bus and go to town, or a regional center could reconnect the isolated, and increase communal connections. Moreover, one would almost think that since local and state tax money is used to purchase the school buses that citizens, especially those without school aged children, would insist on reaping the benefits of their own tax dollars.

Sure, there are some restrictions, as buses are used roughly from 7am to 8am and again at 2:30 pm to 4pm. You might even argue that some buses are used in field trips and for after school sporting events, but certainly not all of them. Why not charge $1.00 per ride and establish a local and regional bus route that travels on a regular schedule during off hours? Why not establish full service on the weekends and during the summer? Has this idea even been considered? I certainly do not have all the answers, and I do recognize issues of mechanical upkeep and the accrual of high mileage at a faster than normal rate, but I think the benefits of using buses as public transportation in rural areas are tremendous. Thus, I encourage Maine, and all other areas that are deprived of public transportation to get on the bus.

That's a great idea. Communities should start small to gauge the program's effectiveness. For example, many school districts have small buses for short routes, many with integrated wheelchair lifts for children with special needs. This is the perfect vehicle for radio-dispatched paratransit and transport of seniors. In this case, it might not even be necessary to restrict the hours of operation. These buses are rarely full. Seniors, disabled people and others with limited mobility could sign up in the town office for a pass which would allow them to use these buses during the morning rush. It might even encourage the children to behave better as they would be in the presence of elders. In the case of towns with both services this could save significant costs. In the case of a town with school transit only, this would add mobility for minimal costs. After successfully piloting this type of system, the town might be encouraged to use their other school buses for commuter and daily routes.
The reason the school bus idea is probably unworkable is because labor costs (the costs of drivers) are, I think, a bigger expense than the costs of the vehicles themselves. So if you use a school bus 10 hours a day instead of two hours, you are paying for a full extra worker (which, even if you only pay him $20K, costs a lot more than that if you factor in benefits). And that's an expense that could be quite costly for rural communities.
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