PORTLAND – On a typical day only about 4,000 people ride a Portland Metro bus — just 2 percent of the roughly 163,000 people who live in Greater Portland.
Contrast that with the greater Boston area, a population in excess of 5.5 million.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has a daily ridership of roughly 1.3 million people across subway, bus, ferry and commuter rail service. That translates to about 28 percent of the population accessing some form of public transit on a daily basis.
The MBTA bus service, exclusive of the subway, attracts 37 percent of the 1 milllion residents of the communities that have bus routes.
So why are the numbers between Portland and Boston so vastly different? One word: convenience.
This column is not intended to bash the Portland Metro. It can only do that which its funding allows. We must, as a community, make a real, long-lasting financial commitment to greatly expanding access to quality, convenient, affordable and sustainable public transportation. That means developing a plan that emphasizes connectivity, ease of access, frequency, reliability and rider comfort and works to lessen the traffic burden on our streets.
Make no mistake about it, this will require substantial financial investment. That could mean increasing property taxes, city licensing fees as well as higher costs for users in addition to finding grants and encouraging community investment.
The reality is that a cohesive and thriving public transportation program brings economic investment and jobs to communities. The long-term economic and environmental benefits to the community vastly outweigh the short-term expense.
Smaller cities than Portland, such as Galveston, Texas, and Oceanside, Calif., have light rail or rapid transit systems with daily ridership as a percentage of the served population far closer to Boston than to Portland.
Yes, there is a cost in creating this transportation, but that short-term financial cost is nothing compared to the cost of languishing in a city that perpetually refuses to recognize the inadequacy of its current public transit system.
Portland has a history of innovation in many areas but has remained either indifferent or hostile to establishing quality public transit.
I’ve been beating this drum for years now, and I will continue to do so until real progress is made. This affects me personally as someone who can’t drive because of legal blindness, but I believe many more in the community would use an improved public transportation system if we built it.
Most people don’t have any objection to using public transportation so long as it is convenient. I’d imagine that even the strongest advocates for the Portland Metro would admit that the ridership is limited by the inconvenience of the service. It is very rare to find people who ride the Metro because they voluntarily chose to leave their car at home and commute to and from work by bus.
Why is that? I would argue that the prospect of having to guesstimate when a bus within walking distance will be arriving at their stop and knowing that if they miss that bus, even at rush hour, they are likely to be waiting at least another 20 to 30 minutes for the next one, prevents most people from even considering the option.
In addition, let’s say you work near the Maine Mall but live in North Deering.
The current iteration of Metro would require you to take one bus to downtown Portland and another back out to the Mall. In the best of circumstances, that trip will take approximately an hour. Hit the timing wrong, or get caught in the morning rush-hour headed downtown, and you could add another hour or more on to your trip.
That’s certainly untenable. I am not a transportation expert, I’m a rider. We’ve done a great job of getting people to and from Portland from points south. However, once they are here, they must either rent a car or pay for high-priced taxis.
We have not taken care of our own citizens to ensure they have true public transportation options.
I don’t know if the answer is light rail, Rapid Bus Transit or something else entirely, but I know it is long past time to ask the question and find a solution that helps to make Portland the world-class small city it can be.
Adam Zimmerman is a resident of Portland.