It’s during the cold, dark and mucky months that I most actively ride the bus in and around Greater Portland. My reasons range – from the practical to the social to the environmental.
When the weather is bad, the bus becomes a sanctuary. It’s warm inside, and the driver welcomes me with a hello as I settle into my seat to let someone else drive me where I need to go. I’m harbored, at least temporarily, from the slush and ice.
Riding the bus in Maine’s winter lets me put off digging my car out and scraping off ice until a more convenient time. When I reach my destination, I don’t have to find parking in yet another snowbank; I don’t even have to think about parking. As an inveterate walker and biker, when I ride the bus, I can let go of worry that drivers won’t see me, especially at a time of year when dawn comes so late and dusk so early.
I don’t mind if the bus is crowded. Sometimes I even like it. On any given day all year long, there’s a camaraderie on the bus, even if I’m simply reading a book or eavesdropping on conversations around me. That sense of community seems heightened in the colder months, perhaps tinged by the adversity outside.
One arctic Saturday, I caught the bus home from outer Brighton Avenue. It was packed with people, seemingly workers and shoppers. An older woman waved me toward an empty seat, barely visible between her and another passenger. “Honey, there’s a spot here!” she called. I gratefully nestled between them, feeling comforted by their puffy winter coats on either side of me.
These days, thanks to a new technology local buses are using, I know when sanctuary will arrive down to the minute (or down to three minutes, anyhow). Since last June, Metro and South Portland riders have been able to access the Southern Maine Transit Tracker, which uses GPS to provide information on where the bus actually is. Often, I can stay tucked inside, warm and comfortable, and hustle out into the cold just a few minutes before the bus comes.
For practical purposes, catching the bus during the winter also means I save on gas money. Of course, I spend less on gas whenever I take the bus instead of driving. But the savings are even higher at frosty temperatures, when the fuel economy of cars drops for a host of reasons: engine oil thickness, cold and wet pavement drag, higher air density.
Hopping on the bus also lets me minimize the number of times I drive my car at its dirtiest – and I’m not talking about the salt and grime streaking its exterior come winter. Colder months are when internal combustion engines take the longest to get out of “open loop” emissions. During open loop, the exhaust system’s catalytic converter isn’t hot enough to do its job to break up carbon monoxide, unburned hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen into their separate, more innocuous molecules. The converter needs to be between 400 and 600 degrees F to start working and close the loop. It then operates normally at 1200 to 1600 degrees. Until it reaches these temperatures, the exhaust system dumps our engine’s output straight into our lovely Maine air. (If you drive an electric vehicle, you needn’t worry about this. But in Maine, less than 1 percent of vehicles are electric or plug-in hybrids.)
In the winter, it takes my car, and yours, a while to warm up and produce toasty heat. It’s tempting to let it idle and warm up until we’re ready to go. We need to resist that temptation! It’s wasteful for a car to idle for more than a minute, getting a big fat 0 miles to the gallon. On top of that, it’s bad for our cars. Remember – “warm it up before you drive it” is outdated advice from the carburetor era. Driving the car down the road gets it up to the proper temperature much faster and is better for all those moving engine parts. And fuel injection – which replaced the carburetor beginning in the early 1980s – senses and accounts for all variations in outside temperature.
Actually, I don’t have to resist temptation or to worry about harming Maine’s fresh air. Instead, I’ll ride the bus and be happy for the refuge. If you live near public transit and don’t use it, I encourage you to give it a try. I hope to see you on board!
Sarah Cushman, a sustainable transportation consultant and former master-certified auto mechanic, is always looking for sensible solutions to help folks save money and comfortably get around via public transportation, sharing vehicles, on foot and by bicycle. Contact her at [email protected]