Steven HigashideSteven Higashide, who lives in Beacon, is director of the Clean Transportation program for the Union of Concerned Scientists and author of Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run and Win the Fight for Effective Transit.

What’s the connection between better buses and better cities?
Activists talk about “the right to the city.” Can you get to your place of worship, the doctor’s office, to City Hall? Can you do that affordably? Or do you have to pay thousands of dollars a year to access a vehicle? Better buses expand our freedom. Whether you are too young to drive, or a person with disabilities, or aged out of driving, public transit makes it possible for everyone to live a fuller life when we do it right.

You note that in American popular culture, if a character has to take the bus, it usually means something in their life has gone wrong. But in Canada, a bus is just a bus. Why the difference?
It’s a sign of how we have disinvested in public transportation. You can go to the wealthiest parts of the country and people who rely on the bus still have to wait on the side of the road with no sidewalk and no shelter for a bus that comes once an hour. When that’s the reality, not many people are going to choose it. In the Toronto suburbs, you often have buses coming every five minutes — every two minutes during rush hour — and these are suburban streets with strip malls and parking lots and townhouses. They have normalized a much higher level of service, and because of that the ridership is a lot higher. Ridership follows the quality of service.

You’re also skeptical about plans to make buses “sexy” with things like Wi-Fi and USB ports. Why?
They’re bad ideas if they are a substitute for what matters. And what matters the most to people is that the bus gets them where they want to go, when they want to get there, that it does it quickly, and that the bus is frequent enough that you don’t have to plan your whole life around it. Even in Beacon, which is not a major metropolitan area, it’s not too much to ask that. We don’t have to have two-hour gaps in the schedule. We still deserve public transportation service that runs all day and all week. Instead, what we have is this confusing patchwork of providers where service might stop in the middle of the day, or not run on Sundays or stop running at 6 p.m. 

A slogan you mention in the book is “More parking means less city for everyone to enjoy.” What does that mean?
We’ve just had this debate in Beacon around parking minimums [for new developments]. The problem with requiring so much parking is that in order to accommodate it, you have to spread out the buildings. Now, all of a sudden, if you want to go for a walk, you’re not walking along this contiguous, charming Main Street but among empty parking lots. It’s a much more hostile landscape, which can drive more people to get in their cars, because it’s not that appealing to walk. If we require so much parking in a downtown or any neighborhood, we destroy the things that make it an attractive neighborhood. If we make our neighborhoods more walkable, bikeable and amenable to people taking public transportation, the cycle goes in the other direction.

What do you think about the recent changes to the Dutchess County bus system?
There’s the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s good to see more Sunday service. It’s great that they’ve proposed more service between Beacon and Poughkeepsie, as well as between Beacon and Fishkill. It’s smart to try the Main Street shuttle instead of the Loop. The Loop is a confusing transit route, and the figure-eight is incomprehensible to many people. In terms of the bad, it’s troubling that the proposal is to curtail the hours of that shuttle. Service will stop at 6 p.m. It makes it a lot less useful for riders. 

Regarding the ugly, Dutchess is keeping residents in this situation of scarcity, so we have to make these tradeoffs. Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the federal government is providing more money for public transportation than ever, but the county still has to choose to match those funds. We shouldn’t have to choose between “Are we going to have Sunday service or are we going to have service that runs until 9 p.m.?” It is the responsibility of folks like [County Executive] Sue Serino and the county Legislature to provide those resources.

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

The Skidmore College graduate has reported for The Current since 2014 and writes the "Out There" column. Location: Beacon. Languages: English. Areas of Expertise: Environment, outdoors

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1 Comment

  1. As someone who rides the Beacon Loop, I disagree with Mr. Higashide’s assessment that the “loop” part is a bad idea. It’s very useful to those of us who ride it regularly.

    However, I’m not writing to dispute his work but to amplify the need for better bus service. I recently returned from a trip to my hometown of Spokane, Washington, where I could hardly believe my eyes — it has a new, state-of-the-art service, with clean, quiet, electric buses; low fares; an easy timetable; real-time maps at each station and onboard; bike racks inside the buses; and service to and from the airport. It was unbelievable. We could have nice things like that too if we weren’t allocating $25 million to “improve” Dutchess Stadium.

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