Mitchell Chapman: Thank you, BRTA, for adding night buses

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PITTSFIELD — On May 24, the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority was set to end its local pilot night bus program that allowed residents to catch a ride to Berkshire Community College and the Pittsfield Walmart for the modest fee of $1.75 per ride ($1.55 if you have a Charlie Card) through its special Route 11N bus. However, instead of ending the service, the BRTA announced on May 30 that it was going to expand it starting July 1, adding night bus routes to North Adams and Great Barrington for one year, while the 11N bus has continued operating in the interim.

In a year where the BRTA had to cut and reduce routes due to budget shortcomings, it is laudable that they were able to not only find the funds to take a chance on their night bus program but expand it. I wrote a column nearly two years ago titled "A car-less commuter assesses county transportation issues," in which I noted the largest transportation issues car-less commuters face — no Sunday or night buses in the county — could be most easily fixed by expanding the BRTA to include Sunday and night buses, noting that the county's night transportation network of Uber, Lyft and taxis were not affordable.

With that being said, it is great to know that the BRTA took to heart what I and others have said about night buses and responded not just with words, but action.

ADDED MOBILITY

The trick with expanding BRTA bus service is finding a way to pay for it, and as such, finding funds and consistent ridership will determine whether BRTA night buses are here to stay or are just a temporary experiment. But for now, we have them, and because of it, night workers, students, and other members of the general population are a little more mobile, and have gained more agency in their lives.

If you don't have a car in Berkshire County, your life might revolve around when the bus is in operation. It determines when you can go to other towns, when you get groceries, when you can visit certain restaurants, or see a movie. If you're a night worker, you might have a slim window to get the basic amenities you need before work as even under the pilot program you won't find a bus to the grocery store or Walmart after 10 p.m., and bus routes might determine where you can afford to live or get a job. If you're a student taking night classes, you might have to rely on friends and family to get home if the bus isn't running. If you are physically unable to operate a car for any reason, the BRTA's hours of operation might affect every aspect of your life outside home (though separate paratransit services for the mobility impaired are available).

The BRTA's expansion is admirable not only because it's a step in the right direction to serve the late night population that many county businesses have forgotten about with early hours of operation (the norm, it seems, is to close on or around 6-9 p.m., if not earlier), but it's also a solid year-long commitment to the residents of Pittsfield, North Adams and Great Barrington, as well as many towns in between.

With all this being said, while the BRTA night bus program is expanding, it's still just a pilot program, and if we want these routes to stay, we need to use the. We'll have these night buses for at least a year, as they are funded through a $361,128 grant from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation for that amount of time, but if these funds are going to be replenished come 2020, Berkshire County will have to prove that there is a demand for night buses here.

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As we saw with the elimination of Routes 7 and 40, even longstanding routes can be eliminated if ridership is low enough, and as a frequent rider of the Route 11N who has been on more empty 11N buses than full ones, I know that these new night bus routes are far from guaranteed to being renewed next year, though that might change if more people knew about them.

Though the original run of the 11N bus did prompt service expansion, it arguably did not hit its stride as information about it was buried on the BRTA's website after its initial launch, with little promotional material for it elsewhere. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find any information about it outside the web other than the physical 11N schedules that were added to the collection of route pamphlets found on every BRTA bus, which you might not be able to easily see depending on where you sit.

TALK UP PROGRAM

On the web, news of the 11N almost exclusively existed on news outlets and on the "Public Announcements & Meetings" section of the BRTA website and in both cases, these updates got pushed down by other, more recent news stories and updates. The 11N never made it onto the BRTA's dedicated place on its website for all current schedules, its "Route Mapping" section, meaning that the only way for riders to get the current 11N schedule online was to dig through newer public announcements — something that remains to be a hassle even for regular 11N riders, especially as the announcement with the current 11N schedule gets pushed deeper into the bowels of its site, which also makes it difficult for new riders to naturally find it.

This reminds me of an April 6, 2018, Eagle letter in which the writer playfully referred to the BRTA as the county's "best kept secret." If this is the case, the Route 11N is the best kept secret of the county's best kept secret.

The BRTA's night bus program deserves a fighting chance. Talk about it on social media and tell your friends and family who can benefit from it. Night buses face a unique challenge in that people have gotten used to not having them for years and have adjusted their lives accordingly. Some might even be cautious about rearranging their lives in a way that will allow them to benefit from night buses regularly, as there is no guarantee that they are here to stay for good. But we have to give them a chance, just like the BRTA did by providing them in the first place.

Thank you, BRTA, for taking a chance on night buses through the initial Route 11N pilot program and beyond. It's a small but admirable step towards increasing access to public transportation that has changed and will continue to change lives for those that must work, learn, shop, dine and cross town lines during the night in Berkshire County.

Mitchell Chapman is an Eagle page designer/copy editor and freelance writer.


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