So close, yet so far

The problem of the 'last mile'

THERE IS A TEMPORARY EXHIBIT hanging in the Portland Maine Art Museum this spring and summer, the personal modern art collection of William Paley, the former head of the CBS television network.  There is a saying that money can’t buy taste, but this collection is solid evidence that when money and taste are combined, a rich guy can assemble a pretty impressive art collection.

So on a recent Sunday, an art-loving friend and I decided to embark on a little road trip, to see the exhibit and explore Portland, which I had only visited once before despite its proximity to Boston. My friend doesn’t have a car, and I hate driving.  The bus schedule fit our plan better than the train, so we made reservations to get on the Concord Coach express bus (which was fully occupied both ways) at South Station and off we went to Portland, arriving less than two hours later.

When I say that we arrived in “Portland,” I should be more specific.  We arrived at the Portland Transportation Center, which caters to the highly successful Amtrak Nor’easter and the long-distance bus lines serving Portland.  The Transportation Center is about a mile and a half from the Art Museum and the center of Portland (which for a Bostonian can be a pleasant 30 minute walk, especially after sitting for 2 hours).  However, maps of the area did not reveal any pedestrian way that looked safe (lots of highway, no evidence of sidewalks), and in fact I was informed by a longtime Portland resident that walking to town from the Transportation Center was not realistic.

Cabs seem to be uniformly unreliable and expensive almost everywhere I’ve traveled in the US except major cities, so I hoped to find a local bus we could take instead.  Eventually I found my way to the Greater Portland Transit District website (“We Go Metro!”), which was not linked from any of the other websites I looked at to plan our trip (Amtrak, Concord Coach, the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, or the Portland Art Museum).    Regardless, I was able to find that the Number 5 bus picks up passengers at the Transportation Center on a route that includes downtown Portland.  Except, of course, on Sundays, when it doesn’t operate at all.  Alas, our only option to get to the museum and downtown was a cab.

In the transportation world, we call this problem “the last mile,” where public transportation can get you close to your destination, just not quite there.  It can be the deal-breaker when a traveler is considering mobility options, and often results in the traveler who might otherwise choose public transportation to “default” back to travelling by car.  Four years of commuting 110 miles round trip to work every day in the 1990s had turned me into a confirmed auto-phobe, so I am not so easily deterred, and we got on the bus anyway.

Fortunately, there were cabs at the Transportation Center waiting for travelers faced with just our situation, and while some people were obviously locals being picked up by friends or relatives, the demand for a hired ride from this location was apparent and the private sector was there to fill the void.  Returning at the end of the day was another matter.  A Google Maps search revealed no taxi stands in Portland, and there were no cabs lined up in front of the downtown hotels.  After waiting for a taxi ordered by phone that didn’t arrive for some time after the promised pick-up, we were able to flag down an empty one and make it back to the Transportation Center in time to board our bus home.  So far, a connection between the Transportation Center (which by this time I was tempted to start referring to as the “so-called Transportation Center”) and any place a visitor to Portland would want to go had been hard to uncover in advance of the trip, unreliable, and difficult to access.

But there’s another problem with Portland’s last mile: it’s expensive.  For us to travel the 110 miles from Boston to the Portland Transportation Center cost us each $28 round trip.  The one-to-two-mile trip from the Transportation Center to the center city was $23 round trip.  When you add it all up, maybe $50 to get to Portland and back for a day isn’t so terrible, considering the cost of gas, parking, etc. if we had travelled by car instead.  But at least we would have known we would be able to get to our destination.  If we were to make a return trip, we’d still be faced with the unpredictability of the taxi pickup to get us back to the Transportation Center for our ride home.  And nearly doubling the cost of a 100-mile trip to complete the last mile does make one stop and say:  “Hmm.”

Portland seems to be aware of this connectivity problem, and there has been discussion about relocating the Amtrak station to a downtown location on the waterfront, using an existing rail spur.  But bus travelers would still be dropped off in no man’s land.  Before making such a massive investment in transportation infrastructure, a reliable, less expensive, and easily accessed way to travel that last mile would connect Portland and Boston, and beyond, via public transportation.  A well-publicized shuttle bus running on a frequent loop from the Center to a central downtown location and back would solve it.

The Portland Transportation Center probably ended up where it is (located away from local attractions and surrounded by surface parking), for the same reason one sees the same pattern in other mid-sized cities in Massachusetts as well.  What we commonly call the Gateway Cities in Massachusetts have understood transit connections to Boston, the economic engine of New England, first as a way to connect their residents with jobs – people drive from home to the station, and take the train to work.  The success of the Nor’easter, for instance, is credited to the many Mainers who use it daily to commute to work in Boston.

Meet the Author

Peter O'Connor

Lawyer and economic development consultant, Self-employed
But connectivity is a two way street (or highway, or train). Boston-area residents travel as well, and will choose public transportation if it’s affordable, reliable, and easily accessible. They take 1.3 million trips a day on public transportation, and that number keeps rising.  It’s not just paychecks that can travel from Boston to Portland, or Lowell (where the commuter rail station is similarly remote from the city center, Tsongas Arena, and UMass Lowell), Worcester (where the pedestrian connections to the hopping Shrewsbury Street restaurant row require one to essentially “play in traffic”), or Fall River and New Bedford (if the long-planned South Coast Rail is realized).  Not just paychecks, but tourism and leisure dollars can be making the trip as well.

But in order to establish functioning two-way connectivity, transportation planners have to solve that problem of the “last mile.”  So close, yet so far.

Peter O’Connor is a real estate and economic development lawyer in Boston and a former Deputy Secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.  He can be reached at peteroconnorboston@gmail.com.