In August, when the Metro Breez bus service was expanded to Brunswick — connecting the communities of Freeport, Yarmouth, and Portland — Portland Metro anticipated ridership would bump up a bit. The Breez had, since 2016, been making daily trips between Freeport and Portland.
Instead, ridership this fall basically doubled. “Prior to the Brunswick expansion, weekday ridership averaged 80 to 100,” Denise Beck, Metro’s marketing director, wrote in an email. “After the Brunswick launch, numbers rose to 150-plus, with some days over 200.” Saturday numbers, typically under 50 before the expansion, have since climbed to over 100 riders.
In September, 2017, the Breez posted 5,150 boardings, about 1,400 more than expected. In October, ridership climbed to 5,715, again flying past Metro’s estimated 3,750 boarders.
Students, commuters, and retirees are all riding the bus. “[Brunswick] is an active community,” Beck said. It doesn’t hurt that there is wifi on the bus, allowing people to use their devices as they travel.
Ticket fare for the Breez is $3 per trip, which you can pay as you go, or you can pre-purchase a ticket — or a bundle of discounted tickets — at the Brunswick Train Station or from Bowdoin. The Portland Metro is planning to adopt an electronic fare system in a year or so, according to Beck, as well as expand its bus routes to Westbrook, South Portland, and Gorham.
Next year, the Breez also will add a new Breez stop near Maine Beer Co. in Freeport. Right now the shuttle makes three stops in Brunswick, five in Portland, three in Yarmouth, and three in Freeport. There are 14 daily round trips between Brunswick and Portland. (A helpful hint: Riders waiting for the bus can text the number of their stop (these are on every bus stop sign) to learn their bus’s expected arrival time. They can also check the site smttracker.com, or use the Transit phone app.)
While the strong numbers posted by the Metro Breez in its first few months have buoyed public transit advocates, this is also heartening news for some human resource departments. Brian Robinson, assistant director of employment and staffing at Bowdoin, said he makes a point of mentioning the bus service when he is recruiting employees.
Because state unemployment is so low right now, it has been harder for Bowdoin to find people to fill some of its open positions, particularly in housekeeping, security, and dining. So the human resources department has made a greater push to reach out to communities beyond Brunswick and Topsham. “We share the flyer, schedule, and map of the Breez with potential applicants, because transportation can be a challenge,” Robinson said. The bus is also boosting Robinson’s efforts to attract more applicants from Maine’s refugee and immigrant population. “Our focus is to create a diverse candidate pool,” he said.
Younger workers — that is, millennials — are helping to drive the increase in public transportation use across the country, says Craig Zurhorst, who is the community relations director for Western Maine Transportation Services, Inc., the company that runs the local Brunswick Explorer bus service. “They’re making a conscious decision to do this,” he said. Additionally, healthy retirees who want to stay active in the community are also turning to buses and trains.
“Lots of good can come out of public transit. There’s less traffic on the roads, it helps economic development, it’s good for the environment,” Zurhorst said. “And it connects employees to jobs.”