What Drives N.H. Commuters To Take The Bus To Boston?

Mar 23, 2018

For about nine months out of the year, NHPR employees are used to seeing Laura Knoy, host of The Exchange, coasting across the parking lot on her road bike.  For the 23 years she’s been hosting, home has just been a few minutes away.

Her husband, Steve Winett, has no such luxury. Three days a week he boards a bus for downtown Boston.

“There's our family,” Laura says. “There's me, there's Steve, there are the two boys, and there is this other entity: the bus.”

Steve works at the EPA’s Region 1 headquarters, just a few blocks from South Station. He’s been riding the bus to Boston for over twenty years.  

In that time, traffic has gotten worse, and the commute has gotten longer. His all-time worst commute was about 10 years ago, during a snowstorm.

“It took them six hours and change to get home that night,” Laura tells me. “I was hosting the NHPR Christmas party at my house, and after a while everybody was like, ‘where’s your husband?’ And I was thinking, I’m not really sure. That was stressful.”

I wanted to know - what keeps a person doing this for so long? So one February morning, I packed my laptop and headphones, and joined Steve on the 6:00 am Concord Trailways bus to Boston.

As we boarded, he pointed out other passengers like he was giving me a tour of the office.  

“Megan, could you raise your hand? Megan is a relative new-timer,” he explains.

Chuck is across the aisle, Carole takes a seat towards the back. Turns out, Steve is part of a secret community of commuters. A handful or two know each other by name, depending on the day. Steve claims to have played matchmaker and paired a few fellow passengers with friends from the outside world.

It's a very peculiar and personal arithmetic that allows people to justify or reject a commute like this one.

Once we pull out of the station though, it’s eerily quiet (bus etiquette requires that we talk in a low vocal fry) and very dark - which Steve manages to argue is one of the more rewarding aspects of his commute.

“I get to watch the sunrise every morning. That’s great. Sometime I’ll say, ‘yo Chuck, look! Sunrise!’ You want to share it with somebody when it’s really beautiful."

About halfway to Boston, I take a seat next to Carole Palmer Zumbrunnen, professor of Nutrition and Oral Health Promotion at Tufts School of Dental Medicine.

“He must be a morning person,” she says in response to Steve’s boundless optimism. “I’m a night person. This is a big problem. This is why I’m long suffering.”

Carole projects the joyful self-deprecation of an endurance athlete who has stayed too long in the race.

She’s been taking the bus since 1979, before I was born.

“It’s almost 40 years,” she laughs.  “I’m the oldest living Concord Trailways bus rider that’s not retired."

Carole says there is a sort of inertia to commuting. She didn’t expect the arrangement to last so long.

Over the years, she’s witnessed accidents, watched as the bus got wifi, plugs for charging devices, cup holders (everybody I speak with mentions these) and has made a few long-time friends.  

“We actually had parties at my house...And the commuters all came, and the driver came.”

By 7:00 am, we’ve barely hit any traffic and we’re already in Medford.  Carole looks out the window and stops to tell me how lucky I am.

“We’re almost here. This is a miracle. This is a miracle day,” she says.

Getting from Steve’s driveway in Concord to the steps of the EPA building in Boston took us one hour and thirty-seven minutes. Four minutes by car, an hour and twenty minutes on the bus, a few more minutes spent waiting and walking.  

This, apparently, counts as a miracle.

New Hampshire's Commuting Map

Garrett Nelson is a post-doctoral fellow with Dartmouth College’s Geography Department. Recently Nelson and a colleague made an interactive map of the United States.

A screencap of the Garrett Nelson's map that shows commuting patterns in New Hampshire. For the interactive version, click on the link in the story.

They got rid of state lines, and redrew the borders for fifty separate regions using commuter data from the U.S. census. 

“What we've found is that the state borders...don't actually tell us very much about where commuter relationships are happening,” Nelson says.

Click here to see an interactive version of New Hampshire's commuting map

We often think of Boston as the central hub of a commuting wheel - and to some degree that’s true. But Nelson’s map shows that commuters also flow in unexpected ways - from Portland to Manchester, Portsmouth to Worcester, Providence to Nashua... not so much a wheel as a patchwork of spider webs.

For better or worse, most of those commuters, though, are traveling alone - one car per person.  

82,000 people travel from New Hampshire to Massachusetts each day, but only about 2,000 of them take public transit. Of those, Nelson explains, most of them are going straight to downtown Boston. For people working outside the city proper, there just isn’t the infrastructure to support public transit.

“There is this kind of chicken and egg pattern right? If the travel is easy people will do it. But the travel will only be easy if there's a demand for it. And the demand only comes when people are doing it. So something has to kind of kickstart that cycle into into being.”

That’s partly why New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu has reconsidered his position on commuter rail. He bashed efforts to push public transit during his campaign, but changed his tune after a failed bid to bring Amazon’s second headquarters to Southern New Hampshire.

Now, he’s backing a four million dollar study on whether to extend commuter rail up into New Hampshire’s southern tier.

The Paradox 

Back in the 2004, a pair of Swiss economists put out a now famous study, called “the Commuting Paradox.” Basically, it says that people overestimate the benefits they’ll receive when commuting long-distance.

According to them, a one-way hour-long commute requires a forty percent increase in salary to break even.

Getting from Steve's driveway in Concord to the steps of the EPA building in Boston took us one hour and thirty-seven minutes. This, apparently, counts as a miracle.

But newer studies have shown that commuting by bus or train isn’t as difficult a trade-off.  Users of public transit can get work done, take a nap, use the bathroom; they can relinquish control of the stressful part (the driving) and take back control of their time.  

Laura Knoy, Steve’s wife, jokes that she might not mind swapping out her 5-minute bike-ride, albeit on a limited basis.

“Three days a week would be a lot, but one or two days a week,” she says, “on the bus, it’s quiet, nobody is bothering me, I’m not making snacks, I’m not washing dishes, I’m reading a novel… It’s a nice picture.”

By the time we board the 4:15 pm bus back to Concord, the afternoon’s brief bout of flurries has sloshed into a steady rain.  

It’s a very peculiar and personal arithmetic that allows people to justify or reject a commute like this one. Chuck Protzmann, one of Steve’s colleagues and a security specialist at the EPA, says it was harder at first.  

“When I started the job and we made decisions about here we need to live for the type of quality of life that we want, the school systems, and this is what I’ll have to endure...I wasn’t so sure I could do it. To be honest with you. And I told my wife that. I told her, I may do this for a year, and then tap out.”

But Chuck didn’t tap out. He stuck with it. For him, and for Steve and Carole, the commute is the cost of having your cake and eating it too.

“The alternative is… well there are several alternatives.” Steve runs through them. “Go someplace else. Live someplace else.  Drive. Why would we want to do that?”

Despite the weather, we got home that day in two-hours and twenty-minutes. By Steve’s standards, that’s fast.

NHPR's Laura Knoy and her husband Steve in Canada, to which they did not travel by bus
Credit Courtesy

After we scraped off the fresh layer of crud on his car, and picked up another bus passenger who needed a ride home, he dropped me off at my door; but not before taking a moment to quote Robert Service, the British-Canadian poet who wrote about the Yukon gold rush.

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who moil for gold, and those arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold.”

I’m not sure our commute had been the stuff of poetry, but I have to admit it: the sunrise was pretty spectacular.