Standin’ On the Corner, Waitin’ For the Bus

So, I think I have complained before about the lack of transportation alternatives in Bloomington and how hard it is to get to other communities.  Part of my focus has been complaining about the lack of trains in the area but there also have not been good bus or car-share options.  Happily, there are a few new developments happening – plus a couple that seem to have escaped my notice when they arrived.  I haven’t tried them all out yet but here’s the breakdown of motorized transportation options in Bloomington that don’t involve owning your own car.  (Walking and biking are also important, of course – and don’t forget dog pulling!)

Getting Out of Town

1. Bloomington Shuttle Service – originally just provided service to and from the airport ($15) but now they also have weekend service to Chicagoland where you go Friday night and come back Sunday night ($82).  However, the stops are all in the Chicago suburbs so I’m not sure what transportation options there are to actually get into the city.  (A quick Google Transit search says there’s no super easy option since malls tend to be located on interstates rather than subway lines).

2. Star of America – also started here with a focus on transportation to and from the airport ($15) but now also offering service to Chicagoland that is similar to the Bloomington Shuttle Service but a little cheaper.  I think they also offered a few special summer trips last year, including one down to the “Splashing Safari” water park as a day trip.

3. Miller Trailways – a little closer to a Greyhound type service with a number of set routes around the state, mostly connecting Indianapolis with other big cities but stopping at smaller towns along the way.  We are on the “Indianapolis-Evansville” route which means we could catch a ride either headed north to Indy or headed south and west to places like Bedford, Paoli, Vincennes, and Evansville.  I would definitely consider paying $16 to ride the bus down to Paoli instead of driving and am glad that the Amish communities in that area do have a bus option when they need it.

4. ZipCar – Yay, we have a zipcar now!!  This is very new to Bloomington and Indiana University.  Anyone can become a member and then rent a car by the hour or day although there is a discount for IU students, faculty, and staff.  It’s not the cheapest option in the world but neither is owning a car and I’m very happy this option is available to us now.  (There are also other car rental places in town that tend to be a little cheaper for longer term rentals.)

5. ZimRide – This is another cool new program that is designed to encourage ridesharing.  It’s basically an internet-based rideshare board but you can also rate people as good or not-so-good ride options so it will hopefully help people find ways to build a network of safe ride options.  Alas, it does not appear to be up and running for IU just yet but I know the university signed a two-year contract only a couple weeks ago so hopefully it will be available within the next month.

Getting Around Town

1. Bloomington Transit – basic bus service within city limits, nice reliable service, fairly cheap ($1.00/ride), can be time consuming depending on where you’re trying to go, especially since almost all routes go to the bus station downtown.  I still want to launch my “bus fairy” concept where route information would be posted at every bus stop so when you’re wandering around town you can understand your city bus options.  I think this might help people start to consider the bus as an option (as in “Gee, it turns out I could hop on the bus right outside of my apartment and be downtown in ten minutes!”)

2. IU Campus Bus Service – basic bus service around campus, free for students and employees (and I don’t think they check IDs), I myself have never quite figured out the routes (see the “bus fairy” idea above).

3. Rural Transit – this is a great service that does not get enough press, possibly because it’s focused on areas outside of Bloomington and possibly because if too many people found out about it, they would be overwhelmed with requests.  Basically, the rural transit buses are designed to help folks in the county get into Bloomington, Elletsville, Spencer, and other nearby towns.  There are a few set routes (including one I used to ride to Ivy Tech when I worked there) and what they call “county sweeps” where they will pick people up at home out in the county in the early morning and deliver them to the Bloomington bus station in time to take a city bus to work.  There is also a special service where you can call 24 hours in advance and ask to be added to one of their routes.  They have specific routes each day of the week so if you live in Smithville,  Wednesday is your “route” day and you can call to be picked up and taken anywhere along that route – picnic at Fairfax Beach, be dropped off in downtown Bloomington, visit a friend in nearby Clear Creek, etc.  The price for a ride is $0.75.  Pretty amazing, right?

4. Fresh Air Taxis – Okay, this is not a motorized transportation option but I thought it was cool enough to include – we now have a bicycle rickshaw service in town.  As an interesting side note, the city ended up modifying city code to create some guidance for bicycle rickshaws when they were approached for a business license and the business did not fit into any of their regular slots.

So, I’m feeling a little better about the state of alternative transportation in Bloomington.  There are still many, many improvements that can be made and I hope to push them forward with my new position on the Bloomington Commission on Sustainability.  Let me know if you have specific suggestions.

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One Bus Away

One Bus Away screenshotLast night, I chatted with my friend Brian, who’s a grad student at the University of Washington in Seattle. He’s an avid bus user, so we had a good talk about buses. Public transportation takes a much different form in big cities like Seattle than in smaller towns like Bloomington, even if they take the same form (buses). More importantly, Brian reminded me of the project he’s been working on for about a year now.

Brian’s project, One Bus Away, lets you call a phone number (or check the website) to find out when your bus will get to your stop. That’s pretty cool, and especially useful in a city like Seattle, where buses can get backed up and there’s no way for you to know.

Even cooler to me is that you can ask One Bus Away to find businesses within a given distance by bus. For example, you might ask it for all of the coffee places less than 15 minutes away by bus, starting from where you are now. Brian told me that eventually, they’d like to set it up so that you can find apartments based on how close other things are by bus. It would be great to be able to find all apartments that are within 15 minutes of campus and a grocery store.

For now, One Bus Away only works in Seattle, but the Brian’s eventual goal is to create a system that any transit authority can use. Lots of municipal bus systems have terrible websites (Bloomington included). Once the OBA (One Bus Away) tools are complete, anyone will be able to set it up for their bus system. If it all works out well, that’ll encourage more people to use the bus by increasing the convenience.

Given the amount of positive press OBA has gotten recently, I’d say that he’s on to something. There’s a great article in the University of Washington newspaper as well as several local radio and TV interviews.

So if you’re in Seattle, give it a try (the number is 206-456-0609)! OBA is also open source, so if you’re inclined, you can download the code and improve it or install it locally.

Kudos to Brian for doing something to make buses more useful and enjoyable!

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When does it make sense to move?

When gas climbed to $4 a gallon, lots of people talked about getting rid of their cars. It takes a while to make that lifestyle change, so gas prices went back down before most people were able to figureit out.  But since gas prices can make up a pretty small portion of the price of owning a car, it still makes sense for a lot of people to get rid of them. Since these costs are better hidden than paying at the pump, it’s hard to take them into account.
A parking meter
At some point, those hidden costs are going to be more expensive that picking up and moving closer in to town. Obviously, that point is going to be different depending on your town, car, and driving habits, but is it ever feasible?

Let’s take my friend Ian. He doesn’t drive much, so his gas costs are minimal, even when gas prices are high. Apart from driving to Ohio to visit his parents twice a year, Ian just drives downtown a couple of times a week and to the mall once or twice a month.

First, the old expenses. In addition to regular maintenance (of about $100 a year), Ian spent almost $2000 last year in repairs. Hopefully, that won’t happen again, but the car is only getting older so it will eventually break down entirely. For now, let’s estimate it at $1000 of repairs a year. Excluding gas costs for his longer trips, Ian spends about $10 a week for gas, or $520 a year. Insurance is about $350 a year. Ian owns the car outright, so he doesn’t have any loan payments, but assuming his car only lasts another three years, he’ll want to set aside at least $1000 a year to buy a new one then. If he took out a loan payment on a $13,000 car then, he’d be paying about $2400 a year at that point.

Maintenance Repairs Gas Insurance Loan / Savings
$100 $1000 $520 $375 $1000

Without a car, Ian wouldn’t have to pay for any of that, saving him about $3000 a year. If he had a new car, he’d be spending less on repairs but more on his loan (or amortized savings) and insurance, so I’m guessing this would be similar for others in the area.

On the other hand, Ian would have some additional expenses. He could pay piecemeal to ride the bus, but at $1 a ride it adds up. A semi-annual pass here is $150, which basically gives him a free month. That makes bus costs $300 a year. Ian also makes those two long drives a year to visit his family. Ignoring gas costs (which would be about the same if he drove his own car), he’ll just have to pay for a car rental (or change his lifestyle and fly or bus, but let’s try and keep things as simple as possible). To rent a car for a week costs $215 including all fees and taxes. Or, for a longer trip, Ian could rent a car and drop it off in a nearby city the next day for $100 (and another $100 on the way back). Two trips like that a year will cost Ian about $430.

Getting rid of his car will save Ian $3000 and cost him $730, a net savings of $2270 or $190 a month. If you ignore saving up for a new car, Ian will save a little over $100 a month ($1270 over 12 months).

In order to maintain his current lifestyle, though, Ian is going to need to move. The biggest problem with taking the bus from his current location is that he has to spend 30 minutes getting to the bus station and then another 15-30 minutes getting where he needs to go. If he moved to an apartment close enough to the station, the wait would only be 15-30 minutes total, about what it takes in a car from his current place. He’d also be close enough to downtown that he’d only have to take the bus when going to the mall twice a month.

Therefore, it makes sense for Ian to move if he can do so for less than an extra $190 a month. The place he lives now, south of town, costs $330 a month (his costs with a roommate), so if he can find a place within walking distance of the bus station, which is downtown, for less than $520 a month, he’s saving money.

Obviously, these numbers are different for everyone. It’s not too hard to run the numbers on your own situation and see how much of a rent increase you can cover. Then, you can decide if the kind of place you can get in a better location is worth the increase in costs. In Bloomington, a good one-person apartment downtown would run about $600 a month, which is more than Ian wants to spend. If he’s willing to continue splitting costs with a roommate, though, they could get something comparable to where they are now for $900 a month (so $450 a month in Ian’s costs). That works out pretty well.

Even though I tried to keep Ian’s lifestyle the same, there would certainly still be differences which might make it more expensive in either direction. For example, if Ian occasionally has to drive long distances for work, he’d have to add additional rental costs. Or the lost convenience of being able to quickly get to the grocery store (or hospital or soccer practice or whatever) might not be worth the savings to him.

From a purely economical standpoint, though, the price increase in Bloomington in moving downtown from the outskirts is more than made up by the ability to get rid of a car.

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Riding the bus

A busI have an almost pathological aversion to spending actual dollars. I don’t think I’m alone; one of the favorite tactics of financial bloggers for someone who has trouble controlling their spending is to tell them to spend cash for everything. For that reason, it’s usually not a bad thing. An aversion to spending leads naturally to frugality. Unfortunately, it also means that I haven’t been riding the bus much. I know intellectually that $1 isn’t much, but my hindbrain yells to me that it’ll be $2 for the round-trip, $3 if we stop at the grocery store. And $3 is real money. I could get a shirt for that at Goodwill!

In reality, it probably costs just about as much to drive the same places, what with gas prices, maintenance, and parking. But apart from parking, I don’t have to pay that immediately and in cash. They’re disconnected from my travel experience.

The big exception to my penny pinching is travel to campus. As a student, I always hated coming in to campus because it was such a hassle. The metered spots, when they were open, had a 1 hour limit, which isn’t enough for a whole class, let along several classes. To park anywhere else, you had to have a parking pass ranging from $80 to $300 a semester. Even then, those passes didn’t guarantee you a spot. It just meant that you wouldn’t be towed if you found one. The expensive passes let you park anywhere, but the cheaper passes gave you fewer options. Many times during a semester, I had to drive around for fifteen minutes or halg an hour until someone in the right type of space drove off and I could park.

And it was stressful. If I didn’t find a parking spot in time, I’d be late for class. That’s bad enough as a student, but I lived in fear of it as a teaching assistant. My only real accident happened while I was desperately trying to find a spot on a snowy, icy day. For a while, Maggie lived in a place about twenty minutes’ walk from my building, so I’d park there and walk in when I needed to get to campus. The twenty minute walk was so much nicer than twenty minutes of circling in my car, hoping to find a place.

At the time, I tried taking the bus occasionally, but we were slightly further south than the furthest south route, so the bus only ran once an hour and took 30-45 minutes to get to campus. Depending on class times, that meant I’d often have to take a bus an hour and half early. The bus also stopped running relatively early, so I could be trapped downtown if I had other errands to run.

This semester, I’m back on campus Tuesdays and Thursdays. However, I’m also on a different bus line. This bus comes every half an hour and only takes 15 minutes to get downtown. We’re also situated right along a loop, so I have two chances to catch the bus, which makes me much more comfortable about getting to campus on time. Given all this, any my memories of car stress before, I planned to get a six-month pass. It’s a little cheaper if you use the bus quite a bit but, more importantly, I’d no longer have to pull cash out of my wallet to ride the bus. My pacified hindbrain could imagine that the whole thing was free.

The icing on the cake is that with my new ID, I actually can ride for free! The new route also uses hybrid buses, so my environmental impact is even smaller. What a great win-win scenario!

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City Bus Lessons

I rode the bus today for the first time from our new house.  It’s funny how something as simple as riding the bus can feel like an adventure.  The bus stop is about half a block from our house and as usual I was running late so I stood there anxiously, convinced I had missed it.  Of course, as it turns out the bus was also running a little late so I got on with no trouble, handed over my crisp $1 bill, and rode the 15-minute trip into town.

The best part about riding the bus is the change in perspective.  I was able to stare out the window at the scenery without worrying about trying to drive or give directions.  Walking to the bus stop gave me a chance to check out my neighbor’s houses in detail and wave to the ones who were out working on their lawns or cars or gardens.  I was able to listen to cicadas and feel the light afternoon breeze.

Riding the bus also renewed my appreciation for all the good things in my life.  Most of my fellow bus passengers appeared to be dealing with many challenges, ranging from poor health to limited education to drug and alcohol addictions.  I felt a little out of place but also very humble.  My money worries suddenly seemed very insignificant; I don’t have to worry about where I’ll be sleeping tonight or how I will feed my family.

I’m looking forward to becoming a regular rider although I also hope to do more bicycling.  There’s something about getting out of my car that immediately makes me feel more connected with the world, more involved in the community, and more alive.  Thank you, city bus.

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I Want a Train!

Amtrak trainI just got back from dropping my parents off at the Crawfordsville train station so they can take Amtrak to Vancouver and now I’m dreaming of train travel.  Actually, I’ve been thinking about it since last weekend when I visited my friend Scott.  He lives and works at Heritage Prairie Market, an organic farm and grocery located about forty miles west of Chicago.  The farm is in a rural agricultural area with cornfields all around but there is a commuter rail station about two miles away so we were able to ride into downtown Chicago for $5 roundtrip.  I love the idea of enjoying the rural life while also having easy access to urban amenities.

Alas, Bloomington does not have a train station.  We don’t even have a Greyhound bus station anymore since they decided it was not profitable.  All we have is a private shuttle that runs to and from the Indianapolis airport, located on the far west side of Indianapolis.  Indianapolis does have an Amtrak train station, a Greyhound bus station and a Megabus stop but they’re all downtown, about twenty miles from the airport.

I couldn’t find any mention of a connection between downtown and the airport on the airport’s website or on the convention center website but Dad says he’s sure there’s some sort of shuttle that people can take.  Just now I finally poked around on the IndyGo bus system website and discovered there is actually a city bus that runs from the airport downtown every half hour, which is awesome to know.  So now I know it’s possible to get between Bloomington and Chicago without a car.  I can take the Bloomington Shuttle ($25) to the Indianapolis Aiport, take IndyGo Bus #8 ($1.25) downtown, and then take a bus or train (~$20) to Chicago.  $46.25 seems a little steep but the real issue for me is convenience.

Which brings me back to my simple dream – I wish Bloomington had a train station!  There used to be one, many years ago, but now if we want to take the train anywhere, we have to take a car or a bus to another city.  The two closest train stations are Indianapolis (an hour away) and Crawfordsville (an hour and a half away) but the main train route to Chicago comes through Indianapolis at 5:00AM and Crawfordsville at 7:30AM.  They picked Crawfordsville so we could sleep until 5:30 rather than 3:30.  Still, I dream of the day when I can ride my bike to the train station…

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Living Car-Free in D.C.

Maggie riding the busI’m up visiting my best friend in Washington, D.C. She has lived here for almost three years and has been living car-free for almost one year. It has been challenging but she feels it makes a huge amount of sense both financially and ecologically.

Being in a big city makes it easier to live without a car in some ways but harder in others. There are many different public transportation options here – a bus system for each county, the D.C. metro system (which encompasses subway and buses), a car-sharing program (Flexcar and Zipcar recently merged), a brand new D.C. bicycle rental system, an informal carpooling system called “slugging” that helps folks share rides from Virginia into the city to take advantage of carpool lanes, and taxis. Of course, that means there is a lot of options.

She focuses on taking the bus and subway for commuting to work and doing most of her travel around town. She usually takes the D.C. metro buses but sometimes will take the local county bus. Of course, there are some places that are still very complicated (or impossible) to reach by public transportation (especially on the weekends) and it can be pretty awkward to take the bus when buying groceries or other bulky items so sometimes she calls upon friends with cars. She signed up with Zipcar but hasn’t used it because it seems prohibitively expensive ($14/hour, which means a trip to the grocery store would be about $30).

She chose her apartment largely on the basis of having good access to the Metro line that takes her to work and also having some nice restaurants and stores within walking distance. (There was also that whole affordability issue; always huge in a big city.) I was impressed by the number of little stores and shops within easy walking distance but of course a lot of them were places I would go to only a couple times a year (liquor store) or never at all (hot yoga studio) and there were some basic things missing like a major grocery store.

I asked if she felt the car-free lifestyle was working and she said it is. She really enjoys having the ability to use her commute time for knitting or reading and it doesn’t take too much longer than driving. For anyone who is considering it, she says the key is figuring out your commute to work by public transportation. Everything else you can figure out one way or another. There are still some things that are really difficult (going to the doctor) and some places she just doesn’t go because it’s impossible to get there without a car. She has a friend who takes public transit to work but uses her car sparingly in the evenings and weekends, which seems like a reasonable compromise.

We didn’t end up taking public transit much during my visit because we were trying to cram a lot of activity into two short days. Today we traveled to Georgetown and decided to take the car since there were four of us but this evening, just the two of us took the bus to Silver Spring (see photographic evidence). It was nice to see buses getting some use (unlike the last time Will and I rode the bus, when we were the only riders). I love to see public transit really work and I love urban neighborhoods where people can walk to their neighborhood stores. If only big cities didn’t have so many people, I might be tempted to move.

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Help! I’m a Driving Junkie!

drivingHi. My name is Maggie and I’m addicted to driving. I knew I was driving a lot just by looking at my budget and seeing how much money I spend on fuel but during our Eco-Challenge month I thought I’d track my daily mileage and find out specifically how it all adds up. Well, it’s not pretty. Today is May 13th so in just under two weeks I have driven a total of 392 miles, or an average of 30 miles a day.

That’s pretty startling when you realize that Bloomington is about 10 miles wide at its widest point. Some of the mileage is unusual – 86 miles down to Paoli and back to work on Brambleberry Farm , 45 miles out to Beanblossom Bottoms to see the eagles nesting. However, that still leaves 261 miles.

Of those, 78 miles were trips I had to take for my Sycamore Land Trust job. I love the fact that I get paid for mileage but it’s frustrating that I have to travel to a lot of places that aren’t accessible by public transportation (schools outside city limits, nature preserves, etc.). On the other hand, at least for now I think the job (environmental education) is important enough to justify some extra travel time.

The remaining 183 miles were used driving around town and that’s the part I’d like to improve on. A lot of it comes down to a question of routines and habits. It’s really easy to think “Oh, while I’m out, I’ll just swing by the bank” when the bank isn’t actually anywhere on my route. I’ve also gotten into the habit of coming home for lunch, which is very relaxing and I tend to eat more nutritious, cheaper food but it packs on the miles. And there’s also the cold hard fact that I *could* take the bus more places if I were willing to make the extra effort. It’s slower and less convenient and makes it harder to haul my junk around. But I’m ready to give the bus another chance and to plan my day around its schedule. Hopefully I can cut back dramatically on those in-town mileage.

Alas, the last week of this month I’m taking a trip by car to Raleigh, N.C. and then up to Washington, D.C. so I’m pretty sure this is not the month for kicking my addiction completely. Maybe in June…

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What’s the best way to get from here to there?

HighwayThis past weekend, I drove up to Wisconsin by way of Chicago to participate in PlayExpo 2008. It’s too late now, but in the car I got to wondering what the most environmental way to travel up there would be. There were three of us in the car through Chicago and then four from Chicago to Whitewater, so we’d reduce the carbon emissions per person that way. The best would probably have been to run veggie oil from Maggie’s car, but none of us drive shift. A car with better miles per gallon (like a Prius) would also have been good, but we were stuck with Ian’s car, which gets about 30 mpg highway.

With Ian’s car as a base, I used the Native Energy CO2 emissions calculator to figure out how much pollution each mode of transportation would produce.

There were three main legs to the trip: Bloomington to Indy (50 miles), Indy to Chicago (186 miles), and Chicago to Whitewater (106 miles). The first and last had to be done by car (either our own or in a rented taxi sort of situation which would be worse in terms of pollution). The drive from Bloomington to Indy produced 32 lbs of CO2, while the Chicago to Whitewater leg produced 70 lbs, or 102 lbs overall. The car emissions are computed per vehicle though, while plane, train, and bus are computed per passenger. There were three of us going from Bloomington to Chicago and four from Chicago to Whitewater, so the per-person numbers are 10.6 lbs and 17.5 lbs or 28 lbs total.

Those 28 lbs of carbon would be produced no matter how we got from Indy to Chicago, so we’ll ignore them for now. Our drive between Indy and Chicago (186 miles) put 70 lbs of CO2 in the atmosphere. That’s 23 lbs per person.

The flying distance from Indy to Chicago is about 25 miles less than the driving distance. However, planes create a lot of CO2 and they create it in the upper atmosphere, which multiplies its impact. A plane ride would have create 212 lbs of CO2 per person. That’s almost ten times as much as driving!

Okay, conventional wisdom is upheld. Planes are bad. Surely trains are better.

Sure enough, trains are better. Travelling from Indy to Chicago by train produces 108 lbs. per passenger. The travel distance is slightly less with the train than when driving, which helps. If we’d had to take the train as far as we drove, the train would have produced 122 lbs. per passenger.

Even the smaller amount is 5 times as much as driving.

There’s a cool European bus company, Megabus that now services Indy to Chicago. If you order far enough in advance, you can get your tickets for $2.50 (that’s $1 plus their $1.50 service fee)! Unfortunately for us, we didn’t know we were going until the las minute, so the tickets would have cost us $20 each.

But enough of cost. How much CO2 does the bus produce? Travelling over the same mileage as the car, the bus produces 68 lbs. of CO2 per person. That’s a lot better than even the train, but it’s still 3 times as much as driving. Hmm… 3 times. That sounds familiar. In fact, that’s how much I divided the driving portion up because there were three of us in the car. It seems like it would have produced about as much CO2 for a single person to drive as to take the bus.

I have to admit that I’m pretty astonished with these results. I knew flying would be bad, but not that bad. The train was also worse than I’d expected. The big shock was that the bus was almost as bad as driving by yourself! Apparently, the average mpg in the US is about 23, which would adjust things in favor of the bus. If you have a decent car, or a hybrid, you’re better off driving even if you’re by yourself! And if you’re sharing the ride, driving is by far the best option.

Here are the final results, including travel to Indy and Whitewater:

Plane: 240 lbs. of CO2
Train: 150 lbs. of CO2
Bus: 96 lbs of CO2
Car: 51 lbs. of CO2

Overall, the trip would have produced twice as much CO2 if we’d taken the bus rather than the car, three times as much if we’d taken the train, and five times as much if we’d flown.

This really underscores the idea that protecting the environment is a many-faceted concept. Even if cars produce less CO2 for a trip like this, there are other problems connected to them like all that wasted space used for parking lots and garages. Even worse is all the frustration and wasted time caused by gridlock, which would be alleviated by reducing the number of cars on the road.

Of course, I’m aware that these are all estimates. A plane, train, or bus isn’t going to produce that much less CO2 just because we’re not riding. Still, the concept is useful when trying to decide what sort of long-range travel options we should support!

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