A tap on the Apple Watch tells our early riser it’s too chilly to cycle, so the morning’s calculus of exercise, web browsing and civic ablutions — diving into an agenda for an upcoming council meeting, reviewing a report, emailing him’n’her — changes by something around 12 minutes, the time it will take him to walk to the bus stop. He would’ve saved those dozen minutes by cycling to the stop and putting his bike on the bus’ rack for the short ride to the Rosa Parks Transportation Center for a 7:30 Downtown Development Authority board meeting. Bruce Conque isn’t on the DDA board, but he goes to meetings to stay on top of what’s happening. He’s the District 6 representative on the Lafayette City-Parish Council. He goes to a lot of public meetings. By bicycle, bus and occasionally ride share.
It’s Thursday, so Bruce, who at 71 is in better shape than most 30-something triathletes, will enjoy his routine walk with his wife of 53 years, Aline, in their Orgeron Heights neighborhood behind St. Edmond Catholic Church in the thick of Lafayette. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he’s at Red Lerille’s by dawn for weight lifting and cardio, but his most engaging exercise of the last six months is proving — to himself and anyone who will listen — that we don’t have to live in the clutch of car culture in Lafayette.
“My whole life was car-centered — everything I did was based on a car,” Bruce recalls. But during his tenure as chairman of the Lafayette Planning Commission in between separate stints on the council, Bruce became involved in PlanLafayette, the civic exercise that led to the Comprehensive Plan. Addressing sprawl and commuter culture was a key cog of PlanLafayette, and Bruce decided to become a practicing preacher.
“I realized I was as guilty as anyone else,” he says. “And when I finally retired [as a vice president for government relations with the then-Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce], I did some quick analysis of how Aline and I were using cars. Essentially, a car was being used as an ornament for our carport. We didn’t always need two cars. I think during a three-month period we only needed two cars twice. So I started looking at the options: With the introduction of Uber, that was a major factor in my decision.”
Bruce sold his Ford sedan. He and Aline share her Jeep. They save about $6,500 a year in fuel, insurance and car-keep now that Bruce is cycling and using public transit. He schedules and tracks his bus routes online, which gives our septuagenarian technophile something else to do on one of his personal digital devices. Something’s always beeping or vibrating in proximity to Bruce Conque.
“My first option is to cycle. The second option is to use public transportation. The third is a combination,” he explains. “And if those combinations don’t work I use Uber as a backup.”
Bruce grew up on Lamar Street among rail workers in Freetown/Port Rico before it was called Freetown. He’s lived his entire life within probably a 5-mile radius of Downtown Lafayette. He’s done this by choice, later embracing the idea that living, working and playing in a confined area is the tonic to sprawl. His Lafayette, which 60 years ago was a small town run by a mayor and two trustees, hitched its economic wagon to cars and suburbia when the oil biz came, and has only had the civic self-reflection to realize how unsustainable that model is over just the last few years. Maybe it’s not too late.
“If you live in a major city, people live by the schedules — by the subways, by the buses, by the ferry or whatever,” he notes. “Their day is dictated by public transportation. Here, we’re so car-centered we don’t even think about using anything but a vehicle. But it can be done.”
Most of his adult life was spent in media: freelance videographer and consultant. Early on, before his now trademark smooth-shaven head and silver-gray beard that — given a week or two — would be positively Edwardian, he was a television news reporter, anchor and production director. In the late ’80s he was hired on the fly to do the videography for a Courir de Mardi Gras documentary with Alan Lomax. (Lomax was notoriously hard to work with, and his New York crew had walked out on him.) Look it up: It’s in the Library of Congress. Lomax liked Bruce’s work and hired him for two other projects. Bruce is proud of this biographical nugget, but he doesn’t brag.
In the early double-aughts he got the yen for public service. In 2003, he ran for the District 6 seat on the City-Parish Council as an independent, beating Republican Jerry Trumps 51-49 percent. He ran for re-election in ’07 and won handily. District 6 is the only of nine on the council that lies entirely within the corporate limits of the city of Lafayette. Bruce had been a competent, always-informed 6 rep in his first term, and he was rewarded with a second. But within months of winning re-election, he was approached by the chamber about becoming its liaison to area city halls. Government relations they call it.
“The offer they made me, in terms of salary and benefits, I couldn’t turn down,” he confesses.
Same Doré, an also-ran in Bruce’s successful re-election bid, won a special election to fill the remainder of the term, which was most of the term, and spent it like a fish out of water. Doré was so ineffectual he came in third in his re-election campaign in ’11. The race was won in a runoff by a Tea Party Republican, Andy Naquin, who spent four years voting against the interests of the district. Every high stakes vote and low-information comment from the dais by Naquin rankled enough District 6 residents, including Bruce — so much so that he retired from the chamber and beat Naquin by 44 votes in a November 2015 runoff. This District 6 resident, who shares Bruce’s opinion that the city of Lafayette has been getting screwed by consolidation, heaved a sigh of relief. Bruce did, too.
Back on the council, he hit the ground running, supplying a steady hand and expertise of government gleaned from his years as the chamber rep at meetings of town councils, boards of aldermen, commissions and many of the other vessels of governance that are unmoored from public scrutiny. The habit of engaging with public bodies stuck, and he remains a familiar face at meetings of the Acadiana Planning Commission, the I-49 Connector project’s Community Working Group, the Planning Commission, DDA, the University Underpass Stakeholders (who knew?!) and more.
“I’ve known Bruce for almost 10 years through my involvement in the community and have always known how committed he is, but serving on the council has helped me see how knowledgeable he truly is,” says Liz Webb Hebert, who joined the council wide-eyed and eager last year and has benefitted from Bruce’s lead-by-example attention to detail. “Being new to the council, I look to Bruce to provide insight on past issues, and I also enjoy picking his brain about consolidation.”
Sartorially, Bruce dials it back just so much, his demeanor as congenial yet businesslike as his khakis, comfortable shoes and occasional bow tie. He admits he’s not your “typical” bus rider.
“There’s a stigma attached to public transportation,” he says. “I’ve had people ask [incredulously], ‘You ride the bus?’ Even the people who ride the bus because they don’t have any other form of transportation look at me and say, ‘Why are you on the bus?’”
Buses get a bad rap, Bruce insists. But he also acknowledges that because the bus system is a city of Lafayette operation and runs only within the city of Lafayette, it is limited in its scope.
“Is it convenient for everyone? No, because not everyone has the flexibility of time,” he notes. “Also, there’s geography: Our bus system is limited as to how far it goes. It’s got to be within the city of Lafayette — it’s a City of Lafayette bus. And for it to remain somewhat [economically] viable — we don’t make a profit on the bus; in fact it costs us a couple million a year — it’s going to have to serve a population that actually uses public transportation.”
He says he’s seeing more young people on the Johnston Street buses — a sign perhaps that public transit in Lafayette won’t always be an afterthought. In the meantime, he’ll promote the bus system by making it part of his routine, and by praising it when prompted.
“First of all, you can track it off your iPhone. You can plan routes off your iPhone,” Bruce says. “You can take a bike and put it on the rack. You get inside the bus; it’s clean, it’s air conditioned or it’s heated. The drivers are very professional — very nice people. It has Wi-Fi on board, so I can do business on board, and it’s a good signal. So, on that 15-minute ride, which I average, I can do work.”