He said his name was Columbus, and I just said ‘Good luck.’

In 2004, I published a historical novel titled The Lost Voyage of John Cabot. The book is a fictionalized account of Cabot’s return trip in 1498 to the “newfound land” in the North Atlantic he had discovered the previous summer, five years after Christopher Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas.

Columbus is a character in the story. He and Cabot were not only contemporaries, but also compatriots. Both hailed from the Italian seaport of Genoa. It is likely that they knew each other and were rivals. In my novel, Cabot confronts Columbus upon the latter’s return to Europe in 1493 and challenges his claim of finding a western route to Asia.

My timing as an author has seldom been good. I missed the 500th anniversary of the Cabot voyages, and by the time the book came out seven years later, the backlash against the European explorers (and exploiters) of North America was in full swing. Columbus Day has now become Indigenous Peoples Day, and we are encouraged to disparage the European explorers as enablers of genocide.

History is rarely that simple.

In the course of researching the book, I learned the European colonization of the Americas did not begin with one man or one voyage. The Greenland settlements of the tenth and eleventh centuries endured into the 1400s. Fishermen from Britain and northern Europe knew about the rich sea bottom off Newfoundland, and almost surely of the island itself, long before Cabot’s voyages. There’s evidence the Chinese beat Columbus to the Americas by several decades, but the discoveries were buried in the rubble of political upheaval.

Columbus was a pretty good con man, though. The Greek-Egyptian mathematician Eratosthenes came up with a more accurate estimate of the Earth’s circumference than the one Columbus sold to Ferdinand and Isabella nearly 1500 years later. And Columbus was a hard-bitten Christian at time when Christian Europe felt threatened by the incursion of Islam and the subsequent loss of overland trade routes.

Thus his dealings with the indigenous peoples of the Americas were informed by a similar kind of paranoia that runs through much of white America today. Through the lens of modern sensibilities, the actions of Columbus and his ilk indeed appear monstrous.

But let us remember for a moment that tyranny has been the history of most of humankind. Advances in the way we treat one another have never moved as fast as advances in technology. This is why we have an overabundance of nuclear weapons and a shortage of housing and health care facilities for the poor. Most of history has been laced with bigotry and bloodshed. Christopher Columbus may have been, by every modern judgment, an unsavory character, but he was hardly an outlier.

It is intellectually dishonest to lift a historical figure out of his own time and judge him by today’s moral standards. Hitler was a monster in his own time. Columbus is a monster in ours. There’s a world of difference.

Thomas Jefferson likely forced himself on one or more of his female slaves. Today that would make him a sexual predator. But he also wrote: “…governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” words that changed the world. Are we to vilify him in 2017 for his use of the word “men,” when he lived in a society where sexism was unquestioned? Do we disregard the brilliance of the Declaration of Independence because of the personal failings of the man who wrote it?

Don’t misunderstand me. I have no use for a celebration of the Columbus depicted in Samuel Eliot Morison’s fawning 1942 biography, Admiral of the Ocean Sea. I think the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins should change their mascots. I don’t like public displays of the Confederate flag in its ugly, modern context.

But the European colonization of the Americas cannot be undone. Anywhere you go in the Western Hemisphere, you will hear people speaking French, English, Spanish or Portuguese: the languages of the colonizers. Similarly, you don’t have to be a Christian to be living in Anno Domini 2017. The approximate date of the birth of Jesus is a common frame of reference for the world we live in now.

When we try to sanitize history, we put ourselves in the company of the Taliban and the Soviet communists, blowing up statues and airbrushing photographs. It’s easy for me, a white male American, to downplay historical grievances. But that is not my intent here. Our imperfect past should inform us in our daily struggle toward a more kind and just future for all.

 

 

Driving below the speed limit is an act of ‘Civil Obedience’

Some years ago, I was driving on Interstate 495 in Massachusetts. The owner of the car, who shall remain nameless here, was in the passenger seat, and we were tooling along in the left lane, doing about 70 – five miles an hour over the speed limit.

Suddenly, a car came up rapidly behind us, flashing its lights. “Move over and let this guy pass,” my companion said.

“I’m going 70,” I replied.

“Yeah, but he wants to go faster,” she said. “And that’s his right.”

At this point, the smart thing to do would have been to shut up and find a gap in the adjacent lane. Instead, I said, “How do you figure it’s his right? The speed limit’s 65.”

You can be completely correct and still lose an argument. Half an hour later, I was in the passenger seat, and we were still speeding but no longer speaking.

I thought of this while attending a recent forum in Bangor on walkability, hosted by GrowSmart Maine. There was much discussion of street design, and how the visual cues along a roadway affect the speed at which drivers feel comfortable. There was also some talk about the culture of driving, and the assumptions we all make about roads and transportation.

One of the presenters at the forum was Jim Tasse, Assistant Director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. “You all drive too fast,” he said. “I do, too. The roads encourage us to drive too fast.”

Most of the people in attendance were car owners and regular drivers. Tasse encouraged them to obey the speed limit – even drive three to five miles an hour under the speed limit – as an act of “civil obedience.”

I’ve always believed in obeying the spirit rather than the letter of the law. It’s why I roll through stop signs on my bicycle when it’s safe to do so, and why drivers don’t think they’re breaking the law when they’re going five miles an hour over the speed limit. But speed limits are maximums, not minimums. Nobody has the “right” to drive any faster.

A bicyclist does, however, have the right to “control the lane” at an intersection, forcing the cars behind him to slow down for the few seconds it takes to get safely through. In practice, however, bicyclists who execute this perfectly legal maneuver are often subjected to horn honking, verbal abuse and dangerous driver behavior.

How did we get to the point where bicyclists behaving legally are berated, while drivers are almost expected to exceed the posted speed limits? Why do otherwise reasonable people believe that drivers have a “right” to go as fast as they want, or at least as fast as they can get away with?

Many of the presentations at the GrowSmart forum touched on “traffic calming” measures. Some of these measures include planting trees along roadsides, adding pedestrian islands in the center of a road, and reducing the number of car lanes in favor of wider sidewalks and marked bicycle lanes. These are all worthwhile. But the most needed change is a cultural one.

Drivers need to get the message that it’s not okay to speed, especially in populated areas. A pedestrian struck at 20 miles per hour has a 90 percent chance of survival. At 40 mph, that chance diminishes to 10 percent. Pedestrian deaths are up across Maine, and the Department of Transportation has noticed. We will likely see more traffic calming road design, like Bangor’s recently revamped upper Main Street, in the near future.

This is also justification for more and better bike lanes. Bicyclists make the roads safer for everyone. The more bicyclists there are, the more drivers must notice them and accommodate them, which causes drivers to drive more slowly. Bicyclists are human traffic calming. And every bicyclist on the road equals one less car.

The next time I’m behind the wheel, I’m going to take Tasse up on his suggestion, and drive three miles an hour below the speed limit, though I expect to feel, in his words, “the psychic pressure wave of irritation from the driver behind you.” But as another presenter at the GrowSmart forum pointed out, there is a difference between speed and mobility.

Communities and economies thrive when they have a healthy mix of transportation options, including walking, bicycling, and public transit. It’s challenging to convince people of this after decades of car-first policy. It will take time. But most important changes do.

 

You can drive around the block, but not around the world

Although he died in 1994, Bernard Moitessier keeps popping up in my life.

For those who care about such things, Moitessier is famous for participating in, and then withdrawing from, the 1968-69 Golden Globe Race, the first solo sailing race around the world. The rules were simple: Leave from England, sail south and then east around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Australia’s Cape Leeuwin, South America’s Cape Horn, and back up the Atlantic to England – without stopping and without assistance.

Moitessier did not simply withdraw. He rounded Cape Horn with an excellent chance of winning. But instead of aiming his boat toward England, he kept going, detouring long enough to slingshot a message onto a boat in Cape Town harbor that he was abandoning the race “because I am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul.” He finally dropped anchor at Tahiti, after sailing alone nonstop one and a half times around the world, a total distance of more than 37,000 miles.

I first encountered Moitessier in a book about the race by Peter Nichols titled A Voyage for Madmen, published in 2001. Earlier this year, while browsing at the Bangor Public Library for something to read, I picked up a novel about a fictional sailing family: Before the Wind, by Jim Lynch. The family’s two sons are named Bernard and Joshua, after Moitessier and Joshua Slocum. But it is the daughter, Ruby, who is the preternaturally gifted sailor, and who breaks her father’s heart by pulling a Moitessier in a local race, purposely failing to finish. It’s a good novel, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in boats and the sea.

The April 2017 edition of Cruising World magazine, which I picked up in a waiting room this summer, mentions Moitessier in an article on Cape Horn. I had never read The Long Way, Moitessier’s book about the Golden Globe Race, until I spotted a copy at the Rockland Yacht Club a few weeks later, lying in wait for me to borrow.

Moitessier was born in Hanoi in 1925 to French parents, and spent much of his youth crewing on Chinese junks all over Southeast Asia. He was something of a mystic, and he lived life on his own terms. During his months alone at sea, he often fabricated conversations between himself and some unnamed devil’s advocate presence, perhaps another part of his consciousness. Some of these conversations appear in the pages of his book, including this one:

“Yet it is thanks to the modern world that you have a good boat with winches, Tergal sails, and a solid metal hull that doesn’t give you any worries.”

 “That’s true, but it is because of the modern world, because of its so-called ‘civilization’ and its so-called ‘progress’ that I take off with my beautiful boat.”

“If we listened to people like you, more or less vagabonds and barefoot tramps, we would not have got beyond the bicycle.”

“That’s just it; we would ride bikes in the cities, there wouldn’t be these thousands of cars with hard, closed people all alone in them, we would see youngsters arm in arm, hear laughter and singing, see nice things in people’s faces; joy and love would be reborn everywhere, birds would return to the few trees left in our streets and we would replant the trees the Monster killed. Then we would feel real shadows and real colors and real sounds; our cities would get their souls back, and people too.”

Moitessier wrote these words in 1969 – before the first Earth Day, before the Arab Oil Embargo, before drive-through ATMs and drive-by shootings. How prophetic they seem now. As Houston flooded and bumper-to-bumper traffic crept northward out of Florida, one could not help but wonder if things could have been different. Had we not been busy for the past five decades paving over wetlands and building freeways and burning fossil fuels without a thought to the impact on the ecosystem, perhaps Harvey and Irma would have been smaller and less devastating.

And perhaps if a significant number of us bicycled in our cities and lived closer to our workplaces, we would be less frazzled and fractious in our dealings with one another, less inclined to assume the worst about those with whom we disagree, and more appreciative of the daily wonders our planet provides for us, despite our abuses.

It makes one wonder: Who are the real madmen?

A Tale of Two Trips

August was this year’s month for out-of-state travel. First came a solo work trip to Danbury, Connecticut, then, two weeks later, a journey to Missouri with the lovely Lisa to see the total eclipse of the sun.

I decided to do Danbury by bus, because I didn’t want to be one of those armchair liberals who advocates for public transportation while tooling around in a Subaru. I plotted out a trip that would put me on a bus from Bangor at 7 a.m., connecting at Boston’s South Station, with a transfer in Hartford that would get me to Danbury by five that evening.

Little did I know that bridge construction in Boston had sent a ripple effect through bus schedules all over southern New England. My first inkling of trouble came when I looked up from my laptop an hour and fifteen minutes out of South Station to see that we were just passing Fenway Park.

I missed my connection in Hartford. A second bus failed to materialize. I finally got into Danbury around eleven o’clock, sixteen hours after setting out from Bangor. It’s an eight-hour drive.

On the way home, another bus was canceled. I made it, but not without spending a lot of time in bus stations – which is why it’s always advisable to bring a laptop and a good book.

Eclipses happen when they happen. Humans are powerless to postpone them. I’m sorry to disappoint the purists, but we flew to Kansas City and rented a car. We wanted mobility in case clouds moved in – though it’s hard to imagine chasing a shadow moving over the land at 1,400 miles per hour.

Missouri drivers only seem to drive that fast. On Interstate 70, where the speed limit matches the route number, people blew past at 80 or 90. All along the route we saw temporary signs cautioning drivers about the upcoming eclipse. As if anyone could possibly be in the dark about it at this late date.

Kansas City has a ring of hotels surrounding the airport, and a convenient, free shuttle system. We stayed there on the first and last night of our trip, but we saw the eclipse from Jefferson City, the state capital. The path of totality just grazed Kansas City and St. Louis, but Jefferson City enjoyed two and a half minutes of darkness.

Though it’s surrounded by asphalt, the center of Jefferson City is pedestrian and bicycle friendly, with tree-lined streets and parks with views of the Missouri River. There’s a local bus system called JeffTrans. My only complaint concerns the hotel I booked on-line, which advertised itself as “_____ at the Capitol Mall.” Well, the hotel wasn’t “at” anything. It was five miles out of town, and the only thing within walking distance was another hotel, which likewise did not have a bar. To get anywhere, you had to get in a car – and this is, sadly, typical of many places in America, including Danbury, Connecticut.

Don’t get me wrong: I liked Jefferson City, and I was impressed by the welcome we and other visitors received. A Pink Floyd tribute band named Interstellar Overdrive performed “Dark Side of the Moon” in front of the capitol the night before the event. NASA set up shop across the street. Parking fees were waived in the downtown all day (I know, this encourages driving, but eclipses are nothing if not exceptional). The people were unfailingly friendly.

On the night before we returned to Maine, we took in a Kansas City Royals baseball game. Kauffman Stadium is a beautiful ballpark to which television does not do justice. But it’s miles from the city center, at the intersection of two Interstates, and, again, everybody has to drive. Parking is fifteen bucks. Though there’s probably a bus that can take you there, I saw no evidence of it.

The Royals’ starting pitcher, a lefty named Danny Duffy, held the Colorado Rockies hitless through the first five innings. What are the chances, I wondered, of seeing a total eclipse of the sun on one day and a no-hitter on the next? A walk and a two-run homer with two out in the sixth ended that line of wishful thinking. The Royals held on to win, 3-2, and we held on to survive the drive back to the hotel and the plane trip home.

Renting the car enabled us to travel freely within the American Car Culture. But I was glad to leave it behind when the trip was over.

The Murder Weapon Was a Car

A car in the wrong hands can be a lethal weapon, as the recent confrontation in Charlottesville showed us again. It’s impossible for me to fathom how anyone can think that deliberately striking someone with an automobile is acceptable under any circumstances. That it was done in the name of “white supremacy” makes it all the more sickening.

It’s not the car’s fault, of course. Most car owners use them responsibly. When a car kills a pedestrian – or bicyclist – it’s usually an accident. Not this time.

Then again, how can a group of white men, 152 years after the end of the Civil War and 52 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, think that it’s acceptable to march down a city street at night with lit torches, waving Confederate flags and shouting threats at Jews and other minorities? The First Amendment gives them the right to do it – and the American Civil Liberties Union, normally a bogeyman for conservatives, backed them up – but the culpability for the violence is on the people with the torches as much as the driver of the car.

He may have acted alone, but he was not a lone representative of the craziness that seems to have gripped this country. Everyone’s angry at everyone else. Of all the candidates who ran for President, we elected the one who encouraged assaults at his rallies and police beatings as policy.

Into this overall backdrop of violence, young people grow up in an economy that no longer works for them as it did for their parents. They’re pissed, and their anger is channeled and amplified by the most powerful voice in the land. A car in the hands of an angry young man can turn deadly in less than a second.

Sadly, there are those who welcome such confrontations, who advocate for running down protesters with the temerity to temporarily block a road. Their anger is not limited to matters of race, class, or politics. Check the comments in your local online newspaper the next time a motorist kills or injures someone on a bicycle.

There’s an ongoing event in some cities called “Critical Mass.” A group of bicyclists gathers at a specific time to ride en masse over a predetermined route. The number of bicyclists forces the cars to slow down, and some drivers become furious about it.

But the bicyclists are doing nothing wrong. They are exercising their right to travel on a public way. They’re doing what cars do every day. I’ve never heard a bicyclist rail against rush hour traffic. There is something about a car that brings out a sense of entitlement, often followed by disproportionate rage when an accustomed path of travel is, literally or figuratively, blocked.

I do not mean to diminish the racial issues swirling around Charlottesville by writing about cars and bicycles. But cars are not only weapons, they’re also isolation chambers, preventing us from coming face-to-face with our fellow citizens even at close range. The homicidal driver in Charlottesville surely did not know the names of any of his victims. He made no attempt to talk to them before running them down.

A few years ago, I shared a newspaper story with a class of college students about a rubber plantation in Liberia where, for pennies a day, workers extracted rubber for Firestone tires. It was just before the Super Bowl. The author pointed out that Firestone had paid millions for a halftime commercial but skimped on wages and health care for its Liberian workers. My students were largely unmoved. They just wanted to watch football.

We seem to have little problem with violence as long as it’s at a comfortable distance. Our movies are filled with gunfights and car chases. Football is our favorite sport, though it causes debilitating injuries to most people who play it for any length of time. A car is a safe space from which to curse at protesters, bicyclists, and other drivers.

But our use of cars also requires near-slave labor in other countries, environmental degradation of some of the most fragile places on Earth, and a way of life predicated on putting lethal weapons in the hands of nearly everyone. It’s inevitable that some people will kill with cars. It’s criminal for a latter-day lynch mob to encourage them.

_______

Wednesday, August 16 at 4 pm I’ll be a guest on Downtown with Rich Kimball on The Pulse AM 620 WZON in Bangor, where we will chat with Melody L. Hoffmann, author of Bike Lanes are White Lanes, from the University of Nebraska Press. Join Rich and crew for some interesting conversation.

The August Eclipse: Accident or Divine Coincidence?

 

A total eclipse of the Sun almost makes me believe in God.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, I’ll be in Missouri on August 21 to see my fifth one of these things, but my first since 1979. A total solar eclipse is, hands down, the most extraordinary natural event I’ve ever witnessed. For a few minutes, you can see where you are in space: on a ball of rock circling a ball of fire, with a smaller ball of rock passing between. That’s you, standing in the shadow it casts.

The shadow is only about 70 miles wide, which explains why solar eclipses, while they occur at least every two years, rarely touch the same spot twice in an average human lifetime. You usually have to make an effort to see one.

We Earthlings are fortunate to see them at all. We live on the only planet in the Solar System – and possibly the galaxy – that puts on this kind of show.

During the few minutes of totality, the disk of the Sun is hidden behind the Moon, but you can see the Sun’s atmosphere, or corona, shimmering around it. At this time it is perfectly safe to look at. The danger to your eyes in an eclipse occurs in the moments before and after totality, when you are looking at a sliver of direct sunlight that doesn’t hurt your eyes but can damage them.

Other planets have moons, but they are either too large or too small or too close or too distant to cover the sun exactly. From the surface of the Earth, the Moon and the Sun are the same apparent size. There is no requirement of physics to explain this.

But the distances between Earth and Moon are not constant, because orbiting bodies move in ellipses, not circles. When a solar eclipse occurs near the Moon’s apogee (farthest distance from Earth) and/or Earth’s perihelion (closest approach to the Sun), the disk of the Moon is not big enough to cover the Sun, resulting in an annular, or ring eclipse, similar to a partial eclipse in that it doesn’t get dark.

Furthermore, the Moon is moving slowly away from Earth. The pace is beyond glacial, but in a few million years, there will be no more total solar eclipses. The concurrence of humanity’s emergence and perfect eclipses troubles some scientists. In his excellent 2011 book Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique (Wiley), John Gribben explains:

“Just now, the Moon is about 400 times smaller than the Sun, but the Sun is about 400 times farther away than the Moon, so that they look the same size on the sky. At the present moment of cosmic time, during an eclipse, the disc of the Moon almost exactly covers the disk of the Sun. In the past, the Moon would have looked much bigger, and would have completely obscured the Sun during eclipses; in the future, the Moon will look much smaller from Earth and a ring of sunlight will be visible even during an eclipse. Nobody has been able to think of a reason why intelligent beings capable of noticing this oddity should have evolved on Earth just at the time that the coincidence was there to be noticed. It worries me, but most people seem to accept it as just one of those things.”

It doesn’t worry Caleb Scharf, Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University. In a 2012 blog for Scientific American titled The Solar Eclipse Coincidence, he wrote:

“Is there some great significance to the fact that we humans just happen to exist at a time when the Moon and Sun appear almost identically large in our skies? Nope, we’re just landing in a window of opportunity that’s probably about 100 million years wide, nothing obviously special, just rather good luck.”

Do coincidences happen? Probability dictates that they must. California’s Bay Area experienced its biggest earthquake since 1906 in the middle of the only World Series ever played between San Francisco and Oakland, but that doesn’t mean the ballgame caused the quake.

Perhaps we’re here because of an extraordinary run of good luck, akin to flipping a hundred heads in a row, something that might happen only once in the lifetime of the Universe. Our spectacular solar eclipses might be the result of similar luck.

Or just maybe, some ancient intelligence we don’t yet understand placed the Earth, Moon and Sun just so, to nudge a curious species toward contemplating the Cosmos. As though we were meant to reach for the stars, from the start.

Who knows? I certainly don’t.

 

 

Public Transportation in Maine is a lot like Sailing

I didn’t get my sailboat to Rockland on time this year for the North Atlantic Blues Festival, but I did catch some of the action on the water during Friendship Sloop Days. The Rockland Lobster Festival begins August 2.

From Bangor, it’s easy to get to Rockland without a car, and you don’t need a boat to do it. If you want to attend the Lobster Festival but don’t want to face the parking or the summer traffic on Route One, you can hop on a Concord Coach bus at 7 or 11 in the morning, spend a day on the coast, and board a return bus at either 4:15 or 9:30.

Why more people don’t take advantage of this escapes me. The round-trip cost is only $34. For a larger group, it makes sense to take a vehicle, but for one or two people, the bus is cheaper, much more convenient, and it doesn’t take any longer than it does to drive.

Later in August comes the American Folk Festival in Bangor. One might expect a few folks from the Rockland area to attend. But if they want to do it by bus, they’re sunk. While the Concord Coach schedule works beautifully for Bangor residents who want to spend a day on the coast, there’s no reciprocal schedule that allows a similar day trip in the other direction.

Portland, yes – and Rockland is probably more culturally connected to Portland than Bangor anyway. One could get on the bus that I get off at just before 9 a.m. and be in Portland well before noon, with stops in Damariscotta, Bath, Brunswick, and a few other towns. This is, as a Concord Coach official told me once, “the bread and butter of the route.” Surprisingly few passengers ride between Rockland and Bangor. That might change if buses began running in both directions at both ends of the day.

But that’s the windy nature of public transportation in Maine. There’s more available than most people know about, but you need to know which direction it’s going when. In order to ride it effectively, you have to strategize. Maine has many public transportation services, but they are seldom interconnected.

West Transportation runs a daily bus between Bangor and Calais, via Ellsworth, Machias and the Downeast coast. It gets into the Concord Coach terminal on Union Street at 1 p.m. and leaves again at 3.

Downeast Transportation runs a number of buses in Hancock and Washington counties. It’s an impressive service for a sparsely populated area, one I admit I’ve seldom used. My folks live in Brooklin, which is served one day a week (Fridays) by a bus from Ellsworth. In theory, I could take the West bus from Bangor on Thursday afternoon, spend the night in Ellsworth, and board the bus for Brooklin at 7:20 the next morning. After a scenic tour of Deer Isle and Stonington, I would arrive at the Brooklin General Store at 9:20. From there I’d have to walk.

I’ve sailed there faster. Of course the same thing happens whether you travel by sailboat or bus. You wait for a favorable window. You see places you never intended to see. You go miles out of your way for small gains toward your destination. The journey itself is sometimes worth the time it takes. And sometimes it’s not.

There’s also a daily bus between Bangor and Caribou, run by Cyr Bus Line, on a similar schedule, arriving in Bangor midday and turning around a few hours later. And local services abound, from the Belfast Shopper up to Bangor’s Community Connector.

While I might wish and lobby for expanded public transportation in Maine for the future, I think a central place for information on what’s available now would be a small but significant step in the right direction. With a little help and a lot of patience, you can get there from here.

Perhaps a future mission of this blog should be to ride all the different bus services in eastern Maine and bring back a report. I would need people to put me up in Calais and Caribou and other far-flung places. Or – better idea – any readers out there who use any of these buses and want to share? Please contact me at the Slower Traffic page on Facebook.

Whither Wiscasset? To Bypass or Not?

When I was a child, and my family drove up to Maine each summer from Pennsylvania, we always passed through Wiscasset. It billed itself as “The Prettiest Village in Maine,” but what I remember most vividly were the two old wooden ships rotting on the western shore of the Sheepscot River. We always had time to look at them. Traffic slowed through there, even back then.

The ships are long gone now, and so is the nuclear power plant, Maine Yankee, which was built within sight of the picturesque village a few years after we moved to Maine for good. I used to look at it from the bridge while stuck in summer traffic.

Periodically, there’s a push on the part of frustrated motorists to build a bypass around the village. This would, of course, be done with taxpayer dollars that could be used toward better public transportation along the coastal Route One corridor.

Such bypasses were built in the 1960s around Belfast and Damariscotta, when it was cheaper to do, and the results, fifty years later, are evident. Both towns have thriving centers where people can walk and bicycle comfortably, while the through traffic stays on the highway. Places where bypasses weren’t built have become bottlenecks, like Wiscasset and Camden, or garish commercial strips, like Ellsworth (though I hasten to add that Ellsworth’s downtown has seen some improvement over the past few years).

But the battle to build a bypass around Wiscasset, pitting the interests of local businesses against those of through-drivers, never seems to end. Fifty years ago, back in the Middle Automobile Age, it might have worked. Gas was cheap and the car was king. Fifty years from now, in the year 2067, will Americans still be driving the way we do? Will we still be addicted to ours cars, no matter the cost?

There’s also the problem of induced, or generated, traffic: the principle that building new roads attracts new drivers. In an article for Wired magazine titled What’s Up With That: Building Bigger Roads Actually Makes Traffic Worse, Adam Mann pretty much spells it out:

“…if you expand people’s ability to travel, they will do it more, living farther away from where they work and therefore being forced to drive into town. Making driving easier also means that people take more trips in the car than they otherwise would. Finally, businesses that rely on roads will swoop into cities with many of them, bringing trucking and shipments. The problem is that all these things together erode any extra capacity you’ve built into your street network, meaning traffic levels stay pretty much constant. As long as driving on the roads remains easy and cheap, people have an almost unlimited desire to use them.”

Mann is not as much a fan of public transportation as I am (he favors imposing tolls on well-traveled roads at times of high congestion, as some cities in Europe do). But a few trains and buses a day in the summer between Brunswick and Rockland might make a small dent in traffic, at a fraction of the cost of building a bypass.

Then there’s Acadia National Park. Cars clogged Cadillac Mountain Road to the point that the park had to close it several times over the holiday weekend. And someone flipped a van on Park Loop Road.

I love Maine as much as anybody else. I grew up here, and I’ve chosen to live here. But we’re in danger of loving it to death with cars. I believe the day will come when Acadia closes most of the park roads to private cars in peak season, allowing only bicyclists, hikers, and buses. People will grumble at first, but it will improve the park experience for everyone, not to mention the air quality. It is a national park, after all.

I also believe that public transportation along the Maine Coast will continue to grow, and to attract former drivers like me. Route One through Wiscasset will remain slow in the summer, as it has been my whole life. But that’s just Southern California on an average day. Except for a few summer weekends, Maine doesn’t have traffic.

We’re a rural state, full of places hard to get to by any other means. But cars can be shared, rented, borrowed or hired – everybody doesn’t have to own one. I hope to live long enough to see this movement take root.

Full disclosure compels me to report that I’ve driven – yes, in a car – to the coast in Brooklin three times already in the month of July. If that makes me a hypocrite, so be it. The Maine Coast is a beautiful place, and summers are short.

 

A Subtle Bias against the Bus

Last week, our local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, reported some good news for public transportation in the area. The Community Connector bus system has acquired several new buses. Several officials speculated that the new, reliable buses could lead to an eventual extension of service hours later in the evening. This would be a welcome development, and not just for bus passengers.

But if you read the BDN online, as I do most of the time, you might not have seen this story. It went up on the main web page on June 15. By the end of the day it was gone from the main page, and by the morning of the 17th comments had been closed.

I imagine there’s an electronic algorithm somewhere keeping track of the number of “hits” a story generates, and that this influences the placement of information on the BDN web site. But some pieces seem to stick around forever, while others blink into and out of visibility within a day or two.

This happens regularly to stories about the Community Connector bus system. I hesitate to attribute motive, but I wonder if there isn’t some sort of subtle bias at work. Although the BDN offices are right next to the downtown bus depot, reporters don’t tend to be big bus users. I get it – I’ve been a reporter. You’ve got to be able to jump in your car at any moment to get out to the latest house fire or car accident or meth arrest. It may seem like an inconvenience for the employee parking lot to be tangled up with the bus depot. Still, the buses were there first.

Advance notice of meetings concerning the Community Connector often don’t make it onto the BDN website until the day of the meeting itself. Of course, these meetings are usually held at night, when the buses aren’t running, which, while not the BDN’s fault, further discourages bus riders from participating.

Many of the comments that squeezed through the small time portal during which the recent piece appeared were critical of extended bus hours. Here’s an example:

“When bus riders are willing to pay for the additional cost then and only then should the city make this change. Riders should pay for all the cost not just a small token amount. Bangor tax payers are already stretched to the limit.”

And yet I imagine that the author of this comment (who apparently has an aversion to commas) would scream bloody murder if Bangor were to saturate its streets with paid parking meters. Shouldn’t drivers pay for “all the cost” of storing their vehicles on public streets?

Sadly, this attitude seems to permeate discussions about public transportation. Why? Taxpayers who don’t read books don’t complain about supporting the public library, and taxpayers who have never had a house fire don’t whine about paying for the fire department. Property owners who don’t have children nonetheless kick in for public schools.

The cost of the Community Connector bus system is shared roughly in thirds, among the federal government, local municipalities and employers, and fare-paying riders. This keeps fares low, which in turn makes using the bus an attractive alternative to the car.

The “public” part of public transportation means that anybody can use it, and everyone benefits from it. The bus delivers customers to businesses and employees to jobs. It frees up parking spaces that would otherwise be occupied. It reduces the number of cars on the road. It makes life better for those who use it, and for those who don’t – exactly what a public service is supposed to do.

But many people look at the bus and see an obstacle instead of an asset. A member of my group at a recent “Innovative Neighborhoods” workshop told me that he thought the bus depot attracted panhandlers. Every city of any size in the world, from San Diego to Athens to little ol’ Bangor, has panhandlers. If the downtown bus depot vanished tomorrow, not one panhandler would disappear. But a lot of available parking spaces would.

Bangor has a chance to create a centerpiece of good, viable public transportation for a small city and the smaller communities immediately surrounding it. We can set an example for the rest of Maine, by building on the decent bus system we already have, and adding incremental improvements: newer buses, later hours, better community outreach. Our local newspaper has a vital part to play in that last one.

First there is a Fountain, then there is no Fountain, then…?

As I was walking in Pickering Square, heading for the bus with early summer in the air, from another direction I heard the sound of jackhammers. Orange-clad workers were reducing the fountain at the corner of the square to rubble.

“They’re taking it out,” said a man I recognized from shared bus rides. “Too many people were vandalizing it.”

Our local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, essentially confirmed this in a story on June 5, quoting a local official that people had been bathing and throwing trash into the fountain. The city stopped running water in the fountain in the summer of 2016 because of these problems.

Still, I’m sad to see it go, and a little apprehensive, too. I had no idea the fountain was coming down until I heard the howl of the hammers. There was no announcement that I was aware of, certainly no ceremony. The fountain will be replaced, according to the BDN, with a concrete platform containing electrical outlets. This will create more space for a variety of outdoor events.

The fountain, restored to working order, would have made a pretty counterpart to the spruced-up benches around the square, newly painted by students at Bangor High School. I’m not sure that the way to prevent vandalism is to remove objects of beauty from public spaces.

And I worry that the sudden removal of the fountain presages a “stealth” campaign aimed at the most frequent reason I go to Pickering Square in the first place: it’s the hub of the Community Connector bus system. BDN writer Danielle McLean linked the fountain’s removal to the city’s potential long-range plans for Pickering Square, including a proposal that would remove the bus hub from the square entirely.

It’s worth noting that the BDN’s main office abuts Pickering Square, cheek by jowl to the bus depot. I wonder how many of their employees get to and from work by bus.

Not only is Pickering Square the hub of the bus system, it’s the center of town, and by extension, the greater Bangor area. It’s the nexus from which all the major roads radiate. Were you to start a public transportation system from scratch, you could find no better central location.

But you can also find litter and graffiti and vandalism, along with sometimes loud and unpleasant behavior, occasionally warranting the attention of the police. These occur in any small city. It’s hardly a reason to relocate the bus.

Downtown business (including the Bangor Daily News) ought to the biggest supporters of keeping the bus depot in Pickering Square. Why? Every bus delivers potential customers downtown, minus the congestion of their cars. A bus can hold 30 people comfortably (I’ve been on a University run with 54). Eight buses arrive in Pickering Square every hour, and four more half an hour after that. Imagine 360 more cars passing through downtown every hour. Anyone who complains about parking in downtown Bangor should be thankful for the bus, and be looking for ways to improve it.

I will grant that most people still do business by car. But 20 years from now, will that still be the case? Long-term plans for Pickering Square and for Bangor must take into account the efficacy of public transportation, the wastefulness of the car culture, and our responsibility to the planet. We are living in the Late Automobile Age, and it behooves us to start planning now for what’s next.

The Pickering Square parking garage contains a lot of wasted space. A part of it could be made over into a modern, state-of-the art bus depot. More painted benches could adorn the outside, giving people waiting for the bus a place to sit in good weather.

Instead of looking at the bus depot as an obstacle, we need to treat it as the asset that it is, and design improvements to the square accordingly. If the goal is to bring people downtown, nobody does it better than the bus.

You can read my prior posts about the Pickering Square bus depot here and here.