Courtesy, On Line and On the Road

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I’ve been thinking about my father lately, because he died nine years ago this week in an automobile accident. He was one of 42,642 deaths on American roads in 2006, an annual slaughter we apparently consider an acceptable cost for our motorized way of life.1

You might think there’s something Freudian in my subsequent decision to give up car ownership, but the truth is I was already souring on cars. It wasn’t until May of that year that I moved from a small town on the coast to Bangor, where a car-free life is possible, and even then it took me until the end of the year to cut the cord.

My Dad and I disagreed about a lot of things. He leaned conservative and I lean liberal, so we had plenty of fodder for lively political discussions. But he did teach me a valuable lesson about courtesy. He had a nice phrase for it, too. He used to say that courtesy is the grease that keeps the machinery of society running. When I was younger, and surer of everything, I pooh-poohed this as the faux wisdom of an old man. He didn’t live to see the rise of social media. But nowhere is his lesson on courtesy more needed.

Express an opinion on Facebook, or a blog, or any on-line forum, and within about three comments someone is likely to call you a fool, a traitor, or worse. Recently I was trying to make the point that taxpayer-funded public transportation can save a family the cost of owning and maintaining a second vehicle (around $9,000 per year on average, according to the American Automobile Association), and was not so cordially invited to shut up, with the added admonition that I was obviously “just another loud-mouth dolt.”

Few of us would say that to someone’s face, but computer screens and cars seem to shield people from the immediate consequences of being rude. I’ve had horrible things yelled at me from passing cars when I’m on my bicycle. I’ve been flipped off more times than I can count. I have heard drivers express the opinion that bicycling on public roadways should be outlawed, that bicyclists are nuisances, that we are dangerous. Bicycles aren’t killing more than thirty thousand Americans a year.2 Cars are dangerous.

I do realize that bicyclists and pedestrians and bus passengers can be rude, too. But they are not cocooned behind a windshield or a user name. Recently I was on a bus with a young woman carrying on a loud, lengthy cell phone conversation. You could hear her all over the bus. I finally approached her and asked politely if she could wrap it up. She responded with a stream of invective. I told her she was being rude to her fellow passengers, and she replied, “I don’t care.” After I had meekly returned to my seat, the guy across from her leaned over and said, “Will you shut the fuck up?” She told her friend on the phone that people were harassing her and she had to go. Message delivered, in a language she understood. Would the guy have spoken up if I hadn’t said anything? I don’t know.

It doesn’t kill you to be polite. Courtesy can be the difference between reason and resentment, between an agreement to disagree and the harboring of hard feelings. It isn’t always easy, but practicing courtesy is always worth the effort. On line, it can foster respect. On the road, it can literally save lives.

 

1 – Figures are from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

2 – The 2013 figure was 32,719, including 4,735 pedestrians and 743 cyclists. Fatalities dropped sharply following the 2008 recession and gas price spike.

 

 

Incremental Change and Straw-Man Arguments

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I am new to this business of blogging. Consequently, I expect that this blog will evolve as I learn more tricks of the trade. Uploading graphics, linking to other blogs and web sites, managing comments – these are all things I’ll have to get better at as I go along. For now, I’m trying to write a new post every Saturday, and also trying to get the word out about this blog’s existence. Thank you for visiting and reading, and if you find something of value here, tell your friends about it.

It has now been eight years since I’ve owned a car. My driver’s license is current, however, and I do drive from time to time. In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I live with a woman who owns a car. On cold winter mornings, she has often offered to drive me down to the bus stop at Pickering Square, where I get on the 7:15 bus to Orono and go to work. I usually take her up on her offer. So sue me. I’m not a purist. Purists are boring.

Besides, what am I supposed to do, break up with her just to prove a point? She’s on her way to work anyway, so it’s not an extra car trip just for me. We walk downtown, even in winter, to hear music or go out to dinner. When we started dating, my lack of a car was a plus, because she lives on a narrow street with a driveway barely big enough for one vehicle. Where to put the second car on the nights I stayed over was never an issue.

Before I moved in last November, I lived alone and car-free for three years. It never cramped my style. I had an apartment on a bus route, close to town, and I shopped at stores I could easily reach on foot or bicycle. I bought groceries “European style,” in smaller, more frequent trips. In the summer I frequented farmer’s markets and small beer stores. I sometimes used the bus to go to Hannaford.

The point of all this is to deflect the kinds of straw-man arguments often leveled at people advocating for change. Environmentalists hear this all the time: “You want we should all live in caves by candlelight?” Obviously we are not going to unmake technology, nor should we, and just as obviously, we are not going to un-invent the automobile. But we CAN be smarter in our use of technology and its effects on the planet. And we CAN question some of our entrenched attitudes toward cars.

I am NOT advocating that everyone reading this blog renounce car ownership tomorrow. Many people legitimately need to own cars. Families with small children, traveling carpenters with equipment, gigging musicians with gear, on-call medical personnel – all have solid reasons to invest in a vehicle. But I see far too many people clinging to their cars out of habit, because we have come to regard car ownership as a necessity instead of an option.

The infrastructure we’ve created around the car reinforces this. City councils eagerly embrace new parking facilities but balk at expanding public transportation. Businesses locate in outlying shopping malls instead of walkable city centers. Bicyclists are marginalized. And the relentless drumbeat of car advertising on TV brainwashes the public into thinking that cars are much cheaper than they really are.

The sense of entitlement around car ownership is so pervasive that we often fail to notice it. Take parking, for example. Why does your employer offer you free parking at work, but not free lunch? (The University of Maine is one local employer that gets this right – they charge for parking and give away bus rides. More on this in a future post.) At shopping malls, the price of parking is included in the prices at the stores – but there is never a discount for bus riders, bicyclists and pedestrians, who consequently end up subsidizing the drivers. A proposal to charge a nominal fee for parking in downtown Bangor is met by howls of outrage and predictions of doom for downtown businesses.

Change happens incrementally, one individual attitude at a time. As more people free themselves from the shackles of car ownership, the infrastructure can and will change to accommodate them. Not everyone can give up car ownership. But some of us can. And even in the face of car-centric public policy, it’s easier than you think.

 

Alternatives to Driving

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For the person who has decided to give up owning a car, several transportation methods are available.

The first is attached to the end of your legs. When you get out from behind the wheel, you will walk more. It’s inevitable. It’s also good for you. Walking is great exercise. Two months into my new car-free life, people I hadn’t seen for a while started to say things like: “You look great. Have you lost weight?” I checked, and sure enough, I had dropped ten pounds. And I had done it with no modification of diet or daily habits, save one: I was now doing short trips on foot instead of by automobile.

Why do people drive to a gym where they pay to exercise, I thought, when they can get the same results for free? It seemed to me, and still does, a waste of both time and money.

Since I started this experiment in January, my bicycle was in the basement. But when warmer weather arrived, the bike came out of storage. This expanded my range, and also further illustrated that the “convenience” of car ownership is often anything but. I live within a mile of downtown Bangor. I can leave the house, bike downtown, lock up the bike, and be sitting in my favorite bar drinking a beer before someone leaving my house at the same time in a car can get in the door.

When I began teaching at the University of Maine, I discovered the convenience of the local bus system. It used to be called the BAT, for Bangor Area Transit, but some marketing genius came up with the utterly boring “Community Connector,” which is now its official name. One perk of my job as an adjunct professor is that I can ride the bus system free, as can any student, teacher or employee of the University. And since all the buses have bike racks, in warm weather I can sling the bike on the bus in the morning and ride it home – a trip of about ten miles – in the afternoon.

Anyway, one semester I had a student – let’s call him “Mike” – who was chronically late for a class that began at 1:10 in the afternoon. One day after class I finally asked him why he was always late.

“I try to get here on time,” he said, “and I get to campus in plenty of time for class, but most of the time I have to troll for a parking space, and then when I find one it’s way out on the edge of a parking lot, and I have to walk. Or else I park illegally and get a ticket.”

Further conversation revealed that he lived in Bangor, within a short walk of a bus route. The bus could deposit him at the center of campus, an easy walk to class. Why, I wondered, did he drive?

“Because it’s more convenient,” he said.

I almost laughed out loud. “You just got done telling me how inconvenient it is.”

As was the case in the previous example with my bicycle, Mike and I could have left Bangor at the same time, he in his car and me on the bus, and I would have been in the classroom first. Plus I could use the time on the bus to prepare for class, while he trolled for parking.

But he didn’t see it. And among his fellow students, he is not alone. I now make it a point to assign a field trip on the bus and a one-page report. Some are surprised at how easy it is. But others cling to their cars, in the belief that if the University could just build more parking, or if roads could be widened, or if traffic lights could be better timed, the congestion wrought by our addiction to the automobile would magically vanish.

 

Welcome to Slower Traffic

 

I stopped owning cars in 2007. At first, I decided to try it for a year. But after only a few months, the benefits – physical, financial and mental – became apparent. I am now into my ninth year as a happy, productive, non-car-owning American.

I live in Bangor, Maine, a city of approximately 30,000, and teach at the University of Maine, about ten miles from home. I also teach in the MFA writing program at Western Connecticut State University, and supplement these two jobs with a gig as a feature writer for a local magazine. I’m in my fifties, divorced, with two grown children living in California.

The decision to relinquish car ownership was a long time coming. Like most Americans, I bought into the cultural wisdom, promulgated by the automobile and advertising industries, that one must own an automobile to participate fully in American economic life. I needed a car to get to work, to haul groceries, to see friends and family, to go on road trips, to run errands, and on and on. I am here to tell you that it isn’t true. Giving up owning a car was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Can everyone do this? No, but a lot of you can, and your life will improve as a result. You will have more freedom, more time, and more money. You will learn that your car is not the necessity you think it is. Skeptical? So was I. But I soon discovered that the vaunted “freedom” and “convenience” of owning a car were overrated illusions.

This blog is intended as a conversation among people interested in alternatives to car ownership. On it I will share my own observations, and provide an opportunity for readers to share additional information and insight. A good conversation often begins by challenging long-held assumptions. I hope to provide a forum for that here.