The Ripple Effect

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Writing can be a lonely pursuit, especially when you write about something in which the public doesn’t seem all that interested. But if you’re lucky, the pebbles you throw into the pond of public discourse will eventually make ripples elsewhere.

I gave up my car in 2007 as a New Year’s resolution. In January 2014, the Bangor Daily News published my commentary on my seventh anniversary of car-free living. The latest issue of Bangor Metro magazine – for which I wrote from 2006 to this year – features an article on bicycling to work. I wrote a comprehensive story on public transportation in the area for the magazine’s March 2008 issue. (Unfortunately, it’s no longer possible to access the magazine’s archives on its website, so I cannot provide a link. Copies are available at the Bangor Public Library.) As far back as 1992, when I was living in Southern California, I wrote in a guest commentary for the Los Angeles Times that a controversial piece of public art in the coastal city of Carlsbad was better appreciated on foot than from inside an automobile. The city tore the sculpture down instead.*

Thus, it’s gratifying to see a recent wave of commentary, both local and national, on the American car culture and what we can do to reduce its wastefulness. Though I have been writing about this subject for years, personal recognition was never my motivation. What matters more is that the discussion is finally taking place.

Do we really need so many dang cars? Must we pursue transportation policies that encourage car ownership over every other form of mobility? Why are so many roads unsafe for bicyclists and pedestrians? Why must public bus services scrape by on minimal budgets, even as we build more parking garages and parking lots? How can we create a more balanced, environmentally friendly traffic infrastructure?

The thesis of this blog is that it starts with the individual. As I have written before, not all of us can give up our cars – but some of us can, and as more people discover the rewards of car-free living, public services will have to accommodate them – er, us. I’m encouraged to see the emergence of new advocacy groups for bicyclists and pedestrians. I’m happy to read about a recent rally in Pickering Square supporting longer bus hours. I’m glad to see a Bangor Daily News blogger suggest giving up a car as a way to get into better physical shape. However it happens, I’m happy to see the ripples spreading.

 

* – The public art project referenced in the commentary was called “Split Pavilion,” and it was the work of noted New York artist Andrea Blum. In 1999, the city of Carlsbad, at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars, bowed to public pressure and destroyed the sculpture, so that drivers could once again enjoy an unimpeded view of the Pacific Ocean from their automobiles.

 

Bangor’s Broadway Corridor

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The bicycle is out of the basement, a few weeks later than last year. I don’t like to ride on ice or snow, and both stuck around a little too long this spring in this corner of the country.

Some places are dicey to ride even in clear, warm weather. A small city like Bangor ought to be easy to navigate by bicycle. But a recent presentation by traffic planners at City Hall left me feeling anxious about the future.

The subject was a study of what to do about traffic on Broadway, one of Bangor’s busiest streets. Though fewer than 20 people attended, several parents showed up to point out that many sections of the road are unsafe for bicyclists, and at best uncomfortable for pedestrians.

According to traffic engineer Thomas Errico of T.Y. Lin International, the Falmouth firm that conducted the study, it’s one of the busiest corridors in Maine, carrying 25,000 cars a day. It passes two high schools, a university, a shopping center, a fast food alley, a medical park, an ice cream stand and a truck stop on its way out of town toward Dover-Foxcroft.

Bangor High School presents particular problems. One man said, “I don’t understand why the public transportation in this town isn’t coordinated with the schools.” Other parents described near-death scenarios getting into and out of school entrances. (The other high school, John Bapst, is closer to downtown and lies smack dab on two bus routes, but nonetheless clogs traffic in that area.)

Though fond of phrases that would make E.B. White cringe (“left turn movements,” “a high priority on Interstate facilities,” e.g.), Errico and his team laid out several scenarios for improving bicycle and pedestrian access in the area. There was much talk of moving traffic lights, eliminating driveways, and altering intersections. The millions-of-dollars option is a roundabout at the intersection of Broadway, Center Street, and the interstate.

I like roundabouts. They’re much safer than four-way intersections, for both drivers and bicyclists. And I like the idea of a back road on the Bangor High side, all the way from the shopping center down to the community on the other side of the hill.

But I was dismayed at the paucity of talk about public transportation. The area is not well served by the present bus routes. There is no direct bus between Husson and downtown, for example. The Center Street and Mall Hopper routes converge at the shopping center, but Outer Broadway is not served at all.

And my favorite option – eliminating a lane of automotive traffic in favor of bicycle lanes – was ruled out almost immediately because, in Errico’s words, it would have caused “significant traffic congestion.”

The anarchist in me loves that possibility. It is fun, I admit, to zip past a long line of stalled cars on a bicycle. And if traffic in the short term became intolerable, would that not lead a number of adults and high school students to conclude that bicycles and the bus were more convenient?

A lot, maybe most, of the daily drivers on Broadway would still drive, but consider: If just one of every ten drivers were a bicyclist or a bus passenger, it would reduce the number of cars in a day on Broadway by 2,500. Two and a half thousand fewer cars on the road would resolve many of Broadway’s traffic problems.

The short-term ire of drivers likely precludes anything so bold as taking out a lane. But that’s the direction traffic policy should be heading. We should be looking for ways to reduce the number of cars on the road. Better bicycling and bus service is the way to do it.

I give Errico points for promoting pedestrian access. When someone observed that few people walk on Broadway, he replied, “I like to think that with these street improvements, we’ll see more people walking.” The same is true of bikes and buses.

+ + +

This Saturday is the Kenduskeag Canoe Race, which is a lot of fun to follow by bicycle. I like to throw my bike on the Capehart bus and take it to Finson Road. From there it’s a short ride to Six Mile Falls, where cars will be backed up for half a mile along every approaching road. It’s easy to follow to the course downstream from there via Outer-Outer-Broadway, Kenduskeag, Valley, and Harlow into downtown.

I hope to see a lot of bicyclists, weather permitting. Bicyclists and drivers alike: please don’t get in the way of the racers, and observe courtesy on the road at all times.

Spring, finally, is here.

 

In Praise of the Bus

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This week I’m writing two significant checks to the state and federal government, which will leave precious little money in my checking account for things like beer, baseball tickets, and business cards to promote this blog. Thankfully, I don’t have to throw a temperamental automobile into the mix. When I owned cars, they always seemed to need repairs when I could least afford them.

No one likes paying taxes, and we all like to complain about some of the ways our tax dollars are spent. Depending upon your political persuasion, (and this is NOT a politically partisan blog), these may include: military adventures and equipment, foreign aid, welfare to able-bodied citizens, large-scale public art projects, public television, and sports stadiums.

Public transportation often encounters the same sort of criticism. Bangor boasts a pretty good bus system that operates six days a week, twelve hours a day. But the buses stop running at six o’clock in the evening, which makes the system unusable for many working adults. Ask a Bangor City Councilor or a representative of one of the other communities served by the bus about this, and you will get a variation of the same answer: It’s too expensive. Taxpayers don’t want to pay for it.

The perception of public transportation as wasteful subsidy is as old as it is inaccurate. In her landmark 1997 book Asphalt Nation, the late Jane Holtz Kay pointed out that your car is more subsidized than the bus. Half the money to support our addiction to cars comes from general taxes, whether you own a car or not. We all pay for free parking, law enforcement associated with the car, health care for accident victims, and the myriad environmental costs wrought by the car. So who is subsidizing whom?

Even if you never set foot on a public bus, your life on the road is improved by public transportation. Think about it. Every bus passenger represents one less car. Would you rather wait behind 25 cars at a traffic light, or a single bus? Would you rather spend half an hour competing with other drivers for a downtown parking space, or spend a few pennies in taxes toward freeing up more spaces?

More importantly, public transportation stimulates the economy. When I stopped owning cars and started regularly riding the bus, I found I had more money at the end of the month to shop at local businesses, to take my sweetheart out to dinner, and to purchase necessary items and services for my home. All those businesses benefitted. And I am far from alone. Longer bus hours would enable more people to remain downtown after work, or to get to and from work without a vehicle, or even to reduce the number of vehicles in the household. More money in the hands of consumers translates to a better bottom line for area businesses.

So why aren’t more people on board with this? Why does the image of public transportation as “skeezy” and “sketchy” persist? One reason might be that we’ve been brainwashed by advertising to think of our cars as status symbols. Another could be that bus passengers are often marginalized in the public mind as losers who can’t afford a car. A third reason is that municipalities and businesses are loath to encourage bus use. When was the last time the Bangor Mall, say, held a “Bus Rider Appreciation Day” with things like discounts and prize drawings? We are, after all, helping to pay for the parking lot without using it.

I work for one of the few entities in the area that gets this. The University of Maine provides free, unlimited bus rides for all students, faculty and staff. Recently, Husson and Eastern Maine Community College have followed suit. Bus tickets are a whole lot cheaper than parking construction. I see no reason why other major employers, such as Cianbro, the hospitals, and business parks, can’t do the same thing. Later transit hours would also help shift workers and people taking evening classes.

And one more thing: let’s bring back the BAT. I still don’t know whether it stood for “Bangor Area Transit” or “Bangor Area Transportation,” but the concept was cool, including the large bat stencils on the side of the bus. Who thought up the bloodless moniker “Community Connector”? It sounds like a therapy session. Who wouldn’t want to ride in a BATmobile?

 

 

Opening Day

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As noted last week, more than 30,000 Americans die each year in automobile accidents. Though the number has declined since 2008 (when a recession coupled with high gas prices caused Americans to cut back on driving for the first time since the 1950s), we still view this annual sacrifice as acceptable. Plane crashes and train derailments prompt investigations; car wrecks are widely seen as the price we pay for the so-called freedom of the road.

But every death by car is a personal tragedy. No segment of society goes unaffected. Why should baseball — our other national pastime – be any different? In observance of Opening Day, Slower Traffic presents The All Car Accident Baseball Team.

The batting order:

Heine Reitz, 1867-1914, 2B. The first major league player killed in a car accident, in Sacramento, ten years after he retired from baseball. A 5’7” second baseman in the mold of Dustin Pedroia, Reitz led the National League in triples in 1894.

Tony Boeckel, 1892-1924, 3B. While driving in Torrey Pines, California, north of San Diego, Boeckel was involved in a collision with a truck. He got out, a passing car struck him, and he died the next day, becoming the first major leaguer killed by a car in the midst of his playing career.

Roy Campanella, 1921-1993, C. Though he survived his accident, Campanella was confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life after his car skidded on ice on Long Island in January 1958, hit a telephone pole, and overturned. The accident came just months after the Dodgers played their final game in Brooklyn. A veteran of the Negro Leagues who joined the Dodgers a year after Jackie Robinson, Campanella won three MVP awards and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1969.

Mel Ott, 1909-1958, RF. The second Hall of Famer on this list, Ott slugged 511 home runs and compiled a .304 average in 20-plus seasons with the New York Giants. He later took a job as a broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers. Driving near his home on a Matarie, Louisiana, Ott was hit head-on by another vehicle. He died a week later in a New Orleans hospital.

Joe DeSa, 1959-1986, 1B. Born on one island, killed on another, DeSa played seven games with the Cardinals in 1980 and 24 games with the White Sox in 1985. The Hawaii native was playing for Ponce in the Puerto Rican League in December 1986 after signing a minor-league deal with the Kansas City Royals. DeSa had just left a party at a teammate’s house and was driving alone on the cross-island expressway when he and another driver collided head-on. Both died instantly.

Mike Darr, 1976-2002, CF. A promising outfielder for the San Diego Padres, Darr was killed in a single-vehicle crash in Phoenix. He and his passenger both died when Darr lost control, overcompensated, and crashed into the highway median, ejecting them from the vehicle.

Mike Sharperson, 1961-1996, DH, utility infielder. An infielder who spent most of eight seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sharperson had just signed a deal with the Padres and was on his way to join the team when he was killed in a two-car collision in Las Vegas.

Denny Williams, 1899-1929, LF. A marginal player whose career consisted of 120 games, Williams died in an accident in San Clemente, California, later famous as the post-Watergate retreat of baseball-loving President Richard Nixon.

Chico Ruiz, 1938-1972, SS. The only player to pinch-hit for both Pete Rose and Johnny Bench, Ruiz played every position except pitcher during an eight-year career with the Cincinnati Reds. He died in a crash in San Diego.

Pitchers:

Carl Hubbell, 1903-1988. The third Hall of Famer on this team, Hubbell won 24 consecutive games over two seasons, and struck out five Hall of Famers in a row in the 1934 All-Star Game. While driving near his Mesa, Arizona home, the 85-year old former pitcher lost control of his car and hit a metal pole. He died two days later from head and chest injuries.

Bob Moose, 1947-1976. A starter and reliever during a ten-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Moose pitched a no-hitter in 1969 and started game six of the 1971 World Series. On his 29th birthday, he was driving in light rain to a party at a golf course near Martin’s Ferry, Ohio. His car crossed the center line and struck an oncoming vehicle. He was killed instantly.

Bullpen: Steve Howe, 1958-2006; Josh Hancock, 1978-2007; Nick Adenhart, 1987-2009.

Manager: Billy Martin, 1928-1989. Pugnacious as a player, Martin was even more disagreeable as a manager, picking fights with players, umpires, fans, traveling secretaries, and the owners who hired him. Martin died on Christmas, near his upstate New York farm, after a night of drinking with a buddy, who drove the pickup truck in which Martin was a passenger. The driver survived.

Baseball is a game of statistics, so I’ll close with this one: Since 1876, a total of 18,082 players have appeared in a major league game – roughly the same number of lives lost on America’s roads during every baseball season. Play ball.