Cars Are Like Television

downtown

Cars are like television, in that you can’t ever get completely away from them.

In a scene from the 1994 Quentin Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson’s character tells his partner in crime, played by John Travolta, about something from a certain television show. “I don’t watch TV,” Travolta says, dismissively.

“Yes, but you are aware that there is an invention called television, and that people watch shows on it?” Jackson retorts.

Both worlds are ubiquitous – you are influenced by television and the car culture whether or not you choose to participate. There is no outside point of reference. I am reminded of this every time I get behind the wheel, and remember that this is how most of the people I know live.

As I’ve said before, I’m not a purist. I distrust absolutes. Renouncing car ownership is not the same thing as giving up cars completely. I live in a one-car household. The car belongs to my lovely girlfriend, Lisa, and I do occasionally use it.

I like to return it to her with a full tank of gas, as repayment for her generosity. When I lived alone, I rented a car about four times a year, at a cost of $35 to $100 per day, depending on the season. I don’t think that negates the central theme of this blog. I could rent a car once a week through the whole year, and it would still be cheaper than owning one.

But you forget certain things when you only drive occasionally. One is the price of gas. I go weeks at a time without paying attention to it. Then I’ll borrow the car and discover that it’s thirty cents more (or less) per gallon than the last time I bought it.

Another is road repair. The last time I borrowed Lisa’s car was the day a gas line broke near Shaw’s on Main Street, cutting off the most direct route from Bangor to Hampden. I got stuck in that traffic jam. Had I been on my bike, as I usually am, I would not have experienced any delay at all. I would have simply gone around. But there I was, seething in a line of traffic like everybody else, waiting my turn to be waved through.

It’s surprising how easy it is to slip back into the mindset of habitual driving: the annoyance at slow lights, at tentative pedestrians, at other drivers. We all think we’re better drivers than we are. Nobody ever admits, “I’m a below-average driver,” even though by definition half of us must be. (The only facet of driving at which I claim above-average skill is parallel parking, which I aced all three times I took my driving test.)

I wonder if all this annoyance contributes to our fractious civic life. Cars can act as cocoons, insulating us from the consequences of bad behavior. I’ve had horrible things yelled at me from car windows while riding my bicycle, and I’ve raised my own middle finger a few too many times from a behind a steering wheel myself. I can’t imagine that the stress of dealing with traffic, day in and day out, stays in the car once the driver gets out. Numerous road rage incidents attest to this. I’ve never experienced road rage while walking or bicycling.

So why do we do it – make our cars such a central part of our lives that we use them every day? Some of us have to – those who live in rural areas, or work odd hours far from home, or care for young children. But for the rest of us – is all the aggravation really worth it? I believe that a large number of people own cars because it’s what they’re used to. They haven’t stopped to consider that there might be a better alternative.

Owning a car can be like signing up for cable TV. At first you tell yourself you’ll only watch quality stuff. But after a few months you’ll hear yourself say, “Let’s see what’s on,” and before you know it, you’ve spent two hours watching naked people escape from some crocodile-infested swamp.

A car in the driveway is an invitation to drive for the sake of driving – to a bar you could easily walk to, down to the store for a quart of milk, or off to an appointment accessible by bus. It becomes a convenient fallback that’s only inconvenient because everybody else is doing it, too.

My Life in Cars

roque island trip 2010 126

My parents always had two cars. We were a family of seven, plus assorted dogs and cats, and the cars were usually station wagons, parked in the circular driveway in front of our three-story house in the Philadelphia suburbs.

My father taught at a high school in the city, and my two oldest sisters and I attended the adjacent elementary school. We rode into Philadelphia with him in the mornings, with several older kids from the families of friends. His Mercury station wagon had a back-facing rumble seat from which my sisters and I could make faces at the drivers behind us.

The trip was 13 miles, one way. At one point I had the route memorized. The last street was Germantown Avenue, which had trolleys hooked up to overhead wires and cobblestones instead of asphalt.

We lived in what seemed like the country, between two cornfields and a cow pasture. My sisters and I could walk across one of them to an ice cream shop without touching pavement. Decades later, our old house is long gone; not a stalk of corn or a cow remains. It’s all housing developments, office buildings, and parking lots.

Maybe my parents saw the future, and Maine was their response. My father bought into a former summer camp on Deer Isle, at the end of a series of progressively smaller roads. Every year when school ended, we loaded up the station wagons for the twelve-hour drive, leaving at night, with the seats down and sleeping bags spread out across the back. My sisters and I loved those road trips. The sun came up somewhere around the Portsmouth traffic circle. We took the turnpike to Falmouth, then up the coast: over the drawbridge at Bath, lunch at a favorite rest area near Wiscasset, maybe an ice cream at Crosby’s in Bucksport, which is still there. We moved to Maine year-round the year I turned ten.

Maine was where I learned to drive, on a private dirt road in a rusting 1960 Jeep with standard-H shifting and iffy brakes. The first car I owned was an International Travel-All I bought from my mother for four hundred bucks. I still think she ripped me off. We called it “the Monster.” It had four-wheel drive and a stick shift as long as my arm, and by the time it came to me it had been pretty well beaten to death by an exuberant, careless family.

Things went quickly and predictably wrong. I replaced one wheel bearing, and then another, to the tune of several hundred bucks apiece. Then the gas tank fell off while I was driving. Meanwhile, the Monster’s body was being eaten away by car cancer. My parents had once mired it on a sand bar and watched helplessly as the ocean swirled around it – which explained why I never knew which body part was going to fall off next. It had to be the most expensive $400 vehicle in history.

That car almost killed me a couple of times. Once the gas tank fell off while I was driving. Another time the hood flew up in my face when a truck whooshed by in the other direction. By the time I finally sold it for junk, the Monster was more rust than metal.

My last car was a Ford Escort wagon I bought from my son for $600 when he went to college. It had been my mother’s car before that. My son had decided not to have a car at school, partially because he did not want to pay the inflated insurance rates that accrue when you get two speeding tickets before your seventeenth birthday.

The head gasket blew five months after I took the car off his hands. When I told him this sad news over the phone, he said, “What did you do to it?”

And that was it – my last car, like my first, a cast-off from my family.

In between, I’ve had new cars and old cars, cars I’ve loved and cars I’ve loathed, automatics and standards, vans and pickup trucks, vehicles made in Europe and Japan and America, pieces of crap and pieces of culture. I’ve driven cars owned by friends and cars owned by co-workers. I’ve had driving jobs: a school bus, a taxi. At different times I’ve been a long-distance commuter and my kids’ transportation to school. I’ve been a full, willing participant in the American Car Culture.

No more.

 

Lessons from the Wreckage

All Aboard

On the day that an Amtrak train jumped the rails last week in Philadelphia, leaving eight people dead, some 90 Americans died in car crashes you didn’t hear about. Ninety more died the next day, and the day after that. None of them made the news.

I hadn’t planned to write about trains again so soon (see my May 4 entry: It Takes A Train to Cry), but recent events have called attention to the train wreck of American transportation policy.

The Amtrak crash in Philadelphia coincided with an article in the Bangor Daily News about the latest effort to bring passenger rail service – eventually – back to Bangor. As I wrote two weeks ago, trains suffer the double stigma of being overly subsidized and unpopular. Neither is true. People love trains. Amtrak’s ridership is up, and would be even higher if taking the train were more convenient. But decades of policies preferential to cars have led to sparse, unreliable train service. As Jane Holtz Kay wrote in her seminal 1997 book Asphalt Nation, American car owners who would rather drive than take a train are “responding to a rigged market.”

But passenger rail is a tough sell in rural states like Maine. Nobody calls the lonely stretch of Interstate 95 from Old Town to Houlton a waste of tax dollars. Many car owners mistakenly believe that they pay for the roads through excise and gas taxes. But in fact, half of all road funding comes from general taxes. That means that train passengers (not to mention walkers, bicyclists, and bus riders) subsidize every car and driver on the road. You’re welcome.

Even some supporters of public transportation have expressed skepticism about passenger train service to Bangor. They correctly point out the need for smaller, cheaper, more immediate improvements, such as linking the Community Connector bus service to the Concord Coach, and providing better bus service to the airport. Extended evening hours, as I have noted, should also be a priority.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t – or shouldn’t – discuss long-term goals. Passenger rail is not going to return to Bangor next month, or even in the next few years. The important thing is that we’re talking about it, in the context of a larger discussion.

Jane Holtz Kay’s book is subtitled “How the Automobile Took Over America, and How We Can Take It Back.” I like the positive spirit behind that. Kay does not say it will be easy. A powerful coalition of business and real estate and oil and industry interests has foisted upon us the idea that owning a car should be necessary and central to our lives. I was well into middle age before I realized that it doesn’t have to be that way.

I think we take America back one former car-owner at a time. Ride the train or the bus, even if it’s inconvenient. Allow time to bike or walk to work. The discussion of passenger rail service to Bangor is worth having if only to nudge this mindset along a little closer to a public groundswell. Public transportation will improve if enough people want it to.

A few days after the Philadelphia train crash, friends began sending me links to a New Yorker article titled “The Plot Against Trains,” by Adam Gopnik. His main points are hard to dispute: the American political system is rigged for rural interests over urban ones, and a political class in this country has developed an obsession with the idea that nothing good can come from a vigorous central government – the same government that put twelve men on the moon with 1960s technology.

Though this is not a politically partisan blog, I cringe every time some politician praises some rural area as “the real America.” It’s usually someone opposed to government spending on frivolous things like trains. Cars get a free pass because the much higher subsidies for them are camouflaged. And people in rural areas use cars.

A fascinating graphic accompanying a 2011 National Geographic article (The City Solution, December 2011) shows that a city typically – but not always – emits less greenhouse gas per capita than the overall average of its country. The carbon footprint of a New Yorker is much smaller than that of an average American. “Public transit and density put Madrid, Seoul and Brussels below their national averages,” the caption states. “But Stuttgart’s auto industry makes it a higher emitter.”

Thus, not only do city taxes pay for rural roads and car use, city dwellers are also acting as more responsible stewards of the planet.

I’ve lived in small towns (Blue Hill, Maine; Julian, California) and large cities (Philadelphia, San Diego). Now I live in a city that feels more like a small town, only with public transportation. Some day I’d like to come home by train.

The Bicycle Accident

Bike wreck

A few years ago, I won a case in small claims court that I maybe should have lost. Allstate Insurance coughed up a couple hundred dollars toward the purchase of a new bicycle after my old one was crunched in a collision with a car.

I should have lost because I was riding the wrong way on a one-way street. The street is small and residential, and the one-way uphill block represented the most direct route from the old location of the Bangor post office to the east side address where I then lived. The elderly female driver had plenty of room to avoid me. But she made a truncated left turn, cutting off the corner. She claimed she didn’t see me over the hood of her Cadillac. I suffered a few scrapes; the bike’s frame was bent beyond repair.

I like to think of myself as a conscientious bicyclist. I wear bright clothing and use lights and hand signals. I was way over on the side of the road. An alert driver would not have hit me. Had there been a car parked where I was riding – as is often the case on that street – the woman would have struck it.

This was the point I made in court – or rather, in a mediation session that included me and a mediator and an attorney for Allstate, who had driven up from Portland that morning. My case went to mediation because the judge was acquainted with the woman who had hit me. The case was going to be postponed for thirty days.

I’ve forgotten the attorney’s name, but we had a hilarious conversation about how much money Allstate was willing to pay him to defend a $400 case. Wouldn’t it be cheaper just to give me the money, even if I was, technically, in the wrong? He made three phone calls before the company agreed to split the difference and throw me two hundred bucks toward a new bike.

It was fun being a thorn in the side of a huge insurance company. I felt like I had struck a blow against the forces of evil.

But before my court date, I had read Mary Karr’s memoir Lit, and one particular passage began to gnaw at me. Karr tells of a conversation with another writer, who advised her not to try to make herself look good in the reflected light of memory. I realized that I had allowed my attitude about cars to color my perception of what happened.

It pains me to admit that I can cop an air of superiority when I’m on my bike in traffic. I convince myself that I’m doing something more enlightened than the drivers around me. Any one of those cars could squash me like a bug. Their drivers are trying to get through the day and get things done, just as I am. I’m not going to convince anyone of anything if, even subconsciously, I’m looking down at people who have made a different choice. I tell myself I don’t do this, as Karr convinced herself she never drank in the morning. But my actions speak otherwise. I need to pay attention to this.

A bicycle is a vehicle. It is every bit as illegal to bicycle as it is to drive the wrong way on a one-way street. We’re supposed to stop at red lights and stop signs. I admit that I don’t always obey the letter of the law. But when I roll through a stop sign (after looking both ways) or cut across a parking lot to avoid a red light (after making sure that it’s safe), I’m doing the same thing a driver does when exceeding the speed limit by five to ten miles an hour.

Or am I just rationalizing my own bad behavior? Well into my forties, I blithely rode my bicycle with my head protected by nothing harder than a baseball cap. I did this on the streets of San Diego and on the lonely highways of Maine, until a surgical nurse I’d grown close to described for me in graphic detail the injuries suffered by freedom-loving, bareheaded bicyclists. “But Bobby Orr never wore a helmet when he played hockey,” I replied.

She looked at me with what can only be described as incredulity. “Do you hear yourself?” It was clear in that moment that I didn’t have the stronger argument. I’ve worn a helmet ever since.

I took the money, and I still believe that drivers operating 3,000-pound motorized vehicles should be held to a higher standard of safety than bicyclists. But I haven’t ridden up any more one-way streets.

It Takes a Train to Cry

Train1

In my mid-twenties I moved to California sight unseen. I bought a one-way plane ticket from Boston to San Diego and never looked back. The first time I drove across the country was west-to-east, against the grain of American history.

I drove alone in a car full of cassette tapes and assorted belongings. I stayed with friends in Tucson the first night, in a hotel in Albuquerque the second, and in the car for a few hours at a rest area in Kansas the third. My fourth day of driving brought me to St. Louis, the Gateway Arch, and the Museum of Westward Expansion.

I almost cried when I saw the wooden wagon wheels and the displays of deprivation endured by those early travelers. Like me, they had gone to California on a promise and a prayer. Unlike me, they could not get on an Interstate Highway and reel it all back. In those days, going West was a lifetime commitment – if you made it across the prairies, the mountains and the deserts. Many people didn’t.

The Interstate Highway System was born when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. The system encompasses some 47,000 miles of limited-access divided highway across the United States. Construction costs over 40 years were estimated at approximately $128 billion. Ninety percent of the funding – nearly $119 billion – came from the federal government.

State and federal spending on the Interstate System didn’t stop with construction, of course. Roads need to be maintained, aging bridges need to be periodically replaced, signage needs to be updated, and so on. One estimate puts the cost of the Interstate system over the next fifty years at $2.5 trillion.

Looked at one way, the Interstates opened the country to increased commerce and freedom of mobility for the average car-owning American. They made it possible to buy fresh California avocados in Maine, and to take in the Grand Canyon, the James A. Garfield homestead in Ohio, and Niagara Falls on the same road trip, as I did with my kids many years ago. They have made driving marginally safer, though vehicle accidents still claim more than 30,000 American lives a year.

Looked at another way, the Interstates constitute a massive taxpayer subsidy to the automobile and trucking industries. The money spent on the Interstates dwarfs the federal subsidy for Amtrak, a favorite target of fiscal conservatives in Congress. Over its 44-year existence, the national train service has received less than $1 billion per year in federal subsidies – a lot of money, to be sure, but a drop in the bucket next to government largesse for highways, trucks and cars.

This bias toward cars and against public transportation can be observed almost anywhere you go in the United States. Here in Bangor, the Interstate cuts through a graveyard and diverts commerce from the downtown to outlying areas like the mall and outer Hammond Street, while a vacated hardware store sits idly on the site of the old train station. Talk of restoring passenger train service to Bangor is dismissed as a pipe dream by some of the same people who want to see an east-west highway strung across northern Maine along the route of an existing rail line. And modest spending to extend bus hours into the evening meets with resistance from people who have no problem spending much more money to build additional parking facilities.

I see two lessons here.

The first is that public spending priorities influence private behavior. The more roads you build while eviscerating public transportation, the more people will conclude that driving is the more convenient option. Of course it is, because your government has, for at least the past half-century, cleared stones from the paths of drivers while erecting obstacles for bus and train passengers.

The second is that transportation is not supposed to pay for itself. It’s a public service, whether in the form of road construction and maintenance, or reliable and dependable train service. Both are essential to a country’s economy. Trains can move freight – and people – much less expensively than cars and trucks can. But fifty years of conditioning have caused us to view cars as normal and necessary, and trains and buses as subsidized services that only serve a minority.

Again, I’m not saying that we should dismantle the Interstates or let them fall into decay. But we could all benefit from a more balanced approach to transportation, one that doesn’t keep putting the bulk of our eggs into the most expensive basket.