Where’s Wal-Mart?


I’m spending a few days in eastern Tennessee, where the land is so wrinkled and roads so winding that even a Greyhound bus driver can get lost on them.

True story. This year’s conference of the Sport Literature Association, of which I am a member*, is at Eastern Tennessee State University, in Johnson City. I traveled here from Maine by bus, train, and bus again. Knowing that public transportation in this car-saturated country of ours can sometimes be unreliable, I planned an itinerary with loose connections. I left Bangor on the Concord Coach bus at 7 in the morning, took the train from Boston to Washington, a bus to Richmond and another bus to Johnson City, arriving at three the following afternoon.

I like riding buses and trains. I get a fair amount of writing done on them, which one can’t do while driving. Waiting between connections is no more onerous and much less stressful than navigating city traffic or sitting in a jam on the Interstate.

But by two-thirty on the second day, I was ready to stop moving. “Next stop, Johnson City, thirty minutes,” the young driver announced. I’d arranged to be met at the bus station, and it looked like the bus was going to be on time.

Half an hour passed, and Johnson City failed to materialize. One of the pleasures of public transportation is leaving the navigation to others. I’d been looking out the window, enjoying the scenery on my first visit to this part of the country. But I was beginning to wonder where this city was.

Another half hour went by. My cellphone rang. It was an SLA colleague, waiting at the bus station, asking where I was. I told him honestly that I did not know, but that I expected to arrive within minutes. All I could see out the window were lush green hills and four lanes of curving highway, but I figured Johnson City could not be far away. The driver had announced the stop an hour ago.

Barely a minute after I assured him of my impending arrival, the driver got on the mike and apologized – he had made a wrong turn at a detour in the last town, and needed to turn the bus around. The guy in the seat in front of me, who knew the area, explained that he had driven most of an hour in the wrong direction.

The saga ended happily with my arrival in Johnson City an hour and ten minutes late. Don Johnson (yes, in Johnson City; no, not the actor) was there to meet me, having driven twice from the ETSU campus to the bus station.

Every time I visit a mid-sized American city outside of a major metropolitan area, I despair of convincing anyone to give up car ownership. Johnson City has a nominal downtown, but much of its commerce is scattered in clumps far from the center and from each other. Everything is laid out for the automobile. Everybody drives. I saw bike lanes but no bicycles, and few pedestrians. There is a local bus service, but I will not be here long enough to figure it out. Like Bangor’s, it operates six days a week and shuts down around six in the evening.

On my second night here, our group went out to a brewery in nearby Jonesborough, the oldest town in Tennessee. We piled into cars for the ten-mile journey, and on the way back, one of us wanted to stop at a Wal-Mart. No problem, said Scott, our driver. He whipped out his smart phone and found three Wal-Marts in the area. Navigating the highways and commercial clusters by GPS, the four of us in the car couldn’t find any of them. We saw every other chain store known to man, but no Wal-Mart.

It got to be funny as hell after awhile, as darkness descended and we drove past one lookalike intersection after another. How can you NOT find a Wal-Mart? Drive any distance in America and you almost can’t help running into one. We never did. Michelle abandoned her quest for a bathing suit and a pair of sunglasses, and we returned to the ETSU campus, where, fortunately, there was a bar within walking distance.

Maybe the southern heat and humidity discourage people from walking or bicycling in June, but I think the infrastructure discourages them more. When everything is five miles from everything else and surrounded by parking lots and traffic islands, it sends a powerful message that the car, and not the human being, is the basic unit of transportation.

It’s time for a new message.


* My baseball novel, Tartabull’s Throw, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2001.

Saturday Bus Service, Part 2

Hampden bus

One of the most gratifying things to come out of last week’s Hampden Town Council meeting was the revelation of a groundswell of support for public transportation in the greater Bangor area.

Between 20 and 30 supporters of Saturday bus service showed up at the meeting, and bus superintendent Laurie Linscott presented the council with forms signed by an additional 34 supporters who were unable to attend. A citizens’ group called Transportation For All, of which I was previously unaware, sent representatives. This show of support is all the more impressive, given that the meeting was held after bus hours, in a location that discourages access by any other means than car.

Perhaps the best comment of the evening came from an older woman who left before I could get her name. She said that while the bus is necessary for those who can’t afford a car, it’s also a boon to young people discovering that a car-free lifestyle may be worth pursuing. “I think we should support this growing movement,” she said.

And that’s what it is: a movement.

Within a month after giving up car ownership at the beginning of 2007, I began to notice the benefits. I walked everywhere, and shed extra pounds. I stopped buying gas, and had more money at the end of the month. I felt better, because I wasn’t always on the defensive, ready to be peeved at a driver in front of me who might not be moving as fast as I’d like. Over the next few months, my life improved so dramatically that I wanted to share the news with the world, or at least my friends and neighbors. Somebody should write a book about this, I thought.

It didn’t take me long to discover that somebody had. In fact, an entire body of literature is devoted to the notion that cars, rather than setting us free, have created their own kind of entrapment. I read Jane Holtz Kay’s Asphalt Nation, published in 1997, which gives an overview of American gridlock and how it happened. I read Katie Alvord’s Divorce Your Car, published in 2000, which contains an admiring foreword by her car-addicted ex-husband. I skimmed Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking, a tome published in 2005 by a UCLA economics professor on that particular form of welfare for cars.

These and other titles take various approaches to the problem of car saturation and car-centric public planning. But for practical advice, the best book I’ve found so far is How to Live Well Without Owning a Car, by Chris Balish, published in 2006. Balish is a television journalist from St. Louis, and at the time of the book’s publication, he was single and in his mid-thirties. His book is short but comprehensive. His premise is summarized in the sub-title: “Save money, breathe easier, and get more mileage out of life.”

Balish’s book is as fun as it is informative. He provides a worksheet that enumerates the many hidden costs of owning a car. He writes about his active, car-free dating life. He outlines strategies for accomplishing tasks like grocery shopping and taking your dog to the vet without a car. And he provides testimonials from dozens of people across the United States and Canada who have given up the illusory freedom and convenience of owning car for the real freedom and convenience of NOT owning one.

But why should the mostly car-owning taxpayers of Hampden pay for a service used by a very few people? Sadly, the perception of public transportation as a subsidized service for the poor persists. Hampden taxpayers pay approximately $7.70 per year for Saturday bus service, the equivalent of about three gallons of gas. Critics contend that half the route lies in “South Bangor,” and that few Hampden residents use the Saturday bus.

I’ll make two points here:

For some the bus is an essential service, much like the police department, the post office, and the public library. Does a lonely country road “pay for itself”? It’s unfair to hold the bus to a higher standard than the subsidized car culture.

Many sympathetic car owners give armchair support to the bus. As one person said after the meeting, “It’s nice to know it’s there when my car breaks down.” But for the bean counters, it’s all about the numbers. If you support public transportation, get out there and use it. Leave the car at home occasionally and take the bus. Otherwise it might not be there when you need it.

Saturday Bus Service

Bike on Bus

An Open Letter to the Hampden Town Council

[The council will vote Monday June 15 at 7 p.m. in the Hampden Municipal Building, 106 Western Avenue, on discontinuing Saturday bus service between Hampden and Bangor.]

Dear Councilors;

I’m dismayed that you’re considering cutting Saturday bus service again, less than a year after voting to keep it. The Community Connector is an important resource for the people of Hampden and neighboring communities.

I live in Bangor, but I use the bus to do business in Hampden, often on Saturdays. I keep a boat at Hamlin’s Marina, and I use the bus to get to the hardware store, the grocery store, and the Dunkin’ Donuts, all Hampden businesses that lie on the bus route.

By limiting the bus service to weekdays only, you are harming many people who rely (or would like to be able to rely) on this essential service. It will be particularly hard for those who can’t afford a car. These are the people who can least afford the extra money for a taxi to a low-paying job. Less bus service also harms those who can’t drive for physical reasons: sight impairment, disabilities, old age. Finally, there are a growing number of people who, like me, have begun to question the accepted wisdom that everybody needs a car.

Some have cited the route’s low ridership as reason to discontinue Saturday service. But that is circular thinking. I firmly believe that more people would use the bus if it became attractive to use. You can’t offer minimal service and then complain that it is getting minimal use.

Others have cited the price tag: $28,000 to run the Saturday service annually. But I wonder how much the city of Hampden has invested in infrastructure for cars over the past year. Public transportation is also an investment. I chose the boatyard in Hampden in part because it is convenient to get to by bus. All the money I have spent there, and at other nearby business, can be considered a return on the town’s investment in the bus system. Not everybody does business by car. The town should not make it more difficult to choose alternatives.

Bus passengers are an under-represented constituency. Even the timing and location of your Monday meeting discourages their participation. The bus stops running an hour and half before the meeting begins, and your municipal building is on the outskirts of town, difficult to access by foot or bicycle.

We are so used to the favoritism for cars that many people don’t perceive things like bus service cuts as disenfranchisement. Any transportation planning for the future must include a robust public transportation system. It’s only fair. As I wrote earlier this year on my blog:

The public 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 points 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?

The meeting is at 7 p.m. Monday, June 15, at the Hampden Municipal Building. The building is near the intersection of routes 202 and 9, diagonally across from the Hannaford. I plan to arrive early by bus; I hope I can get a ride home.

For those who cannot attend, here are the names and e-mail addresses of the members of the Hampden City Council, to whom I have sent copies of this letter.

Stephen L. Wilde       wildetowncouncil@hampdenmaine.gov

Dennis R. Marble       marbletowncouncil@hampdenmaine.gov

Terry McAvoy            mcavoytowncouncil@hampdenmaine.gov

David. I. Ryder, Mayor          rydertowncouncil@hampdenmaine.gov

Carol S. Duprey         dupreytowncouncil@hampdenmaine.gov

William Shakespeare, deputy mayor          shakespearetowncouncil@hampdenmaine.gov

Gregory j. Sirois         siroistowncouncil@hampdenmaine.gov


When Waves Turn Minutes to Hours


I had planned to write about sailing this week, and how not owning a car enables me to indulge in this rich man’s hobby on a poor man’s budget.

I own a modest 25-foot sloop that I keep in Hampden in the winter and Rockland in the summer, on which I have toured the coast from Port Clyde to Grand Manan Island in Canada. I was going to write about the logistics of getting to and from the boat without a car. For example, I can leave Bangor on the 7 a.m. Concord Coach bus, be in Rockland by nine, spend the whole day sailing, enjoy a leisurely dinner, and get on a bus back to Bangor at 9:30, arriving between 11 p.m. and midnight.

Sailing is the ultimate slower traffic. When I’ve got the boat trimmed just right in a fresh afternoon sea breeze, with spray flying and my crew laughing in exhilaration, it’s doing about seven miles an hour. Nonetheless, I do occasionally use it for transportation.

My parents live in Brooklin, near the Wooden Boat School. Without a car, it’s easier for me to visit them by boat in the summer if I have a couple of days off. I can make the trip west-to-east in about six hours with decent wind. (My record is four and a half, in the aftermath of Hurricane Earl a few Septembers ago.) The return trip usually takes a bit longer, but it’s doable in a day.

I was going to write about all this. I was also going to make the observation that sailing is perhaps a more enlightened hobby than say, snowmobiling or motor biking, because it relies on the wind rather than fossil fuels – though I recognize this as dangerous territory. I don’t want to criticize what other people do for fun. Besides, sailors aren’t pure. Every year I treat my boat with toxic chemicals, mostly paints and varnishes, and some of that surely gets into the environment. And I have a small outboard motor in case of emergencies, or just to get in and out of harbors when the wind refuses to cooperate.

But I’ll write about the joys of sailing another time. This past week I got the boat launched, and left on my annual trip down the Penobscot River and the west side of Penobscot Bay, with my son Rigel on board as crew. We left Hampden on Friday, in defiance of superstition, after pouring a shot of rum into the river to appease the sailing gods.

They were not appeased.

The wind was from the south, in our faces, but the outgoing tide was our friend as we motored down the river. We passed under the bridge at Bucksport, thinking about an overnight stop at Fort Point, or maybe Stockton Harbor. The forecast for the following day was for northerly winds, which would provide smooth sailing to Rockland.

But this afternoon, the south wind strengthened, pushing against the tide, and at the river’s wide mouth it became difficult to keep the outboard engine’s propeller in the water between the building waves. We decided to raise the jib and sail to Fort Point, a sheltered anchorage a few miles away.

We made about four or five tacks, and then suddenly something snapped, and the top of the mast and the sail were in the water, with the rigging all around us. It was my first dismasting. I hope it is my only one.

It took some scrambling to get the mess onto the deck and the motor started, and a tense hour and a half to get back to the public landing at Bucksport, where my lovely, car-owning girlfriend Lisa picked us up. At sea and on land, fossil fuels came to our rescue.

I’ll tell you what it feels like. If you have ever been in a car accident where you came out physically okay but your car, which you had saved for and picked out and driven with pleasure, was totaled, you know. Sleep comes hard that night even though you are exhausted. You wake the next morning hoping it was all a dream, but it wasn’t. You feel queasy, sick to your stomach, wondering what to do next, how you will pay to replace it.

The boat will sail again, though perhaps not this season. I will likely take advantage of the American car culture to look for a new mast. But I will never again leave port on a Friday.