When Your Car Drives You

USA, Arizona, Phoenix, traffic on congested freeway, elevated view

Recently I decided to do something nice for my car-owning girlfriend. A front panel on her vehicle was being devoured by rust, and I had some fiberglass left over from a spring repair on my sailboat. Why not use it to patch her car? It seemed like a good project for a free weekend.

I’m not that good with fiberglass, but I figured that even a bad patch job was better than letting the rust have its way, and she agreed. On Saturday I prepped the surface and laid down the glass; it hardened into a lumpy approximation of the panel’s original shape.

On Sunday I went out to buy a can of paint to match the car’s color. We live near downtown Bangor; there are several auto supply stores within easy walking or bicycling distance. A can of spray paint weighs less than a pound. Nonetheless, like a typical American, I took the car to do my errand.

After discovering that the two nearest stores were closed on Sunday, I finally found what I was looking for at the Auto Zone on Stillwater Avenue. By then I was in a bad mood, stewing at traffic lights and annoyed at myself for contributing, unthinkingly, to an ongoing American problem.

Here was a classic case of a car using a human to accomplish an errand for itself. I could have easily picked up a can of paint by bicycle. Granted, it would have taken a little longer, but I would have spared myself the irritation, and gotten some exercise to boot. Instead, I sat idly at traffic lights as the car spewed greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

I wonder how much of the car-owning population ever thinks about this. It’s easy to fall into frivolous use of a car. We can’t walk to a nearby store for that quart of milk? We can’t ride a bicycle or take a bus to a nearby job? We’ve been so conditioned to think of everyday car use as normal that to question it seems like heresy.

In her book Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Kay cites a Federal Highway Administration study on American driving habits. The study showed that less than a quarter of our time behind the wheel is spent getting to and from work, and less than a tenth on road trips and vacations. The largest contributor to congestion on our roads comes from errands. And a lot of those errands, like my quest for spray paint, are for the car itself. The car culture has become self-perpetuating.

Isn’t it past time to question this, and to take steps to move our lives in a different direction? Don’t we have some responsibility to the planet and to our communities to mitigate the damage done by the car? Shouldn’t public policy encourage people to behave more responsibly?

Instead, it does the opposite. Municipal governments eagerly build parking lots but grudgingly mandate bicycle lanes. Public transportation is constantly under attack by bean counters who see it as a wasteful subsidy. Development in outlying areas is encouraged while pedestrian-oriented downtowns wither.

These are not market-driven decisions. The car culture is heavily subsidized at all levels of government. The bailout of General Motors cost enough to run Amtrak for 147 years.* Gas taxes are at an all-time low. Widespread free parking is nothing more than welfare for cars.

Americans have been brainwashed into the misconception that individual car ownership is necessary and desirable. We are told that our time is too valuable to walk or bike to work, and then we drive to the gym to burn off the fast-food meals we eat behind the wheel.

I don’t want the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a place I will likely never visit, opened to oil exploration so that I can drive to Auto Zone on inexpensive gas. It would break my heart to see an oil spill on the coast of Maine. Yet there I was, in a car, on a summer Sunday afternoon, making those things more likely. A Greenpeace promo after the captain of the Exxon Valdez slammed the ship into a reef in Prince William Sound states the case succinctly: “It wasn’t his driving that caused the Alaskan oil spill. It was yours.”

As Kay wrote in Asphalt Nation nearly 20 years ago: “It is time to have it another way. Just as we learned that we must examine the environmental consequences of unleashed consumption, so too we must learn to let the car stop driving the economy.”


* Estimated 2015 Amtrak subsidy: $340 million. Cost of GM bailout: $50 billion.

For the Price of a Beer


The Hampden Town Council will vote this Monday, July 20, on whether to continue to fund Saturday bus service. If they vote no, Saturday runs along the Hampden route will end on August 1. The meeting is at 7 pm in the council chambers of the Hampden Municipal Building.

It will be sad if, on the anniversary of the moon landing, the council takes one giant leap backward for its non car-owning residents. It will also be shortsighted, because public transportation is good for the economy. Reliable bus service can enable a family to give up an extra car, and they will spend a good deal of the money they save at local businesses. As several people pointed out at last week’s public hearing in Bangor, we are having the wrong discussion.

I’ve been to a few of these meetings now. Regular bus rider Andrea Rankin and others commented that it is annoying to have to repeatedly fight proposed cuts in service. The conversation we should be having is how to expand the bus system and make it better. People are starting to discover, even in Maine, that car ownership need not be a de facto requirement for full participation in the community. Others don’t own a car because they can’t afford one. Still others have physical issues that prevent them from driving.

The Community Connector bus system is paid for by a roughly one-third formula of money from fares, local governments, and the federal government. As I’ve pointed out previously in this blog, cars sitting in driveways suck up more tax dollars than buses. Yet public transportation makes a convenient target for those who want to trim town budgets by cutting services they don’t use.

What’s driving the attack on Saturday bus service, though, isn’t class warfare but a petty little grudge match between Bangor and Hampden. According to Hampden councilor Bill Shakespeare, Bangor isn’t paying its fair share. The Hampden bus serves Shaw’s, Hollywood Casino, and Beal College, all within the city limits of Bangor. Many riders on the route never enter Hampden at all. It should be called the South Bangor-Hampden route, and the cost should be shared, Shakespeare said. Local costs of the so-called “VOOT” route, which serves Veazie, Orono and Old Town, are apportioned fairly; why not do the same with the Hampden route?

Shakespeare has a point. But it’s a small point. And to “shut down the run and force the issue,” as Hampden resident Jeremy W. Jones suggested, puts the weight of a disagreement between two municipal governments squarely on the backs of people least able to carry it. What may seem like sound fiscal policy to a guy with two cars in the garage can mean the difference between working and unemployment for someone who relies on the bus. It’s a cruel solution that’s worse than the problem it purports to solve.

I’m not going to weigh in on who should pay for what, but this threat to shut down a vital service to prove a point is emblematic of what’s wrong with our politics, from the local to the national level. Hampden may be paying more than its fair share, but Hampden also owes its existence as a wealthy bedroom community to the proximity of Bangor. The city provides the jobs that enable Hampden residents to earn good salaries, a minuscule portion of which they are asked to kick in for a minimal public transportation system that serves the entire, larger community.

The annual cost to each Hampden taxpayer to maintain Saturday bus service is about the cost of a beer at a local bar. It’s a drop in the bucket for a town with a municipal budget of $6.8 million. Instead of sacrificing a needed service over a territorial squabble and a few dollars per person, maybe we should have a “Bus Riders and Taxpayers Beer Night,” and call it good.

We could do it near the holidays. It would generate all kinds of good will, between bus riders and critics of the bus. It could lead to new ideas on how to improve and grow and streamline the service. We could have it at a bar in Hampden, further stimulating the local economy.

Oh, wait. Are there any bars in Hampden? And will we have to drive to get there?

Capital Gains


A recent visit to Washington, D.C. got me thinking about bicycles and government, in that order.

I arrived Sunday morning by bus from Richmond, Virginia, and departed by train that evening, leaving me some time to explore a city I had not visited since the Carter administration. Much had changed. I had never seen the Vietnam Memorial, for instance, and I had never navigated the city without a car. Both buses and trains use Union Station, close to the Capitol and the major tourist attractions. But the first thing I saw when I walked outside was a wall of bicycles.

The day was warm but surprisingly not humid. Many people were out walking, running, or bicycling. Some of the bicycles appeared to be privately owned, but many more belonged to a program called Capital Bikeshare, which makes bicycles available, for short periods of time, to the general public. The system is modeled on one pioneered in Montreal, and was the first of its kind in a major U.S. city, opening in 2010. Since then, similar services have debuted in New York, Boston, and Chicago.

According to the website, Capital Bikeshare provides 3,500 three-gear bicycles at some 350 stations throughout Washington and nearby communities in Maryland and Virginia. It’s a membership-based system you can join for a day, three days, a month, or a year, appealing to tourists, short-term visitors, and regular commuters. Your key enables you to pick up a bike at any “dock” and return it to any other. All rides under 30 minutes are free; trip fees apply thereafter.

The system is not without its flaws, or its detractors, as a brief Internet search reveals. Some destinations are more popular than others, resulting in full docks when one wants to drop off a bike. Sometimes bicycles need to be redistributed by truck. And the whole operation is supported by tax-funded entities, from municipal governments to the Federal Highway Administration and the Virginia Department of Rail and Transportation.

I didn’t use it. Instead, I walked, slowly, past the Capitol and the Garfield Memorial and the Air and Space Museum, down to other end of the Mall and the memorials to Martin Luther King, Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and the tragedy of Vietnam. Afterwards I wandered past the statue of Albert Einstein and up one of the numbered streets until I found a bar showing multiple baseball games on a single screen. Tired of walking, I located a local bus, which cost a dollar, and rode back to Union Station.

Admittedly, I was only there for a day, a Sunday at that, and these observations should not be mistaken for comprehensive analysis. All I know is that I saw a lot of people happily using the bikes.

Critics contend that that the bicycle-sharing system is costly, and that it is used by a small and affluent slice of the population and not the low-income residents it was designed to help. As I have noted repeatedly, such criticism ignores the public costs of the pervasive car culture. Not only is driving heavily subsidized, until recently it has been encouraged by public policy to the virtual exclusion of every other form of transportation. We don’t expect our roads and parking lots to turn a profit. Nor should we expect it from bicycles and trains.

And it is a legitimate function of government to encourage desirable outcomes. The streets of any city are friendlier when they support more bicycles and fewer cars. The carbon footprint is smaller, the environmental impact less, the air cleaner and easier to breathe, the population healthier. It’s appropriate for our nation’s capital to pave the way for similar efforts in other American communities.

* *

I need to correct an error in last week’s post about bicycling to and from work between Bangor and Orono. I wrote that “paved bike lanes provide a buffer from automobile traffic” along much of the route.

Michele Yade Benoit pointed out that what I referred to as bike lanes are actually paved shoulders, not designated rights-of-way for cyclists. There are no official bicycle lanes in the Bangor area. She is correct. Thanks for reading, Michele, and for being vigilant.

Bangor may never grow large enough to justify an organized bicycle-sharing system like those in Washington or Boston. But a little paint, a little pavement, and a little signage could go a long way, at little cost, toward nudging more commuters toward more responsible transportation alternatives.

Gimme Three Feet


In warm weather I regularly bicycle between Orono and Bangor. If I’m pressed for time in the morning, I’ll put my bike on the rack on the Community Connector bus and ride home after my work is done. The return trip is marginally easier by bicycle, as it follows the Penobscot River, and all rivers flow down hill.

My only challenges along this route are two small hills south of Orono and a large one near Eastern Maine Medical Center. A younger, more physically fit person would hardly consider these hills at all. When I lived in California, I would have sneered at them, too.

I like to think I’m in pretty good shape for my age. I never go to a gym, and I gave up running after a sprained ankle in 2001. Exercise for its own sake bores me. I stay in shape by not owning a car. The idea of sitting on my butt all day and then driving to a place to work out strikes me as absurd. I would rather get exercise in the course of my daily life. A good time to do that is on the way to or from work.

My bicycle is transportation. That I burn calories instead of gasoline is a bonus. The extra time it takes to bicycle rather than drive is more than offset by the time I save not driving to some shopping mall to exercise on a machine in front of a television.

For most of the route, paved bike lanes provide a bit of a buffer from automobile traffic. But sometimes people park cars in them, and potholes and debris often make it necessary to swerve out into the main part of the road. I have a mirror on my left handlebar, which enables me to check for cars behind me before I do this.

But there’s a section of the road in Veazie where the bike lanes disappear. (The other main bicycle route between Orono and Bangor, Stillwater Avenue, has no bike lanes at all.) On this part of the road I often encounter motorists who don’t know or don’t care that the law requires them to give me three feet of space.

It’s unnerving to be passed by a car at such close quarters. Prudence dictates that I not ride in the middle of the road, and where possible, I stay to the side. But the law states that the three-foot rule applies no matter where the bicyclist is on the road.

The ride from campus to Bangor takes me about fifty minutes. The drivers who can’t wait to pass me can cover the distance in less than twenty. Waiting until they have a safe place to pass adds seconds, not minutes, to their trip. What’s the rush?

But that’s the mentality the car culture hath wrought. Anything that slows down your trip – a slow light, a driver operating below the speed limit, a bicyclist using the road for the same legitimate purpose – is regarded as a nuisance. As more and more people use bicycles for transportation, this mentality will have to change.

I have heard drivers argue that bicyclists don’t obey traffic rules, that they create dangerous situations, that they don’t pay registration fees or excise tax. All these arguments are easily demolished. Drivers don’t obey the rules. If you don’t believe me, go out on the highway and drive the posted speed limit. Bicyclists are in much more danger from cars than vice versa. And half of all road maintenance costs come from general taxes, paid by drivers and non-drivers alike.

Wherever bicyclists proliferate, traffic safety improves. Drivers learn to accept bicyclists as a normal, everyday part of the traffic picture instead of an occasional nuisance. Overall automotive traffic is reduced; existing parking becomes more available. It’s a win-win for everybody.

Besides, most reasonable people would agree that Americans are overweight, and that we depend too much on fossil fuels. Bicycling addresses those problems while driving exacerbates them. Every bicyclist, like every bus passenger and pedestrian, reduces the number of cars on the road. We are making life easier for everyone who continues to own a car and drive. All we ask for in return is a little respect.