Freedom’s Just Another Word for the Obligations of Owning a Car

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Ask a car owner to justify owning an automobile, and one of the first few words you’ll hear is “freedom.”

That freedom is the ability to get into the car any time, and drive to any destination, for any purpose whatsoever – to buy a loaf of bread, to mail a letter, to visit a friend, or just to get out of the house. Implicit in this is the expectation of clear roads and convenient parking.

In Maine, we don’t face many of the traffic problems that plague more populated places. But businesses continue to build in outlying areas, forcing employees and customers to drive to them. Real estate continues to be sold on the assumption that the owners will commute to work. And spending priorities continue to favor the automobile over less expensive, more efficient modes of transportation.

People cry foul when new restrictions are imposed. In Bangor several years ago, the city council enacted an ordinance prohibiting a left turn from State Street, which runs along the river past Eastern Maine Medical Center, onto Howard Street, which shortcuts through a residential neighborhood and meets up with Stillwater Avenue, near the Bangor Mall. Never mind that it is a dangerous intersection, or that drivers frequently speed and endanger pedestrians and children, or that the area is well served by three bus routes. Drivers circulated a petition to get the repeal of the ordinance onto the 2008 ballot. The traffic cones came down the day after the election.

Drivers in Bangor are again free to make a dangerous left turn. But take a closer look at that adjective: “free.” It’s frequently followed by a preposition, as in the sentence that opens this paragraph. Free as a bird. Free of charge. Free to do what I want. Free from your spell. The preposition changes the meaning. Car owners tend to think in terms of “free to,” which implies liberty but not liberation. That’s a different quality than the “free from” I discovered when I decided to give up owning cars. I’m free from compulsory car insurance and mandatory car inspection. I’m free from sobriety checkpoints, and parking tickets, and registration fees. I’m free from being immobilized by a car that doesn’t start or doesn’t run properly. I’m free from scraping ice off a windshield in winter and washing off bird poop in the summer. Fluctuating gas prices don’t drive my monthly budget. I don’t sit in traffic jams waiting for the car in front of me to move. My days are no longer planned around where I have to go in an automobile and how long it will take me to get there.

And surprisingly, I haven’t lost much freedom of mobility. I can still go where I want, when I want, most of the time. The exceptions are scattered events in small outlying towns. Even then, with a little planning and forethought, I can usually make arrangements. And do those few events justify supporting an automobile 365 days a year?

You do give something up when you decide not to own a car. You give up the perception of unlimited mobility – which isn’t really unlimited, since you can only go where the roads are. You can’t drive to Iceland, or to Juneau, or even to many places in Maine. My sailboat can get to places no car can. I can afford the boat because I don’t own a car. I can get to it by bus, and out on the water I experience a sense of freedom I’ve never felt in an automobile.

And I like to think I’m making life just a little easier for my neighbors, by removing one car from the daily traffic mix. By using public transportation, I’m boosting the demand for more bus routes, and by walking and riding a bike I’m increasing awareness of bicyclists and pedestrians. I’m also doing my tiny part to keep oil drilling away from the coast of Maine, to maintain the cleanliness of the air we breathe, and to discourage the use of American military power to secure oil deals in hostile countries.

Not everyone wants to live in a city. But that house ten miles out of town may not look like such a good deal in the face of rising gas prices and road congestion. Small-town life may not seem so idyllic when you’re spending fifteen hours a week driving to and from work. I’m not the first lifelong driver to lose patience with the demands of the car culture, and I won’t be the last. The biggest surprise was how little I had to lose.

Are National Parks and Cars Compatible?

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Acadia National Park is being overrun with automobiles. Several times this summer, park officials have shut down the Cadillac Mountain Summit Road to alleviate the glut of cars. A recent Bangor Daily News story outlined traffic and parking problems in the park’s most popular areas, and reported that Acadia is struggling to preserve a natural experience in the face of the onslaught.

The park draws an estimated 2.5 million visitors a year. Most of them arrive by car and expect to use their cars in the park. But Acadia has scheduled a handful of car-free days, where private vehicles are not allowed in the park for up to twelve hours.

Mount Desert Island has always had a problematic relationship with cars. There’s only one way on and off the island – something that wasn’t true of steamships, which could use any of the island’s several excellent harbors. John D. Rockefeller, whose family fortune came from oil, initiated construction of the network of carriage roads still used by hikers and bicyclists today. Cars were not allowed on the island at all until 1913, five years after Henry Ford’s first Model T rolled off the assembly line and ushered in the Age of the Automobile, in whose late stages we are now living.

National parks exist in tension between two worthy goals. One is to preserve land, particularly scenic land, in as natural a state as possible. The other is to ensure that the land is accessible to the American public – or, again, as large a segment of the public as possible. The car is a detriment to the first goal but a boon to the second. Not everyone can hike to the top of Cadillac, though perhaps more people should.

Like many year-round Mainers, I tend to avoid Acadia in the height of the tourist season (at least the most popular, MDI segment of the park – Isle Au Haut and even Schoodic Point are much less crowded). And like most of my ilk, traffic is the primary reason I stay away. The park’s problem with traffic is twofold: too many cars in the park, and too many visitors driving to the park. They are separate but related problems, with separate potential solutions.

An effective way to address the first problem would be an adjustment of park entrance fees. Currently, the cost to bring a vehicle into the park is $25, which covers seven days. It’s $20 for a motorcycle, and $12 per person. Pricing should incentivize alternatives: say, $50-75 for a car, $25 for a motorcycle, and $5 or even free for an individual. I’ll bet you would see a lot more people opting for a bicycle or the Island Explorer Bus, which is free but accepts donations, and allows you to hike from one trailhead to another without doubling back to your vehicle.

Some people balk at the very idea of fees to visit national parks. The museums along the Mall in Washington, D.C., for example, are free; signs explicitly state that they are supported by taxes and accessible to all Americans. But no one suggests that parking in the area should be free. Cars do not have rights, nor should they.

Acadia’s other traffic problem affects anyone who uses the roads in the surrounding area. Route 1A between Bangor and Ellsworth sees horrific accidents each year, and congestion every day of the summer. So why not simply widen the road? Because more road capacity encourages more people to drive, a phenomenon known as “generated traffic.” You can’t build your way out of traffic congestion. We’ve been trying that for the past hundred years, and traffic has only gotten worse.

We need alternative ways for people to get there. A light-rail line from Bangor to Bar Harbor is one idea. An along-the-coast ferry service, from Portland to Rockland to Mount Desert, is another. Regular and more frequent bus service, from Bangor and Portland, is yet another.

A few years ago, I discovered that you can take a bus from Bangor to Bar Harbor any weekday of the year for six bucks, round trip. It’s run by the Jackson Lab, and leaves the Odlin Road parking area at 5:15 every morning. Jackson Lab employees have first dibs on the seats, but the bus is open to the public. It arrives in Bar Harbor at 6:40 and leaves at 3:45. Unfortunately, it doesn’t carry bicycles.

Acadia’s traffic problems are America’s traffic problems, focused and in microcosm. We need to think beyond the car. Otherwise we might as well call it Acadia National Parking.

 

 

 

Why Do College Students Need Cars?

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It’s fun to challenge college students on their use of cars, as I do each semester in a writing course I teach at the University of Maine. I make them ride the Community Connector bus and bring back a report. I also assign an essay on the topic of cars in daily life; one of the options is to spend a week without driving and reflect on the lessons therein.

One semester, I had a student who was perpetually late. The class began at 11 am, so it wasn’t a case of collegiate sleeping habits. He claimed that he allowed plenty of time to get to campus, but was stymied by the lack of readily available parking. The student lived, as I do, in Bangor, some ten miles from the campus.

I asked him if he had ever considered alternatives to driving. The conversation went something like this:

Student: “Mr. Garfield, I’m sorry I’m late, but I couldn’t find a parking space.”

Me: “Well, perhaps you should leave earlier.”

Student: “I have been leaving earlier. A lot of times I’ll get to campus half an hour before class, but I’ll spend that whole time driving around looking for a parking place. Then I’m either late for class, or I have to park illegally. I’ve got a hundred and twenty dollars in parking tickets just this semester.”

Me: “You live in Bangor, right? There’s a bus. It’s free with your Maine Card. So why do you drive?”

Student: “It’s more convenient.”

He had just given me a list of reasons why driving to campus isn’t convenient. But like too many of his peers, he had been raised to regard driving as the first, best option.

The University of Maine has been nationally recognized for its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. One of its more successful strategies has been to promote use of public transportation. A parking permit is fifty bucks a year, but every student, teacher and employee can ride the Community Connector free, anywhere within the system. During the week, a bus leaves Bangor at quarter past the hour from 6:15 in the morning to 5:15 in the afternoon. A second bus leaves the University at half past the hour until 6:30. The buses stop at the Memorial Union, smack dab in the center of campus. You can walk to any classroom building in less than five minutes.

Yet every semester I confront a classroom full of car owners. Many have never ridden the bus. Some of them keep a car on campus so that they can drive home, often several hours away, every weekend. Others complain about the costs of textbooks, housing and food, while blithely buying gas for unnecessary trips to and from campus. Most have little idea of what their cars really cost, because their parents cover insurance and other expenses, and in some cases, the entire vehicle.

However good their intentions, parents who buy their kids cars are doing them a great disservice, by grooming them for a lifetime of car dependency. One young woman, who had owned a car since her sixteenth birthday, told me that her week without driving was the longest week of her life.

But another student told me of a conversation with her mother, who had attended the University of Maine 25 years ago. Back then, few students kept cars on campus, and the Memorial Union had a “ride board” on which people could post notices soliciting or offering rides home for vacations. Students did not flee their newly independent lives each weekend to return to their families.

The future does not belong to the automobile. A growing awareness of the waste in our car culture, and its detrimental effects on our health and the environment, is driving a movement toward better public transportation, bicycling infrastructure, and walking communities. This does not mean that cars will go away, but that they will be less central to our daily lives. This is good, and universities need to prepare their graduates for it.

The University of Maine is doing the right thing by charging for parking and giving away bus rides. Doubling the cost of an annual parking permit, from $50 to $100, would provide additional incentive for people to seek alternatives. In the short term, it would raise money for the University. In the longer term, it would spur a push for later bus service. And it might convince a few cash-strapped students that they don’t need that car after all.

 

Self-Driving Cars Are Smarter Than Their Human Counterparts

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I got a good laugh from a recent story in the New York Times (September 2) about the tribulations of Google’s experimental self-driving cars.

It seems that the automated automobiles are too smart for their own good.

Self-driving cars are miracles of modern technology, able to navigate the highways and byways of our complicated country far more safely than mistake-prone human drivers. They can anticipate and correct for congestion, slow down for pedestrians and bicyclists, and react quickly to unexpected events, such as a child darting out into the street after a basketball.

But they are also programmed to obey the traffic laws. This turns out to be a problem, because most drivers don’t.

In a recent test, a Google car slowed down for a pedestrian in a crosswalk, just as it was supposed to do. It was immediately rear-ended by a human driver.

In fact, the story (by Matt Richtel and Conor Dougherty) reports, Google cars have been in 16 crashes since 2009. Most were minor, but in every single case, a human being in another car was at fault.

In another test, a Google car was paralyzed at a four-way stop because human drivers at the other three corners kept inching forward, probing for an advantage, while the automated car waited for them to come to a full stop. They never did.

I find this all pretty amusing, and also somewhat vindicating, given some of the comments on my last two posts about bicycles. When drivers rail at bicyclists for committing minor traffic violations, they would do well to look at themselves in the rear-view mirror. Few of them obey the letter the law. Dmitri Dolgov, head of software for Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, was quoted in the Times article as saying that human drivers need to be “less idiotic.”

But there’s a larger issue to address here. The whole point of self-driving car technology is to make our roads safer, to reduce the car carnage that still claims upwards of 30,000 lives per year in the United States alone. We are a long way from a fully-automated traffic system, or even a partially automated one, in which people could drive themselves into a city and then turn over their car to some sort of central control. And how would we prevent hacking and other electronic mischief? In the short term, the challenge of integrating automated, law-abiding vehicles with the comparative anarchy of human-driven traffic remains.

I have to wonder if some of these research dollars might be better spent on proven technology that would make our roads safer by reducing the number of vehicles using them. Cities and suburbs could invest in state-of-the-art public transportation systems, build bicycle infrastructure, and promote pedestrian-friendly business districts. The widespread long-distance trucking network that moves most of our goods over the Interstates could be scaled back in favor of inter-modal transport, which uses rail for long distances and trucks locally.

To me, it makes more sense to work toward reducing traffic than to work toward automating it. Every trip not made in a car or truck takes a motorized vehicle off the roads and makes them less congested and safer for everyone.

Here in Bangor, that means longer bus hours, more bike lanes, and more tolerance by drivers for bicycles and pedestrians. It could also mean consolidation of the three bus services – Greyhound, Concord Coach, and the Community Connector – into a central downtown hub. These modest measures may seem prosaic, but they are also practical, and can be achieved quickly, at far less cost than outfitting us all with automated vehicles.

Like many kids of my generation, I grew up watching the Jetsons, and imagined that I might someday live in a world of flying cars and buildings in the sky connected by conveyor belts. I’m not against technology. I’m typing this on a computer that slips easily into a satchel I can carry on the bus. I’d love to be able to beam from place to place like the characters in Star Trek.

But sometimes less is more. Automating the automobile will do nothing to alleviate the isolation and expense of our car-driven world. It will not revitalize town centers. It will not relieve the pressure on our overstressed natural environment. It will not foster a sense of community or physical fitness.

Until people become as smart as their cars, I’ll keep seeking out saner and safer alternatives.