You Can’t Build Your Way Out of Traffic Congestion


Imagine that:
An endangered bat
Got in the way of a highway that
Shouldn’t ever be built.

It’s a lot easier to live with the consequences of bad poetry than of bad traffic planning. When I read that a proposed extension of Interstate 395 could be held up, or perhaps derailed completely, to protect the habitat of the northern long-eared bat, my sympathies naturally lay with the furry little night fliers. It could be a case of the blind leading the shortsighted.

The proposal in question is a bypass that would steer truck traffic away from residential streets in the Bangor, Maine area, by linking the Interstate Highway System to Route 9, a two-lane highway between Bangor and Calais that leads to the Canadian Maritimes. It might seem like a good thing to get the trucks out of town, but like most road expansion proposals, this one rests on a foundation of shaky assumptions.

In 2008, for the first time since the 1950s, Americans drove fewer miles than they had the previous year. Part of this was due to a spike in gas prices, but part of it was also due to a growing consciousness that we cannot continue to saturate the world with automobiles and automobile infrastructure. People are looking for alternatives.

We see evidence of this growing movement in the push for pedestrian-friendly downtowns, bicycle lanes, and improved public transportation. There is renewed interest in train travel. Long-distance trucking companies are having difficulty finding young drivers.

Yet public policy continues to promote more road building, which in turn encourages more driving, which exacerbates already dire environmental and economic problems.

And it’s not that no one has seen this coming. In her seminal 1997 book, Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Kay wrote:

For decades traffic experts have observed the capacity of more highways to simply breed more traffic. “If you build it, they will come,” is the bleak truth confirmed by science and history. “Generated traffic” is the professional phrase used to describe traffic generated by increased roads.

In other words, you can’t build your way out of traffic congestion, because as soon as you build a new road, new drivers will show up to quickly fill it to capacity. We’ve seen this happen time and again. Interstate 495 around Boston has worse traffic than the city it was built to steer traffic away from. Building new roads encourages people to drive instead of seeking alternatives. It’s an unimaginative approach that no longer works, and in fact creates its own problems, from suburban sprawl to air pollution to loss of animal habitat to reduced quality of human life.

Instead of paving the way for more cars and trucks, we need to focus on creative, forward-looking solutions that reduce the number of vehicles on the road, and thus reduce the need for new road construction. Were challenged to maintain the roads and bridges we already have. Why add to a problem of our own making?

For similar reasons, the long-discussed east-west highway across Maine is a bad idea whose time has passed. The ports of Atlantic Canada are already linked to the American heartland by rail, over much the same route. Moving freight over long distances is much cheaper by train. “Intermodal” transportation, in which truck trailers can be directly loaded onto and off of rail cars, saving trucks for shorter, local trips, is the wave of the future. The American Association of Railroads has estimated that if just 10% of current truck volume were shifted to intermodal, more than a billion gallons of fuel would be conserved each year.

I remember when a Canadian passenger train plied that route, with stops in Brownville Junction and Greenville in the wee hours of the night. In the morning you’d be in Montreal. Franklin Roosevelt came up to Eastport on the train on his way to Campobello. Cars and trucks haven’t ruled for very long. We should not plan future transportation projects on the assumption that they will rule forever.

More importantly, Maine must not yoke its future to wasteful and costly modes of transportation when better alternatives are just over the horizon. We need to stop building new roads and fix the existing ones. We need to stop yanking up railroad tracks to create recreational trails. We need to continue the movement away from a car for every adult American.

Every road not built encourages us in a better direction. So I say bravo to the bats, for hanging in there.

Is Sloppy Writing a Sign of Sloppy Thinking?


I’m going to rant a little this week, so forgive me in advance.

The printed schedule for Bangor’s Community Connector service has been improved and updated, as part of an ongoing effort to make the service more accessible to new riders. It now comes folded like a street map and slips easily into an inside jacket pocket. New sections on cell phone courtesy, ticket purchase sites, and discounts for students and senior citizens have been added. The schedule and fare information has been updated as of September 2015; the date is emblazoned on the cover.

I was admiring all this until I got to the Frequently Asked Questions, and read the following:

“When does the bus have it’s last ride between the Bangor Mall and the University of Maine?” Note the extraneous apostrophe.

This question is aimed at University students. I teach at the University of Maine, in the English department. I presume the person who wrote the copy for the bus flyer has a college degree, though I can’t be sure of that. But any educated person ought to know the difference between it’s, the contraction, and its, the possessive pronoun.

I’d let it go as an isolated instance of carelessness, if I didn’t see this and other grammatical atrocities all the time. On a sign at the Bangor Waterfront: “Kayak’s and Canoe’s Only.” In a concert announcement: “Come hear the band and I perform new tunes.” And endlessly on blogs and news sites: “Your wrong, you hippocrate!”

Everyone makes mistakes. That’s one reason I show my words to my lovely live-in ombudsman before I publish them. Still, some errors can creep through. Nobody’s perfect. And I’m not judging whoever wrote the bus guide by one misapplied piece of punctuation.

But what rankles me is the attitude you’ll likely get when you gently point these things out. You will be accused of being petty, small, and mean. The perception that grammar, spelling and punctuation don’t really matter has pervaded on-line media, print publications, and even high schools and colleges, where a prevailing sentiment seems to be: “Oh, they’ll get it right eventually.”

I wonder when: before or after they’ve foisted their ignorance on the bus passengers of Bangor, many of whom are college students? Graduates with similarly poor skills are being unleashed on workplaces every year, spattering professional publications and websites with amateur grammatical errors.

“So what?” you might be thinking. “It’s just an apostrophe.”

Yeah, but here’s the thing. Good writing is the result of good thinking. To write clearly, you must think clearly. You must know what you are writing about. You must pay attention to detail, not only in your subject matter, but also in the words you choose and the ways you use them.

When I read a magazine, a book, a flyer, or a bus schedule, the publication loses a little bit of credibility with every language error. The same goes for comments on blogs and other on-line forums.

And yet people get pissed when you correct them. As a frustrated friend confided to me recently about a co-worker: “She thinks it’s MY fault that SHE can’t spell.”

I’m not a purist. Language changes through usage. I’ve made reluctant peace, for example, with the “everybody… they” construction, as in “Everybody thinks they can write,” even though it technically violates pronoun-antecedent agreement, because it’s preferable to the sexist use of the singular male pronoun. But there’s no excuse for willful ignorance. Ask a college student these days what pronoun-antecedent agreement is, and you’ll likely get a blank stare in response.

There are only three reasons for bad grammar: the writer doesn’t know, doesn’t pay attention, or doesn’t think language is important. A piece of poor writing indicates either lack of education, laziness, or willful indifference to the craft. I can sympathize with the first and understand the second, but I find the third reason inexcusable.

You don’t hear mathematicians defend poor arithmetic. You do see them using calculators. If you use the written word to communicate, you should reach for a dictionary or style guide just as readily. Otherwise, you risk looking like an idiot.

Misspellings, misplaced punctuation, and mangled grammar point to muddled thinking. Clarity of expression cannot take place without clarity of thought. Even though the frenetic pace of modern communication has put a premium on speed at the expense of clarity, “think before you write” is seldom bad advice, and “think before you publish” never is.

The Scofflaw Days of My Youth


Last week I used my girlfriend’s car to drive from Bangor to Belfast for a dental appointment. It’s entirely possible to do the trip by bus, of course, but that requires a day in Belfast, and I had an appointment to get back for that afternoon. So I drove, like most normal, car-owning Americans would.

Somewhere in Hampden, I remembered that Lisa had recently mentioned needing to take the car in for its annual inspection, and that she also needed to renew the registration. Had she taken care of it? I was in a 35 mph zone when I wondered this, and I slowed to the speed limit. I checked around for cops. It wouldn’t do to borrow her car and come home with a traffic ticket.

When I stopped, I made sure both stickers were up to date. Sometime in the last busy week, she’d found time to take the car in. And I thought, selfishly, that I didn’t have to worry about things like inspections and registrations any more. All those little requirements add up. An outdated sticker is an invitation to a traffic stop, which can cost even more money, and if you live on a limited budget, even a few tickets and fines can quickly snowball on you.

That’s exactly what happened to me in California in the early 1990s. Accumulated tickets and unpaid fines caused my driver’s license to be suspended. Since I needed the car to get to work, and I needed to work to have any hope of paying the fines (which steadily grew as I ignored them), I continued to drive, without a license. For three years.

Had I been pulled over at any point during that time, I likely would have lost my car and gone to jail. But I kept the registration current. The sticker on the license plate was never out of date. I made sure all the lights worked, too, and I obeyed the speed limits. I never did anything on the road to draw attention to myself.

Less than two week after I finally hauled myself into court, paid my fines and penalties, and got my license reinstated, a cop pulled me over for a non-functioning license plate light.

I was glad that the light hadn’t gone out a month earlier. I thought about how lucky I’d been to get through those three years without consequence. But I also thought about how people are tied to their cars, because of where they live or what they do for work or the circumstances in their lives that make 24/7 access to a vehicle seem like such a necessity. That was me, once, and driving illegally seemed an acceptable risk.

When I was young and stupid, I used to have a rule: only break one law at a time. For example, if I wanted to drink a beer in the car, I’d drive the speed limit. When I learned to drive, in a century that now seems distant, I thought nothing of getting behind the wheel and popping open a cold one. I only stopped doing it when I was driving on a suspended license.

Now, drunk driving is a serious issue, and I don’t wish to make light of it. But things were different then. My parents didn’t drive drunk, but they sometimes enjoyed a refreshing malt beverage behind the wheel. One day my family checked in to a hotel in Boston with valet parking. As the valet opened the door, two beer cans rolled onto the pavement. I’m glad we don’t do things that way any more.

I never had beer in the car when I drove without a license. And the scofflaw days of my youth are thankfully behind me. I don’t drink as much as I used to, and I drive far less than I did then.

But I keep my license current even though I no longer own a car. I like to be legal when I do drive. It’s easy to run afoul of the law. All you have to do is forget to renew your registration, or let your inspection sticker lapse, and your car becomes a cop magnet.

During the three years I drove with a suspended license, I was the most cautious driver on the road. As an outlaw, I was paradoxically less of a danger to other drivers than I would have been with a valid license and a beer between my legs. I’m even less of a danger now, because most of the time, I’m on a bus or a bicycle.

Football May Sell More Cars, but Baseball Delivers the Goods


Salvador Perez, the indestructible Kansas City Royals catcher, was named most valuable player of the recent World Series, and was rewarded with a new Chevy Camaro. I believe the MVP of the Super Bowl gets a car, too. The car remains a powerful symbol in the American psyche.

But putting the subject of cars aside for the moment – were the Royals not magnificent? A team without sluggers or superstars, they singled and sacrificed their opponents to death. They stole bases. They took advantage of every error. They were relentless. Though they dispatched the New York Mets in five games, each victory was filled with drama.

The most dramatic moment, and the most controversial, was when Mets manager Terry Collins let his headstrong pitcher, Matt Harvey, change his mind about taking him out after eight shutout innings. The rest is history. Walk, double, relief pitcher, weak ground ball, error – two runs, tie game. The Royals went on to win, and clinch the Series, in extra innings.

My girlfriend thinks it’s a morality play on hubris. Harvey was striking out a lot of Royals, and doing gorilla yells as he came off the mound each inning. The crowd was eating it up. Collins had already decided that his closer, Jeurys Familia, would pitch the ninth. Harvey talked him out of it. By the time Familia got into the game, two batters later, the Royals had scored and put the tying run on second with nobody out. Harvey, my girlfriend says, should have let manager and reliever do their jobs, instead of taking it all upon himself.

No pitcher ever wants to come out of a game. And good pitchers are praised and valued for that tenacity. Jack Morris won game seven of the 1991 World Series for the Minnesota Twins with a 10-inning shutout. He argued with his manager to stay in that game. People forget that Morris got lucky when a base runner fell down on what would otherwise have been a run-scoring double in the eighth or ninth inning. Had that run scored, the Twins would have lost, 1-0, to the Atlanta Braves.

And then that manager would have been criticized, just as Collins is, for leaving his pitcher in too long. There’s no guaranteed outcome. That’s the beauty of baseball.

In the final game of the 1995 World Series, Tom Glavine was pitching a one-hit shutout, and the Braves were up 1-0 on the Cleveland Indians going into the ninth. On TV, the announcers debated whether manager Bobby Cox should bring in closer Mark Wohlers to get the last three outs. Glavine was dealing. But that’s why you have a relief specialist, one broadcaster said. That’s what you pay him for: to nail down close games.

Wohlers came in and secured the championship. But he could have just as easily given up a game-tying homer. Familia might not have gotten the Royals out in the ninth, either, had he started the inning. We’ll never know.

I’m a fan of complete games. But it’s a call the manager is paid to make. Johnny Cueto went the distance in the second game of this World Series, only because the Royals had built a safe 7-1 lead. Orel Hershiser nailed down the 1988 Series for the Dodgers with two complete games, and Morris, pitching for the Tigers, went the distance twice against the Padres in 1984.

I fell asleep before the end of Cueto’s masterpiece. But I remember the Morris, Glavine and Hershiser games well, because I watched them all from the West Coast, where the games start, and mostly end, at reasonable hours.

Television is doing its best to kill baseball. Is it too much to ask to watch a World Series game during the day, at least on the weekend? I know that football sells more cars (see how I worked back around to that?), but come on. Football’s popularity is no excuse to bury postseason baseball. Playing the World Series entirely at night has already alienated a generation of kids. It’s now beginning to discourage even longtime fans like me.

The Royals, though, were worth lost sleep. They won with small ball, and late inning rallies. Salvador Perez, who popped up to end last year’s World Series, was the hero of this one. His team staged two hugely entertaining postseason runs, culminating in a championship.

It’s just a shame so much of it happened while much of America slept.