Driving Is Dangerous, Whether Or Not You Drive

HankGuitar1

It was an honor to participate in last week’s concert and silent auction for my friend Hannah Somers-Jones, a talented young musician who suffered serious injuries in a November car accident. Her medical bills will be in the many thousands of dollars, and her physical recovery will be even more painful.

I don’t want to turn this into a polemic on car accidents. What happened to Hannah could happen to anyone. She wasn’t even driving. She was riding in the back seat of a car that was run off the road by an oncoming vehicle.

When I’m out on my bicycle, I’m as vulnerable as anyone in a car. I ride shotgun with my girlfriend all the time. Sometimes I even drive. Even walking isn’t safe. If you live in the American car culture, as virtually all of us do, you run the daily risk of violent injury or death.

And yet when we tally the cost of the car culture, we tend to downplay the cost of car accidents in lost and interrupted lives, as well as the strain on our health care system. According to the American Automobile Association, car crashes cost nearly $300 billion per year in this country alone. Some 2.5 million Americans – nearly 7,000 per day – are treated in emergency rooms due to car accidents.

Driving has become marginally safer in recent years. Traffic deaths peaked in 2005 at just over 43,000. Now the figure is around 33,000. That’s a significant reduction. Despite the relentless drumbeat of car advertising, Americans, for the first time in a couple of generations, are driving less. Cars are getting safer, thanks to innovative technology that allows the vehicle itself to sense and avoid danger. Both approaches are commendable. In tandem, they can continue to reduce the carnage of the car culture that we accept too readily.

Humans are poor judges of comparative risk. We worry about flying in airplanes when the most dangerous part of flying is driving to the airport. Driving feels safer because many of us do it every day. Kids get licensed to drive at 16, but only a small percentage of them will ever get a pilot’s license. Driving a car gives you the illusion of control, but in a plane you are at the mercy of the pilot.

I’ve been a driving fool this darkest week of the year. I drove to Belfast and back on Monday for a dentist appointment. I rode down to Brooklin on Wednesday with my son to visit my folks. When we got back to town, I borrowed my girlfriend’s car to do some last-minute Christmas shopping.

Technically, the only one of these three trips for which a car was necessary was the middle one. I could have used a bus to get to my dentist’s office, and I’ve done that in the past, but it requires spending the day in Belfast. (The reverse isn’t true, by the way: a resident of the mid-coast cannot travel to Bangor and home again by bus on the same day.) And I could have gone out on foot in search of that final gift, but it would have taken a lot longer.

Some readers might claim that this recent relative driving binge undermines the premise of this blog. But as I’ve said many times, I’m not a purist. I’ve renewed my driver’s license twice since I stopped owning cars. We all live in the American car culture, whether we like it or not. Anyone who seeks to influence change in the world must first acknowledge the reality on the ground.

I think about this during those rare occasions when I’m driving in a vehicle alone. I have to remind myself that most of my friends do this on most days of the year. It’s absolutely normal and unremarkable to them. That was my reality, too, for most of my adult life.

I do believe that we have too many cars on the road, and that we should pursue policies that encourage alternatives to driving. Does that make me a hypocrite every time I slide behind the wheel of a car? I don’t think so. All I’m trying to do is start a conversation.

Especially at this time of year, we should remember that we’re all in this complicated world together. Sometimes we seem to be in complete control of our lives, hands on the wheel and the road wide open. But it only takes a second to shatter that illusion.

Why Should Parking Ever Be Free?

PeterPan

I once asked my former wife, who worked for one of Bangor’s major employers, what would happen if her workplace started charging for parking. People wouldn’t stand for it, she said. There would be an employee uprising. I don’t doubt it.

At the time, we rented an apartment about a mile from her job. The rent included two parking spaces. After I gave up my car we only used one of them, but we paid the same rent we would have if we each parked a car outside the building. In other words, there was no separate charge for the pieces of real estate taken up by her real vehicle and left vacant by my phantom one. At her workplace, she parked in a spot provided by her employer, again at no charge. She paid for the food she ate at the company cafeteria, but not for the parking space she used all day.

Most of us expect our employers to provide free parking at the job site. We don’t expect them to provide free lunch. But why not? Everybody has to eat, just as everybody has to get to the job site. An employee can save money by bringing a sandwich to work instead of buying lunch at the company cafeteria. But the same employee saves no money at all by walking or taking a bus to work and not using a company parking space. There is no incentive to find an alternative to driving.

Some businesses in more congested parts of the country, recognizing that free parking isn’t really free, offer “parking offsets” to their employees. You can either have your parking space in the company lot, or extra money in your paycheck. In essence, this is what the University of Maine does by paying for free Community Connector bus rides for faculty, students and staff. Over the course of a year, I save $50 by not buying a parking permit, plus I get more than $300 in free bus rides. Other companies in greater Bangor could do the same thing, but they have been slow to catch on. Eastern Maine Medical Center, the area’s largest employer, built a four-story parking garage — right along a bus route.

Now, I understand that hospitals run around the clock and require some of their employees to work odd hours. But few people question their perceived right to free parking at their workplace. Yet the cost of workplace parking is borne by all, drivers and non-drivers alike. The same is true at shopping malls — parking is paid for by higher prices at all the stores, charged to all customers, whether or not they drive. Bus riders, pedestrians and bicyclists are subsidizing the drivers

In his 2005 book, The High Cost of Free ParkingUCLA economist Donald Shoup makes exactly this point:

If drivers don’t pay for parking, who does? Everyone does, even if they don’t drive. Initially the developer pays for the required parking, but soon the tenants do, and then their customers, and so on, until the cost of parking has diffused everywhere in the economy. When we shop in a store, eat in a restaurant, or see a movie, we pay for parking indirectly because its cost is included in the prices of merchandise, meals, and theater tickets. We unknowingly support our cars with almost every commercial transaction we make because a small share of the money changing hands pays for parking. Residents pay for parking through higher prices for housing. Businesses pay for parking through higher rents for their premises. Shoppers pay for parking though higher prices for everything they buy. We don’t pay for parking in our role as motorists, but in all our other roles — as consumers, investors, workers, residents and taxpayers — we pay a high price. Even people who don’t own a car have to pay for “free” parking.

Rewarding non-driving employees with parking offsets is more palatable than charging for parking, because the appearance is of a bonus for not driving, rather than a charge for something that people have, over time, come to perceive as their right. Parking lots cost money to construct and maintain. Ideally, they should be paid for by the people who use them. But the mechanism needs to be sugar-coated in such a way that people don’t scream that their rights are being violated.

Workplace parking offsets redirect the cost of parking where it belongs: to the individual car owner. It’s an idea whose time has come — just not yet to Bangor, Maine.

A Cautionary Traffic Tale For Maine From the Old Confederacy

intersection

I’ve never been to Alabama. But two transportation-related news stories from that state’s two largest cities caught my eye last week on consecutive days. The first was about the proposed $4.7 billion Birmingham Northern Beltline, a six-lane, 52-mile highway around the city. The second showed the impoverishment of Montgomery’s public bus system, made famous 60 years ago by Rosa Parks and the ensuing boycott, now struggling on a budget of $3 million a year.

I had to let those numbers sink in for a minute: 4.7 billion, with a B, and 3 million, with an M. A billion is a thousand times a million. It’s three orders of magnitude larger. The cost of the highway could run Montgomery’s buses at double the present level of service for the next 783 years.

Birmingham is Alabama’s largest metropolitan area, with a population of just over a million. Some 370,000 people live in greater Montgomery. To do the math: the road will cost $4700 per person it serves, while the bus scrapes by on less than $10 per person per year.

But such have been our national transportation priorities for the past seven decades: build for the car and damn the costs. The highway will take travelers out and around the city, encouraging more suburban sprawl. A bus system carries people within a city, spurring commerce along centralized corridors that take up far less overall space. But most states and municipalities persistently prioritize road building over public transportation.

I’ve never been to Alabama, but I’ve been to Orono – how’s that for the first line of a country song? It springs to mind because of a third news item, this from the Maine Campus, the student newspaper at the University of Maine, where I work.

The Maine Department of Transportation is proposing a roundabout at the University entrance at Rangeley Road. The projected cost: $2.25 million*. The intersection has been the site of several crashes, and long lines of cars can accumulate in the afternoons. Hockey games and events at the Collins Center routinely back up traffic here as well.

I like roundabouts, so long as the design accommodates cyclists and pedestrians. I think they’re safer and more efficient than traffic lights. But I question the premise of this particular proposal.

The DOT estimates that 13,000 vehicles a day will pass through that intersection in 2016. But as I’ve pointed out, you can’t build your way out of traffic congestion. Money would be much more wisely spent on coaxing reluctant drivers out of their cars. For example, the recently canceled Saturday Hampton bus service cost $16,000 annually. Extrapolating from that number, an additional six-day bus run on the Bangor-Orono-Old Town route might be expected to cost $96,000 – oh, let’s round up to an even $100,000. The cost of the roundabout by itself could pay for 22 daily bus trips, or two additional trips for the next eleven years.

Much of the traffic at that intersection comes from students living at Orchard Trails, The Grove, and other nearby complexes, or in other housing within a mile radius of the University. There is no earthy reason for them to be driving to campus. It’s a short walk, a shorter bike ride, and there’s a free local shuttle bus. Most students do not need to drive home to their families every other weekend. Many don’t need to own cars at all, and would be better off if they didn’t. Some students keep cars in Orono to get to and from off-campus jobs, but better bus service, especially between the University and the Bangor Mall, can address that problem more effectively than a roundabout.

Bus service on the Bangor route for major events, such as men’s hockey games and Collins Center performances, could alleviate traffic at high-volume times, again at a fraction of the cost of building a roundabout. Well-lit and plowed pedestrian paths and bicycle trails and other lower-cost, less disruptive improvements can be done for much less than $2.25 million.

I’m of two minds about this roundabout. I go around and about it in my mind. If it calms traffic for bicyclists and is friendly to cross on foot, I’ll look upon it favorably. But I’m skeptical about the cost, and about the priority it reflects. Building for cars encourages more people to drive. Public policy should be pointed in the opposite direction.

 

*According to the Bangor Daily News, the figure is $1.65 million – which would still pay for a lot of buses.

Year-Round Bicyclists Are Hardy Souls; Give Them Room

forlornbikes

I put the bicycle in the basement this week, ahead of the snow that didn’t come. That same day, I met a guy in the post office, girded from head to toe for cold weather in yellow reflective gear. “Do you ride through the winter?” I asked him. He said he did.

I don’t. I’m too old for that s—t. There comes a point when my feet and a heated bus look a whole lot better than a bicycle.

In my box was the latest issue of Portland Magazine, with an article by Jeanee Dudley on year-round bicyclists. I had already begun writing this week’s entry. I guess you know you’re writing about a popular subject when others start writing about it, too.

I admire those hardy souls who bicycle all year. I go as long as I can every autumn, but eventually I surrender to the darkness and the cold. I don’t want to invest in the clothing, for one thing. And I’m scared of slipping on ice.

Fall is difficult for commuter cyclists. The light fails early. The sun is low on the horizon, in the eyes of drivers; cyclists without bright clothing are hard to see. After the time changes, you often find yourself traveling home in the dark. It takes real dedication to continue bicycling through the winter, when conditions are worse.

The bulk of my bicycling is done between Bangor and Orono, which can become a busy corridor in the evening. Sometimes it’s a sea of headlights. I have a flashing red light in the back and a white light in front, and I wear one of those orange and yellow vests the crossing guards use. I don’t see how I could be more visible. But I’ve had harrowing experiences.

One was on Hogan Road, crossing the bridge over Interstate 95 at twilight, going toward the Bangor Mall from Eastern Maine Community College. The bridge has two lanes each way, but just a few feet to the right of the white line on the outside edge of the outside lane. There’s literally no place to go but over the bridge if someone runs you off the road. Which almost happened to me. The driver left me about a foot to spare.

I was glad to see, then, that plans are afoot to fix this interchange. It’s the worst traffic design in Bangor. How are students at EMCC supposed to walk to the mall, which they can see from their dorm rooms? What encourages them to bicycle there? The design of the roadway practically mandates driving – an example of how public policy drives consumer choices.

Is it any wonder people choose to drive, when all the alternatives are perilous? The bridge is no less scary on foot than on bicycle. There’s no footbridge over the Interstate and no footpath underneath it. One of the things we need to do in this country, while we are rebuilding our infrastructure, is to rethink our transportation priorities. Sometimes this can be done without extensive re-building, by removing car lanes in favor of bus and bicycle lanes. Instead of forcing people to drive, policy can begin to nudge people toward alternatives.

Does this make things inconvenient in the short run for habitual drivers? Of course it does. American drivers have grown so used to having the road paved for them that most don’t give a second thought to traffic changes until forced to adapt. But drivers do eventually get used to bike lanes, roundabouts and other improvements that make the roads safer for everyone.

I love to go cross-country skiing in the streets of Bangor during and just after a snowstorm. I’m the most mobile thing on the road. I skied to work at Bangor Metro a few Novembers ago when everyone else was shoveling out cars stuck in driveways. My entire attitude toward snow has changed now that I don’t have to drive in it.

That’s not to say I’m a big fan of winter – I’d rather bicycle home from Orono in the light of a late spring evening that wait for a bus in the dark. But this year the bike went into the basement a month later than last. Now it waits patiently for that first warm day in March.

Winter is the hardest time of year to get around, however you do it. I’ve already slipped and fallen on my butt while walking home. The roads were slick, and Bangor police reported a number of fender-benders. Whether driving, bicycling or walking, be careful out there. A broken ankle, or worse, could be just one slip away.