Someone Oughtta Write a Book

UMBusStop

Each semester I ask my students at the University of Maine to write about their relationships with cars. One option I give them is to go without a car for a week and report on the experience. Another is to tally the true total cost of their vehicle over the time they’ve owned it.

The responses reveal a range of commitment to the car. On average, I’ll have about 18 car owners in a class of 21 undergraduates. Many have owned a car since they were sixteen. A few come from vehicle-enthusiast households, with six or seven cars in the driveway. And some come from cities and haven’t owned a car in their lives.

The assignment also gives me a glimpse into the lifestyle of today’s university student. I’ve noted previously that students seem to travel home on weekends more than they did in my college years, and that more of them seem to own cars. I have a scattering of non-traditional students, older adults squeezing college classes into schedules defined by work, kids, or both. Most of them have cars.

But many of my students live in off-campus housing developments less than a mile from campus, and a surprising number of them use their cars to get back and forth, often several times a day, without a second thought. I’ve lost track of the number essays in which a student describes a routine of driving to a morning class, driving home to hang out in the middle of the day, driving back to campus for an afternoon class, driving to the gym to work out, driving home to change, then driving to a friend’s house for the evening.

They typically note that much of this is doable without a car, but that it requires a bit of advance planning – a valuable lesson for any college student.

I can’t remember doing any of that in college. I lived in off-campus houses, but I rode my bicycle or walked to school. Only a few of us had cars. We hung out on campus during the day, even on weekends. Only the athletes on teams went to the gym to work out. The rest of us got our exercise playing softball and ultimate Frisbee, and taking long walks in the neighborhood. Many of us had jobs off-campus, but few of us drove to them.

This may come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog, but the only time I drove as an undergraduate was at work. My off-campus job was as a school bus driver for the public schools in Beloit, Wisconsin. The bus yard was four miles from campus. In the winter I carpooled; in warmer weather I rode my bike. I’d drive in the morning, spend a few hours in class, drive in the afternoon, study in the evening, and still have energy to party with my friends at night. Those were the days.

My students think it’s normal that four people live together with four separate cars parked outside. The Black Bear Express Bus stops at their apartment complex every half hour, from 7 in the morning to 10:30 at night. Yet they navigate their daily lives in their cars, and then complain about the inconvenience of campus parking.

To their credit, the students who took up the car-free week challenge reported getting more done, feeling more energized, and keeping more money. Many wrote that the experiment had changed their outlook on the habitual use of cars.

Those who took the other challenge were surprised to learn the full cost of their car habit. Everyone knows about student loans, but cars keep college kids broke, too.

When I gave up owning cars in 2007, I discovered that I not only felt better, but I had a lot more money at the end of the month. I thought: Someone ought to write a book about how to do this.

Turns out someone had. Chris Balish published How To Live Well Without Owning a Car with Ten Speed Press in 2006. The book is a guide to freeing yourself from the tentacles of car ownership. Among other things, Balish provides a worksheet of all the expenses associated with car ownership. It runs four pages, from the mundane to the occasional and accidental. Things like parking tickets, car washes, in-car phone and music accessories, tools, towing fees – all must be factored in.

My students are surprised to learn that the average annual cost of owning a car is around $9,000. That’s a lot of ramen noodles.

 

 

 

 

 

Public Art and Private Automobiles Compete for a Disappearing View

 

Catalina

Much of my attitude toward cars was formed and solidified during the 16 years I lived in southern California.

For a time I lived in Oceanside, thirty miles north of San Diego and adjacent to the Camp Pendleton U.S. Marine base. I lived in a duplex three blocks from the beach, and worked at a newspaper office that I could walk to. It was 1991, the year of the first Gulf War and a riveting World Series that wasn’t decided until the tenth inning of Game 7. (The Twins beat the Braves, 1-0.)

I went to the beach every day, often in the morning before work. On exceptionally clear days, I could see Santa Catalina Island, far off to the northwest. The island was 50 miles away, and only visible because of its altitude. I could see it from the top of the steps, but when I got down to the beach itself, the island disappeared.

One day a friend asked me, as we stood above the beach, how much of the island we were seeing above the “hump” of the Earth’s curvature. Channeling my inner math geek, I estimated the distance to the island and the height of our vantage point, drew a crude diagram that incorporated the radius of the Earth and a tangent line to the Earth’s surface, did a little algebra, and came up with a reasonable answer. We were seeing the island from about 1,400 feet up. Since Catalina tops out at 2,097 feet, we could see the peaks of its hills. Everything else was “hull down,” as they used to say of sailboats.

I’ve been there twice. The island is 22 miles long, and home to roughly 4,000 people, the bulk of whom live in the island’s only town, Avalon, which encompasses one square mile of land and a famously photogenic harbor with a big casino at one end. The author Zane Grey lived and wrote there, and Phillip Wrigley’s Chicago Cubs baseball teams trained there for 30 years. A hundred or so bison roam the hills, descendants of 24 brought over in the 1920s by a Hollywood film crew. Catalina has an airport, at the top of the island, but I took the ferry out from San Pedro.

Most of the island is off-limits to cars, and the town regulates the number of vehicles. There’s a 14-year waiting list. Transportation is by golf cart, moped, or bicycle (plus tourist buses to the island’s interior). It’s a pedestrian town of pint-sized apartments and small shops, a slice of urbanity twenty miles offshore.

But Catalina is visible from Oceanside fewer than 20 days of the year. On the other 345, the emissions of all the vehicles plying the coast between Mexico and Malibu, where the number of cars is not regulated, conceal it from view. The sky is cloudless and clear, save for a scrum of yellow gray around the horizon. You’d never know there was an island out there.

Immediately south of Oceanside is the city of Carlsbad. The Pacific Highway runs right next to the beach, with an unbroken view of the ocean and the smudged horizon. In 1990, a public art installation went up along the highway. Called “Split Pavilion,” and created by New York artist Andrea Blum, it featured sections of metal bars taller than the people invited to walk through them, rectangular reflecting pools of differing sizes, triangular and trapezoidal benches and pedestals.

Many locals hated it. They gathered signatures on a “Remove the Bars” petition. I wrote about it in a piece for the Los Angeles Times:

From the highway, all one can see is the bars. (One can, to be sure, see the ocean through them.) To fully appreciate the park, one must get out of the car and walk through. When you stand between the bars and the shoreline, the artwork functions as it should – it complements, even augments, its surroundings.

“Do you think,” the man asked me,” that the few people who have the time to get out and walk should take precedence over all the people who drive by and see this thing?

Well, yes I do. You see, with that question, he had put his finger on the crux of the problem.

Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending. The anti-art forces won, and “Split Pavilion” was destroyed in 1999, the year I left California. Drivers can once again enjoy an unobstructed ocean view, but on most days the haze lingers offshore, like a bad aftertaste.

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How the Presidential Race Imitates Public Transportation

TortoiseHare

I’ll say it again: I’m not a purist. I’ll drive a car, ride in a car, rent a car, or borrow a car. In dire circumstances I might even steal a car. But I refuse to own one.

Cars are like television: so ubiquitous in modern culture that they affect you whether you like it or not. Someone who claims, “I don’t watch TV,” will still talk in a bar about something someone else saw on TV and passed along over social media. And even the most dedicated bus riders, bicyclists and pedestrians will sometimes use cars. We can’t help it.

This is especially true when you live, as I do, in a one-car household, and the car’s owner is going the same way you are. I am reminded of this every time Lisa drops me off at the bus stop on a cold winter morning.

Thus it was that we drove, rather than walked, less than a mile to the Penobscot Theatre the other night to see Hair Frenzy, the splendid new comedy written by my University of Maine colleague Travis Baker. It’s winter, it’s dark and icy, and we were pressed for time.

If I lived alone I might have walked, and acted in a way more consistent with my views on cars. But life is built on compromises. I’m not going to make my girlfriend walk in the snow, and I’m not going to apologize for small hypocrisies when it’s the larger picture that counts.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of purity and absolutism lately. In this fractious election year, with the fringes of both major parties in temporary ascendancy, anyone staking out a position of any nuance is in trouble. It used to be that environmentalists had to defend themselves against the perception that they wanted us all to live in grass huts by candlelight. This year’s broad-brush epithet is “socialist.” On the right, it’s a slur; on the left, it’s a perverse badge of honor (like “Yankee Doodle” was, to an earlier generation of revolutionaries), provided it’s preceded by the word “democratic.”

Though Slower Traffic is not a partisan political blog, government priorities impact the lives of those of us who choose not to own cars. Official policy often drives (pun intended) individual transportation decisions.

As an easy example: Should the Bangor City Council, in its infinite wisdom, vote to extend the Community Connector bus service later in the evening, Lisa could leave her car in the driveway, and we would not require a parking place downtown when we attend an evening event. One less car might not make much of a difference, but over time and across a population, it adds up.

Yet public transportation still suffers from a perception problem. It’s vaguely socialist, while cars seem like little autonomous islands of capitalism. You buy a car alone, but you ride a bus as a member of a community.

In reality, the lines are a lot more blurred than that. Many households can save money by reducing their number of vehicles, maybe even down to zero. A good public transportation system promotes centralization of services and thriving business districts. Not everyone will use it, but the whole community, drivers and non-drivers alike, will benefit.

Political lines, likewise, blur. Though I ride the bus, I’m not a socialist. I object to socialism’s central tenet: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Not only is the language sexist, the idea itself is pernicious, because what’s in it for the people of ability? We aren’t all selfless altruists. Shouldn’t a doctor make more money than a bricklayer? (“I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer, Jim.”) Yet capitalism too often rewards not hard work and talent, but more capricious qualities like luck, good looks, happenstance of birth, and the willingness to pander to base instincts. One can advocate for some leveling of the playing field without being a socialist – democratic or otherwise.

What’s lost in all of this is the idea and practice of compromise, and an appreciation for what is possible and what’s not. I’m in favor of extending the bus hours into the evening. I’m also in favor of building a light-rail passenger line between Bangor and Bar Harbor. The bus hours could be extended within the year, and without much upheaval. I don’t expect the light-rail system to be built any time soon. They’re both good ideas, but one is more possible than the other, and more immediately worthy of my support. This election is a lot like that, too.

Why Do We Let the Rural Tail Wag the Urban Dog?

Straphanger

Although I was born in what was then the fourth-largest city in America (Houston has since bumped my native Philadelphia to fifth place), I grew up in a small town, and have lived in small towns for much of my life. In Blue Hill, Maine, where we settled in my tenth year, the kids had a derogatory name for transplants from more populated areas. A “straphanger” was someone from Away – or more literally, someone who might have hung onto a strap on a public bus.

There were no public buses in Blue Hill. Everybody drove, and still does. Driving is more than independent transportation to rural Americans. It’s a way of life, and it’s not going away any time soon.

The problem with cars isn’t rural areas. Obviously people in the country need cars. (This isn’t to say to say that they can’t carpool, or drive to a convenient parking area and take a bus from there, as many people do to get to their jobs at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor.) But I have never maintained that renouncing car ownership is for everyone.

Fortunately, most Americans don’t live in small towns. According to the 2010 Census, 80.7% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas. But this is slightly deceptive. The Census differentiates between cities, with populations greater than 50,000, and “urban clusters” with populations between 2,500 and 50,000. By this definition, many Maine communities that are really small towns with a traffic light or two would be considered urban clusters. Bangor would be considered an urban cluster. The state would have only one true city: Portland.

Still, the 486 cities in the Census account for 71.2% of the entire population, while the 3,087 urban clusters account for 9.6%. This leaves just 19.3% of Americans living in true rural areas, completely dependent on the car.

Given this data, the question must be asked: why do we allow the rural tail to wag the urban dog when it comes to transportation policies? Rural Americans balk at taxpayer subsidies for public transportation, which they don’t use. But by the same reasoning, why should urban residents have to foot the bill for the miles of roads and utility wires, and all the public services that are much more expensive to provide to far-flung places?

Though not a real city by the Census definition, Bangor is big enough to sustain a public transportation system serving several outlying towns. Four of every five Americans live in areas where good public transportation could make a significant dent in the number of cars on the road. But planners are slow to pick up on this. Infrastructure for cars is still considered an investment and public transportation a subsidy. Though it’s all public money, the connotation of those two words reveals the continuing American bias toward the automobile. Build a road in the middle of nowhere, and you’re providing infrastructure. Expand an urban bus route or extend the hours, and you’re wasting taxpayers’ money.

It reflects the rural bias in our politics as well. North and South Dakota, with a combined population of 1.6 million, have four votes between them in the US Senate, while California, with a population 38.8 million, has two. The District of Columbia has none.

Is it any wonder there is money for roads but not for more buses and trains? As Jane Holtz Kay, author of Asphalt Nation, documented nearly 20 years ago, building more roads simply produces more driving – a phenomenon she called “generated traffic.” In fact, the number of cars increases faster than the capacity of the road. You can’t build your way out of congestion.

Yes, people who live in rural areas, who commute to jobs in other towns, who might live miles from the nearest store or school, or have kids who need to get to hockey practice and medical appointments and such – they need cars, and trucks. But that’s less that 20% of the population. Yet more that 90% of all American households own cars.

Let’s do the math. Assuming that all the rural households own cars, and simplifying the numbers, nine of every ten American households own cars. Two of those are in rural areas. The other seven are in cities or urban clusters. Thus seven of every eight households potentially within reach of good public transportation are still driving.

But there is good news. In 2007, only 8.7% of American households did not own a car. In 2012, that number had risen to 9.2%. Many multi-car households are giving up extra vehicles. The bus I take to work is often packed, to the point where some riders have to stand, and hang onto a strap.