Traffic Noise Drowns Out Thoughtful Debate

 

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I went out on my boat recently, for two nights, alone, away from the world of cars and computers. At anchor in the islands off Stonington, I watched Mars and Saturn brighten in the southern sky and the stars of Scorpio emerge behind them. I thought about the ancient technology of sailing, and the modern technology of instantaneous communication and mobility.

Cars and computers abound on the islands of Maine, of course. It’s a myth that islands are bubbles existing in another time. I left my laptop home by choice. I did take my cell phone, which doesn’t connect to the Internet. There’s a radio on board, but I only listened to snippets. Frankly, it was good to get away from the yammering.

I did catch Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention before I left, though. While it was a remarkable speech for several reasons, the most compelling thought for me was that the next president should be “someone who understands that the issues a president faces are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters.”

I don’t do Twitter. As a writer, I admire brevity and the ability to hone a thought into a limited number of well-chosen words. But that takes skill and time. I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s apology for writing a long letter because he didn’t have the time to compose a short one. Every week, I struggle to keep this blog at around 750 words. The rough drafts are almost always longer.

But the explosion of social media has made it easy for people to blurt out unfiltered thoughts soon after they occur. Sending out a tweet is a little like jumping into the car to go to a store half a mile away for a loaf of bread. A walk might give you time to ponder a problem, get a little exercise, or simply appreciate your surroundings. But cars are so ubiquitous that we use them even when it’s not necessary.

I’m not opposed to technology. I teach on-line. I’m learning all I can about better ways to interact electronically with my students. I’m trying to promote this blog on Facebook.

But all the traffic gets annoying. There are times when I would rather engage with a piece of thoughtful writing, or take a walk – or go sailing.

An upside to computer technology is that it has reduced the need for driving. Many jobs that once required a physical presence at a job site can now be done on-line. I don’t do much on-line shopping, but I prefer it to driving to a mall – though a walk around a compact downtown business district is still better.

I guess what I’m lobbying for here is some sort of balance between the natural world and the one we are constantly remaking through our inventions. Growing up on the Maine Coast gave me a keen sense of the environment and the urgent need to protect it. One of the best things we could do, from an environmental standpoint, is to reduce the number of cars.

But responsible environmentalists aren’t Luddites. I’m a big booster, for example, of space exploration, by both machines and humans. I want to live long enough to see people walk on Mars, and I believe the eventual colonization of the Solar System is both necessary and inevitable.

These efforts require substantial amounts of industrialization. But as the science fiction writer David Brin, among others, has pointed out, most of the mass and energy used so far in space exploration has originated on Earth. We need to get that mass and energy from space – through the mining of nearby asteroids and the development of space-based energy sources.

Space exploration is an example of good use of technology. Cars, on the other hand, represent technological overkill. The sheer number of vehicles burning fossil fuels is stressing the planetary ecosystem and economy, and adversely affecting human health. The side effects of this proliferation include massive oil spills, suburban sprawl, loss of animal habitat, pollution from the disposal of dead vehicles and worn tires, and on and on.

We can’t un-invent cars, but we don’t need to use them to get a loaf bread from a store half a mile away, or to get to a job we can take a bus or a bicycle to, or in countless other careless ways we get behind the wheel without stopping to think about alternatives. Like social media, we can use them more conscientiously, and the world will be better for it.

Wanted: A Better Way to Get From Bangor to Bar Harbor

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At just after five in the morning, a bus pulls into the park-and-ride lot at the intersection of Odlin Road and Interstate 395 on the outskirts of Bangor. About a dozen people emerge from their cars and board the bus. The driver seems to recognize them all – they are regulars, headed to work at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor.

But this is not a private bus – it’s run by Downeast Transportation, a publicly-funded entity, and it’s open to the public, at a cost of just $6 for a round trip between Bangor and Bar Harbor.

It’s the best public transportation deal in Maine, one that nobody seems to know about. But you have to get up awfully early to catch it. The bus leaves the Odlin Road lot at 5:15 a.m. every weekday, year-round, and can drop you off at the Village Green in Bar Harbor at 6:40 on its way to the Jackson Lab. The return trip leaves Bar Harbor at 3:40.

In light of recent events at the Republican convention, I must now disclose that I plagiarized those first three paragraphs – from myself. They differ only slightly from the beginning of an article I wrote for the October 2012 issue of Bangor Metro magazine.

The bus is still running. And it’s still, nearly four years later, the only regular bus service between Bangor and Bar Harbor.

It’s one of the scariest transportation corridors in the state. Route 1A between Bangor and Ellsworth is notorious for awful accidents; several people lose their lives along that stretch of road, it seems, every year.

According to the Holden Police Department, more than 25,000 vehicles a day pass through the intersection of Routes 1A and 46. That number swells in the summer with tourists bound for Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. The road is used by people commuting to work, and by truckers headed to and from destinations Down East.

Plans for a bypass connecting the Interstate 395 spur to eastbound Route 9 toward Calais and Saint John, New Brunswick have been in the works for decades. Parts of Route 1A have been widened. Yet the cars keep coming, and the accidents and close calls continue. Perhaps it’s time for a change of focus.

As I’ve repeatedly stated, we need to fundamentally rethink our relationship with the automobile. Building more road capacity simply invites more traffic. Instead, we ought to be looking ways to reduce the number of vehicles along this busy corridor.

Twenty-five thousand cars a day adds up to more than a thousand vehicles an hour. And that’s an around-the-clock average, meaning that during the middle of the day, the total is considerably higher. No wonder it’s nearly impossible to make a left turn at an unmarked intersection.

But suppose there were hourly buses running between Bangor and Bar Harbor, one in each direction, carrying an average of 50 passengers per run. Running twelve hours a day, those buses could potentially remove 1200 vehicles from the road, at far less cost and inconvenience than new construction.

A seasonal bus route would only have to go as far as Trenton, where it could connect with the Island Explorer bus service, which serves Mount Desert Island between late June and mid-October. That service could also be expanded to include more of the calendar.

The intersection of 1A and 46 is a perfect place for a park-and-ride lot, serving Bangor-bound commuters from Dedham and Eddington. They could park their cars there, and board an extension of the Community Connector. This service could run year-round.

I realize that much of the summer traffic on Route 1A consists of families on vacation, and that a bus might not be their preferred mode of travel. This is where the long-term dream of a separate, light-rail system makes sense, bypassing the road entirely.

Building such a system would likely cost as much as building new roads, but it would be an important manifestation of a new and needed transportation philosophy. We cannot continue building roads forever. Somewhere down the road, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, a day of reckoning is coming. We are choking the planet with our automobiles. The air quality in Acadia National Park, the destination of so many drivers, is worse than it was a generation ago. Widening the road and building a bypass will not change this.

But changing the way we think about cars just might.

 

Come on Baby, Do the Local Motion

 

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As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.

No, this isn’t a piece about politics. It’s about bicycles, inspired by a recent conversation with an old friend who now lives near Burlington.

Maine and Vermont have much in common. They’re both rural states with long winters and long roads. You need a car to get around, unless you’re in Portland (population 66,000), or Burlington (42,000). Vermont has a few more hills, but Maine has more lakes, coves, and bays. Travel in either state seldom follows a straight line.

Nonetheless, both states are beginning to embrace the car-free movement, and bicycling in particular.

But this is more than a local phenomenon. All over the country, in communities large and small, bicyclists are changing the way we think about transportation.

Last week I wrote that Bangor (population 32,000) is becoming a friendlier place to do business by bicycle, thanks to the efforts of several citizen organizations. But after talking with my Vermont friend, I realized that Bangor has some catching up to do.

When I stopped owning cars, one of the first adjustments I made was in my pattern of grocery shopping. Americans are accustomed to loading up on groceries once a week or so, and throwing everything into a car. Now, shopping by bus and bicycle, I bought fewer items at a time. This necessitated more frequent trips to the store, but it also resulted in less wasted food, because fewer items tended to get lost in the back of the refrigerator.

As I’ve noted before, most grocery stores (and malls, and other retail businesses) have parking lots. And free parking isn’t really free. The cost of constructing and maintaining a parking lot is folded into the cost of goods at the store. But bicyclists don’t use parking spaces. In effect, they are subsidizing the cost of parking for drivers.

To level the playing field, people who shop by bicycle (and by bus or on foot) should be able to pay less for their groceries. In Burlington, this sensible idea has become on-the-ground reality.

Local Motion is a non-profit organization promoting walking and biking in greater Burlington and throughout the state. Like many good ideas whose time has come, Local Motion started small, focused on tangible, achievable goals. “Community leaders founded the organization in 1999 to develop the Winooski River Bike Ferry and the 10-mile historic Cycle the City tour,” according to their website. In 2015, the group merged with the Vermont Bike and Pedestrian Coalition, and today has 1,200 member households, 250 volunteers, an office on the Burlington waterfront, and thriving partnerships with like-minded public and business entities.

One of those entities is the nationwide Bicycle Benefits program. For five dollars (free with your Local Motion membership), you get a sticker to put on your bicycle helmet, which entitles you to discounts at participating businesses.

According to Adam Maxwell, Community Engagement Manager for Local Motion, more than 50 businesses in the greater Burlington area have joined the program. “They include everything from grocery stores to bookstores, restaurants and bakeries, and of course bike shops,” he said in a recent telephone interview. The program not only reduces car traffic by incentivizing bicycle use, it acknowledges the savings to businesses that have to provide less infrastructure for cars.

“We make that argument fairly frequently,” Maxwell said.

A spokesperson for the Bicycle Coalition of Maine said that some businesses in and around Portland have joined Bicycle Benefits, but to her knowledge, the program has not yet reached Bangor.

This would seem to be a worthy next step for Bangor’s burgeoning bicycle community. I’d like to see the large grocery stores like Shaw’s and Hannaford get on board. It seems like a win-win for everyone. Every time I ride my bike to the store, I’m saving a parking space for someone who truly needs it: a family with small children, a shopper with mobility problems, a car commuter stopping in for a few groceries on the way home from work.

The beauty of the program is that, like the bottle bill and the proposed five-cent deposit on plastic bags, it’s based on reward rather than punishment. Habitual drivers might balk at paying directly for parking, but who could begrudge cyclists the small savings to the economy and the environment they earn every day?

Bicycle Benefits is in dozens of communities across the United States. Bangor should be one of them.

[Historical note: The phrase “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont” references the 1936 election, when they were the only two states not carried by Franklin D. Roosevelt.]

A Groundswell of Support for Feet, Buses and Bicycles

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I’ve been in Bangor ten years now, since moving upriver from Belfast in the spring of 2006. By January 2007, I’d given up my car, happy to be someplace I could finally do it.

It’s gratifying to walk around downtown Bangor on a weekday, and see all the people getting around on foot, bus and bicycles. There are cars, to be sure, but Bangor has few of the chronic traffic problems that plague much smaller Maine communities like Ellsworth, Camden, Freeport and the coastal towns south of Portland.

(I hasten to add that I lived in and around San Diego for 16 years, and I can attest that Maine does not have traffic, in the Californian sense of the word, except on an occasional weekend at the bottom of the Maine Turnpike. We are fortunate.)

Seldom in my life do I find myself in sync with popular movements, but this is one of those times. Over the past decade, Bangor has begun to embrace alternatives to the private automobile. As a consequence, it’s a nicer place to live, work and play.

That didn’t happen without a groundswell of people who want to walk, bus, and bicycle. I am but one of them, tossing pebbles into the pond of public discourse. Others are doing real work to achieve real improvements. Here’s a thanks and a tip of the cap to a few of them.

If you’ve noticed the recent proliferation of bicycle route signs around town lately, thank Walk-n-Roll, an advocacy group promoting pedestrian and bicycling safety in the greater Bangor area. They also lead moonlight bike rides and help provide free bike parking at public events.

Thanks to some new signage, designed and installed by Justin Russell and Keirie Peachy of Walk-n-Roll, I now know that it’s 1.6 miles from the bus stop at Pickering Square to the Cross Center, a distance I can walk in about half an hour. That means my average walking speed is 3.2 miles an hour. I can do it in under ten minutes by bicycle, an average speed of around 10 mph. By bus, from the time I get on to the time I get off, it’s about fifteen minutes, or 6.4 mph. I’ve never timed it by car, but for a fair comparison, you would have to account for the time to walk to and from your parked vehicle at each end of the trip.

I’m betting that bicycling is fastest. Proximate bike racks make it more convenient, too, when you think about parking downtown, or at the Cross Center for a major event. We aren’t conditioned to think that way. We’re used to getting into our cars for even the most minor trip. But awareness is changing.

Friends of Lower Kenduskeag Stream (FOLKS) has been improving one of Bangor’s best walking corridors. I happen to live in a neighborhood served by a spur of the Kenduskeag Stream Trail, and often walk into town that way. For the past few years, FOLKS have been out with chainsaws, shovels, rakes, weed whackers and whatnot, building drainage ditches, cutting brush, and shoring up soft spots. New trash cans and benches have been placed and are mostly used.

FOLKS organizes periodic trail days, usually Saturdays, when volunteers gather to work on the trail. The improvements are already impressive.

Transportation For All recently marshaled more than 30 people to a city council workshop on the Community Connector bus system. TFA is an offshoot of Food AND Medicine, a social justice group founded in 2001 to assist laid-off workers.

I’ve been riding the bus since 2007, when it was still called the BAT. On my first day of employment at the University of Maine, I received a Maine Card, which functioned as, among other things, a bus pass. But I can’t stay on campus for evening events, because the last bus leaves at 6:30.

In ten years I’ve talked with a lot of bus passengers. Though we all use the bus for different reasons, there is near-universal agreement on one thing: the need for later hours. And thanks to the ongoing support of TFA and others, it looks like it’s finally going to happen. Though the council is moving cautiously, there seems to be a consensus for expanding the bus service, on an incremental but ongoing basis, over the next few years.

Transportation For All meets on first and third Thursdays from 9-11 am at the Hammond Street Congregational Church.

Bangor is becoming a friendly place to walk, bus, and bicycle. It’s getting better all the time, and a lot of local people deserve credit.

On Privilege and Public Transportation

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You can plan a sailing trip, but sometimes wind and waves have other ideas.

Thus it was that we ended up in Camden, instead of Rockland (where the boat lives) on a recent Sunday evening.

We had planned to take the late Concord Coach bus home to Bangor. It leaves the Rockland ferry terminal at 9:30 – plenty of time to put the boat to bed on its own mooring and grab some dinner.

But a strong southerly wind and an incoming tide hindered our progress, by both sail and motor, down West Penobscot Bay. By six o’clock it became painfully obvious that we were not going to make Rockland by nightfall.

We ducked instead into Camden Harbor, rented a mooring for the night, and made plans to put the lovely Lisa, who had a job to get back to the next morning, on the bus, while I stayed with the boat.

The bus stop in Camden isn’t in Camden at all. It’s two miles out of town, just over the Rockport line, at a convenience store on Route One. The store inconveniently closes at 8 pm, at least on Sunday. The bus comes by at 9:45, but there’s nothing to do there except hang out under the lights with the mosquitoes. The nearest place to get a cup of coffee is a Hannaford, on the other side of the highway back towards town.

“This is why everybody has cars,” Lisa said, as we sat on a curb with our coffee. It was nine and the store was closing. “They make it so hard to do anything else.”

Indeed, why do bus stops always seem to be located in the most out-of-the way places? Rockland is an exception; the ferry terminal is right on Main Street, hard by the downtown business district. You can get a bite to eat and then walk five minutes to meet your bus. The same cannot be said of Camden, Belfast, and even Bangor, the third largest city in Maine.

The Concord Coach bus depot in Bangor is way out on Union Street, near the Airport Mall. I had called ahead for a cab to meet Lisa when she got in, but it never materialized, and there she was at nearly midnight, without a cell phone or a means of getting home other than her feet.

For many years, the Greyhound station in Bangor was smack dab downtown, accessible to everything. Now it’s out at Dysart’s truck stop in Hermon, five miles out of town, a situation even worse than Camden’s because it’s impossible to walk there.

At least Bangor’s local bus system, the Community Connector, has a highly visible downtown hub, between Pickering Square and the parking garage. But the waiting room is a depressing affair and closes after the buses stop running at six in the evening. And there’s no connection between the Community Connector schedule and buses arriving from out of town.

Do municipalities want their bus services to be invisible? Why? Bus stations should be in the centers of towns. Bangor needs a clean, well-lit, friendly downtown bus depot, incorporating the Greyhound, Concord Coach and Community Connector services, expandable for the day when regular passenger service to Bar Harbor and the Downeast coast becomes available. The depot should have a coffee shop and a place to buy newspapers and books. The atmosphere around the bus terminal ought to encourage ridership, rather than sending people scurrying for their cars.

In other parts of the country, I have seen some truly unfriendly bus stations. It’s an American stereotype: since the bus is supposedly full of poor people, towns do their best to hide the bus stop from drivers trying to find a place to park.

But how much of this stereotype is self-reinforcing? Many Americans have no contact with any bus service at all. They drive their cars everywhere, and the entire infrastructure is designed for them. It’s a form of privilege as pervasive as the favoritism bestowed on white heterosexual English-speaking able-bodied males (of which I am one), and equally invisible to those who enjoy it.

Thus it was gratifying to hear Bangor City Councilor Gibran Graham, at a recent budget meeting, touch on this concept. “We seem to be a privileged society in our cars,” he said. “Most of us who make decisions have these things. But people who depend on the bus have to structure their lives in order to do so.”

Public transportation is the future in our car-addled world. Friendly, convenient service is the way to get there.