Are Americans Falling Out of Love with Cars?

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The average American car owner drives fewer miles today than ten years ago. The statistics are indisputable. Miles per car peaked in 2005, and the number has been declining ever since.

Maybe the purported love affair between Americans and their cars is coming to an end.

Several recent studies show that this trend is particularly evident among young people. In an article published in the Atlantic in January of this year titled The Decline of the Driver’s License, Julie Beck reports on a study by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. The evidence clearly shows that young people are seeking alternatives to driving their own cars.

“The percentage of people with a driver’s license decreased between 2011 and 2014, across all age groups,” Beck reports. “For people age 16 to 44, that percentage has been decreasing steadily since 1983. It’s especially pronounced for teens—in 2014, just 24.5% of 16-year-olds had a license, a 47% decrease from 1983, when 46.2% did. And at the tail end of the teen years, 69% of 19-year-olds had licenses in 2014, compared to 87.3% in 1983, a 21% decrease.”

I never fully bought into the advertising-driven idea that Americans love their cars. For a small percentage of car owners, the metaphor of a love affair is apt. These are the hobbyists and enthusiasts, the people who spend their spare time working on their cars, waxing the paint job, tricking out the stereo system, going to car shows. But I think the vast majority of car owners view their vehicle as a necessity, a notion that the greater culture, until recently, has done little to challenge. It’s less a love affair than an addiction.

I accepted the inevitability of car ownership for longer than I’d like to admit. From the ages of 18 to 49, I almost always owned a car. The brief periods when I didn’t weren’t by choice. A car would die a few weeks or months before I could replace it. I had a car stolen once in San Diego. Members of a weekly writing group to which I drove chipped in to get me on the road again, for which I’m still grateful. But these days I would carpool or take the bus.

Another study, this one by TransitCenter, a New York-based philanthropic group dedicated to promoting public transportation, shows that the so-called millennial generation is far friendlier to public transit than their baby boomer predecessors.

“People under 30 are far more likely to ride public transportation and to express positive feelings about it than older people, regardless of what part of the country they live in or what kind of neighborhood they grew up in,” writes Sarah Goodyear in CityLab. The trend continues even when they start families. “Across all income brackets, parents under 30 used transit significantly more than those between 30 and 60,” Goodyear writes. “Forty-five percent of the under-30 parent group with incomes above $75,000 said they use transit weekly, compared with 16% of parents between 30 and 60 in the same income bracket.”

Furthermore, Goodyear observes, they are doing so despite the example of their baby boomer parents. Millennials are “less likely to have been encouraged to walk or bike by their families as children or to have had easy access to transit, and were more likely to have gotten the message from parents that transit was unsafe (as well as the message from peers that it was uncool).”

There’s more good news. Attitudes toward public transportation are improving all over the country, and up and down all income brackets. Even people who can afford cars are turning to public transportation as a more economic alternative.

But much remains to be done to accelerate this positive trend. People are five times more likely to use public transportation if offered incentives by their employers, as the University of Maine, Husson University and other area schools do. Car owners need to be persuaded that spending tax dollars on transit benefits them, too. Parking needs to be priced so that non-drivers no longer subsidize it, and businesses need to offer discounts to customers who arrive by other means than car. Alternatives need to be promoted and encouraged, in both public and private sectors.

Attitudes change slowly, over generations. The bailed-out, subsidized automobile industry still spends millions of dollars in advertising to addict Americans to their product and make them think they’re in love. But fewer of us are falling for it.

To Boldly Go Where No Car Has Gone Before

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Star Trek debuted on TV fifty years ago this month, and BBC America aired uncut episodes of the original series all weekend. Naturally, I watched until my eyes bled.

As a kid interested in anything to do with space, I discovered the show on my parents’ black and white TV, the same TV on which we watched the real-life moon landing. But it wasn’t until the show was canceled and went into syndication that I saw it in color and became intimately familiar with the characters.

It’s the greatest show in the history of television. Future incarnations like The Next Generation were slicker and more consistent, but the makers of the original show had no budget, no computer-generated special effects, no network support, and no established cultural universe to fall back on. They made it up as they went along, and half a century later, we’re still talking about it.

Even the stupid episodes were good. A personal favorite is “A Piece of the Action,” in which the Enterprise visits a planet in the beginnings of industrialization whose inhabitants, based on a book left behind by a previous starship, have patterned their whole society on the gangs of old Chicago.

In the best scene, Kirk tries to drive a car. As a man of the future, he is unfamiliar with the clutch and gears. The normally unflappable Spock is unnerved. “Captain,” he says, “you are an excellent starship commander. But as a taxi driver, you leave much to be desired.”

This scene is shamelessly betrayed in the first “reboot” Star Trek film, when a young Kirk leads an airborne cop on a chase in what is supposedly his stepfather’s prized antique automobile. Wait a minute, I thought – Kirk can’t drive.

While I’ve enjoyed many of the subsequent movies and series, none of them live up to the inventive brilliance of the original show (though The Wrath of Khan comes close). The minute the focus shifted from thoughtful storytelling to the creation of an ongoing “franchise,” Star Trek began to lose much of its magic.

The BBC marathon was interrupted by commercials, and a disturbing number of them seemed to be car commercials. The juxtaposition of yesterday’s science fiction with ads for today’s high-tech cars got me thinking. What does science fiction have to say about the future of the car culture?

In his novel Imperial Earth, published in 1976 but set in 2276, Arthur C. Clarke’s main character arrives on Earth from Saturn’s moon Titan as a delegate to America’s 500th birthday celebration. Clarke, who in the 1940s predicted the invention of the communications satellite, is known for “hard” science fiction that, as much as possible, relies on the known laws of physics.

He sets his spaceport 50 miles outside Washington DC, and populates the highways of the future with automated electric cars. It’s against the law to drive manually. This is, in fact, another prediction in the process of coming true. Several companies are currently working on driverless cars, and a few have been road-tested, with mixed results.

Even casual Star Trek fans are familiar with the characters’ preferred mode of travel: the transporter. It’s easy to see that the ability to beam from place to place would quickly make cars obsolete. The concept is a bit farfetched, but not quite as impossible as the faster-than-light warp drive that powers the ship.

Incidentally, the invention of the transporter was driven not by some visionary idea of future travel, but by the need to produce an hour-long TV show on a budget. As producer Gene Roddenberry explained in The Making of Star Trek (1968): “The fact that we didn’t have the budget [to land the ship] forced us into conceiving the transporter device – ‘beam’ them down to the planet – which allowed us to be well into the story by script page two.”

In his 1970 novel Ringworld, Larry Niven gives us something similar, with “transfer booths,” which allow people to travel instantaneously all over the Earth. The effect of this is to homogenize the planet, so that one city eventually looks like another. A depressing thought, but, again, there would be no need for cars in such a future.

It’s hard to find a work of science fiction in which humans use cars the way we do now. The implication seems clear: our future dreams and aspirations don’t include cars. On some subconscious level, we don’t want our descendants to be driving when they are living in yesterday’s science fiction.

How James A. Garfield Traveled through Maine in 1878

 

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Two years before he would successfully run for president, my great-great grandfather, James A. Garfield, came to Maine to campaign for Republican candidates prior to the mid-term elections of 1878.

Until last week, I never knew that he ever set foot in Maine, let alone in Bangor, during his too-short life, tragically cut short by an assassin’s bullet and an incompetent doctor two months before his 50th birthday. But local historian Richard Shaw pointed me to a house on Broadway near its intersection with Cumberland Street, where the future president was a guest at a reception during what was likely his only visit to the city.

Travel was different in those days. The first Model T would not roll off Henry Ford’s assembly line for another thirty years. There were no interstate highways, of course, and few bridges across the rivers that divide Maine’s coast. And yet Congressman Garfield gave speeches in Portland, Lewiston, Damariscotta, Rockland, Camden and Belfast before arriving in Bangor on September 7, where he spoke at Norumbega Hall and stayed at the home of former Vice President Hannibal Hamlin.

All of this is documented in his diaries, the pertinent parts of which were shared with me by Todd Arrington, site manager at the James A. Garfield Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, just east of Cleveland and a few miles south of Lake Erie. It was here that the Congressman and future President lived with his wife Lucretia and their five surviving children until moving into the White House in 1881.

Congressman Garfield left Mentor on the afternoon of Thursday, August 29, 1878, accompanied by his oldest son Harry (my great-grandfather), then 16 years old. They traveled by horse-drawn buggy to the nearby town of Plainesville, where the Congressman boarded a train at 3:36 p.m.

The train traveled along much the same route plied by Amtrak today, through Albany and western Massachusetts to Boston, where Garfield changed trains for Maine. By the evening of Friday the 30th, he was in Portland. The trip did not take appreciably more time than a similar train trip does now.

Garfield spent several days in southern Maine, traveling by local train to give speeches in Lewiston and Biddeford and to swim in the surf at Old Orchard Beach. On Wednesday, September 4, he took a train to Damariscotta, gave another speech, spent the night at a hotel, and departed by train the next morning for Rockland.

Apparently he was much in demand as a speaker, a rising star in the Republican Party. He was driven overland via horse-drawn carriage to Camden and then Belfast, delivering speeches in both places before boarding a steamship that took him up the river to Bangor on the morning of Saturday, September 7.

According to Cipperly Good, collections manager at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, a daily steamship ran between Rockland and Bangor, with stops in Camden, Northport, Belfast, and Searsport. “That’s how you moved around the coast in those days, between the major ports,” she said. A 1905 schedule shows a 7:30 departure from Belfast and an 11 a.m. arrival in Bangor, and Good suggested that the schedule in 1878 was probably similar. A typical steamer such as the Katahdin or the Cambridge would hold about 100 passengers, and make one trip each day in each direction.

Congressman Garfield remained in Bangor until Monday morning, when he boarded a train for Augusta. He arrived home in Ohio on Thursday morning, the 12th, having been away just short of two weeks.

What strikes me about my great-great grandfather’s journey is that the automobile giveth, and the automobile taketh away. One can drive from Cleveland to Bangor in one long day, and from Rockland to Bangor in under two hours. The Concord Coach bus covers the same route as the old steamships, though still only once or twice a day, depending on the season, and with far fewer passengers.

Still, wouldn’t it be grand to take a passenger ferry up the Penobscot, or to arrive home in Bangor by train? Even 138 years ago, travelers had more options than they do today. Bangor was a hub for rail and steamboat routes, according to Matt Bishop, curator and operations manager at the Bangor Historical Society. “Lots was going on back then,” he said.

Perhaps, as we move from the Late Automobile Age to whatever comes next, people will remember that there’s more than one way to get there from here.

 

 

 

Pondering the Possibilities of Public Transportation on Penobscot Bay

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As the Concord Coach Bus approaches Rockland, I can look out my window and see the Vinalhaven ferry pulling away from the dock. In another few minutes, the bus will pull up at the ferry terminal, which is also the bus station. The bus, which left Bangor at 7 a.m., arrives in Rockland at 8:55. The ferry departs ten minutes earlier.

Were Vinalhaven my destination on this late summer morning, I would have to wait until 10:30 to take the next ferry. Inconvenient, but not much – the Rockland Café, which serves the best breakfasts on the coast, is just up the street.

And I’m aware that few people travel between Bangor and Vinalhaven on a schedule. The bus that takes me from Bangor to Rockland continues on to Bath, Brunswick, Portland and the world, and it is convenient for traveling islanders. They can board the ferry at 7 and be in Rockland in time to meet the southbound bus.

The one time it has inconvenienced me was when I was writing for Bangor Metro magazine years ago, and was sent to cover the dedication of Vinalhaven’s three wind turbines. Governor Baldacci was there, as were both Pingrees, photographer Peter Ralston from the Island Institute, and virtually every resident of Vinalhaven and North Haven islands. My colleague and I had to make the 8:45 ferry, and we had no option other than to drive.

One thing I’ve learned in my years of using and writing about public transportation is that it’s impossible to serve all of the people all of the time. Designing routes so that they connect conveniently is a complicated task. The Community Connector bus system in Bangor, for example, is constrained by the need for buses to converge at the downtown hub at the same time. It’s even harder to coordinate services from different transportation providers.

On weekday mornings, I can walk up the street and flag down the Capehart bus, which will deposit me at the Concord Coach station on Union Street in time for the 7 a.m. departure. But on Saturday, the first Community Connector doesn’t run until after 7, and on Sunday there is no local bus service at all.

Worse is the situation I face when I get back to town. A Concord Coach bus leaves Rockland at 4:15 p.m. and arrives at the Bangor depot around six. But this is fifteen minutes after the last Community Connector headed downtown has passed by. I am left with the choice of walking or taking a cab.

This last problem could be resolved in the short term by extending the Community Connector hours later into the evening – something the Bangor City Council is at long last addressing. The long term solution is to centralize public transportation services – Greyhound, Concord Coach, the Community Connector, and the eventual train to Bar Harbor – at a single downtown hub. Rockland effectively does this on a smaller scale by locating its bus stop at the ferry terminal, in the heart of town.

Rockland was in the news recently for purported parking problems associated with a new downtown hotel. Critics contend that the developers were allowed to build the hotel without providing adequate parking, with the result that traffic nearby has become dangerous for pedestrians.

But Rockland is, as one person at the public landing put it to me recently, equidistant from almost anywhere in Maine. It’s a popular destination that can be reached by bus, boat, train (in the summer) and airplane (at the nearby Owl’s Head airport). There is no reason to assume that everyone has to drive there. The solution is not to promote more parking, but to encourage alternatives.

The new hotel should charge one price for a room, and a separate, additional price for a parking space. I’ve seen this done in Quebec City. (Confession: I drove there, and paid the extra parking cost without complaint.) This would both fairly distribute costs for services, and reduce car traffic in the region.

As I’ve said before, we are living in the Late Automobile Age. There is a growing consensus that we are using our cars to excess, and doing harm to our lives and communities as a rusult. Everyone doesn’t need to drive everywhere, all the time. As this awareness grows, public policy must adapt to meet the needs of a new era of smarter, more efficient transportation.