A Positive Vision for Pickering Square

 

Last week I wrote about the proposed “Joni Mitchell Option” for paving Pickering Square in downtown Bangor and putting up a parking lot. This plan was presented at a meeting of the city council’s business and economic development committee.

I wrote that the Joni Mitchell Option was by far the worst of four plans presented at the meeting, because of its over-emphasis on the automobile. The Pickering Square parking garage is almost never full, and adjacent parking lots behind the garage and in the nearby Key Bank complex offer plenty of additional spaces.

The last thing the Bangor City Council should be considering is adding more parking spaces to a pedestrian-friendly downtown. More parking encourages more driving, and a downtown choked with cars discourages business.

Toward the end of the meeting, Councilor Cary Weston, a proponent of the Joni Mitchell Option, said the city should move forward with some sort of plan for the square.

Any plan, however, should include the hub for the Community Connector bus system, as I wrote last week. The Joni Mitchell Option fails this central requirement.

In answer to Weston’s challenge, I’d like to put forth a few modest proposals.

The entrance to the parking garage is problematic. Cars enter and exit the garage right in front of where the buses load. This creates a confusing flow of traffic during those twice-hourly times during the day when the buses converge. Moving the car entrance would seem to be the most workable solution to this.

But before the city commits to wholesale physical changes, it should look at less intrusive (and less expensive) measures to improve the parking system downtown. For instance, extending the bus hours later into the evening would not require a dime for new construction, and would immediately ease parking congestion. People could commute to their jobs by bus and be able to stay downtown later than 5:45 in the afternoon, without dragging their cars along for the ride.

Another improvement requiring no new construction would be a downtown shuttle, similar to the successful Black Bear Express in Orono. A small bus could circle the downtown area every half hour, taking people from Pickering Square to, say, Shaw’s, the Post Office, the area around the Library, and the Waterfront. It would be used by both bus and car commuters, and would be a great help to people with mobility challenges.

This shuttle would alleviate parking congestion by enabling people to park at the garage, or in an outlying parking area, and to enjoy the downtown at the personal, pedestrian level. As I wrote last week, the commendable goal of bringing more people downtown should not be conflated with efforts that end up bringing more cars downtown, thereby worsening parking problems.

The bus needs a real downtown depot, with a staff person on duty. As things stand now, the parking garage has an office, carpeted, with information brochures out, and someone behind a counter available to help.

The waiting room for the bus, across the entrance to the garage, is all tile and plastic chairs. The contrast couldn’t be starker. There’s no one to answer questions, and the staff at the parking garage office has no affiliation with the Community Connector and is understandably reluctant to assist bus passengers.

An expanded bus terminal and waiting area could be developed in the lower level of the parking garage, where presently there is nothing. A few comfortable chairs, a table or two, maybe a magazine rack and a coffee kiosk, and a representative of the Community Connector on duty – all these things would enhance the bus experience and encourage more people to leave their cars at home.

Ideally, Bangor should have a centralized public transportation facility that offers access to shuttle buses, taxis, the Community Connector, and the two long-distance bus services that serve the city. In the short term, this could be addressed with a shuttle that runs between Pickering Square and the Concord Coach depot on Union Street, timed to meet Concord’s arrivals and departures. But a long-term vision that brings Greyhound back into town and leaves room for future train service need to be considered, starting now.

As a regional hub, Bangor has great potential to become a public transportation nexus for the 21st century. Its central areas need to be planned in anticipation of a new age of transportation, one that does not emphasize the individual car at the expense of every other alternative. The City Council needs to keep this focus in mind as it plans for Bangor’s future.

 

Bangor is a Hub, and the Bus Belongs at its Center

The public debate over Pickering Square encapsulates the essence of this blog.

(For readers unfamiliar with Bangor, Maine, the small city where I live, Pickering Square is a public area in the heart of downtown, dominated by a parking garage. It’s also the nexus of the Community Connector public bus system.)

A recent meeting of Bangor’s business and economic development committee, which reports to the city council, highlighted opposing views on how best to develop Pickering Square to meet Bangor’s future needs. Four options were presented, but most of the debate centered on two of them. One would keep the bus depot where it is, which was the recommendation that emerged from a recent three-year study. The other, quickly dubbed the Joni Mitchell Option by a member of the audience, would pave Pickering Square and put up a parking lot.

The Joni Mitchell Option makes no specific provision for the central bus depot, other than moving it out of Pickering Square to some as-yet unspecified location.

There’s more parking behind the parking garage, and at the Key Bank complex adjacent to Pickering Square. The parking garage itself is rarely full. Yet some people want to tear out the heart of Bangor’s public transit system to make room for even more parking. The committee heard from several downtown business owners on the purported need for additional downtown parking. It also heard from several bus advocates, including me.

Toward the end of the meeting, Councilor Cary Weston expressed frustration that the city has talked about renovating Pickering Square for the past six years but has not committed to a plan. “I’m tired of hearing what we shouldn’t do,” he said. “I’d like to see a solution brought to the table.”

In my next post, I will take Councilor Weston up on his challenge, and present a positive, forward-looking vision for Pickering Square. But first, I have to address a pernicious idea that won’t die but could cripple downtown for decades to come if implemented: moving the bus depot out of the downtown area.

As councilor Gibran Graham pointed out, Bangor is a hub, centered on the area around Pickering and West Market Squares. All the major transportation arteries radiate from this center. Any viable bus system needs to be built on the framework of this existing reality. It’s natural for the buses to congregate downtown, because all roads lead there.

The worst idea floated at Tuesday’s meeting was to move the bus depot to Outer Union Street, near the Concord Coach bus station and the airport. This would take the bus hub far from the city’s real hub, creating a lopsided route system in which one could conceivably have to ride one bus out of downtown to connect to a bus going to the University of Maine, in the other direction. It’s an unworkable idea that should be buried, once and for all.

What troubles me most is that a downtown business owner promoted it, and that a significant number of downtown business owners don’t see the bus as an asset that delivers potential customers to their doors. I hear business owners when they say, “We need to bring more people downtown.” I agree. It does not follow that we need to bring more cars downtown. Studies show that public transportation, pedestrian space, and bicycle infrastructure boost business much more effectively than adding parking spaces. Many cities have subtracted parking, or raised the price, and found that businesses have thrived as a result. Why? The shopping experience is better in an area that isn’t choked with cars.

And yet it’s hard to get people past the prejudice of the bus as the “loser cruiser” whose passengers don’t have the money to spend at downtown businesses. I shop downtown because it’s easy to get there by bus, or on foot, or by bicycle. Judging from the turnout at Tuesday’s meeting, I’m not alone. The Community Connector, for all its limitations, is a tremendous asset to Bangor that the city needs to promote and improve upon. It needs to be at the center of town, because it is central to town.

I started this blog as a pebble tossed into the pond of assumptions about the way we use our cars. Bangor has a magnificent opportunity to create a future with a vibrant downtown where people walk and greet each other on the street, instead of honking at each other at traffic lights. A visible bus depot, at a well-traveled central location, is essential to that future.

Continued next week…

 

Using the Bus isn’t Hard if You’re Willing to Walk

 

Winter is the time of year I’m most thankful that I don’t own a car.

It’s also the time of year I’m most grateful to friends willing to give me rides when the temperature drops below zero. This includes the lovely Lisa, who refuses to let me walk the half-mile or so to the downtown bus stop when conditions are at their most brutal.

Does this make me a hypocrite? Probably. But as I’ve written before, we are quick to condemn hypocrisy in others and slow to acknowledge it in ourselves. Vegetarians have been known to wear leather, environmentalists to use oil, and conservatives to live out their late years on Social Security and Medicaid. Most of modern life consists of compromise between our beliefs and our situations.

We live in a world of cars, whether we like it or not. The founding father of the car culture is not Karl Benz, who invented the automobile, but Henry Ford, who brought cars to the masses. The car itself is a technological marvel, an order-of-magnitude improvement on the horse. But too much of a good thing is still too much.

By the late 20th century, the United States was crisscrossed with limited-access highways from sea to shining sea. Outside of a few east coast cities, car ownership has become an American expectation. You can’t build a business without adequate parking, or a house without a driveway. Many jobs either require you to own a car or offer you a free parking space at work and no discount if you don’t use a car to get there. Traffic is the first topic of discussion when planning public events.

If you don’t own a car, and don’t live in a major city, chances are that you are young, old, poor, or physically challenged in a way (e.g. sight impairment) that prevents you from driving. Few of us here in the hinterlands have become carless by choice. But our numbers are growing.

I have many disagreements with the millennial generation: their indifference to spelling and grammar, their naïve politics, their preference for football to baseball. But I commend them for their willingness to take on the conventional wisdom that we all need cars. In significant numbers, they are pushing for walking communities, neighborhood stores, and robust public transportation. They’ve seen through the advertising and the cultural peer pressure, and come to the sensible realization that cars can be shared, or rented, or bypassed in favor of buses, boots, and bicycles.

Which brings me back to the point I started writing about. Winter is the worst time of year to be dependent on a car. You are forever shoveling it out, scraping ice off the windshield, and skidding on snow-covered streets. While I’m grateful for rides to the bus stop on frigid mornings (and more than willing to shovel the driveway in return), I’m glad to be spared the expense of snow tires and antifreeze and the stress of winter driving.

For the past several years I’ve tried to do my Christmas shopping downtown. This year, a few gifts necessitated a trip to the commercial area around the Bangor Mall. I boarded the Mount Hope bus at 1:15. Fifteen minutes later, I disembarked at Bull Moose on Hogan Road. On foot, I navigated a shopping area designed for cars, first crossing Hogan Road (four lanes and no crosswalks), cut behind K-Mart and in front of Best Buy, emerging on Stillwater Avenue near the Goodwill Store. From there I hiked to the L.L. Bean outlet, and then caught the Stillwater bus back to downtown. The whole trip took less than 90 minutes.

It did require knowledge of the bus schedule, and the willingness to walk in a part of town that discourages walking. Had I missed my bus I would have had to wait an hour for the next one. And it was a mild day for December. I would not have made the trip in the subzero wind chill temperatures that descended on Maine a few days later.

For a reasonably healthy person, the bus can be combined with a good pair of boots, or, weather permitting, a bicycle, to complete errands as conveniently as one could with a car. It’s better to have a thriving downtown business district that offers what the Mall area does, but that will happen when people change their driving habits. It gives me something to hope for in these dark days of December.

Using the Bus System isn’t hard if you’re willing to Walk

 

Winter is the time of year I’m most thankful that I don’t own a car.

It’s also the time of year I’m most grateful to friends willing to give me rides when the temperature drops below zero. This includes the lovely Lisa, who refuses to let me walk the half-mile or so to the downtown bus stop when conditions are at their most brutal.

Does this make me a hypocrite? Probably. But as I’ve written before, we are quick to condemn hypocrisy in others and slow to acknowledge it in ourselves. Vegetarians have been known to wear leather, environmentalists to use oil, and conservatives to live out their late years on Social Security and Medicaid. Most of modern life consists of compromise between our beliefs and our situations.

We live in a world of cars, whether we like it or not. The founding father of the car culture is not Karl Benz, who invented the automobile, but Henry Ford, who brought cars to the masses. The car itself is a technological marvel, an order-of-magnitude improvement on the horse. But too much of a good thing is still too much.

By the late 20th century, the United States was crisscrossed with limited-access highways from sea to shining sea. Outside of a few east coast cities, car ownership has become an American expectation. You can’t build a business without adequate parking, or a house without a driveway. Many jobs either require you to own a car or offer you a free parking space at work and no discount if you don’t use a car to get there. Traffic is the first topic of discussion when planning public events.

If you don’t own a car, and don’t live in a major city, chances are that you are young, old, poor, or physically challenged in a way (e.g. sight impairment) that prevents you from driving. Few of us here in the hinterlands have become carless by choice. But our numbers are growing.

I have many disagreements with the millennial generation: their indifference to spelling and grammar, their naïve politics, their preference for football to baseball. But I commend them for their willingness to take on the conventional wisdom that we all need cars. In significant numbers, they are pushing for walking communities, neighborhood stores, and robust public transportation. They’ve seen through the advertising and the cultural peer pressure, and come to the sensible realization that cars can be shared, or rented, or bypassed in favor of buses, boots, and bicycles.

Which brings me back to the point I started writing about. Winter is the worst time of year to be dependent on a car. You are forever shoveling it out, scraping ice off the windshield, and skidding on snow-covered streets. While I’m grateful for rides to the bus stop on frigid mornings (and more than willing to shovel the driveway in return), I’m glad to be spared the expense of snow tires and antifreeze and the stress of winter driving.

For the past several years I’ve tried to do my Christmas shopping downtown. This year, a few gifts necessitated a trip to the commercial area around the Bangor Mall. I boarded the Mount Hope bus at 1:15. Fifteen minutes later, I disembarked at Bull Moose on Hogan Road. On foot, I navigated a shopping area designed for cars, first crossing Hogan Road (four lanes and no crosswalks), cut behind K-Mart and in front of Best Buy, emerging on Stillwater Avenue near the Goodwill Store. From there I hiked to the L.L. Bean outlet, and then caught the Stillwater bus back to downtown. The whole trip took less than 90 minutes.

It did require knowledge of the bus schedule, and the willingness to walk in a part of town that discourages walking. Had I missed my bus I would have had to wait an hour for the next one. And it was a mild day for December. I would not have made the trip in the subzero wind chill temperatures that descended on Maine a few days later.

For a reasonably healthy person, the bus can be combined with a good pair of boots, or, weather permitting, a bicycle, to complete errands as conveniently as one could with a car. It’s better to have a thriving downtown business district that offers what the Mall area does, but that will happen when people change their driving habits. It gives me something to hope for in these dark days of December.

Happy Holidays from the Tailpipe of the Nation

Writers should avoid using the word “should.”

It’s easy to tell people what they should do. It’s also presumptuous, and often counter-productive. People don’t like to be lectured.

This blog has always been centered on my personal experience of living without owning a car in Bangor, Maine. It works for me. The same decision might not work for you, or most people you know. But it works for me, despite the obstacles.

And notice that I do not say “living without a car,” because cars remain part of my life. They are part of everybody’s life, like electricity and television – and the air we all breathe.

But recently I saw Maine referred to as “the tailpipe of the nation” in my local newspaper. The phrase referred not to cars but to power plants in the midwest and south, mostly fueled by coal. Their emissions ride the prevailing winds to Maine, like the sailing ships of yore. We’re downwind from everywhere.

In their opinion piece, contributors Paul Shapero, M.D. and Jeanette MacNeille, a longtime volunteer with the American Lung Association in Maine, called for tougher regulations on these plants. Citing high rates of asthma in Maine, and worsening air quality on warm summer days, they make a persuasive argument. Moving now to increase carbon caps will also spur the development of cleaner energy sources that will further reduce emissions in the future, they claim.

Green is also good for the economy, they argue. Innovation in renewable energy will create more jobs than any short-term revival of the coal industry. Seems reasonable.

Still, the majority of pollutants in Maine’s air come not from power plants but from motor vehicles. According to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, “mobile sources” emit half of all hazardous air pollutants in Maine. These sources include cars, trucks, buses, boats, trains, farm equipment, and recreational vehicles. The DEP’s page at maine.gov clarifies the point: “Car and truck emissions are the largest contributor of air pollution generated in Maine.”

Electric cars won’t get us out of this dilemma, because the electricity to run them has to come from some power plant somewhere. It would seem to make little difference whether air pollutants come from a handful of smokestacks or a whole lot of exhaust pipes.

Cars have gotten cleaner and more efficient in the past few decades, but there are more of them now. The best way to reduce the total output of vehicle emissions is to reduce the total number of vehicles. This means expanding public transportation, and shifting a significant amount of long-distance commerce from road to rail. On a smaller scale, it means promoting pedestrian-friendly business districts and bicycle infrastructure.

But it’s easier to regulate a few power plants than it is to meddle in the driving habits of millions of ordinary Americans. We’re used to low gas taxes and free, or mostly free, parking. We’re comfortable with freeway traffic but confused by bus schedules.

Still, I believe in the power of public policy to nudge private behavior in desirable directions. This can take many non-coercive forms, from mandating bicycle lanes to expanding bus hours. Businesses can be encouraged to offer bus passes to their employees instead of free jobsite parking. Gas taxes, currently at historic lows, can be gradually increased, which will help pay for more buses and bicycle lanes as well as encourage people to explore alternatives to car-centric lifestyles.

We can sit in Maine and point the finger at upwind power plants and tell their owners that they “should” curb carbon emissions. It’s more problematic to tell your neighbor that he “should” walk to the store for that quart of milk, or take the bus to work instead of his car.

Behavior changes slowly, over time. But it does change. People no longer smoke in bars and restaurants, for example, and those businesses have thrived as a result. Mainers don’t throw beer and soda cans out their car windows, as they did when I was growing up. It’s no longer acceptable to burn our trash in open-air dumps or dispose of industrial waste in our rivers.

In each case, public policy led the way and private behavior followed. This blog is one small attempt at the opposite. I’m not trying to tell my valued readers what they “should” do. But as more of us discover the freedom from car ownership, perhaps public policymakers will take notice.

Will We Build Metric Highways on Mars?

volvo

On Interstate 19 in Arizona, which connects the city of Tucson with the Mexican border at Nogales, the signs are in kilometers. According to CNN, America’s only metric highway is a remnant of the Jimmy Carter era, when the idea of adopting the metric system in the United States was briefly taken seriously.

Every country in the world – almost – uses the metric system. And everyone knows why: the math is easier. All you have to do to convert between units is move the decimal point. It’s the world’s official system of measurement. Our American inch is defined in statute as precisely 2.54 centimeters.

The metric system is the one part of the French Revolution to sweep the world. Today, the only remaining non-metric countries are Liberia (founded by American slaves who returned to Africa), Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), and the United States.

My late friend Dave Alvernaz once suggested to me that the metric system hadn’t caught on here because it lacked the conceptual equivalent of a foot. Your foot is always there at the end of your leg, he pointed out, available to stick into a box or pace off a room. Three of them make a yard, and most of us are between five and seven feet tall. It’s a utilitarian measurement, based on the human body.

The metric system is based on the size of the Earth. The original definition of a meter was one ten-millionth (10-7) the distance along a meridian from the equator to the pole. Because not even this distance is constant (Earth bulges in different places), the official definition of a meter has since been tied to the speed of light. This is important to scientists and engineers seeking exact measurements of small distances on the atomic scale and large distances between the planets and stars.

All space missions have used the metric system since the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter in November 1999. Designed to orbit Mars and monitor its weather, the ship burned up in the Martian atmosphere. According to Wired magazine: “A NASA review board found that the problem was in the software controlling the orbiter’s thrusters. The software calculated the force the thrusters needed to exert in pounds of force. A separate piece of software took in the data assuming it was in the metric unit: newtons.”

The new National Geographic Network Series Mars, set in the near future, uses entirely metric units. When the crew landed 75 kilometers from base camp, I had to calculate: “Okay, so a little less than fifty miles…”

Based on a decimal fraction of the size of the Earth, the metric system makes no more intrinsic sense on Mars than miles and feet. But it’s the easiest system to use, and it’s already the one in use by a majority of humankind. Perhaps if we had listened to Jimmy Carter 40 years ago, the Mars Climate Orbiter would not have crashed, and I would know my height in centimeters.

Like most Americans, I think in inches, feet and miles. Using the metric system is like learning a new language, something else Americans are notoriously reluctant to do.

The car culture, too, has its own language and patterns of thought, which make it difficult to change. We think of longer distances not in terms of miles but driving times: Bangor is two hours from Portland and four from Boston. It’s assumed that we are not talking about airplanes or bicycles. Car travel is part of our unspoken collective consciousness.

When I stopped using a car as my primary form of transportation, I found that I thought about the pattern of the day differently. How long did it take to walk to the bus stop? What did I need to take with me? How was the weather? When did the last bus leave downtown? What time did the sun set?

I recently saw the film Arrival. It was ostensibly about aliens but it was really about language. With a nod to Kurt Vonnegut, the film postulates that if humans can learn the aliens’ language deeply enough to think in it, they can see the Universe from a different perspective. Language drives perception, as much as vice versa.

I thought about that in the days after watching the film. And I thought that if we could begin to talk about cars and time and distance differently, without all the popular assumptions, we could perhaps begin to conceive of another way to live.