The Numbers are in, and they aren’t Pretty

 

Last year I kept a rough transportation log. I did it because somebody gave me one of those little blank books for Christmas, and I never know what to do with those things. I decided to keep track of how I got around, by jotting down where I went and how I got there.

The year is over, and the numbers are in.

First off, I didn’t go much of anywhere. I did not travel internationally. I left Maine only twice: three days in Connecticut in January and a week in California in March.

As regular readers know, I live in a one-car household. The car is not mine. It belongs to the lovely Lisa, who is kind about giving me rides in inclement weather. Last winter, when I had an early class, we developed a ritual in which she dropped me off in Pickering Square on her way to work in time for me to catch the 7:15 a.m. bus. On many days, this was my only contact with a car, but I am compelled to include them in the statistics.

These numbers would be different if I lived alone, traveled more often, or moved closer to a city with trains. I didn’t get on a train at all in 2016, though I love trains. I don’t get much opportunity to ride them. The last time I took a train was on a trip to a conference in Tennessee in 2015, and before that, to see Bob Dylan in Boston the previous autumn.

So although these statistics may not represent the typical life of an average American non-car owner (is there a such a thing?), I present them anyway, for whatever they’re worth.

Out of 366 days in 2016 – a leap year – I spent time in a car on 128 of them. Most of that time was as a passenger, but I got behind the wheel and drove on 45 days. That means I drove roughly every eighth day, an average of less than once a week.

I took my bicycle out of the basement on April 9, and I used it on 131 of the remaining 296 days of the year. I used a bike three more days than I used a car, nearly every other day after I brought it out of storage. I used it more frequently than that in the warmer months: 20 days in September and August, 19 in May, but only four in November and one single outing in December.

I used some form of public transportation on 189 days – more than half the days of the year. The bulk of this was on Bangor’s Community Connector bus system. I took 18 trips on the Concord Coach bus, mostly to Rockland and back. I spent parts of three days on airplanes, and two riding the San Diego Trolley. I don’t think I rode a subway anywhere. There were two cab rides but no Ubers.

Obviously, on many days, my modes of transportation overlapped. I took the bike on the bus, and accepted rides in cars when they were offered. I used the bus less when I used the bike more. I rode the bus just four days in July, and eight in August and June. These were also my months of most frequent bicycle use. When the bike is out and the weather is good, I tend to use it, because it’s the most convenient way to get around town.

I should also note that I spent all or parts of 28 days on a boat, sometimes going from one place to another. (This does not count the days spent working on it to get it ready to float.) Maine may not have much in the way of train service, but it’s a great place to see by boat.

Can any conclusions be sucked from this statistical soup? Perhaps. Despite the presence of a car in the driveway and the willingness of its owner to hand me the keys, I still only drove on 45 days. There was never a day when we needed or even wanted a second car. It’s easy for two people with two different work lives and two different schedules to live with one car. It’s probably easy for a household of three or more to do it, with a little planning.

Giving up car ownership need not be an all-or-nothing proposition. Cars aren’t going away anytime soon, but there’s no reason we can’t live with fewer of them.

 

What’s Left of our National Conversation?

 

I was going to write something else.

I was going to write about 2016 as my tenth year of living without a car, and how I managed to navigate my day-to-day life in a world filled with motor vehicles. I spent some time compiling the data in the travel journal I kept, and I can tell you that out of 366 days (remember, it was a leap year), I drove a car on 45 of them. Once was to move a car some 200 feet to load it up after a musical party. “You gonna blog about that?” my host joked.

But I can’t bring myself to laugh today. I got a ride to the University of Maine this Friday morning from my son, who is visiting from California, in a rental car he picked up at Logan Airport. I’m taking the bus back to Bangor, which makes me feel a little better. But as I’ve stated here often enough, I’m not a purist.

When I started this experiment in car-free living, I was ten years younger than I am now. I was married to a woman who owned a car, and I had parted with my last vehicle, a Ford Escort I bought from the same son, who had headed off a few months earlier for his first semester of college. The car blew a head gasket six weeks after he sold it to me, and I had it hauled away as junk.

I haven’t owned a vehicle since. But I have renewed my driver’s license twice in those ten years, and I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. For three of those ten years I lived alone, but I still occasionally found myself behind the wheel. Friends hired me to take care of their pets while they were on vacation and left the car for me to use. I sometimes rented a car to travel on magazine assignments, or to visit relatives in rural areas. But I have never been tempted to buy one.

Now, once again, I live with a car owner. Sometimes I’ll use the car to go grocery shopping or to meet my son at the bus station. When Lisa and I went to San Diego last March, he rented us a car for the week, perhaps to atone for selling me the Escort. He’s a good son, and I didn’t turn him down (though we did spend a day riding the trolley).

Critics can contend that I’m not really living without a car, that I enjoy the benefits of a motorized culture without buying into it. But they would be missing the point. If I were to take the position that cars are evil and that every car owner is contributing to the destruction of the environment, I would not be able to sell many readers on the more subtle idea that diversifying our transportation system is good for all of us.

And that’s what saddens me about the contentious political year just past. I’ve always considered myself a thoughtful person, and I find myself living in a culture that does not value nuanced thought. I know a good number of people across the political spectrum. I try not to let politics get in the way of personal friendship. The people I have the hardest time with are the true believers, those so convinced of the rightness of their cause or candidate that they are unwilling to budge or listen.

Americans preferred politicians who offered simplistic solutions to complex problems. Build a wall! College for free! Those who advanced more thoughtful approaches found themselves vilified and marginalized.

It’s also why I refuse to use Twitter, because it’s the antithesis of thoughtful. It’s a sucker-punch way of communicating, reactive and reductive, and it does great harm to what’s left of our national conversation.

I don’t want to uninvent the automobile, or stigmatize people who continue to own cars. But neither do I want to turn every available open space into a parking lot. The dominance of the automobile over every other transportation option is shortsighted and ultimately detrimental. Walking communities and robust public transportation make life better for everyone. I want to use my own experience as an example, to illustrate that we all can re-examine our relationship with cars. I want a public policy that honors pedestrians, bicyclists, and bus riders, and gives them an equal say amid all the traffic noise.

A Tale of Walking in Two Cities: Rockland and Bangor

Recently, I was invited to participate in a conversation about “Walkable Cities,” hosted by WRFR-FM, Rockland’s community radio station.

The evening included an appearance on the radio show, “Rockland Metro,” followed by a dinner symposium and a continuation of the discussion among a dozen people.

I traveled by bus, of course, as I do fairly often – regular readers of this blog know that I keep a small sailboat on a mooring in Rockland in the summer. But January is a different animal. It was dark and pouring rain when I left Bangor on the Concord Coach at 7:00 in the morning. When I arrived in Rockland an hour and fifty minutes later, the clouds were clearing, the tide was high, and even from the ferry landing I could see waves crashing over the breakwater at the mouth of the harbor.

Rockland is the seat of Knox County, and, for boaters, the unofficial capital of Penobscot Bay. Like Bangor, it’s a regional hub. Also like Bangor, it’s a small city dealing with the dominance of the automobile in day-to-day life.

With a population of around 9,000, Rockland is less than one-third Bangor’s size. Yet many of the issues are similar. Both cities have concentrated downtown districts that are navigable on foot, surrounded by outlying commercial areas in which cars rule. Both downtowns offer a limited variety of services. As Rockland city councilor Valli Geiger put it, “You can walk to a bar or restaurant, but it’s hard to walk to the grocery store.”

My hosts invited me for a noontime walk around town, from the post office down to the waterfront and along the unfinished Harbor Trail. Rockland’s Main Street is also US Route One northbound. Through the center of town, it’s a two-lane, one-way street, flanked by parking spaces and hemmed in by buildings on both sides. There is no place to ride a bicycle except in the travel lanes. The sidewalks in the summer are often thick with pedestrians.

A footbridge is under construction behind the sewage treatment plant, which, when completed, will enable people to walk from the public landing at the south end of Main Street to the ferry terminal without competition from cars. A grand vision for the trail is to extend it north of the ferry landing, eventually all the way out to the breakwater.

The idea is superficially similar to the development Bangor has done along its waterfront. But though Rockland is a smaller community, its waterfront dwarfs Bangor’s. Rockland Harbor is immense. It’s a true working harbor, home to the Coast Guard, a fishing fleet, a dozen or so windjammer schooners, state ferries to three islands, a handful of marine yards, a boat school, a public landing and yacht club, and an assortment of scattered homes and business.

What’s similar is that people in both Bangor and Rockland are talking about this issue of walkability. North of the ferry terminal, Route One becomes two-way again, and both trail and sidewalk disappear.

On the shore next to the ferry dock, Knight’s Marine is packed with boats up on stands this time of year, but a trail through the yard leads to a small beach I’d never seen before. By now the sky had cleared and the temperature was in the forties. I looked out at the breakwater and imagined the harbor full of boats.

We walked back along the highway, with some difficulty in the absence of an adequate sidewalk. Outside of the immediate downtown, Rockland is wanting for sidewalks. On both ends of town, storefront businesses quickly give way to chain stores and parking lots, unfriendly to pedestrians.

Joe Steinberger, a retired lawyer and former city councilor who founded the radio station and invited me to be on the show, pointed out that parking rules discourage walkability. In the heart of downtown, stores aren’t required to provide parking. But just beyond this central core, businesses must build parking lots for, in his words, “every customer they’ll conceivably ever have.” On the north end, the dividing line runs right past the ferry landing, and it just happens to be the place where walking becomes difficult.

It reminded me of the argument we’re having in Bangor over the pernicious proposal to pave Pickering Square and put up a parking lot. Rockland, like Bangor, has a downtown that emerged semi-intact from the car-centric era of freeways and shopping malls. It has a bus station, a train station, a ferry landing, and an airport. It should be a great place to walk, too.

Looking at my City through a Windshield

 

On the last day of 2016, I borrowed the lovely Lisa’s car to take care of some business within a five-mile radius of home.

I began by driving down to Hampden to check on my boat, up on stands and buried under the latest round of snow. Then it was back to Bangor, up past the Cross Center and over to the Airport Mall. Next, I took Griffin Road to the Broadway Shopping Center, where I dropped off some unwanted stuff at the Salvation Army. Then it was on to Bed Bath & Beyond on Stillwater, and finally to our nearby Rite Aid, for some salt to melt the ice on our front steps.

Midway through this excursion, it occurred to me that this is how most people see the city I call home: through a windshield. The late Jane Holtz Kay, author of Asphalt Nation, reported that this type of trip is the most common use of the automobile. Not driving to work, not going on road trips, but running errands, a phenomenon she called “trip-chaining.”

In the parking lot on Stillwater, I waited out a long line of traffic and two light changes before I could escape. My frustration mounted. This, too, is something I don’t experience much anymore, though I remember it well from my years as a car owner. Flashes of irritation (or at best, impatience) are part of the daily life of any habitual driver.

The item I’d gone there to purchase – a hanging paper towel dispenser – weighed no more than a pound and would have fit easily on the back of my bicycle. Had I been on my bike, I reflected, I would have been out of the parking lot and half a mile down the road in the time it took waiting for the lights to change and the cars in front of me to get out of my way.

As the saying goes: “You aren’t stuck in a traffic jam; you are the jam.”

I relate this experience because it’s something I almost never do any more. But habitual drivers and car owners face a similar scenario almost every day. And it relates to the ongoing debate about parking in downtown Bangor.

Ideally, I would like to be able to buy something like a paper towel dispenser from a store that I can walk to. The same goes for ink cartridges, screws and nails, and fresh fruit and vegetables. But most people drive for those easily portable things. Without a car, errands take some planning, because stores are located for the convenience of drivers. For at least the past half-century, businesses and local governments have catered to car owners. Downtown businesses die or move to outlying streets for more parking, which coerces more people to drive. It’s a vicious circle.

But the pendulum has begun to swing back. Bangor already has an active, walkable downtown. It needs more diversity of business, to be sure, but one thing it does not need is more parking.

Instead, the city needs to do all it can to encourage use of the public parking garage for those who drive, and the Community Connector bus system for those who don’t. Improved pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure will also improve the quality of the downtown experience, even in a car. Every driver who chooses another way to navigate downtown frees up a parking space for someone who truly needs it.

When people walk more and drive less, they are healthier and leave a smaller carbon footprint. They probably experience less stress, too. New Yorkers, who live much of their lives on foot, are healthier and happier than their car-bound compatriots.

Bangor is not New York. But nor is it Holden, Millinocket, or Blue Hill. At just over 30,000 residents, Bangor is a small city. But it is also a metropolitan center for some 150,000 people. Many of them drive in from small towns, where they are used to being able to park in the dooryard of any business they might patronize. They aren’t used to things like parking garages, paid parking, and public transportation.

The Age of the Automobile is gradually giving way to a movement toward more centralized, mixed-use communities. Cars will still be around for the foreseeable future, as long as people live in rural areas and commute to the city for jobs. But more and more people are discovering that the personal vehicle is not the necessity they once thought it was. Smart municipal governments must keep that in mind as they plan for the future.

* *

NOTE: This Wednesday, January 11, I’ll be discussing pedestrian friendly downtowns on the Rockland Metro show on WRFR radio from 5-6 pm. WRFR can be heard in Rockland at 93.3 FM and in Camden at 99.3 FM.