Are we Driving Ourselves to the Poorhouse?

 

Maine is famous for low wages and small towns. Those small towns have been losing population for decades. When I was growing up in Blue Hill, families with five, six, or more children were common. Last year, deaths outnumbered births in all but two of Maine’s 16 counties.

My parents had five kids and two cars. My father drove one of those cars a mile and a half to work, where it sat in a parking lot all day. My mother used the other one to haul groceries and to take us to doctor’s appointments and such. Almost everybody we knew lived like this.

It’s hard to question a lifestyle when you’re living inside it. I anticipated that I would buy a car as soon as I got my license, and that I would spend my working years as a car owner. It took many years of driving and pouring money into a series of vehicles before I began to think seriously about alternatives.

Thus I sympathize with the young woman whose story appeared recently in the Bangor Daily News, my hometown newspaper. She is by all accounts a skilled elder care worker with a full-time job at a Bangor facility. Her salary – about $1,600 per month – barely covers her basic living expenses. Her story is repeated all over the state.

And yet, according to the BDN, those basic expenses include a monthly car payment of $233 and an insurance premium of $135. Before she puts gas in the car, or buys a set of tires or has an oil change or a minor repair, she has to make a monthly “nut” of $368 just to keep the thing in the driveway. And that doesn’t include registration, inspection, wiper fluid, parking tickets or any of the other little expenses that crop up from time to time. She is paying more for her car than for her monthly rent, and many Mainers are in the same boat.

Her hours may not align with the schedule, but her place of employment is right on a bus line. A monthly bus pass is $45 – a far cry from what she’s paying to keep a car.

If Maine employers want to keep skilled workers, they could raise their wages, of course – or, they could encourage them to use public transportation. The University of Maine has been doing this for years, and Husson and Eastern Maine Community College have recently followed suit. As an adjunct professor, I have months during the year when I make less than $1,600. Those times are tight, but I never have to worry about getting to work.

Municipalities can help retain workers by expanding bus schedules and encouraging employers to offer incentives like the schools do. Even small towns can do this, with a little creative thinking

Most employers willingly offer free workplace parking. What if they offered free transportation instead? This is essentially what the University of Maine does and, except for evening hours, it works splendidly. Some companies (though few, if any, in Maine) offer their employees parking offsets, where the price of a parking space is reflected in the paychecks of workers who don’t use one.

The Jackson Lab in Bar Harbor partners with public agencies to run several daily buses. This reduces traffic on Mount Desert Island and the need for more on-site parking. The bus is a boon to the employees who use it, too, because every dollar they don’t spend on a car trickles into other areas of the economy. It’s good for everybody.

We need to think differently about the way we use cars. We don’t all need our own private chariots all of the time, and we certainly can’t keep doing it forever. But it will take time to convince most Americans of this. Most of us have spent our whole lives believing exactly the opposite.

A changing mindset about our use of automobiles will produce other long-term benefits. We won’t have to keep filling our cities with parking lots. We won’t have to keep paying oil companies to drill for more and more oil in fragile ecosystems like the Arctic. And perhaps we can fight fewer wars over this finite resource.

Yes, Maine needs better wages. But businesses and local governments can also expend a little capital to promote ride-sharing, public transportation, and smart development. This in turn can encourage more Mainers to get out of the cars that are keeping them poorer than they should be.

The Designated Driver is a better Idea than the Designated Hitter

I am a Red Sox fan. I’ve been lucky to live long enough to see them win three World Series, a feat that eluded Ted Williams, my father’s hero, and Carl Yastrzemski, mine.

At the center of those three championship teams was David Ortiz, widely regarded as the best designated hitter ever to play the game. Unlike the rest of baseball, the history of the DH doesn’t go back very far – only to 1973, when the American League decided that casual fans were bored by watching pitchers try to hit.

Next to playing the World Series at night – another dubious legacy of the 1970s, a decade full of them – the designated hitter is the worst idea ever foisted on the best team sport in the world.

I’m probably on the losing side of this argument. The DH has permeated all levels of the game, down to college and high school. It was used in the recently completed World Baseball Classic. Many pitchers like it, and so do aging hitters who can’t get around so well in the field any more.

I would trade the championships of 2007 and 2013 (but not 2004 – that one I’ll always cherish) to make Ortiz play first base and John Lester swing the bat. Watch a National League game, and it becomes clear that baseball is a better sport when the pitcher bats.

Barry Zito was a soft-tossing lefty who won a Cy Young Award with the Oakland Athletics in 2002. Six years later, he signed a lucrative free-agent deal with the cross-town San Francisco Giants, and his career promptly tanked. But in 2012, the Giants, down 3-1 in the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals, gave the ball to Zito, having no one else.

Zito’s fastball topped out at 85 miles per hour, and if he couldn’t throw his curve for strikes, he often got pounded. In the second inning, the Cardinals put runners on second and third with nobody out. Zito struck out the number-seven hitter on a curve. That brought up Pete Kozma, a rookie on a hot streak. Zito walked Kozma intentionally. Lance Lynn, the Cardinals’ pitcher, promptly grounded into a double play to end the inning.

There was no score at the time, and had the Cardinals plated those two runs, they may have gone on to win the game and the series. Instead, Zito took a shutout into the eighth to save the Giants’ season. They went on to win the World Series.

There’s more. The Giants put together three runs in the fourth before Zito came to the plate with two out and runners on first and third. Seeing that the third baseman was playing back, he laid down a bunt and beat the throw to first as the fourth run scored.

In an American League game, neither of these scenarios would have happened. The Giants would not have been able to manipulate the Cardinals’ batting order around the pitcher to get out of a jam, and Zito would not have come to the plate at all.

A good National League game is baseball at its best. The pitcher is not an automatic out, but he is a built-in soft spot in the batting order, and opposing pitchers work the innings accordingly. Fernando Valenzuela was a master at this. He was also a pretty fair hitter.

Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka drove in two crucial runs in the 2007 World Series with his only hit of the year. In 1985, an obscure relief pitcher named Rick Camp hit his only career homer to tie a Fourth of July game in the 18th inning, only to give up five runs in the top of the 19th and lose the game. Knuckleball pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm hit a home run the first time he came to the plate, played for 20 more seasons, and never hit another one.

The designated hitter robs baseball of these delightful anomalies. A manager no longer needs to decide whether to leave his pitcher in a tight game or lift him for a pinch-hitter. It makes a subtle sport a little less so.

Much of baseball’s appeal lies beneath the surface of the action on the field. A good ballgame is like a good novel, which is why the sport is so beloved by writers. It asks the audience to flesh out scenarios with their imagination, to anticipate rather than to simply watch.

I guess maybe I am a purist, about some things.

“Slow” is just a Four-Letter Word

 

I’m watching the World Baseball Classic in the middle of a Maine snowstorm. Venezuela is playing Italy, and I don’t know many of the players, but I don’t care. Baseball’s back, after a dark winter.

When the time changes in March I often take my bicycle out, but the wintry weather discourages me. I skied home instead. There are many ways to get around without a car – almost all of them slower.

I named this blog Slower Traffic, as in “slower traffic keep right” on the road signs, but also because that was literally what I intended to write about: walking, bicycling, and public transportation. All of these are usually slower than driving.

But so what? Baseball is slow. Yet it’s also the most interesting sport we have, because there is more going on beneath the surface in a baseball game than in a season of hockey, football and basketball rolled together.

Maine is slow. When I moved back to Maine after 16 years in southern California, the phrase I heard most often was “quality of life.” This means that you can work well and still have time to sail, go camping, or enjoy a backyard barbecue. Everyone doesn’t live on top of everybody else, and we aren’t all rushing to get somewhere. Mainers make fun of people from Massachusetts, because they always seem to be in a hurry. Life should be less frenetic, and in Maine it is.

Willie Nelson is slow. His songs ooze out of him like warm maple syrup over a stack of blueberry pancakes. Who doesn’t like Willie Nelson? Even people who say they don’t like country music like Willie Nelson. He’s in his eighties now, but he was 28 when he wrote “Crazy,” a slow song for the ages.

Writing is slow – real writing, that is. Consider the paragraph, what E.B. White called the basic unit of composition. A piece of writing is composed of paragraphs, strung together like strands of DNA. The paragraph now finds itself in peril. We live in the age of Twitter, where wit passes for wisdom and the bulk of the population doesn’t read books. If we want to stop the dumbing down of America, here would be a good place to start.

How long did it take Charles Dickens to write Great Expectations? It took me a few months to read it, on the bus in half-hour installments. I wrote much of my own long novel on the bus. I can’t read or write in a car, though I know people who listen to books on tape while they’re driving. But I would have a hard time paying attention, I think, and an even harder time flipping back a couple of pages to catch something I might have missed.

Sailing is slow. So are badminton, curling, and cross-country skiing. What else is good but slow? Chess, and poker, and the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by Arthur C. Clarke.

When did “slow” become a bad word? Maybe we could all use a little less speed in our lives. Maybe we would live in a saner world if we took the time to do slow things on a regular basis.

I confess that I drove to Belfast recently, and became annoyed at a slow driver on the way back through Hampden. But then I remembered the driver who passed us earlier that morning when we pulled over for an ambulance, just so he could nose into the drive-thru at Dunkin’ Donuts. Fast can be annoying, too.

On the other hand, I like my high-speed internet, and I’m a proponent of high-speed rail, though I’ve never ridden on a so-called “bullet train” like they have in Europe and Japan. When I moved to California in the 1980s there was talk of building such a rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Thirty years later, it still isn’t done. I guess high-speed rail is slow, too, at least in the United States.

But is there anything slower than the month of March in northern latitudes? “Just kill me now,” Julius Caesar said, on another cold gray day in Rome without a hint of spring in the air. The Romans knew about the slow precession of the equinoxes, but they knew nothing of Daylight Savings Time, or baseball. They just sat around in their villas drinking wine and waiting for spring. Only their Mediterranean climate saved them from sheer madness.

Pedestrian Road Deaths and One Near-Death Experience

 

Years ago, I almost ran down a homeless man in San Diego. I don’t know for sure that he was homeless, but he wandered across the four-lane Pacific Highway one night, dressed all in dark clothing, in front of my car. I only saw him at the last second, and I don’t think he saw me at all. He had long dark hair and an old army overcoat. I might have missed him by two feet.

That’s not much margin for error. I could have as easily hit him as not. I would have stopped, and I would have likely been arrested. My life would be different today. I’d have the death or grievous injury of a human being on my conscience, and probably a record, too.

I’m reminded of this every time I see a news story about a pedestrian killed by a car. It could have been me, in either position. Nowadays chances are better that I’d be on foot, and thus my chances of surviving such an accident would be worse. But it could happen to anyone.

Recently, two regular readers (thank you, readers) sent me two links: one from Maine, the other from Ireland.

Writing in the Portland Press Herald, James Hettenbach and Lauri Boxer-Macomber lament the public tendency to side with drivers:

“All too often after the death of a pedestrian or bicyclist, the media and public ask questions like: Why was she wearing dark clothing at night? Why wasn’t he using a light or a flashlight? Why was she in a dimly lit area? Why was he riding his bike on that street at that time? The discourse evokes a blame-the-victim mindset, suggesting that pedestrians and cyclists on Maine’s roadways somehow invite their own deaths by walking to the grocery store in jeans and a parka instead of a neon orange reflective jacket.”

Theirs is a valid point, and I’ll return to it in a moment. But some pedestrians and cyclists are hard to see. As a walker and cyclist I am every bit as invested in my own safety as is the driver of a car. When I drive, I don’t run red lights for fear of getting T-boned, and when I walk I don’t recklessly wander into lanes of moving traffic. I use lights on my bike at night and wear bright clothing.

But I empathize with drivers who get annoyed when people ride bikes without lights or cross the street in the middle of the block on a dark night. At the same time, drivers must accept most of the onus for safety, because they are the ones operating a lethally powerful machine. That’s why we license drivers but not bicyclists, and why we don’t tell pedestrians what to wear.

It’s up to the driver, ultimately, to look out for pedestrians and cyclists. With greater power (a motor vehicle vs. a bicycle or a human body) comes greater responsibility.

The piece from Ireland, written by Cian Ginty, contains a revealing short video, an “awareness test” that demonstrates how easy it is not to see something you aren’t looking for. I wasn’t looking for a guy crossing the Pacific Highway on foot that night in San Diego. But it would have been my fault if I had hit him.

Unexpected things can happen on the road at any time. Drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists are all capable of erratic behavior. Animals can come out of nowhere; ditto children and homeless people.

The best way to increase pedestrian and cyclist safety is for more people to walk and bicycle, and for drivers to be constantly aware of them. Ginty concurs:

“One of the most quoted bits of research is from public health consultant Peter Jacobsen, who studied data from Europe and North America. Jacobsen established that: ‘A motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking and bicycling if more people walk or bicycle. Policies that increase the numbers of people walking and bicycling appear to be an effective route to improving the safety of people walking and bicycling.’

He says this result is “unexpected” as it is ‘unlikely that the people walking and bicycling become more cautious if their numbers are larger, it indicates that the behaviour of motorists controls the likelihood of collisions with people walking and bicycling. It appears that motorists adjust their behaviour in the presence of people walking and bicycling.’”

I’ve left intact his Irish spelling. It behooves us all to behave better, on either side of the ocean, or the windshield.

 

 

 

Lessons from the Slow Lane

 

The beginning of March marks two years since I began this blog. This is my 105th weekly post, the first of Slower Traffic’s third year. I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read and comment. I’ve always seen this blog as a pebble thrown into the pond of a larger conversation.

I gave up car ownership in 2007, initially for a year. It’s the only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept. A decade later, I can honestly say it’s changed my life.

Only after I began to do some research did I realize that I was part of a movement, small but growing, a pushback against the ubiquity of the car and the car culture. I seldom questioned my need for a vehicle, even as I simmered in San Diego freeway traffic, or scraped the bottom of my bank account to buy snow tires. It wasn’t until I gave up owning cars that I saw how unnecessary it was for me to own one.

Can everyone do it? Of course not – but that’s not the point. Many of us can. Many of us only think we need a car at our disposal, all the time. I know. I was one of them.

Cars always kept me broke. They got me to jobs, but they also sucked up a good part of my paychecks. In his seminal 2006 book How to Live Well without Owning a Car, Chris Balish elucidates the economic case: “Car ownership can rob you of a secure retirement. It can destroy your ability to save for college, start a business, or invest for the future.”

Consequently, when I came to Bangor and discovered that the bus could take me to and from my new job at the University of Maine, I sold my last car. Since then, I’ve been divorced, lived alone, and now live in a two-person household with a driveway barely big enough for one car.

But you can’t give up owning cars without making a few adjustments. I’ve been able to find places to live near bus lines and businesses that I can walk to. This isn’t true of all areas even within city limits. I’ve written about food deserts among Bangor’s neighborhoods, where the location of grocery stores almost mandates the use of a car. There are parts of the city that the bus doesn’t serve. It’s hard to get to the Cross Center on a Saturday, for example, because the Hampden Town Council eliminated Saturday bus service.

It isn’t hard to live without owning a car. You will be amazed at the money you save. And you will feel better physically. Here are a few words of advice, from insights I’ve gleaned over the past ten years:

Invest in a good pair of walking shoes. In the winter, this means boots. You’ll walk more. But that’s okay, because walking is good for you. I dropped ten pounds in two months without even trying. I dislike gyms and ritualized exercise. But it’s a rare day that I don’t walk the half-mile between home and downtown at least once. I shop on foot. A walk is a good way to clear your head, meet your neighbors, and get out into the natural world.

Ride a bicycle. This I do in the warmer months, though I see intrepid souls out there throughout the year. Everything I said about walking goes double for a bicycle. It’s great exercise, and the more cyclists there are on the roads, the safer the roads are for everyone.

Use public transportation. Bangor has a great bus system, with friendly drivers and convenient routes. I have long advocated for later evening hours, and when that happens, Bangor will see an uptick in ridership and an increase in commerce. The bus is free to anyone affiliated with the University of Maine, Husson University, and Eastern Maine Community College, and even if you pay for a monthly pass, it’s way cheaper than driving.

Be nice to the car owners in your life. I’m not a purist. I’ve renewed my driver’s license twice since giving up car ownership. Sometimes friends will give me rides; I make sure to do something for them in return. When I borrow the lovely Lisa’s car, I buy her a tank of gas. We live among cars, especially here in Maine. That is only going to change gradually, one former car owner at a time. But that’s how most lasting change happens.