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.

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