California Can Teach Maine a Thing or Two About Cars

 

BikesSD

Lisa and I went to San Diego for a week. We’re back in Maine. One day the high temperature in both places was identical: 54 degrees Fahrenheit. We walked; we drove; we rode the San Diego Trolley. We did not bicycle or take any buses, though we saw plenty of people doing plenty of both.

Yes, we drove, on the spaghetti-loop freeways and the winding mountain roads and the open desert highways I remember well from my years as a Californian. My son Rigel rented us a car. We drove up the coast to see my friend and writing colleague Mike Sirota (who gave me a nice salutation in his own blog last week). We drove across the big bridge to the beach at Coronado, and out to Fort Rosecrans Memorial Cemetery on Point Loma to visit Lisa’s great-grandparents.

We also rode the trolley, and walked downtown. For a city of its size, San Diego has a compact heart. We visited the new downtown baseball park and the even newer library. We drank a toast to the late Tony Gwynn, whose career with the Padres began the year before I arrived and ended two years after I left. We walked along the Embarcadero and past the train station. The trolley and city buses are both run by the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS); it’s easy to get from one to the other.

It’s also easy to fall back into California-isms, even after twelve years away, like calling Interstates 5 and 8 “the five,” and “the eight.” It’s easy to re-learn California driving maneuvers like merging across four lanes. And it’s easy to make a quick comparison of the trolley beside the freeway, carrying a few dozen passengers, and the freeway, carrying hundreds of thousands.

But every little bit helps, doesn’t it? The spaghetti loops were there when I moved out in 1983, but the Green Line wasn’t. New trolley and bus routes are springing up faster than new freeways. Farther north, California’s once and now-again governor, Jerry Brown, is moving forward with construction of a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, something that’s been talked about for at least 30 years. My son jokes that it will take 100 years to build, but I say it’s progress.

I was glad to discover that I can still get around in San Diego without using a map (or a GPS). I found myself remembering freeway exits and neighborhood shortcuts and places to avoid at rush hour. But I also remembered hills I’d bicycled up, bus routes I’d ridden, beer stores within walking distance of places I’d lived. I used alternative transportation, even back then.

I didn’t miss California traffic. My son often plans his day around peak times on the freeway. Sometimes he’ll take the trolley to work or into town, but he doesn’t have the patience for the city bus system.

Transportation is complicated. It’s hard to design, let alone commit to, a public transportation system that will entice significant numbers of people away from their cars. But it’s gratifying to see small things being done, especially in California, the heart of the car culture. Small things. Not a revolution, but small things.

Were I to live in San Diego now, I wouldn’t own a car. They’re cheap enough to rent, and most of the time you can get by just fine without one. The same is true in Bangor, by the way – as I’ve discovered over the past nine years.

Moreover, a typical week in San Diego does not consist of trips to the desert and the zoo and all the other stuff we did. To squeeze all that in requires a car. We walked, a lot, every day. But the fastest way to get from one walking area to another across the spread-out city is the freeway system.

The surface streets, though, have become much more friendly to bicyclists. Signs remind drivers that cyclists can use the full lane. Painted bicycle lanes have proliferated. Metal bike racks in the shape of bicycles dot the sidewalks. We saw cyclists everywhere we went, from the beaches to the desert. We watched a young man roll his bicycle onto the trolley, seamlessly transitioning from one non-car mode of transportation to another

That’s what I’d do, I thought, if I lived here again. But that’s not what I did when I visited. Nonetheless, the improvements were gratifying, and the traffic didn’t seem so bad. By the end of the week I was starting to get used to it. I knew then it was time to go home.

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