Driving below the speed limit is an act of ‘Civil Obedience’

Some years ago, I was driving on Interstate 495 in Massachusetts. The owner of the car, who shall remain nameless here, was in the passenger seat, and we were tooling along in the left lane, doing about 70 – five miles an hour over the speed limit.

Suddenly, a car came up rapidly behind us, flashing its lights. “Move over and let this guy pass,” my companion said.

“I’m going 70,” I replied.

“Yeah, but he wants to go faster,” she said. “And that’s his right.”

At this point, the smart thing to do would have been to shut up and find a gap in the adjacent lane. Instead, I said, “How do you figure it’s his right? The speed limit’s 65.”

You can be completely correct and still lose an argument. Half an hour later, I was in the passenger seat, and we were still speeding but no longer speaking.

I thought of this while attending a recent forum in Bangor on walkability, hosted by GrowSmart Maine. There was much discussion of street design, and how the visual cues along a roadway affect the speed at which drivers feel comfortable. There was also some talk about the culture of driving, and the assumptions we all make about roads and transportation.

One of the presenters at the forum was Jim Tasse, Assistant Director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. “You all drive too fast,” he said. “I do, too. The roads encourage us to drive too fast.”

Most of the people in attendance were car owners and regular drivers. Tasse encouraged them to obey the speed limit – even drive three to five miles an hour under the speed limit – as an act of “civil obedience.”

I’ve always believed in obeying the spirit rather than the letter of the law. It’s why I roll through stop signs on my bicycle when it’s safe to do so, and why drivers don’t think they’re breaking the law when they’re going five miles an hour over the speed limit. But speed limits are maximums, not minimums. Nobody has the “right” to drive any faster.

A bicyclist does, however, have the right to “control the lane” at an intersection, forcing the cars behind him to slow down for the few seconds it takes to get safely through. In practice, however, bicyclists who execute this perfectly legal maneuver are often subjected to horn honking, verbal abuse and dangerous driver behavior.

How did we get to the point where bicyclists behaving legally are berated, while drivers are almost expected to exceed the posted speed limits? Why do otherwise reasonable people believe that drivers have a “right” to go as fast as they want, or at least as fast as they can get away with?

Many of the presentations at the GrowSmart forum touched on “traffic calming” measures. Some of these measures include planting trees along roadsides, adding pedestrian islands in the center of a road, and reducing the number of car lanes in favor of wider sidewalks and marked bicycle lanes. These are all worthwhile. But the most needed change is a cultural one.

Drivers need to get the message that it’s not okay to speed, especially in populated areas. A pedestrian struck at 20 miles per hour has a 90 percent chance of survival. At 40 mph, that chance diminishes to 10 percent. Pedestrian deaths are up across Maine, and the Department of Transportation has noticed. We will likely see more traffic calming road design, like Bangor’s recently revamped upper Main Street, in the near future.

This is also justification for more and better bike lanes. Bicyclists make the roads safer for everyone. The more bicyclists there are, the more drivers must notice them and accommodate them, which causes drivers to drive more slowly. Bicyclists are human traffic calming. And every bicyclist on the road equals one less car.

The next time I’m behind the wheel, I’m going to take Tasse up on his suggestion, and drive three miles an hour below the speed limit, though I expect to feel, in his words, “the psychic pressure wave of irritation from the driver behind you.” But as another presenter at the GrowSmart forum pointed out, there is a difference between speed and mobility.

Communities and economies thrive when they have a healthy mix of transportation options, including walking, bicycling, and public transit. It’s challenging to convince people of this after decades of car-first policy. It will take time. But most important changes do.

 

A Tale of Two Trips

August was this year’s month for out-of-state travel. First came a solo work trip to Danbury, Connecticut, then, two weeks later, a journey to Missouri with the lovely Lisa to see the total eclipse of the sun.

I decided to do Danbury by bus, because I didn’t want to be one of those armchair liberals who advocates for public transportation while tooling around in a Subaru. I plotted out a trip that would put me on a bus from Bangor at 7 a.m., connecting at Boston’s South Station, with a transfer in Hartford that would get me to Danbury by five that evening.

Little did I know that bridge construction in Boston had sent a ripple effect through bus schedules all over southern New England. My first inkling of trouble came when I looked up from my laptop an hour and fifteen minutes out of South Station to see that we were just passing Fenway Park.

I missed my connection in Hartford. A second bus failed to materialize. I finally got into Danbury around eleven o’clock, sixteen hours after setting out from Bangor. It’s an eight-hour drive.

On the way home, another bus was canceled. I made it, but not without spending a lot of time in bus stations – which is why it’s always advisable to bring a laptop and a good book.

Eclipses happen when they happen. Humans are powerless to postpone them. I’m sorry to disappoint the purists, but we flew to Kansas City and rented a car. We wanted mobility in case clouds moved in – though it’s hard to imagine chasing a shadow moving over the land at 1,400 miles per hour.

Missouri drivers only seem to drive that fast. On Interstate 70, where the speed limit matches the route number, people blew past at 80 or 90. All along the route we saw temporary signs cautioning drivers about the upcoming eclipse. As if anyone could possibly be in the dark about it at this late date.

Kansas City has a ring of hotels surrounding the airport, and a convenient, free shuttle system. We stayed there on the first and last night of our trip, but we saw the eclipse from Jefferson City, the state capital. The path of totality just grazed Kansas City and St. Louis, but Jefferson City enjoyed two and a half minutes of darkness.

Though it’s surrounded by asphalt, the center of Jefferson City is pedestrian and bicycle friendly, with tree-lined streets and parks with views of the Missouri River. There’s a local bus system called JeffTrans. My only complaint concerns the hotel I booked on-line, which advertised itself as “_____ at the Capitol Mall.” Well, the hotel wasn’t “at” anything. It was five miles out of town, and the only thing within walking distance was another hotel, which likewise did not have a bar. To get anywhere, you had to get in a car – and this is, sadly, typical of many places in America, including Danbury, Connecticut.

Don’t get me wrong: I liked Jefferson City, and I was impressed by the welcome we and other visitors received. A Pink Floyd tribute band named Interstellar Overdrive performed “Dark Side of the Moon” in front of the capitol the night before the event. NASA set up shop across the street. Parking fees were waived in the downtown all day (I know, this encourages driving, but eclipses are nothing if not exceptional). The people were unfailingly friendly.

On the night before we returned to Maine, we took in a Kansas City Royals baseball game. Kauffman Stadium is a beautiful ballpark to which television does not do justice. But it’s miles from the city center, at the intersection of two Interstates, and, again, everybody has to drive. Parking is fifteen bucks. Though there’s probably a bus that can take you there, I saw no evidence of it.

The Royals’ starting pitcher, a lefty named Danny Duffy, held the Colorado Rockies hitless through the first five innings. What are the chances, I wondered, of seeing a total eclipse of the sun on one day and a no-hitter on the next? A walk and a two-run homer with two out in the sixth ended that line of wishful thinking. The Royals held on to win, 3-2, and we held on to survive the drive back to the hotel and the plane trip home.

Renting the car enabled us to travel freely within the American Car Culture. But I was glad to leave it behind when the trip was over.

The Murder Weapon Was a Car

A car in the wrong hands can be a lethal weapon, as the recent confrontation in Charlottesville showed us again. It’s impossible for me to fathom how anyone can think that deliberately striking someone with an automobile is acceptable under any circumstances. That it was done in the name of “white supremacy” makes it all the more sickening.

It’s not the car’s fault, of course. Most car owners use them responsibly. When a car kills a pedestrian – or bicyclist – it’s usually an accident. Not this time.

Then again, how can a group of white men, 152 years after the end of the Civil War and 52 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, think that it’s acceptable to march down a city street at night with lit torches, waving Confederate flags and shouting threats at Jews and other minorities? The First Amendment gives them the right to do it – and the American Civil Liberties Union, normally a bogeyman for conservatives, backed them up – but the culpability for the violence is on the people with the torches as much as the driver of the car.

He may have acted alone, but he was not a lone representative of the craziness that seems to have gripped this country. Everyone’s angry at everyone else. Of all the candidates who ran for President, we elected the one who encouraged assaults at his rallies and police beatings as policy.

Into this overall backdrop of violence, young people grow up in an economy that no longer works for them as it did for their parents. They’re pissed, and their anger is channeled and amplified by the most powerful voice in the land. A car in the hands of an angry young man can turn deadly in less than a second.

Sadly, there are those who welcome such confrontations, who advocate for running down protesters with the temerity to temporarily block a road. Their anger is not limited to matters of race, class, or politics. Check the comments in your local online newspaper the next time a motorist kills or injures someone on a bicycle.

There’s an ongoing event in some cities called “Critical Mass.” A group of bicyclists gathers at a specific time to ride en masse over a predetermined route. The number of bicyclists forces the cars to slow down, and some drivers become furious about it.

But the bicyclists are doing nothing wrong. They are exercising their right to travel on a public way. They’re doing what cars do every day. I’ve never heard a bicyclist rail against rush hour traffic. There is something about a car that brings out a sense of entitlement, often followed by disproportionate rage when an accustomed path of travel is, literally or figuratively, blocked.

I do not mean to diminish the racial issues swirling around Charlottesville by writing about cars and bicycles. But cars are not only weapons, they’re also isolation chambers, preventing us from coming face-to-face with our fellow citizens even at close range. The homicidal driver in Charlottesville surely did not know the names of any of his victims. He made no attempt to talk to them before running them down.

A few years ago, I shared a newspaper story with a class of college students about a rubber plantation in Liberia where, for pennies a day, workers extracted rubber for Firestone tires. It was just before the Super Bowl. The author pointed out that Firestone had paid millions for a halftime commercial but skimped on wages and health care for its Liberian workers. My students were largely unmoved. They just wanted to watch football.

We seem to have little problem with violence as long as it’s at a comfortable distance. Our movies are filled with gunfights and car chases. Football is our favorite sport, though it causes debilitating injuries to most people who play it for any length of time. A car is a safe space from which to curse at protesters, bicyclists, and other drivers.

But our use of cars also requires near-slave labor in other countries, environmental degradation of some of the most fragile places on Earth, and a way of life predicated on putting lethal weapons in the hands of nearly everyone. It’s inevitable that some people will kill with cars. It’s criminal for a latter-day lynch mob to encourage them.

_______

Wednesday, August 16 at 4 pm I’ll be a guest on Downtown with Rich Kimball on The Pulse AM 620 WZON in Bangor, where we will chat with Melody L. Hoffmann, author of Bike Lanes are White Lanes, from the University of Nebraska Press. Join Rich and crew for some interesting conversation.

Re-Immersion into the Car Culture can be Sudden and Swift

The lovely Lisa and I are both entering the time in our lives when aging parents sometimes need our help. Last week they needed our help simultaneously, on opposite sides of Penobscot Bay. The week went by in a whirlwind of phone calls, logistics, cars and trucks, and driving.

Although I haven’t owned a car since 2007, I’ve renewed my driver’s license twice in that time. I do, after all, know how to drive. I even had a school bus license back in my college days, and I was once in an outdoor play called The Boys From Swanville, where I got to drive an old pickup into and out of a scene because I could operate an on-the-column manual transmission.

As an American born in the second half of the 20th century, I am a de facto citizen of the Car Culture whether I like it or not. There’s no escaping it entirely. It’s all around us. We live in the world we’re given, and we change it incrementally, through small individual actions. This I believe.

Thus it was that I spent much of the week behind the wheel, on rural Maine roads and the mean streets of Bangor. I drove on the interstate and parked in a parking garage. I used the drive-through ATM at a bank and ordered fast food through a car window. I know that these are routine, mundane things in the lives of most drivers. For me, they were reminders of a lifestyle I was glad to give up.

I’m happy to live in Bangor, where I can take a bus to work or use my bicycle to run errands or walk to the neighborhood store. I can get on a bus and go to Rockland or Boston, and I can rent a car for the occasional trip to the hinterlands. But even here, the extent to which commerce is geared to the car can be discouraging. I thought of this the other day, when I needed some brass bolts for a boat project I’m working on. The walkable downtown hardware store went out of business several years ago, and the nearest one to reach by bike didn’t have brass bolts. I ended up on outer Hammond Street, a lone bicyclist among the cars, to get something that fits easily into a pants pocket.

In small towns, it’s worse. My mother lives miles from the nearest quart of cold milk. Everyone has to drive for everything. The grocery store is the center for local gossip and conversation, which more often than not takes place in the parking lot. It works fine for able-bodied people with good eyesight and reflexes. But a car-centric culture tends to exclude the elderly and the physically challenged.

When I don’t drive – and sometimes weeks go by when I don’t – I’m not connected to a lot of the conversation that underpins day-to-day life. I lose track of gas prices. I fail to remember that a particular exit ramp is under construction, or that a certain street I walk home on is one-way to cars. Frost heaves and potholes don’t concern me much. Nor does the school schedule, or the parade of trucks along Route 1A and Route 1. I don’t have to think about where to park or how much, if anything, it costs. I have nothing to say when Mainers who’ve never been to southern California start to complain about summer traffic.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes behind the wheel to bring it all back. Driving is like riding a bicycle in that respect at least: the muscle memory stays with you. So, unfortunately, does the attitude. I heard myself swearing softly at other drivers as I jockeyed for position or trolled for parking. Driving is competitive. It’s also exhausting, even though you’re not getting any exercise.

Sometimes driving is the only option. My last week in the American Car Culture was proof enough of that. But it doesn’t have to be a way of life.

Few of us need our cars every single day. We have allowed ourselves to believe this myth, and we have constructed commerce around it. There’s no rule that says we can’t construct a different kind of commerce, with hardware stores we can walk to, and more centralized services. That’s the world I hope to live in. We will get there gradually, in small steps.

Traffic slowly in the World you wish to Change, or something like that

 

 

“Beam me up, Scotty.”

“Billions and billions…”

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

These famous quotes are attributed to Captain James T. Kirk, Carl Sagan, and Mohandas Gandhi. None of them ever uttered the actual words.

The closest Kirk ever came was: “We’re very tired, Mr. Scott. Beam us up home.” The Sagan quote comes from Johnny Carson, who was an astronomy enthusiast as well as a late-night television host.

Altruists cite Gandhi’s quote as an admonishment to do good work in the world. Though my motivations aren’t entirely unselfish, I like to think there’s a little bit of Gandhi in my life without a car. I want to see fewer cars on the road and therefore don’t own one. It may seem like a small thing, subtracting one car from the vast American traffic picture, but small increments can add up to overall change.

Here is the actual Gandhi quote, and its source:

We but mirror the world.  All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body.  If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.  As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.  This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.

[From VOL 13, Ch 153, General Knowledge About Health, Page 241, Printed in the Indian Opinion on 9/8/1913 from The Collected Works of M. K. Gandhi, published by The Publications Division, New Delhi, India.]

Bumper-sticker folk wisdom has condensed it to a single sentence, a phrase we can all remember. It’s not bad advice, especially the last part. I’m not waiting for public transportation to get better or for drivers to get friendlier toward bicyclists; I’m riding the bus and the bicycle now. I’m not sure that giving up cars has changed my nature in the sense that Gandhi meant, but it has changed my outlook on life.

 

I’ve just wrapped up another semester at the University of Maine, where I teach creative writing. Though I’ve spent much of my life in journalism, I think of myself as a fiction writer first. My novels still sometimes turn up in used bookstores.

Many of my students are not English majors and do not plan on careers as writers. Nonetheless, I’m convinced that writing fiction can help a college graduate in any field, because the creation of story imparts a valuable human skill: the ability to see things from other points of view.

College students are generally good at describing their feelings and fantasies. They do less well with observation and reportage, and they struggle mightily with point of view. This is, of course, a generalization, but it’s mostly true.

It’s a difficult thing to ask a twenty-year-old to do: put yourself in the mind of another individual, with different experiences, goals and values. Then give that character a challenge of some kind. People react differently to challenges. As students begin to consider this, they look up from their cellphones and into the real world and its real people. Why? Because fiction gives us insight into our differences. It makes us more understanding and compassionate. It helps promote a better world.

They have grown up in a world of bumper stickers and Twitter, video games and high-speed Internet. Seeing from a different point of view is new to them. And so they struggle. Most become better writers by the end of the semester, and maybe better citizens, too, if empathy has anything to do with citizenship.

 

We Americans like things simple. We like “high-concept” movies like Jaws and Snakes on a Plane that we can describe in a few words. We like cars, because we can seemingly go unencumbered from one place to another at any time we wish. We reduce the wisdom of Gandhi to the pithiness of a bumper sticker.

I’d like to see a lot of changes in the world that I’ll never do anything about. The designated hitter has to go, for instance, and the Dakotas should be one state, with two senators. I’ll leave the fighting and losing of those battles to someone else.

But I can keep my name off a car registration, and I can continue to expose young minds to the reading and writing of fiction. It’s not much, but it’s the least I can do.

A Groundswell of Support for Feet, Buses and Bicycles

CCmeeting

I’ve been in Bangor ten years now, since moving upriver from Belfast in the spring of 2006. By January 2007, I’d given up my car, happy to be someplace I could finally do it.

It’s gratifying to walk around downtown Bangor on a weekday, and see all the people getting around on foot, bus and bicycles. There are cars, to be sure, but Bangor has few of the chronic traffic problems that plague much smaller Maine communities like Ellsworth, Camden, Freeport and the coastal towns south of Portland.

(I hasten to add that I lived in and around San Diego for 16 years, and I can attest that Maine does not have traffic, in the Californian sense of the word, except on an occasional weekend at the bottom of the Maine Turnpike. We are fortunate.)

Seldom in my life do I find myself in sync with popular movements, but this is one of those times. Over the past decade, Bangor has begun to embrace alternatives to the private automobile. As a consequence, it’s a nicer place to live, work and play.

That didn’t happen without a groundswell of people who want to walk, bus, and bicycle. I am but one of them, tossing pebbles into the pond of public discourse. Others are doing real work to achieve real improvements. Here’s a thanks and a tip of the cap to a few of them.

If you’ve noticed the recent proliferation of bicycle route signs around town lately, thank Walk-n-Roll, an advocacy group promoting pedestrian and bicycling safety in the greater Bangor area. They also lead moonlight bike rides and help provide free bike parking at public events.

Thanks to some new signage, designed and installed by Justin Russell and Keirie Peachy of Walk-n-Roll, I now know that it’s 1.6 miles from the bus stop at Pickering Square to the Cross Center, a distance I can walk in about half an hour. That means my average walking speed is 3.2 miles an hour. I can do it in under ten minutes by bicycle, an average speed of around 10 mph. By bus, from the time I get on to the time I get off, it’s about fifteen minutes, or 6.4 mph. I’ve never timed it by car, but for a fair comparison, you would have to account for the time to walk to and from your parked vehicle at each end of the trip.

I’m betting that bicycling is fastest. Proximate bike racks make it more convenient, too, when you think about parking downtown, or at the Cross Center for a major event. We aren’t conditioned to think that way. We’re used to getting into our cars for even the most minor trip. But awareness is changing.

Friends of Lower Kenduskeag Stream (FOLKS) has been improving one of Bangor’s best walking corridors. I happen to live in a neighborhood served by a spur of the Kenduskeag Stream Trail, and often walk into town that way. For the past few years, FOLKS have been out with chainsaws, shovels, rakes, weed whackers and whatnot, building drainage ditches, cutting brush, and shoring up soft spots. New trash cans and benches have been placed and are mostly used.

FOLKS organizes periodic trail days, usually Saturdays, when volunteers gather to work on the trail. The improvements are already impressive.

Transportation For All recently marshaled more than 30 people to a city council workshop on the Community Connector bus system. TFA is an offshoot of Food AND Medicine, a social justice group founded in 2001 to assist laid-off workers.

I’ve been riding the bus since 2007, when it was still called the BAT. On my first day of employment at the University of Maine, I received a Maine Card, which functioned as, among other things, a bus pass. But I can’t stay on campus for evening events, because the last bus leaves at 6:30.

In ten years I’ve talked with a lot of bus passengers. Though we all use the bus for different reasons, there is near-universal agreement on one thing: the need for later hours. And thanks to the ongoing support of TFA and others, it looks like it’s finally going to happen. Though the council is moving cautiously, there seems to be a consensus for expanding the bus service, on an incremental but ongoing basis, over the next few years.

Transportation For All meets on first and third Thursdays from 9-11 am at the Hammond Street Congregational Church.

Bangor is becoming a friendly place to walk, bus, and bicycle. It’s getting better all the time, and a lot of local people deserve credit.

A Race Best Seen From A Bicycle

Canoe Race 2014 016

A harbinger of spring more reliable than Easter or the Vernal Equinox, the Kenduskeag Steam Canoe Race surges through Bangor this Saturday. It’s among my favorite events of the year. It happens only once, and it marks the divide in the mind’s calendar that puts winter indisputably behind us. After the canoe race, it’s spring for good.

Though I’m a sailor, not a paddler, I love everything about this race: the history, the costumes, the war canoes, the kayaks, the action at Six Mile Falls, the people out along the Kenduskeag Trail watching the racers approach the finish line. I don’t particularly care who wins or loses. No, the most important thing is that it’s spring, and people are outside en masse, maybe for the first time all year.

This year’s forecast calls for sunny skies and mild temperatures – good weather for both paddling and bicycling, which is the best way to see the race. The best thing about bicycling is that you can slide past the parked cars on all sides of Six Mile Falls. If you drive, unless you get there early, you could find yourself spending as much time walking as watching the race.

Still, most people do drive. In my years of river-vulturing, I’ve never seen more than a handful of bicyclists out at Six Mile Falls, or anywhere along the route. Which is too bad, because on a bike you are much more mobile, and can see more of the race. A bicycle travels only marginally faster than a canoe, can stop anywhere, and doesn’t require a parking space.

Nonetheless, canoe racing is, by its nature, a car-intensive sport. You need a vehicle to take the canoe to the start and pick it up at the finish. Presumably many of the cars at Six Mile Falls are such support vehicles. Families with small children have little choice but to come by car. More than a few dogs accompany their owners along the riverbanks; they likely did not get there by running alongside a bicycle.

In 2010, I decided to find out just how many cars there were in the area around Six Mile Falls. At eleven-thirty, approximately mid-race, I took an informal count. From my bicycle I counted 207 cars on both sides of Route 15 north of the bridge, 146 on the side of Route 231 where parking was allowed, and 196 on Route 15 south of the bridge. The Advent Christian Church lot held approximately another hundred; a small side street north of the bridge accommodated another 60 or so. That adds up to more than 700 cars, and some people had already left to follow the race downstream.

How many of those vehicles would a shuttle bus service, run by the city or a private entity or a combination of both, remove from the mix? It seems like a simple thing to set up. Buses could leave from the Airport Mall or the Broadway Shopping Center for Six Mile Falls every half hour during the race. The Capehart route goes as far as Finson Road; maybe race spectators could make a connection to the Falls there.

Perhaps there would be no appreciable difference in traffic, at first. People are used to driving. But it’s an idea at least worth putting on the table, isn’t it? What role can public transportation play in alleviating Bangor’s traffic congestion?

(I confess my tongue is partway in my cheek here. I lived in San Diego from 1983 to 1999. Bangor does not have traffic congestion, at least not in the Californian sense.)

Nonetheless, I’d like to see public buses available for this and other events: concerts at the Waterfront, University of Maine hockey games, elections and caucuses. Traffic gets worse when driving is the only option.

But I’m not trying to throw cold water on one of the most fun events of the year. I’ll be out there on my bicycle enjoying the spills and the sunshine. I doubt I’ll be having as much fun as the participants, though. It makes me want to get a canoe and try the race myself.

One of these years, I’m going to do it – even if I have to prevail upon someone with a car to help me get there.