This Thanksgiving, what am I thankful for?

I’m thankful that I live in Maine, for one thing. I really don’t want to live anywhere else, though you might hear me grumble in the winter. But Maine is beautiful and livable and accessible. The Penobscot River watershed is connected to Penobscot Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and the world.

I’m thankful that I’ve been able to carve out a decent life here over the past eleven years without owning an automobile. It’s done wonders for my health, my finances, and my attitude toward Maine winters.

I’m thankful for my lovely girlfriend Lisa, who reads this blog before I unleash it on the world, corrects my phrasing and trims my excesses, and often lends me her car.

I’m thankful to Arlo Guthrie for writing and performing “Alice’s Restaurant.”

I’m thankful for my large family and circle of friends. I’m especially thankful to my mom and stepdad for hosting Thanksgiving dinner annually at their beautiful home in Naskeag – to which we will drive.

I’m thankful to everyone who reads this blog, or shares it on social media, or posts comments and links. I’ve always seen this blog as a pebble tossed into the pond of a conversation we need to have about the larger American car culture. I’m thankful to be a small part of it.

I’m thankful that I no longer watch football.

I’m thankful to the turkeys who gave their lives for our tables, and to the people who did the dirty work of getting them there. I’m not sure I could kill and pluck a turkey, though I have no compunction about fishing to eat, or dunking a lobster’s head into a pot of boiling water. But I’m thankful to live in an industrialized world that spares me the choice of being a butcher or a vegetarian.

And I’m thankful to live in a society that still – for the moment – tolerates small hypocrisies. It’s the easiest thing in the world to accuse somebody of hypocrisy. We’re all hypocrites to some degree. I’m going to drive a car a hundred miles on Thanksgiving, and maybe a rambling song about an adventure with a VW microbus will come on the radio, and I’m going to buy gas and feed the worldwide fossil fuel industry. I’m going to be just like every American car owner – but only for a day.

I’m thankful that the Black Friday phenomenon seems to be losing some steam. I can’t think of much I’d less like to do than drive to a shopping mall and stand in line at oh-dark-thirty the morning after Thanksgiving.

I’m thankful for the University of Maine, where I work, and its ongoing contribution to public transportation in the greater Bangor area. I’m thankful for the Community Connector bus, which gets me to work, and for the voices on the new Bangor City Council advocating for longer bus hours.

I’m thankful that Bob Dylan and William Shatner are still with us.

I’m thankful that I live in interesting times, in a dynamic civilization that put people on the moon and may yet put them on Mars, all in one person’s lifetime. We are the first few generations of humans to escape the bonds of Earth and see it whole. From that vantage point, a global environmental awareness cannot help but emerge. I’m thankful that it’s already started to happen.

We could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve our quality of life in the process, if we would stop building, buying, and driving so many cars. That’s my pebble into the pond. I’ve managed to reduce the American car fleet by one. But I am thankful that there are other people out there, throwing pebbles, too.

Decision time in Bangor and Baseball

Let’s see… do I write about the Bangor City Council election, or the World Series? Which is more important?

Our local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, seems impartial on that score. They didn’t send a reporter to the recent candidate forum, and I doubt they’re sending anyone to Los Angeles for Tuesday night’s Series opener, either.

I was gratified that the Community Connector bus system got a lot of love from the potential city councilors. Five of the six candidates for three seats showed up, and all expressed varying levels of support for extended bus hours.

I’m also happy that the Houston Astros eliminated the Yankees, even though a Dodgers-Yankees World Series would have had interesting historical implications.

If you don’t like baseball, I’m sorry for you. Stanley Cups and Super Bowls and whatever the other championships are called come and go, and I’m challenged to remember many of them, but I can mark my life by the World Series.

The last time the Yankees and Dodgers met in the Fall Classic, in 1981, the Yankees took a two game lead before Fernando Valenzuela, that year’s rookie of the year and Cy Young Award winner, gutted out a 5-4 complete-game victory that propelled the Dodgers to three more wins and the championship. The only other time the Astros made the Series, they were in the National League, and were swept by the White Sox in 2005.

As a little kid, the Dodgers were my first team, even before we moved to Maine during the 1967 Red Sox Impossible Dream season. The Dodgers had no hitting to speak of, but they had Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, and they won a lot of 1-0 games.

“Someone would beat out a hit, be sacrificed to second, steal third and score on the overthrow,” Koufax recalled in his autobiography (as told to Ed Linn). “Then we would gather the wagons into a circle around the dugout.”

This strategy came back to bite them in the 1966 World Series, when they scored two runs in the first three innings of the first game against the Orioles, and no runs at all for the next three games. The last two games were 1-0 losses decided by solo homers.

Within the next year, we’d moved to Maine, Sandy Koufax had retired, and the Red Sox had captured hearts all over New England, including mine. I didn’t pay attention to the Dodgers again until I lived in California, during the Tommy Lasorda years. I took my kids to their first big-league game at Dodger Stadium, traveling by train from Oceanside and then by bus to the ballpark, to see Valenzuela pitch on a Sunday afternoon.

It should come as no surprise that someone who remembers watching Sandy Koufax’s last game on a black and white TV is older, in some cases substantially so, than all of this year’s Bangor City Council candidates. Steve Harrison, who was not present at the October 18 forum, is the oldest of the group at 50.

The other five candidates expressed support for extended bus hours. Laura Supica has made later bus service a centerpiece of her campaign. Incumbent Ben Sprague, running for a third term, said, “It’s gonna happen.”

Whatever the outcome, this will surely be one of the youngest councils in years. I’m encouraged that a new generation of local politicians is embracing the idea of public transportation, walkable communities, and alternatives to the automobile.

Sprague seemed like the elder statesman of the bunch last week. I’m inclined to vote for him because of his intelligence and seriousness. Supica will likely get my second vote for supporting the bus system so ardently.

As for the others, I haven’t decided on my third vote. But I’m leery of anyone who can turn a question about sidewalks into a call for “social revolution.” Good grief.

I’m agnostic in this World Series, too, despite my loose history with the Dodgers. I revere Dave Roberts, their manager, for The Stolen Base Heard ‘Round the World in 2004. But he lost me as a manager when he pulled a rookie pitcher from a no-hitter in his first game. Did Dick Williams do that to Billy Rohr in 1967? Unthinkable.

The Astros, in baseball time, are a young franchise. They’re younger than I am. They have pitchers who can throw complete games. They have Jose Altuve, who is the shortest and may be the best player in the American League. It’s a team full of new faces. Perhaps this is their time.

 

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.

Public Transportation in Maine is a lot like Sailing

I didn’t get my sailboat to Rockland on time this year for the North Atlantic Blues Festival, but I did catch some of the action on the water during Friendship Sloop Days. The Rockland Lobster Festival begins August 2.

From Bangor, it’s easy to get to Rockland without a car, and you don’t need a boat to do it. If you want to attend the Lobster Festival but don’t want to face the parking or the summer traffic on Route One, you can hop on a Concord Coach bus at 7 or 11 in the morning, spend a day on the coast, and board a return bus at either 4:15 or 9:30.

Why more people don’t take advantage of this escapes me. The round-trip cost is only $34. For a larger group, it makes sense to take a vehicle, but for one or two people, the bus is cheaper, much more convenient, and it doesn’t take any longer than it does to drive.

Later in August comes the American Folk Festival in Bangor. One might expect a few folks from the Rockland area to attend. But if they want to do it by bus, they’re sunk. While the Concord Coach schedule works beautifully for Bangor residents who want to spend a day on the coast, there’s no reciprocal schedule that allows a similar day trip in the other direction.

Portland, yes – and Rockland is probably more culturally connected to Portland than Bangor anyway. One could get on the bus that I get off at just before 9 a.m. and be in Portland well before noon, with stops in Damariscotta, Bath, Brunswick, and a few other towns. This is, as a Concord Coach official told me once, “the bread and butter of the route.” Surprisingly few passengers ride between Rockland and Bangor. That might change if buses began running in both directions at both ends of the day.

But that’s the windy nature of public transportation in Maine. There’s more available than most people know about, but you need to know which direction it’s going when. In order to ride it effectively, you have to strategize. Maine has many public transportation services, but they are seldom interconnected.

West Transportation runs a daily bus between Bangor and Calais, via Ellsworth, Machias and the Downeast coast. It gets into the Concord Coach terminal on Union Street at 1 p.m. and leaves again at 3.

Downeast Transportation runs a number of buses in Hancock and Washington counties. It’s an impressive service for a sparsely populated area, one I admit I’ve seldom used. My folks live in Brooklin, which is served one day a week (Fridays) by a bus from Ellsworth. In theory, I could take the West bus from Bangor on Thursday afternoon, spend the night in Ellsworth, and board the bus for Brooklin at 7:20 the next morning. After a scenic tour of Deer Isle and Stonington, I would arrive at the Brooklin General Store at 9:20. From there I’d have to walk.

I’ve sailed there faster. Of course the same thing happens whether you travel by sailboat or bus. You wait for a favorable window. You see places you never intended to see. You go miles out of your way for small gains toward your destination. The journey itself is sometimes worth the time it takes. And sometimes it’s not.

There’s also a daily bus between Bangor and Caribou, run by Cyr Bus Line, on a similar schedule, arriving in Bangor midday and turning around a few hours later. And local services abound, from the Belfast Shopper up to Bangor’s Community Connector.

While I might wish and lobby for expanded public transportation in Maine for the future, I think a central place for information on what’s available now would be a small but significant step in the right direction. With a little help and a lot of patience, you can get there from here.

Perhaps a future mission of this blog should be to ride all the different bus services in eastern Maine and bring back a report. I would need people to put me up in Calais and Caribou and other far-flung places. Or – better idea – any readers out there who use any of these buses and want to share? Please contact me at the Slower Traffic page on Facebook.

A Subtle Bias against the Bus

Last week, our local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, reported some good news for public transportation in the area. The Community Connector bus system has acquired several new buses. Several officials speculated that the new, reliable buses could lead to an eventual extension of service hours later in the evening. This would be a welcome development, and not just for bus passengers.

But if you read the BDN online, as I do most of the time, you might not have seen this story. It went up on the main web page on June 15. By the end of the day it was gone from the main page, and by the morning of the 17th comments had been closed.

I imagine there’s an electronic algorithm somewhere keeping track of the number of “hits” a story generates, and that this influences the placement of information on the BDN web site. But some pieces seem to stick around forever, while others blink into and out of visibility within a day or two.

This happens regularly to stories about the Community Connector bus system. I hesitate to attribute motive, but I wonder if there isn’t some sort of subtle bias at work. Although the BDN offices are right next to the downtown bus depot, reporters don’t tend to be big bus users. I get it – I’ve been a reporter. You’ve got to be able to jump in your car at any moment to get out to the latest house fire or car accident or meth arrest. It may seem like an inconvenience for the employee parking lot to be tangled up with the bus depot. Still, the buses were there first.

Advance notice of meetings concerning the Community Connector often don’t make it onto the BDN website until the day of the meeting itself. Of course, these meetings are usually held at night, when the buses aren’t running, which, while not the BDN’s fault, further discourages bus riders from participating.

Many of the comments that squeezed through the small time portal during which the recent piece appeared were critical of extended bus hours. Here’s an example:

“When bus riders are willing to pay for the additional cost then and only then should the city make this change. Riders should pay for all the cost not just a small token amount. Bangor tax payers are already stretched to the limit.”

And yet I imagine that the author of this comment (who apparently has an aversion to commas) would scream bloody murder if Bangor were to saturate its streets with paid parking meters. Shouldn’t drivers pay for “all the cost” of storing their vehicles on public streets?

Sadly, this attitude seems to permeate discussions about public transportation. Why? Taxpayers who don’t read books don’t complain about supporting the public library, and taxpayers who have never had a house fire don’t whine about paying for the fire department. Property owners who don’t have children nonetheless kick in for public schools.

The cost of the Community Connector bus system is shared roughly in thirds, among the federal government, local municipalities and employers, and fare-paying riders. This keeps fares low, which in turn makes using the bus an attractive alternative to the car.

The “public” part of public transportation means that anybody can use it, and everyone benefits from it. The bus delivers customers to businesses and employees to jobs. It frees up parking spaces that would otherwise be occupied. It reduces the number of cars on the road. It makes life better for those who use it, and for those who don’t – exactly what a public service is supposed to do.

But many people look at the bus and see an obstacle instead of an asset. A member of my group at a recent “Innovative Neighborhoods” workshop told me that he thought the bus depot attracted panhandlers. Every city of any size in the world, from San Diego to Athens to little ol’ Bangor, has panhandlers. If the downtown bus depot vanished tomorrow, not one panhandler would disappear. But a lot of available parking spaces would.

Bangor has a chance to create a centerpiece of good, viable public transportation for a small city and the smaller communities immediately surrounding it. We can set an example for the rest of Maine, by building on the decent bus system we already have, and adding incremental improvements: newer buses, later hours, better community outreach. Our local newspaper has a vital part to play in that last one.

First there is a Fountain, then there is no Fountain, then…?

As I was walking in Pickering Square, heading for the bus with early summer in the air, from another direction I heard the sound of jackhammers. Orange-clad workers were reducing the fountain at the corner of the square to rubble.

“They’re taking it out,” said a man I recognized from shared bus rides. “Too many people were vandalizing it.”

Our local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, essentially confirmed this in a story on June 5, quoting a local official that people had been bathing and throwing trash into the fountain. The city stopped running water in the fountain in the summer of 2016 because of these problems.

Still, I’m sad to see it go, and a little apprehensive, too. I had no idea the fountain was coming down until I heard the howl of the hammers. There was no announcement that I was aware of, certainly no ceremony. The fountain will be replaced, according to the BDN, with a concrete platform containing electrical outlets. This will create more space for a variety of outdoor events.

The fountain, restored to working order, would have made a pretty counterpart to the spruced-up benches around the square, newly painted by students at Bangor High School. I’m not sure that the way to prevent vandalism is to remove objects of beauty from public spaces.

And I worry that the sudden removal of the fountain presages a “stealth” campaign aimed at the most frequent reason I go to Pickering Square in the first place: it’s the hub of the Community Connector bus system. BDN writer Danielle McLean linked the fountain’s removal to the city’s potential long-range plans for Pickering Square, including a proposal that would remove the bus hub from the square entirely.

It’s worth noting that the BDN’s main office abuts Pickering Square, cheek by jowl to the bus depot. I wonder how many of their employees get to and from work by bus.

Not only is Pickering Square the hub of the bus system, it’s the center of town, and by extension, the greater Bangor area. It’s the nexus from which all the major roads radiate. Were you to start a public transportation system from scratch, you could find no better central location.

But you can also find litter and graffiti and vandalism, along with sometimes loud and unpleasant behavior, occasionally warranting the attention of the police. These occur in any small city. It’s hardly a reason to relocate the bus.

Downtown business (including the Bangor Daily News) ought to the biggest supporters of keeping the bus depot in Pickering Square. Why? Every bus delivers potential customers downtown, minus the congestion of their cars. A bus can hold 30 people comfortably (I’ve been on a University run with 54). Eight buses arrive in Pickering Square every hour, and four more half an hour after that. Imagine 360 more cars passing through downtown every hour. Anyone who complains about parking in downtown Bangor should be thankful for the bus, and be looking for ways to improve it.

I will grant that most people still do business by car. But 20 years from now, will that still be the case? Long-term plans for Pickering Square and for Bangor must take into account the efficacy of public transportation, the wastefulness of the car culture, and our responsibility to the planet. We are living in the Late Automobile Age, and it behooves us to start planning now for what’s next.

The Pickering Square parking garage contains a lot of wasted space. A part of it could be made over into a modern, state-of-the art bus depot. More painted benches could adorn the outside, giving people waiting for the bus a place to sit in good weather.

Instead of looking at the bus depot as an obstacle, we need to treat it as the asset that it is, and design improvements to the square accordingly. If the goal is to bring people downtown, nobody does it better than the bus.

You can read my prior posts about the Pickering Square bus depot here and here.

 

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.

Is there a Compelling Reason to Move Bangor’s Bus Hub?

 

 

I went to the recent city council workshop on alternative hubs for Bangor’s Community Connector bus system. The city has come into some money for the revitalization of Pickering Square, and the council is debating whether the bus depot should remain there or be relocated.

Some 60 people attended the meeting, on the day after digging out from one snowstorm in anticipation of another. The workshop had been postponed from Monday to Wednesday, and bus riders would either have to walk or find a ride home afterward. Nonetheless, they showed up in substantial numbers and made their voices heard.

The tone of the discussion remained positive throughout. City staff presented three options, all of which would keep the bus in the general downtown area. Though Councilor David Neally briefly brought it up, a fourth idea, siting the bus hub out near the Airport Mall, seems to have died the death it deserves. It ought to have a stake driven through its heart, just to be sure.

Another option, Abbot Square across from the Bangor Public Library, received little support, mostly because of traffic issues.

At meeting’s end, two options remained on the table: improve the bus hub at its present location, or build a brand new depot up the hill on Washington Street near Walgreen’s, about half a mile away.

The Washington Street plan would include a small, continuously circling shuttle bus, serving downtown (something that also makes sense where the bus is now, and that I’ve proposed in this space). The site is also large enough to incorporate out-of-town bus services and possibly “intermodal” transportation of the future.

Though the idea is sexy – a real public transportation hub in Bangor, with a nice waiting area and an office staffed by real human beings, maybe in the far future connected to a train – but Councilor Gibran Graham warned about getting “stars in our eyes.”

Graham cited the example of Portland, which is well served by the Concord Coach bus lines and the Amtrak Downeaster. Portland also has a robust local bus system, the METRO, which I’ve used in visits to the city. The hub of the METRO is in the heart of downtown. The station for the trains and long-distance bus is on the edge of town, along the number 5 route, which continues on to the Portland JetPort and the Maine Mall.

This is the way most cities do it, Graham said. Bangor is a hub, and the spokes of the wheel radiate from Pickering Square. This is a compelling reason to keep the nexus of the system where it is, and to make needed improvements in its present location.

I can think of no equally compelling reason to move the bus hub off-center.

Pickering Square provides convenient access to downtown businesses. Owners of those businesses ought to be the biggest boosters of a central bus hub, especially if we get the hours extended into the evening (which I realize is a separate, but equally important, issue). A single bus can deliver as many as 30 customers in the space it takes to park three cars. Every time I come downtown by bus instead of using a car, I free up a parking space for someone else. Multiply me by everyone on the bus, and you can see the mitigating effect the bus system has on traffic and parking.

A few people at the meeting alluded to the presence of drug dealers and other seedy elements in the square. But it would be a mistake to conflate those issues with the presence of the bus. They really have nothing to do with one another. The presence of police on foot and bicycles has already done much to address those problems.

I still like the idea of a downtown shuttle, and a connection to the Concord Coach and Greyhound buses is needed as well. And there needs to be a comfortable waiting area, staffed by a representative of the Community Connector. I’m not opposed to a downtown depot for all forms of public transportation. But the re-design of Pickering Square needs to start with the bus station and proceed from there.

Downtowns thrive when municipal governments take proactive steps to encourage alternatives to the automobile. We are seeing this happen all over the country and the world. Bangor needs to get onboard with this burgeoning movement by making a modern bus hub a centerpiece of new, smart development.