I hear that train a-coming…

Amtrak will soon begin test runs to determine the feasibility of seasonal passenger train service to Rockland on the Downeaster, which now has its northern terminus in Brunswick. This is good news for anyone who has ever driven coastal Route 1 in the summer. It’s good news for all of us, really: a small sign that the Late Automobile Age is beginning to morph, however slowly, into something else.

No small city in Maine stands to benefit more from alternatives to the automobile than Rockland. It’s equidistant from almost everywhere. You can get there by car, bus, boat, plane, and until recently, train. If you don’t drive there, you can enjoy the city on foot without having to find a parking place.

The naysayers, predictably, will claim that it costs too much, that train service to Rockland is nothing more than a romantic pipe dream, subsidized by all for the enjoyment of a few. But trains, once established, have proven popular in many parts of the country. Of course trains are subsidized. So is every other form of transportation – cars, trucks, and highways most of all. I wish I didn’t have to keep pointing this out.

Most people drive because the market is rigged in favor of cars and drivers. There is money for parking lots but not train stations, road construction but not additional bus routes. Those of us who seek alternatives to owning a car face a phalanx of obstacles, not the least of which is the misguided view that public transportation is charity, or worse, welfare.

I’ve never seen this as a partisan issue, by the way. I know conservatives who love trains and liberals who love cars. Writers like trains, because you can write on them. The scenery changes every minute, and you can look at it instead of at the car in front of you. It’s a contemplative way to travel. Musicians tend to favor cars, with stereo systems and space for bulky instruments. And how else are you going to get to that Friday night gig in East Podunkville?

But those of us who want to ride a train to Rockland (or Bangor, or Bar Harbor, in the not-too-distant future) aren’t calling for the elimination of cars (except, perhaps, in parts of Acadia National Park, but that’s another argument for another time). Opponents of alternative transportation would force us all into cars. Studies in disparate places around the U.S. and the world have shown that a mixed-use transportation system, rather than a monolithic car-centric approach, is the most functional and cost-effective.

And what’s not to love about a train? Where would country music or American cinema be without trains? They’re woven into our national DNA.

Still, some people will find reasons to oppose just about anything. There were Americans who opposed the moon landing, the greatest thing this country has ever done, because they deemed it too expensive. How could we go to the moon when kids were starving and our cities were in flames and young men were dying in Vietnam? All those concerns were valid, and yet today I’m proud to be part of a civilization that landed on the moon. My parents were proud that their taxes helped pay for it. (If you’re gullible enough to believe the conspiracy theory that all the lunar missions were faked, don’t even talk to me.)

Expanding passenger rail service in Maine, while not on the scale of reaching for the moon, is nonetheless a worthy and doable investment. I don’t expect it to happen all at once, or everywhere I want it to, but Rockland, in both the short and long term, is realistic. I’ll ride that train, and so will a lot of other people. If they build it, we will come.

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.

Whither Wiscasset? To Bypass or Not?

When I was a child, and my family drove up to Maine each summer from Pennsylvania, we always passed through Wiscasset. It billed itself as “The Prettiest Village in Maine,” but what I remember most vividly were the two old wooden ships rotting on the western shore of the Sheepscot River. We always had time to look at them. Traffic slowed through there, even back then.

The ships are long gone now, and so is the nuclear power plant, Maine Yankee, which was built within sight of the picturesque village a few years after we moved to Maine for good. I used to look at it from the bridge while stuck in summer traffic.

Periodically, there’s a push on the part of frustrated motorists to build a bypass around the village. This would, of course, be done with taxpayer dollars that could be used toward better public transportation along the coastal Route One corridor.

Such bypasses were built in the 1960s around Belfast and Damariscotta, when it was cheaper to do, and the results, fifty years later, are evident. Both towns have thriving centers where people can walk and bicycle comfortably, while the through traffic stays on the highway. Places where bypasses weren’t built have become bottlenecks, like Wiscasset and Camden, or garish commercial strips, like Ellsworth (though I hasten to add that Ellsworth’s downtown has seen some improvement over the past few years).

But the battle to build a bypass around Wiscasset, pitting the interests of local businesses against those of through-drivers, never seems to end. Fifty years ago, back in the Middle Automobile Age, it might have worked. Gas was cheap and the car was king. Fifty years from now, in the year 2067, will Americans still be driving the way we do? Will we still be addicted to ours cars, no matter the cost?

There’s also the problem of induced, or generated, traffic: the principle that building new roads attracts new drivers. In an article for Wired magazine titled What’s Up With That: Building Bigger Roads Actually Makes Traffic Worse, Adam Mann pretty much spells it out:

“…if you expand people’s ability to travel, they will do it more, living farther away from where they work and therefore being forced to drive into town. Making driving easier also means that people take more trips in the car than they otherwise would. Finally, businesses that rely on roads will swoop into cities with many of them, bringing trucking and shipments. The problem is that all these things together erode any extra capacity you’ve built into your street network, meaning traffic levels stay pretty much constant. As long as driving on the roads remains easy and cheap, people have an almost unlimited desire to use them.”

Mann is not as much a fan of public transportation as I am (he favors imposing tolls on well-traveled roads at times of high congestion, as some cities in Europe do). But a few trains and buses a day in the summer between Brunswick and Rockland might make a small dent in traffic, at a fraction of the cost of building a bypass.

Then there’s Acadia National Park. Cars clogged Cadillac Mountain Road to the point that the park had to close it several times over the holiday weekend. And someone flipped a van on Park Loop Road.

I love Maine as much as anybody else. I grew up here, and I’ve chosen to live here. But we’re in danger of loving it to death with cars. I believe the day will come when Acadia closes most of the park roads to private cars in peak season, allowing only bicyclists, hikers, and buses. People will grumble at first, but it will improve the park experience for everyone, not to mention the air quality. It is a national park, after all.

I also believe that public transportation along the Maine Coast will continue to grow, and to attract former drivers like me. Route One through Wiscasset will remain slow in the summer, as it has been my whole life. But that’s just Southern California on an average day. Except for a few summer weekends, Maine doesn’t have traffic.

We’re a rural state, full of places hard to get to by any other means. But cars can be shared, rented, borrowed or hired – everybody doesn’t have to own one. I hope to live long enough to see this movement take root.

Full disclosure compels me to report that I’ve driven – yes, in a car – to the coast in Brooklin three times already in the month of July. If that makes me a hypocrite, so be it. The Maine Coast is a beautiful place, and summers are short.

 

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.

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.

Spring in Maine is like a Baseball Argument in a Traffic Jam

The only things more tedious than awaiting spring in Maine are: waiting for the umpires to review a replay in a baseball game, and sitting behind the wheel in a line of stalled traffic. Whose bad idea was it to replace an umpire’s eyes with a barrage of camera angles? And whose bad idea was it to herd everyone into cars?

It doesn’t make much sense to complain about things over which you have no control. That didn’t stop generations of Red Sox fans from bemoaning the sale of Babe Ruth, the trade of Sparky Lyle for Danny Cater, or Grady Little’s decision to leave Pedro Martinez in game seven of the 2003 ALCS an inning too long. I don’t complain about baseball anymore. The Red Sox have won three times, the Cubs won last year, and the apocalypse may be upon us. I don’t have any control of that, either.

The weather in Maine is a lot like baseball. We can watch, we can whine, but we can do very little, at least in the short run, to change the outcome. The Earth Day event to celebrate the Community Connector bus system has been postponed until the tenth of June. We can only hope that the sun might shine on that day– and on the future of public transportation in Maine.

What did I expect when I moved back here after nearly two decades in sunny southern California? I told myself I didn’t mind the snow as long as I didn’t have to drive in it. I took up cross-country skiing. I wore out a couple pairs of boots, and I learned to dress in layers when I left the house in the morning.

But April is the cruelest month. It wears you out with anticipation as it delivers one gray day after another. The weather smiled on the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race and my family’s annual Easter gathering. I missed them both with the flu. I never get the flu, and in my arrogant assumption of ongoing good health, I never get a flu shot, either. I’m not complaining. Illness happens, and this year it happened to me.

I used to complain about California traffic. “This is no way to live,” I muttered to myself while taking the kids to school in the morning, two freeway exits away. Maine does not have traffic. Last week I had a conversation about this on the bus with a man who had lived in Houston. We discussed Maine’s idea of traffic, which might occur on the odd tourist weekend at the base of the Maine turnpike. But even that is mild compared to San Diego – or Houston or any other Sun Belt city – on a normal day.

When I came to Maine as a child, my family drove up Route One, through Brunswick and Bath, where the divided road still ends, and Wiscasset, which wasn’t so much of a bottleneck then. There’s a huge car dealership just outside Wiscasset that wasn’t there during my childhood. Route One can be slow through there in the summer, but it’s nothing Californians would call traffic.

Is it any wonder, then, that Mainers are cool to the concept of public transportation? The automobile saturation that plagues so much of our country is barely in evidence here. What is the problem, on a collective level, with everybody using a car? On an individual level it’s not so great – many people make themselves poor by failing to imagine a life without car ownership – but Maine’s roads are mostly uncongested, even in the summer.

Still, public transportation is something I can do something about – by using it as much as possible, by refusing to own a car, and by writing this blog. Even in Maine, many people do not need cars every day of their lives. Many households can reduce the number of vehicles in the dooryard and see significant savings as a result. It’s in everybody’s best interest to reduce our overall dependence on cars, and good public transportation is integral to that goal.

So I’ll keep lobbying for later bus hours, expanded routes, passenger trains, and a less entrenched car culture. Every person on the bus represents one less car stuck in traffic, a chunk of a paycheck that can be spent on something else, and a small reduction in greenhouse gases. It’s good for all of us.