Does Welfare for Cars Kill Walking Neighborhoods?

 

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On the same day last week, two of my favorite local businesses announced that they were closing. State Street Wine Cellar and Bottles and Cans on Main Street will have shut their doors for good by the time you read this.

Meanwhile, the Family Dollar store on the corner of State and Broadway, gutted by fire last year, will reopen sometime this summer. But down by the river, the site of my former favorite hardware store remains vacant.

For a number of reasons, it remains difficult to maintain a viable, pedestrian-based, diversified downtown business district, in Bangor, and similar small American cities. Stick a compass at City Hall, draw a circle with a radius no longer than a modest walk – say, half a mile. How many goods and services can you find within that circle? How many groceries, office supplies, housewares, tools?

It isn’t lost on me that both businesses that are closing specialized in the sale of alcoholic beverages, and that plenty of options remain for those seeking to buy a nice bottle of wine or a six-pack of craft beer. But it’s sad to lose two businesses whose proprietors knew me on a first-name basis and could recommend products I might like. More poignantly, both businesses catered to foot traffic and didn’t require swaths of land for parked cars.

Maybe the sad truth is that pedestrian-based businesses can’t do enough volume to survive in today’s car-driven economy. The owners of Bottles and Cans, for example, tried selling food (fresh vegetables, butter, eggs, e.g) in addition to beer and wine, but found themselves donating the bulk of the food to charitable organizations when it went unsold. Most of us have become conditioned to grocery stores such as Shaw’s or Hannaford, with large parking lots and without the slightest incentive to shop on foot or by bicycle.

All that parking at the supermarket is, of course, paid for by everyone who shops there. Since most customers drive, it doesn’t seem discriminatory that the prices are the same for drivers as they are for walkers, bicyclists, and bus passengers. To level the playing field, anyone who arrives at the store by some other means than a car should receive a coupon for a small discount, say, two to three percent off the total at the cash register. I’m not holding my breath.

I tried one summer to shop at only pedestrian-friendly businesses: the downtown farmers’ market, a local bakery, a walkable pharmacy and beer store. The empty hardware store still leaves a hole, in my heart as well as the downtown business district. There isn’t a good office supply store. And nobody can seem to make a go of selling groceries on a small scale.

This is what subsidized parking hath wrought.

Parking is inevitably the first or second item on the agenda at any of the public meetings I’ve sporadically attended. The parking garage at Pickering Square, which offers the first two hours free, is seldom full. The distance from the parking garage to Main Street is often less than from a parking space at the Mall to the door. Yet people balk at one and embrace the other. Why? On the rare occasions that I do drive downtown, I seldom have trouble finding a place to park. Everything is a short walk from everything else.

But most car owners operate on the premise that parking should be free, and available on demand. It is undeniably more convenient to use your car when you get free services for doing so. A drive-through cup of coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts costs not a penny more than a cup for which you walk in and pay over the counter.

The unfortunate result of this welfare for cars is that it’s created a culture of dependency. As more downtown businesses close, it becomes even more necessary to get into a car in order to obtain the basics of life. Rather than setting us free, our cars have made us their prisoners.

Driving (and owning a car) is incentivized in countless little ways, throughout the American day, the American culture, and the American economy. But it’s possible, I think, to create incentives that go the other way. Stores could offer coupons for shoppers who don’t use cars. The city could offer tax breaks to businesses with a high percentage of foot traffic, and take the long-overdue step of extending evening bus hours.

I’m sorry to see two favorite local businesses close. But as long as we continue to subsidize cars, walking communities will continue to be commercially challenged.

 

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