Happy Holidays from the Tailpipe of the Nation

Writers should avoid using the word “should.”

It’s easy to tell people what they should do. It’s also presumptuous, and often counter-productive. People don’t like to be lectured.

This blog has always been centered on my personal experience of living without owning a car in Bangor, Maine. It works for me. The same decision might not work for you, or most people you know. But it works for me, despite the obstacles.

And notice that I do not say “living without a car,” because cars remain part of my life. They are part of everybody’s life, like electricity and television – and the air we all breathe.

But recently I saw Maine referred to as “the tailpipe of the nation” in my local newspaper. The phrase referred not to cars but to power plants in the midwest and south, mostly fueled by coal. Their emissions ride the prevailing winds to Maine, like the sailing ships of yore. We’re downwind from everywhere.

In their opinion piece, contributors Paul Shapero, M.D. and Jeanette MacNeille, a longtime volunteer with the American Lung Association in Maine, called for tougher regulations on these plants. Citing high rates of asthma in Maine, and worsening air quality on warm summer days, they make a persuasive argument. Moving now to increase carbon caps will also spur the development of cleaner energy sources that will further reduce emissions in the future, they claim.

Green is also good for the economy, they argue. Innovation in renewable energy will create more jobs than any short-term revival of the coal industry. Seems reasonable.

Still, the majority of pollutants in Maine’s air come not from power plants but from motor vehicles. According to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, “mobile sources” emit half of all hazardous air pollutants in Maine. These sources include cars, trucks, buses, boats, trains, farm equipment, and recreational vehicles. The DEP’s page at maine.gov clarifies the point: “Car and truck emissions are the largest contributor of air pollution generated in Maine.”

Electric cars won’t get us out of this dilemma, because the electricity to run them has to come from some power plant somewhere. It would seem to make little difference whether air pollutants come from a handful of smokestacks or a whole lot of exhaust pipes.

Cars have gotten cleaner and more efficient in the past few decades, but there are more of them now. The best way to reduce the total output of vehicle emissions is to reduce the total number of vehicles. This means expanding public transportation, and shifting a significant amount of long-distance commerce from road to rail. On a smaller scale, it means promoting pedestrian-friendly business districts and bicycle infrastructure.

But it’s easier to regulate a few power plants than it is to meddle in the driving habits of millions of ordinary Americans. We’re used to low gas taxes and free, or mostly free, parking. We’re comfortable with freeway traffic but confused by bus schedules.

Still, I believe in the power of public policy to nudge private behavior in desirable directions. This can take many non-coercive forms, from mandating bicycle lanes to expanding bus hours. Businesses can be encouraged to offer bus passes to their employees instead of free jobsite parking. Gas taxes, currently at historic lows, can be gradually increased, which will help pay for more buses and bicycle lanes as well as encourage people to explore alternatives to car-centric lifestyles.

We can sit in Maine and point the finger at upwind power plants and tell their owners that they “should” curb carbon emissions. It’s more problematic to tell your neighbor that he “should” walk to the store for that quart of milk, or take the bus to work instead of his car.

Behavior changes slowly, over time. But it does change. People no longer smoke in bars and restaurants, for example, and those businesses have thrived as a result. Mainers don’t throw beer and soda cans out their car windows, as they did when I was growing up. It’s no longer acceptable to burn our trash in open-air dumps or dispose of industrial waste in our rivers.

In each case, public policy led the way and private behavior followed. This blog is one small attempt at the opposite. I’m not trying to tell my valued readers what they “should” do. But as more of us discover the freedom from car ownership, perhaps public policymakers will take notice.

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