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.

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.

 

What is the true meaning of Earth Day?

 

In June 1989, five months after running aground and spilling its cargo all over Alaska’s Prince William Sound, the Exxon Valdez limped home to San Diego, still leaking a trail of oil.

I went down to see it at the shipyard, but the public wasn’t allowed in close and there wasn’t much to see. The costs of the American car culture are often hidden from view.

I’m reminded of this as Earth Day approaches, on the heels of Easter. The two celebrations of spring occur within a week of each other this year, thanks to the configuration of the Earth and Moon.

Though only 47 years old, Earth Day is now observed in more than 180 countries. Which makes sense when you think about it. Humanity has many religions, but, so far, only one planet.

The first Earth Day was a response to a massive oil spill near Santa Barbara, twenty years before the Exxon Valdez disaster. It was the brainchild of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat and early opponent of the Vietnam War. Nelson toured the California coastline in the aftermath of the spill and thought that the energy of the anti-war protests could be brought to bear on environmental issues.

From Nelson’s 2005 obituary in the New York Times:

More than 20 million Americans marked the first Earth Day in ways as varied as the dragging of tires and old appliances out of the Bronx River in White Plains and campus demonstrations in Oregon. Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York closed Fifth Avenue to vehicles. Congress shut its doors so lawmakers could participate in local events. Legislatures from 42 states passed Earth Day resolutions to commemorate the date.

Senator Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 by President Bill Clinton, who praised him as “the father of Earth Day.”

The Santa Barbara disaster occurred in the heart of America’s car culture, within view of the Pacific Highway. More than 3 million gallons of crude oil fouled some of the most popular beaches in the world, and killed untold thousands of birds, fish and sea mammals.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

The Jan. 28, 1969, blowout was caused by inadequate safety precautions taken by Unocal, which was known then as Union Oil. The company received a waiver from the U.S. Geological Survey that allowed it to build a protective casing around the drilling hole that was 61 feet short of the federal minimum requirements at the time.

The resulting explosion was so powerful it cracked the sea floor in five places, and crude oil spewed out of the rupture at a rate of 1,000 gallons an hour for a month before it could be slowed.

It was the worst oil spill in the nation’s history – until 20 years later, when the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude off the coast of Alaska.

In those twenty years, California and the United States, with bipartisan support, passed reams of environmental legislation. There is little doubt that these laws have improved all of our lives. Los Angeles still has smog, but not like it did in 1969, thanks to the requirement that all vehicles pass an emissions test before they can be registered. We still have bad oil spills, like the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, but we also have an enhanced awareness of our impact on the planetary ecosystem.

In the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill, Greenpeace ran an ad campaign with the slogan: “It wasn’t the tanker captain’s driving that caused the Alaska oil spill. It was yours.”

Even the car-happy cities of southern California are starting to take this to heart, and invest in public transportation. If we are serious about the environment – and the expanding observance of Earth Day shows that we are – there is no mission more important than promoting alternatives to the private car.

And that’s why I’ll be down in Bangor’s Pickering Square from noon to 2 pm on Saturday, April 22, Earth Day, to help celebrate the Community Connector bus system. There will be free food, activities for all ages, information and entertainment. The event is hosted by Transportation for All, a volunteer group working to improve bus service in the greater Bangor area.

Every bus passenger represents a car not driven, a tank of gas not purchased, a reduction in the risk of another oil spill. Bangor’s bus system dates back to 1972, just two years after the first Earth Day. Both traditions are worth honoring.

 

A Great Country Needs a Great Train System

 

Many years ago I took my kids on a cross-country train trip. Amtrak was offering a great deal: I paid full fare for myself, half fare for the first kid, and the second kid rode for free. We bought a pass that allowed us three stops and 45 days to complete the trip, though we did it within the month of July. We visited family in Maine and Minneapolis, and spent a couple of days in San Francisco before returning to San Diego.

My son and daughter were seven and five, small enough to sleep comfortably in their seats. I don’t sleep much when I travel, but I did doze off in the observation car as the train sped through Kansas in the dead of night. We bought a pack of Amtrak playing cards, which I still have. The kids walked up and down the train during the day and made friends. On the third evening of the trip we pulled into Boston and took the subway to Fenway Park, where the Red Sox, who had a lousy team that year, won in eleven innings. The next day we took a bus to Maine.

The trip was not glitch-free. On the way back west, we decided to use a 90-minute layover in Chicago to visit the nearby Sears Tower, then the tallest building in the world. I hadn’t realized that going to the top involved a lot of standing in line and waiting for elevators. We watched helplessly from above as our tiny train pulled out of the station without us. My sister met us the following morning at the Greyhound station in Minneapolis, after an overnight ride on a crowded bus. In San Francisco I dropped my acoustic guitar on the stone floor of a hotel lobby, breaking its neck.

But my kids remembered that trip so fondly that ten years later, when we were living in Maine and planning a spring break trip to California, they insisted we go by train.

The experience was exponentially more pleasant that getting onto an airplane. We saw parts of the country you can’t see from the air or the Interstate. There was room to move around and get away from one another. Yes, the trains were late, and yes, federal subsidies kept the fares affordable. Amtrak’s critics are quick to point out the system’s costs and shortcomings. But as an American taxpayer, I want the opportunity to see my country by train, even if I only take advantage of it once a decade or so.

When I moved to California in the 1980s, I became involved with a group of people promoting high-speed rail in the corridor between Los Angeles and San Diego. Jerry Brown had already served two terms as governor and made two unsuccessful bids for the presidency. He had already earned the nickname “Governor Moonbeam” for backing high-speed rail and other futuristic projects. Today he’s governor again, throwing his weight behind a high-speed line connecting the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas, and he’s still being ridiculed for it. The governors of Florida and Wisconsin rejected federal funds for high-speed rail projects that would have created jobs and alleviated traffic in their states.

A great country needs a great train system. We have a mediocre one – which is still better than nothing. But why is it so hard to build and maintain modern, high-speed passenger train service in the United States? Why does it take so long? And why the unreasonable expectation of profitability, when we don’t apply the same standard to cars and trucks and airplanes?

In the years following World War II, while Europe and Japan were modernizing and developing their rail infrastructure, the United States built the Interstate Highway system, at a cost of more than $500 billion in 2008 dollars. The federal government subsidized 90% of this cost. Annual support of the Interstates costs more per passenger mile than keeping Amtrak running at its present, minimal level. And yet despite this massive government giveaway to the owners of cars and trucks, Amtrak continually faces threats of budget cuts or outright elimination.

It would be a shame if the federal government eliminated long-distance rail service and forced more people into cars and crowded airports. It would also go against the flow of history, at a time when Americans are waking up to the wastefulness of our car culture. I’m glad my kids got to see the country by train. I want tomorrow’s kids to have that same opportunity.


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Are we Driving Ourselves to the Poorhouse?

 

Maine is famous for low wages and small towns. Those small towns have been losing population for decades. When I was growing up in Blue Hill, families with five, six, or more children were common. Last year, deaths outnumbered births in all but two of Maine’s 16 counties.

My parents had five kids and two cars. My father drove one of those cars a mile and a half to work, where it sat in a parking lot all day. My mother used the other one to haul groceries and to take us to doctor’s appointments and such. Almost everybody we knew lived like this.

It’s hard to question a lifestyle when you’re living inside it. I anticipated that I would buy a car as soon as I got my license, and that I would spend my working years as a car owner. It took many years of driving and pouring money into a series of vehicles before I began to think seriously about alternatives.

Thus I sympathize with the young woman whose story appeared recently in the Bangor Daily News, my hometown newspaper. She is by all accounts a skilled elder care worker with a full-time job at a Bangor facility. Her salary – about $1,600 per month – barely covers her basic living expenses. Her story is repeated all over the state.

And yet, according to the BDN, those basic expenses include a monthly car payment of $233 and an insurance premium of $135. Before she puts gas in the car, or buys a set of tires or has an oil change or a minor repair, she has to make a monthly “nut” of $368 just to keep the thing in the driveway. And that doesn’t include registration, inspection, wiper fluid, parking tickets or any of the other little expenses that crop up from time to time. She is paying more for her car than for her monthly rent, and many Mainers are in the same boat.

Her hours may not align with the schedule, but her place of employment is right on a bus line. A monthly bus pass is $45 – a far cry from what she’s paying to keep a car.

If Maine employers want to keep skilled workers, they could raise their wages, of course – or, they could encourage them to use public transportation. The University of Maine has been doing this for years, and Husson and Eastern Maine Community College have recently followed suit. As an adjunct professor, I have months during the year when I make less than $1,600. Those times are tight, but I never have to worry about getting to work.

Municipalities can help retain workers by expanding bus schedules and encouraging employers to offer incentives like the schools do. Even small towns can do this, with a little creative thinking

Most employers willingly offer free workplace parking. What if they offered free transportation instead? This is essentially what the University of Maine does and, except for evening hours, it works splendidly. Some companies (though few, if any, in Maine) offer their employees parking offsets, where the price of a parking space is reflected in the paychecks of workers who don’t use one.

The Jackson Lab in Bar Harbor partners with public agencies to run several daily buses. This reduces traffic on Mount Desert Island and the need for more on-site parking. The bus is a boon to the employees who use it, too, because every dollar they don’t spend on a car trickles into other areas of the economy. It’s good for everybody.

We need to think differently about the way we use cars. We don’t all need our own private chariots all of the time, and we certainly can’t keep doing it forever. But it will take time to convince most Americans of this. Most of us have spent our whole lives believing exactly the opposite.

A changing mindset about our use of automobiles will produce other long-term benefits. We won’t have to keep filling our cities with parking lots. We won’t have to keep paying oil companies to drill for more and more oil in fragile ecosystems like the Arctic. And perhaps we can fight fewer wars over this finite resource.

Yes, Maine needs better wages. But businesses and local governments can also expend a little capital to promote ride-sharing, public transportation, and smart development. This in turn can encourage more Mainers to get out of the cars that are keeping them poorer than they should be.

The Designated Driver is a better Idea than the Designated Hitter

I am a Red Sox fan. I’ve been lucky to live long enough to see them win three World Series, a feat that eluded Ted Williams, my father’s hero, and Carl Yastrzemski, mine.

At the center of those three championship teams was David Ortiz, widely regarded as the best designated hitter ever to play the game. Unlike the rest of baseball, the history of the DH doesn’t go back very far – only to 1973, when the American League decided that casual fans were bored by watching pitchers try to hit.

Next to playing the World Series at night – another dubious legacy of the 1970s, a decade full of them – the designated hitter is the worst idea ever foisted on the best team sport in the world.

I’m probably on the losing side of this argument. The DH has permeated all levels of the game, down to college and high school. It was used in the recently completed World Baseball Classic. Many pitchers like it, and so do aging hitters who can’t get around so well in the field any more.

I would trade the championships of 2007 and 2013 (but not 2004 – that one I’ll always cherish) to make Ortiz play first base and John Lester swing the bat. Watch a National League game, and it becomes clear that baseball is a better sport when the pitcher bats.

Barry Zito was a soft-tossing lefty who won a Cy Young Award with the Oakland Athletics in 2002. Six years later, he signed a lucrative free-agent deal with the cross-town San Francisco Giants, and his career promptly tanked. But in 2012, the Giants, down 3-1 in the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals, gave the ball to Zito, having no one else.

Zito’s fastball topped out at 85 miles per hour, and if he couldn’t throw his curve for strikes, he often got pounded. In the second inning, the Cardinals put runners on second and third with nobody out. Zito struck out the number-seven hitter on a curve. That brought up Pete Kozma, a rookie on a hot streak. Zito walked Kozma intentionally. Lance Lynn, the Cardinals’ pitcher, promptly grounded into a double play to end the inning.

There was no score at the time, and had the Cardinals plated those two runs, they may have gone on to win the game and the series. Instead, Zito took a shutout into the eighth to save the Giants’ season. They went on to win the World Series.

There’s more. The Giants put together three runs in the fourth before Zito came to the plate with two out and runners on first and third. Seeing that the third baseman was playing back, he laid down a bunt and beat the throw to first as the fourth run scored.

In an American League game, neither of these scenarios would have happened. The Giants would not have been able to manipulate the Cardinals’ batting order around the pitcher to get out of a jam, and Zito would not have come to the plate at all.

A good National League game is baseball at its best. The pitcher is not an automatic out, but he is a built-in soft spot in the batting order, and opposing pitchers work the innings accordingly. Fernando Valenzuela was a master at this. He was also a pretty fair hitter.

Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka drove in two crucial runs in the 2007 World Series with his only hit of the year. In 1985, an obscure relief pitcher named Rick Camp hit his only career homer to tie a Fourth of July game in the 18th inning, only to give up five runs in the top of the 19th and lose the game. Knuckleball pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm hit a home run the first time he came to the plate, played for 20 more seasons, and never hit another one.

The designated hitter robs baseball of these delightful anomalies. A manager no longer needs to decide whether to leave his pitcher in a tight game or lift him for a pinch-hitter. It makes a subtle sport a little less so.

Much of baseball’s appeal lies beneath the surface of the action on the field. A good ballgame is like a good novel, which is why the sport is so beloved by writers. It asks the audience to flesh out scenarios with their imagination, to anticipate rather than to simply watch.

I guess maybe I am a purist, about some things.

“Slow” is just a Four-Letter Word

 

I’m watching the World Baseball Classic in the middle of a Maine snowstorm. Venezuela is playing Italy, and I don’t know many of the players, but I don’t care. Baseball’s back, after a dark winter.

When the time changes in March I often take my bicycle out, but the wintry weather discourages me. I skied home instead. There are many ways to get around without a car – almost all of them slower.

I named this blog Slower Traffic, as in “slower traffic keep right” on the road signs, but also because that was literally what I intended to write about: walking, bicycling, and public transportation. All of these are usually slower than driving.

But so what? Baseball is slow. Yet it’s also the most interesting sport we have, because there is more going on beneath the surface in a baseball game than in a season of hockey, football and basketball rolled together.

Maine is slow. When I moved back to Maine after 16 years in southern California, the phrase I heard most often was “quality of life.” This means that you can work well and still have time to sail, go camping, or enjoy a backyard barbecue. Everyone doesn’t live on top of everybody else, and we aren’t all rushing to get somewhere. Mainers make fun of people from Massachusetts, because they always seem to be in a hurry. Life should be less frenetic, and in Maine it is.

Willie Nelson is slow. His songs ooze out of him like warm maple syrup over a stack of blueberry pancakes. Who doesn’t like Willie Nelson? Even people who say they don’t like country music like Willie Nelson. He’s in his eighties now, but he was 28 when he wrote “Crazy,” a slow song for the ages.

Writing is slow – real writing, that is. Consider the paragraph, what E.B. White called the basic unit of composition. A piece of writing is composed of paragraphs, strung together like strands of DNA. The paragraph now finds itself in peril. We live in the age of Twitter, where wit passes for wisdom and the bulk of the population doesn’t read books. If we want to stop the dumbing down of America, here would be a good place to start.

How long did it take Charles Dickens to write Great Expectations? It took me a few months to read it, on the bus in half-hour installments. I wrote much of my own long novel on the bus. I can’t read or write in a car, though I know people who listen to books on tape while they’re driving. But I would have a hard time paying attention, I think, and an even harder time flipping back a couple of pages to catch something I might have missed.

Sailing is slow. So are badminton, curling, and cross-country skiing. What else is good but slow? Chess, and poker, and the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by Arthur C. Clarke.

When did “slow” become a bad word? Maybe we could all use a little less speed in our lives. Maybe we would live in a saner world if we took the time to do slow things on a regular basis.

I confess that I drove to Belfast recently, and became annoyed at a slow driver on the way back through Hampden. But then I remembered the driver who passed us earlier that morning when we pulled over for an ambulance, just so he could nose into the drive-thru at Dunkin’ Donuts. Fast can be annoying, too.

On the other hand, I like my high-speed internet, and I’m a proponent of high-speed rail, though I’ve never ridden on a so-called “bullet train” like they have in Europe and Japan. When I moved to California in the 1980s there was talk of building such a rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Thirty years later, it still isn’t done. I guess high-speed rail is slow, too, at least in the United States.

But is there anything slower than the month of March in northern latitudes? “Just kill me now,” Julius Caesar said, on another cold gray day in Rome without a hint of spring in the air. The Romans knew about the slow precession of the equinoxes, but they knew nothing of Daylight Savings Time, or baseball. They just sat around in their villas drinking wine and waiting for spring. Only their Mediterranean climate saved them from sheer madness.

Pedestrian Road Deaths and One Near-Death Experience

 

Years ago, I almost ran down a homeless man in San Diego. I don’t know for sure that he was homeless, but he wandered across the four-lane Pacific Highway one night, dressed all in dark clothing, in front of my car. I only saw him at the last second, and I don’t think he saw me at all. He had long dark hair and an old army overcoat. I might have missed him by two feet.

That’s not much margin for error. I could have as easily hit him as not. I would have stopped, and I would have likely been arrested. My life would be different today. I’d have the death or grievous injury of a human being on my conscience, and probably a record, too.

I’m reminded of this every time I see a news story about a pedestrian killed by a car. It could have been me, in either position. Nowadays chances are better that I’d be on foot, and thus my chances of surviving such an accident would be worse. But it could happen to anyone.

Recently, two regular readers (thank you, readers) sent me two links: one from Maine, the other from Ireland.

Writing in the Portland Press Herald, James Hettenbach and Lauri Boxer-Macomber lament the public tendency to side with drivers:

“All too often after the death of a pedestrian or bicyclist, the media and public ask questions like: Why was she wearing dark clothing at night? Why wasn’t he using a light or a flashlight? Why was she in a dimly lit area? Why was he riding his bike on that street at that time? The discourse evokes a blame-the-victim mindset, suggesting that pedestrians and cyclists on Maine’s roadways somehow invite their own deaths by walking to the grocery store in jeans and a parka instead of a neon orange reflective jacket.”

Theirs is a valid point, and I’ll return to it in a moment. But some pedestrians and cyclists are hard to see. As a walker and cyclist I am every bit as invested in my own safety as is the driver of a car. When I drive, I don’t run red lights for fear of getting T-boned, and when I walk I don’t recklessly wander into lanes of moving traffic. I use lights on my bike at night and wear bright clothing.

But I empathize with drivers who get annoyed when people ride bikes without lights or cross the street in the middle of the block on a dark night. At the same time, drivers must accept most of the onus for safety, because they are the ones operating a lethally powerful machine. That’s why we license drivers but not bicyclists, and why we don’t tell pedestrians what to wear.

It’s up to the driver, ultimately, to look out for pedestrians and cyclists. With greater power (a motor vehicle vs. a bicycle or a human body) comes greater responsibility.

The piece from Ireland, written by Cian Ginty, contains a revealing short video, an “awareness test” that demonstrates how easy it is not to see something you aren’t looking for. I wasn’t looking for a guy crossing the Pacific Highway on foot that night in San Diego. But it would have been my fault if I had hit him.

Unexpected things can happen on the road at any time. Drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists are all capable of erratic behavior. Animals can come out of nowhere; ditto children and homeless people.

The best way to increase pedestrian and cyclist safety is for more people to walk and bicycle, and for drivers to be constantly aware of them. Ginty concurs:

“One of the most quoted bits of research is from public health consultant Peter Jacobsen, who studied data from Europe and North America. Jacobsen established that: ‘A motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking and bicycling if more people walk or bicycle. Policies that increase the numbers of people walking and bicycling appear to be an effective route to improving the safety of people walking and bicycling.’

He says this result is “unexpected” as it is ‘unlikely that the people walking and bicycling become more cautious if their numbers are larger, it indicates that the behaviour of motorists controls the likelihood of collisions with people walking and bicycling. It appears that motorists adjust their behaviour in the presence of people walking and bicycling.’”

I’ve left intact his Irish spelling. It behooves us all to behave better, on either side of the ocean, or the windshield.

 

 

 

Lessons from the Slow Lane

 

The beginning of March marks two years since I began this blog. This is my 105th weekly post, the first of Slower Traffic’s third year. I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read and comment. I’ve always seen this blog as a pebble thrown into the pond of a larger conversation.

I gave up car ownership in 2007, initially for a year. It’s the only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept. A decade later, I can honestly say it’s changed my life.

Only after I began to do some research did I realize that I was part of a movement, small but growing, a pushback against the ubiquity of the car and the car culture. I seldom questioned my need for a vehicle, even as I simmered in San Diego freeway traffic, or scraped the bottom of my bank account to buy snow tires. It wasn’t until I gave up owning cars that I saw how unnecessary it was for me to own one.

Can everyone do it? Of course not – but that’s not the point. Many of us can. Many of us only think we need a car at our disposal, all the time. I know. I was one of them.

Cars always kept me broke. They got me to jobs, but they also sucked up a good part of my paychecks. In his seminal 2006 book How to Live Well without Owning a Car, Chris Balish elucidates the economic case: “Car ownership can rob you of a secure retirement. It can destroy your ability to save for college, start a business, or invest for the future.”

Consequently, when I came to Bangor and discovered that the bus could take me to and from my new job at the University of Maine, I sold my last car. Since then, I’ve been divorced, lived alone, and now live in a two-person household with a driveway barely big enough for one car.

But you can’t give up owning cars without making a few adjustments. I’ve been able to find places to live near bus lines and businesses that I can walk to. This isn’t true of all areas even within city limits. I’ve written about food deserts among Bangor’s neighborhoods, where the location of grocery stores almost mandates the use of a car. There are parts of the city that the bus doesn’t serve. It’s hard to get to the Cross Center on a Saturday, for example, because the Hampden Town Council eliminated Saturday bus service.

It isn’t hard to live without owning a car. You will be amazed at the money you save. And you will feel better physically. Here are a few words of advice, from insights I’ve gleaned over the past ten years:

Invest in a good pair of walking shoes. In the winter, this means boots. You’ll walk more. But that’s okay, because walking is good for you. I dropped ten pounds in two months without even trying. I dislike gyms and ritualized exercise. But it’s a rare day that I don’t walk the half-mile between home and downtown at least once. I shop on foot. A walk is a good way to clear your head, meet your neighbors, and get out into the natural world.

Ride a bicycle. This I do in the warmer months, though I see intrepid souls out there throughout the year. Everything I said about walking goes double for a bicycle. It’s great exercise, and the more cyclists there are on the roads, the safer the roads are for everyone.

Use public transportation. Bangor has a great bus system, with friendly drivers and convenient routes. I have long advocated for later evening hours, and when that happens, Bangor will see an uptick in ridership and an increase in commerce. The bus is free to anyone affiliated with the University of Maine, Husson University, and Eastern Maine Community College, and even if you pay for a monthly pass, it’s way cheaper than driving.

Be nice to the car owners in your life. I’m not a purist. I’ve renewed my driver’s license twice since giving up car ownership. Sometimes friends will give me rides; I make sure to do something for them in return. When I borrow the lovely Lisa’s car, I buy her a tank of gas. We live among cars, especially here in Maine. That is only going to change gradually, one former car owner at a time. But that’s how most lasting change happens.