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.

The Murder Weapon Was a Car

A car in the wrong hands can be a lethal weapon, as the recent confrontation in Charlottesville showed us again. It’s impossible for me to fathom how anyone can think that deliberately striking someone with an automobile is acceptable under any circumstances. That it was done in the name of “white supremacy” makes it all the more sickening.

It’s not the car’s fault, of course. Most car owners use them responsibly. When a car kills a pedestrian – or bicyclist – it’s usually an accident. Not this time.

Then again, how can a group of white men, 152 years after the end of the Civil War and 52 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, think that it’s acceptable to march down a city street at night with lit torches, waving Confederate flags and shouting threats at Jews and other minorities? The First Amendment gives them the right to do it – and the American Civil Liberties Union, normally a bogeyman for conservatives, backed them up – but the culpability for the violence is on the people with the torches as much as the driver of the car.

He may have acted alone, but he was not a lone representative of the craziness that seems to have gripped this country. Everyone’s angry at everyone else. Of all the candidates who ran for President, we elected the one who encouraged assaults at his rallies and police beatings as policy.

Into this overall backdrop of violence, young people grow up in an economy that no longer works for them as it did for their parents. They’re pissed, and their anger is channeled and amplified by the most powerful voice in the land. A car in the hands of an angry young man can turn deadly in less than a second.

Sadly, there are those who welcome such confrontations, who advocate for running down protesters with the temerity to temporarily block a road. Their anger is not limited to matters of race, class, or politics. Check the comments in your local online newspaper the next time a motorist kills or injures someone on a bicycle.

There’s an ongoing event in some cities called “Critical Mass.” A group of bicyclists gathers at a specific time to ride en masse over a predetermined route. The number of bicyclists forces the cars to slow down, and some drivers become furious about it.

But the bicyclists are doing nothing wrong. They are exercising their right to travel on a public way. They’re doing what cars do every day. I’ve never heard a bicyclist rail against rush hour traffic. There is something about a car that brings out a sense of entitlement, often followed by disproportionate rage when an accustomed path of travel is, literally or figuratively, blocked.

I do not mean to diminish the racial issues swirling around Charlottesville by writing about cars and bicycles. But cars are not only weapons, they’re also isolation chambers, preventing us from coming face-to-face with our fellow citizens even at close range. The homicidal driver in Charlottesville surely did not know the names of any of his victims. He made no attempt to talk to them before running them down.

A few years ago, I shared a newspaper story with a class of college students about a rubber plantation in Liberia where, for pennies a day, workers extracted rubber for Firestone tires. It was just before the Super Bowl. The author pointed out that Firestone had paid millions for a halftime commercial but skimped on wages and health care for its Liberian workers. My students were largely unmoved. They just wanted to watch football.

We seem to have little problem with violence as long as it’s at a comfortable distance. Our movies are filled with gunfights and car chases. Football is our favorite sport, though it causes debilitating injuries to most people who play it for any length of time. A car is a safe space from which to curse at protesters, bicyclists, and other drivers.

But our use of cars also requires near-slave labor in other countries, environmental degradation of some of the most fragile places on Earth, and a way of life predicated on putting lethal weapons in the hands of nearly everyone. It’s inevitable that some people will kill with cars. It’s criminal for a latter-day lynch mob to encourage them.

_______

Wednesday, August 16 at 4 pm I’ll be a guest on Downtown with Rich Kimball on The Pulse AM 620 WZON in Bangor, where we will chat with Melody L. Hoffmann, author of Bike Lanes are White Lanes, from the University of Nebraska Press. Join Rich and crew for some interesting conversation.

The August Eclipse: Accident or Divine Coincidence?

 

A total eclipse of the Sun almost makes me believe in God.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, I’ll be in Missouri on August 21 to see my fifth one of these things, but my first since 1979. A total solar eclipse is, hands down, the most extraordinary natural event I’ve ever witnessed. For a few minutes, you can see where you are in space: on a ball of rock circling a ball of fire, with a smaller ball of rock passing between. That’s you, standing in the shadow it casts.

The shadow is only about 70 miles wide, which explains why solar eclipses, while they occur at least every two years, rarely touch the same spot twice in an average human lifetime. You usually have to make an effort to see one.

We Earthlings are fortunate to see them at all. We live on the only planet in the Solar System – and possibly the galaxy – that puts on this kind of show.

During the few minutes of totality, the disk of the Sun is hidden behind the Moon, but you can see the Sun’s atmosphere, or corona, shimmering around it. At this time it is perfectly safe to look at. The danger to your eyes in an eclipse occurs in the moments before and after totality, when you are looking at a sliver of direct sunlight that doesn’t hurt your eyes but can damage them.

Other planets have moons, but they are either too large or too small or too close or too distant to cover the sun exactly. From the surface of the Earth, the Moon and the Sun are the same apparent size. There is no requirement of physics to explain this.

But the distances between Earth and Moon are not constant, because orbiting bodies move in ellipses, not circles. When a solar eclipse occurs near the Moon’s apogee (farthest distance from Earth) and/or Earth’s perihelion (closest approach to the Sun), the disk of the Moon is not big enough to cover the Sun, resulting in an annular, or ring eclipse, similar to a partial eclipse in that it doesn’t get dark.

Furthermore, the Moon is moving slowly away from Earth. The pace is beyond glacial, but in a few million years, there will be no more total solar eclipses. The concurrence of humanity’s emergence and perfect eclipses troubles some scientists. In his excellent 2011 book Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique (Wiley), John Gribben explains:

“Just now, the Moon is about 400 times smaller than the Sun, but the Sun is about 400 times farther away than the Moon, so that they look the same size on the sky. At the present moment of cosmic time, during an eclipse, the disc of the Moon almost exactly covers the disk of the Sun. In the past, the Moon would have looked much bigger, and would have completely obscured the Sun during eclipses; in the future, the Moon will look much smaller from Earth and a ring of sunlight will be visible even during an eclipse. Nobody has been able to think of a reason why intelligent beings capable of noticing this oddity should have evolved on Earth just at the time that the coincidence was there to be noticed. It worries me, but most people seem to accept it as just one of those things.”

It doesn’t worry Caleb Scharf, Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University. In a 2012 blog for Scientific American titled The Solar Eclipse Coincidence, he wrote:

“Is there some great significance to the fact that we humans just happen to exist at a time when the Moon and Sun appear almost identically large in our skies? Nope, we’re just landing in a window of opportunity that’s probably about 100 million years wide, nothing obviously special, just rather good luck.”

Do coincidences happen? Probability dictates that they must. California’s Bay Area experienced its biggest earthquake since 1906 in the middle of the only World Series ever played between San Francisco and Oakland, but that doesn’t mean the ballgame caused the quake.

Perhaps we’re here because of an extraordinary run of good luck, akin to flipping a hundred heads in a row, something that might happen only once in the lifetime of the Universe. Our spectacular solar eclipses might be the result of similar luck.

Or just maybe, some ancient intelligence we don’t yet understand placed the Earth, Moon and Sun just so, to nudge a curious species toward contemplating the Cosmos. As though we were meant to reach for the stars, from the start.

Who knows? I certainly don’t.

 

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Re-Immersion into the Car Culture can be Sudden and Swift

The lovely Lisa and I are both entering the time in our lives when aging parents sometimes need our help. Last week they needed our help simultaneously, on opposite sides of Penobscot Bay. The week went by in a whirlwind of phone calls, logistics, cars and trucks, and driving.

Although I haven’t owned a car since 2007, I’ve renewed my driver’s license twice in that time. I do, after all, know how to drive. I even had a school bus license back in my college days, and I was once in an outdoor play called The Boys From Swanville, where I got to drive an old pickup into and out of a scene because I could operate an on-the-column manual transmission.

As an American born in the second half of the 20th century, I am a de facto citizen of the Car Culture whether I like it or not. There’s no escaping it entirely. It’s all around us. We live in the world we’re given, and we change it incrementally, through small individual actions. This I believe.

Thus it was that I spent much of the week behind the wheel, on rural Maine roads and the mean streets of Bangor. I drove on the interstate and parked in a parking garage. I used the drive-through ATM at a bank and ordered fast food through a car window. I know that these are routine, mundane things in the lives of most drivers. For me, they were reminders of a lifestyle I was glad to give up.

I’m happy to live in Bangor, where I can take a bus to work or use my bicycle to run errands or walk to the neighborhood store. I can get on a bus and go to Rockland or Boston, and I can rent a car for the occasional trip to the hinterlands. But even here, the extent to which commerce is geared to the car can be discouraging. I thought of this the other day, when I needed some brass bolts for a boat project I’m working on. The walkable downtown hardware store went out of business several years ago, and the nearest one to reach by bike didn’t have brass bolts. I ended up on outer Hammond Street, a lone bicyclist among the cars, to get something that fits easily into a pants pocket.

In small towns, it’s worse. My mother lives miles from the nearest quart of cold milk. Everyone has to drive for everything. The grocery store is the center for local gossip and conversation, which more often than not takes place in the parking lot. It works fine for able-bodied people with good eyesight and reflexes. But a car-centric culture tends to exclude the elderly and the physically challenged.

When I don’t drive – and sometimes weeks go by when I don’t – I’m not connected to a lot of the conversation that underpins day-to-day life. I lose track of gas prices. I fail to remember that a particular exit ramp is under construction, or that a certain street I walk home on is one-way to cars. Frost heaves and potholes don’t concern me much. Nor does the school schedule, or the parade of trucks along Route 1A and Route 1. I don’t have to think about where to park or how much, if anything, it costs. I have nothing to say when Mainers who’ve never been to southern California start to complain about summer traffic.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes behind the wheel to bring it all back. Driving is like riding a bicycle in that respect at least: the muscle memory stays with you. So, unfortunately, does the attitude. I heard myself swearing softly at other drivers as I jockeyed for position or trolled for parking. Driving is competitive. It’s also exhausting, even though you’re not getting any exercise.

Sometimes driving is the only option. My last week in the American Car Culture was proof enough of that. But it doesn’t have to be a way of life.

Few of us need our cars every single day. We have allowed ourselves to believe this myth, and we have constructed commerce around it. There’s no rule that says we can’t construct a different kind of commerce, with hardware stores we can walk to, and more centralized services. That’s the world I hope to live in. We will get there gradually, in small steps.

Traffic slowly in the World you wish to Change, or something like that

 

 

“Beam me up, Scotty.”

“Billions and billions…”

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

These famous quotes are attributed to Captain James T. Kirk, Carl Sagan, and Mohandas Gandhi. None of them ever uttered the actual words.

The closest Kirk ever came was: “We’re very tired, Mr. Scott. Beam us up home.” The Sagan quote comes from Johnny Carson, who was an astronomy enthusiast as well as a late-night television host.

Altruists cite Gandhi’s quote as an admonishment to do good work in the world. Though my motivations aren’t entirely unselfish, I like to think there’s a little bit of Gandhi in my life without a car. I want to see fewer cars on the road and therefore don’t own one. It may seem like a small thing, subtracting one car from the vast American traffic picture, but small increments can add up to overall change.

Here is the actual Gandhi quote, and its source:

We but mirror the world.  All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body.  If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.  As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.  This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.

[From VOL 13, Ch 153, General Knowledge About Health, Page 241, Printed in the Indian Opinion on 9/8/1913 from The Collected Works of M. K. Gandhi, published by The Publications Division, New Delhi, India.]

Bumper-sticker folk wisdom has condensed it to a single sentence, a phrase we can all remember. It’s not bad advice, especially the last part. I’m not waiting for public transportation to get better or for drivers to get friendlier toward bicyclists; I’m riding the bus and the bicycle now. I’m not sure that giving up cars has changed my nature in the sense that Gandhi meant, but it has changed my outlook on life.

 

I’ve just wrapped up another semester at the University of Maine, where I teach creative writing. Though I’ve spent much of my life in journalism, I think of myself as a fiction writer first. My novels still sometimes turn up in used bookstores.

Many of my students are not English majors and do not plan on careers as writers. Nonetheless, I’m convinced that writing fiction can help a college graduate in any field, because the creation of story imparts a valuable human skill: the ability to see things from other points of view.

College students are generally good at describing their feelings and fantasies. They do less well with observation and reportage, and they struggle mightily with point of view. This is, of course, a generalization, but it’s mostly true.

It’s a difficult thing to ask a twenty-year-old to do: put yourself in the mind of another individual, with different experiences, goals and values. Then give that character a challenge of some kind. People react differently to challenges. As students begin to consider this, they look up from their cellphones and into the real world and its real people. Why? Because fiction gives us insight into our differences. It makes us more understanding and compassionate. It helps promote a better world.

They have grown up in a world of bumper stickers and Twitter, video games and high-speed Internet. Seeing from a different point of view is new to them. And so they struggle. Most become better writers by the end of the semester, and maybe better citizens, too, if empathy has anything to do with citizenship.

 

We Americans like things simple. We like “high-concept” movies like Jaws and Snakes on a Plane that we can describe in a few words. We like cars, because we can seemingly go unencumbered from one place to another at any time we wish. We reduce the wisdom of Gandhi to the pithiness of a bumper sticker.

I’d like to see a lot of changes in the world that I’ll never do anything about. The designated hitter has to go, for instance, and the Dakotas should be one state, with two senators. I’ll leave the fighting and losing of those battles to someone else.

But I can keep my name off a car registration, and I can continue to expose young minds to the reading and writing of fiction. It’s not much, but it’s the least I can do.

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.