One of the most gratifying things to come out of last week’s Hampden Town Council meeting was the revelation of a groundswell of support for public transportation in the greater Bangor area.
Between 20 and 30 supporters of Saturday bus service showed up at the meeting, and bus superintendent Laurie Linscott presented the council with forms signed by an additional 34 supporters who were unable to attend. A citizens’ group called Transportation For All, of which I was previously unaware, sent representatives. This show of support is all the more impressive, given that the meeting was held after bus hours, in a location that discourages access by any other means than car.
Perhaps the best comment of the evening came from an older woman who left before I could get her name. She said that while the bus is necessary for those who can’t afford a car, it’s also a boon to young people discovering that a car-free lifestyle may be worth pursuing. “I think we should support this growing movement,” she said.
And that’s what it is: a movement.
Within a month after giving up car ownership at the beginning of 2007, I began to notice the benefits. I walked everywhere, and shed extra pounds. I stopped buying gas, and had more money at the end of the month. I felt better, because I wasn’t always on the defensive, ready to be peeved at a driver in front of me who might not be moving as fast as I’d like. Over the next few months, my life improved so dramatically that I wanted to share the news with the world, or at least my friends and neighbors. Somebody should write a book about this, I thought.
It didn’t take me long to discover that somebody had. In fact, an entire body of literature is devoted to the notion that cars, rather than setting us free, have created their own kind of entrapment. I read Jane Holtz Kay’s Asphalt Nation, published in 1997, which gives an overview of American gridlock and how it happened. I read Katie Alvord’s Divorce Your Car, published in 2000, which contains an admiring foreword by her car-addicted ex-husband. I skimmed Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking, a tome published in 2005 by a UCLA economics professor on that particular form of welfare for cars.
These and other titles take various approaches to the problem of car saturation and car-centric public planning. But for practical advice, the best book I’ve found so far is How to Live Well Without Owning a Car, by Chris Balish, published in 2006. Balish is a television journalist from St. Louis, and at the time of the book’s publication, he was single and in his mid-thirties. His book is short but comprehensive. His premise is summarized in the sub-title: “Save money, breathe easier, and get more mileage out of life.”
Balish’s book is as fun as it is informative. He provides a worksheet that enumerates the many hidden costs of owning a car. He writes about his active, car-free dating life. He outlines strategies for accomplishing tasks like grocery shopping and taking your dog to the vet without a car. And he provides testimonials from dozens of people across the United States and Canada who have given up the illusory freedom and convenience of owning car for the real freedom and convenience of NOT owning one.
But why should the mostly car-owning taxpayers of Hampden pay for a service used by a very few people? Sadly, the perception of public transportation as a subsidized service for the poor persists. Hampden taxpayers pay approximately $7.70 per year for Saturday bus service, the equivalent of about three gallons of gas. Critics contend that half the route lies in “South Bangor,” and that few Hampden residents use the Saturday bus.
I’ll make two points here:
For some the bus is an essential service, much like the police department, the post office, and the public library. Does a lonely country road “pay for itself”? It’s unfair to hold the bus to a higher standard than the subsidized car culture.
Many sympathetic car owners give armchair support to the bus. As one person said after the meeting, “It’s nice to know it’s there when my car breaks down.” But for the bean counters, it’s all about the numbers. If you support public transportation, get out there and use it. Leave the car at home occasionally and take the bus. Otherwise it might not be there when you need it.