Incremental Change and Straw-Man Arguments


I am new to this business of blogging. Consequently, I expect that this blog will evolve as I learn more tricks of the trade. Uploading graphics, linking to other blogs and web sites, managing comments – these are all things I’ll have to get better at as I go along. For now, I’m trying to write a new post every Saturday, and also trying to get the word out about this blog’s existence. Thank you for visiting and reading, and if you find something of value here, tell your friends about it.

It has now been eight years since I’ve owned a car. My driver’s license is current, however, and I do drive from time to time. In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I live with a woman who owns a car. On cold winter mornings, she has often offered to drive me down to the bus stop at Pickering Square, where I get on the 7:15 bus to Orono and go to work. I usually take her up on her offer. So sue me. I’m not a purist. Purists are boring.

Besides, what am I supposed to do, break up with her just to prove a point? She’s on her way to work anyway, so it’s not an extra car trip just for me. We walk downtown, even in winter, to hear music or go out to dinner. When we started dating, my lack of a car was a plus, because she lives on a narrow street with a driveway barely big enough for one vehicle. Where to put the second car on the nights I stayed over was never an issue.

Before I moved in last November, I lived alone and car-free for three years. It never cramped my style. I had an apartment on a bus route, close to town, and I shopped at stores I could easily reach on foot or bicycle. I bought groceries “European style,” in smaller, more frequent trips. In the summer I frequented farmer’s markets and small beer stores. I sometimes used the bus to go to Hannaford.

The point of all this is to deflect the kinds of straw-man arguments often leveled at people advocating for change. Environmentalists hear this all the time: “You want we should all live in caves by candlelight?” Obviously we are not going to unmake technology, nor should we, and just as obviously, we are not going to un-invent the automobile. But we CAN be smarter in our use of technology and its effects on the planet. And we CAN question some of our entrenched attitudes toward cars.

I am NOT advocating that everyone reading this blog renounce car ownership tomorrow. Many people legitimately need to own cars. Families with small children, traveling carpenters with equipment, gigging musicians with gear, on-call medical personnel – all have solid reasons to invest in a vehicle. But I see far too many people clinging to their cars out of habit, because we have come to regard car ownership as a necessity instead of an option.

The infrastructure we’ve created around the car reinforces this. City councils eagerly embrace new parking facilities but balk at expanding public transportation. Businesses locate in outlying shopping malls instead of walkable city centers. Bicyclists are marginalized. And the relentless drumbeat of car advertising on TV brainwashes the public into thinking that cars are much cheaper than they really are.

The sense of entitlement around car ownership is so pervasive that we often fail to notice it. Take parking, for example. Why does your employer offer you free parking at work, but not free lunch? (The University of Maine is one local employer that gets this right – they charge for parking and give away bus rides. More on this in a future post.) At shopping malls, the price of parking is included in the prices at the stores – but there is never a discount for bus riders, bicyclists and pedestrians, who consequently end up subsidizing the drivers. A proposal to charge a nominal fee for parking in downtown Bangor is met by howls of outrage and predictions of doom for downtown businesses.

Change happens incrementally, one individual attitude at a time. As more people free themselves from the shackles of car ownership, the infrastructure can and will change to accommodate them. Not everyone can give up car ownership. But some of us can. And even in the face of car-centric public policy, it’s easier than you think.


Hank Garfield

About Hank Garfield

Hank's writing has appeared in San Diego Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Downeast, Bangor Metro, and elsewhere. He is the author of five published novels, and is now seeking a publisher for his recently-completed novel, A Sprauling Family Saga.