It’s been nine years since my name has appeared on a car registration, a car insurance policy, or an application for an auto loan. A one-year experiment has become a way of life.
Two years ago, I penned a piece for the Bangor Daily News that was published on New Year’s Day. I thought about simply re-using the piece here, as I’m busy over the holidays with two teaching gigs and other writing, but that struck me as lazy, when readers can simply link to it here.
Instead, I started thinking about the past nine years since the only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept: what’s changed, and what has stayed the same.
What’s changed is that it no longer seems weird not to own a car. I’ve connected with many people, in Maine and elsewhere, who have made the same sensible lifestyle choice. Many people can improve their lives, as I have, by giving up car ownership. It’s a growing movement that pays dividends to the individual and to the world.
What hasn’t changed much is the infrastructure. Bus routes in and around Bangor haven’t expanded; bicycle infrastructure remains spotty. Some areas of town remain nearly inaccessible except by car.
Plans are in the works to improve one of the worst of these spots: the Hogan Road bridge over Interstate 95. Here’s an excerpt from a piece I wrote six years ago that illustrates the problem:
Sam’s Club is out on Hogan Road, diagonally across that major traffic artery and Interstate 95 from the Bangor Mall and the sprawling shopping complex around it. Best Buy, where I bought my computer and have it serviced when it crashes, is out there, too, as is Staples, where I get ink cartridges for my printer. The bridge over the Interstate has four lanes of traffic — two each way — but no bicycle lanes or sidewalks. You take your life into your hands when crossing it in anything but a motor vehicle.
On the last day of 2009 I went to Sam’s Club to pick up a prescription — it’s cheap there, but I may switch pharmacies since it’s an ordeal to get to and from Sam’s without a car. (The bus will drop you there at your request, but you have to walk back out to Hogan Road to flag it down.) I also had a coupon for Staples that expired at the end of the year. The stores are in plain sight of one another, separated by two interconnecting rivers of vehicular traffic. To drive from one store to the other means negotiating four sets of traffic lights. It’s still easier than walking. The direct route is blocked not only by roads, but also by chain-link fences and plowed piles of snow at the back edges of parking lots.
It took me half an hour. There was no place to walk except on the side of the road, hard against the snow bank. Sidewalks and pedestrian paths are nowhere in evidence; even in good weather I would have been walking on a narrow strip of roadside dirt. Drivers slowed to make room for me; a few of them shot me dirty looks. “How the hell am I supposed to walk here?” I muttered as I trudged along, always ready to quickly jump out of the way into the snow. A few impatient shoppers honked their horns.
The answer couldn’t have been clearer. You aren’t supposed to walk there. You’re supposed to drive.
Even with its excessive packaging, an ink cartridge fits inside a coat pocket. A bottle of pills is smaller still. Yet the infrastructure in which I live encourages — almost requires — the use of a 3,000-pound vehicle to gather a few ounces of supplies. Everything about Staples discourages reaching it on foot. The parking lot is sunk below the level of the street, and barricaded from it by a high embankment, which in the winter is covered with snow. The only access point is the entrance for cars. The parking lot is large and rarely even half-filled.
If more people walked as a matter of routine, and if municipalities encouraged walking instead of putting obstacles in the way, perhaps there would be an easier way to get around.
Update: I let my Sam’s Club membership expire and changed pharmacies, and I now get my ink cartridges at the University of Maine, which is pedestrian-friendly and well served by the bus.