How are Presidential Politics and Public Transportation Alike?


I’ll say it again: I’m not a purist. I’ll drive a car, ride in a car, rent a car, or borrow a car. In dire circumstances I might even steal a car. But I refuse to own one.

Cars are like television: so ubiquitous in modern culture that they affect you whether you like it or not. Someone who claims, “I don’t watch TV,” will still talk in a bar about something someone else saw on TV and passed along over social media. And even the most dedicated bus riders, bicyclists and pedestrians will sometimes use cars. We can’t help it.

This is especially true when you live, as I do, in a one-car household, and the car’s owner is going the same way you are. I am reminded of this every time Lisa drops me off at the bus stop on a cold winter morning.

Thus it was that we drove, rather than walked, less than a mile to the Penobscot Theatre the other night to see Hair Frenzy, the splendid new comedy written by my University of Maine colleague Travis Baker. It’s winter, it’s dark and icy, and we were pressed for time.

If I lived alone I might have walked, and acted in a way more consistent with my views on cars. But life is built on compromises. I’m not going to make my girlfriend walk in the snow, and I’m not going to apologize for small hypocrisies when it’s the larger picture that counts.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of purity and absolutism lately. In this fractious election year, with the fringes of both major parties in temporary ascendancy, anyone staking out a position of any nuance is in trouble. It used to be that environmentalists had to defend themselves against the perception that they wanted us all to live in grass huts by candlelight. This year’s broad-brush epithet is “socialist.” On the right, it’s a slur; on the left, it’s a perverse badge of honor (like “Yankee Doodle” was, to an earlier generation of revolutionaries), provided it’s preceded by the word “democratic.”

Though Slower Traffic is not a partisan political blog, government priorities impact the lives of those of us who choose not to own cars. Official policy often drives (pun intended) individual transportation decisions.

As an easy example: Should the Bangor City Council, in its infinite wisdom, vote to extend the Community Connector bus service later in the evening, Lisa could leave her car in the driveway, and we would not require a parking place downtown when we attend an evening event. One less car might not make much of a difference, but over time and across a population, it adds up.

Yet public transportation still suffers from a perception problem. It’s vaguely socialist, while cars seem like little autonomous islands of capitalism. You buy a car alone, but you ride a bus as a member of a community.

In reality, the lines are a lot more blurred than that. Many households can save money by reducing their number of vehicles, maybe even down to zero. A good public transportation system promotes centralization of services and thriving business districts. Not everyone will use it, but the whole community, drivers and non-drivers alike, will benefit.

Political lines, likewise, blur. Though I ride the bus, I’m not a socialist. I object to socialism’s central tenet: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Not only is the language sexist, the idea itself is pernicious, because what’s in it for the people of ability? We aren’t all selfless altruists. Shouldn’t a doctor make more money than a bricklayer? (“I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer, Jim.”) Yet capitalism too often rewards not hard work and talent, but more capricious qualities like luck, good looks, happenstance of birth, and the willingness to pander to base instincts. One can advocate for some leveling of the playing field without being a socialist – democratic or otherwise.

What’s lost in all of this is the idea and practice of compromise, and an appreciation for what is possible and what’s not. I’m in favor of extending the bus hours into the evening. I’m also in favor of building a light-rail passenger line between Bangor and Bar Harbor. The bus hours could be extended within the year, and without much upheaval. I don’t expect the light-rail system to be built any time soon. They’re both good ideas, but one is more possible than the other, and more immediately worthy of my support. This election is a lot like that, too.


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.