Winter is the time of year I’m most thankful that I don’t own a car.
It’s also the time of year I’m most grateful to friends willing to give me rides when the temperature drops below zero. This includes the lovely Lisa, who refuses to let me walk the half-mile or so to the downtown bus stop when conditions are at their most brutal.
Does this make me a hypocrite? Probably. But as I’ve written before, we are quick to condemn hypocrisy in others and slow to acknowledge it in ourselves. Vegetarians have been known to wear leather, environmentalists to use oil, and conservatives to live out their late years on Social Security and Medicaid. Most of modern life consists of compromise between our beliefs and our situations.
We live in a world of cars, whether we like it or not. The founding father of the car culture is not Karl Benz, who invented the automobile, but Henry Ford, who brought cars to the masses. The car itself is a technological marvel, an order-of-magnitude improvement on the horse. But too much of a good thing is still too much.
By the late 20th century, the United States was crisscrossed with limited-access highways from sea to shining sea. Outside of a few east coast cities, car ownership has become an American expectation. You can’t build a business without adequate parking, or a house without a driveway. Many jobs either require you to own a car or offer you a free parking space at work and no discount if you don’t use a car to get there. Traffic is the first topic of discussion when planning public events.
If you don’t own a car, and don’t live in a major city, chances are that you are young, old, poor, or physically challenged in a way (e.g. sight impairment) that prevents you from driving. Few of us here in the hinterlands have become carless by choice. But our numbers are growing.
I have many disagreements with the millennial generation: their indifference to spelling and grammar, their naïve politics, their preference for football to baseball. But I commend them for their willingness to take on the conventional wisdom that we all need cars. In significant numbers, they are pushing for walking communities, neighborhood stores, and robust public transportation. They’ve seen through the advertising and the cultural peer pressure, and come to the sensible realization that cars can be shared, or rented, or bypassed in favor of buses, boots, and bicycles.
Which brings me back to the point I started writing about. Winter is the worst time of year to be dependent on a car. You are forever shoveling it out, scraping ice off the windshield, and skidding on snow-covered streets. While I’m grateful for rides to the bus stop on frigid mornings (and more than willing to shovel the driveway in return), I’m glad to be spared the expense of snow tires and antifreeze and the stress of winter driving.
For the past several years I’ve tried to do my Christmas shopping downtown. This year, a few gifts necessitated a trip to the commercial area around the Bangor Mall. I boarded the Mount Hope bus at 1:15. Fifteen minutes later, I disembarked at Bull Moose on Hogan Road. On foot, I navigated a shopping area designed for cars, first crossing Hogan Road (four lanes and no crosswalks), cut behind K-Mart and in front of Best Buy, emerging on Stillwater Avenue near the Goodwill Store. From there I hiked to the L.L. Bean outlet, and then caught the Stillwater bus back to downtown. The whole trip took less than 90 minutes.
It did require knowledge of the bus schedule, and the willingness to walk in a part of town that discourages walking. Had I missed my bus I would have had to wait an hour for the next one. And it was a mild day for December. I would not have made the trip in the subzero wind chill temperatures that descended on Maine a few days later.
For a reasonably healthy person, the bus can be combined with a good pair of boots, or, weather permitting, a bicycle, to complete errands as conveniently as one could with a car. It’s better to have a thriving downtown business district that offers what the Mall area does, but that will happen when people change their driving habits. It gives me something to hope for in these dark days of December.