On the last day of 2016, I borrowed the lovely Lisa’s car to take care of some business within a five-mile radius of home.
I began by driving down to Hampden to check on my boat, up on stands and buried under the latest round of snow. Then it was back to Bangor, up past the Cross Center and over to the Airport Mall. Next, I took Griffin Road to the Broadway Shopping Center, where I dropped off some unwanted stuff at the Salvation Army. Then it was on to Bed Bath & Beyond on Stillwater, and finally to our nearby Rite Aid, for some salt to melt the ice on our front steps.
Midway through this excursion, it occurred to me that this is how most people see the city I call home: through a windshield. The late Jane Holtz Kay, author of Asphalt Nation, reported that this type of trip is the most common use of the automobile. Not driving to work, not going on road trips, but running errands, a phenomenon she called “trip-chaining.”
In the parking lot on Stillwater, I waited out a long line of traffic and two light changes before I could escape. My frustration mounted. This, too, is something I don’t experience much anymore, though I remember it well from my years as a car owner. Flashes of irritation (or at best, impatience) are part of the daily life of any habitual driver.
The item I’d gone there to purchase – a hanging paper towel dispenser – weighed no more than a pound and would have fit easily on the back of my bicycle. Had I been on my bike, I reflected, I would have been out of the parking lot and half a mile down the road in the time it took waiting for the lights to change and the cars in front of me to get out of my way.
As the saying goes: “You aren’t stuck in a traffic jam; you are the jam.”
I relate this experience because it’s something I almost never do any more. But habitual drivers and car owners face a similar scenario almost every day. And it relates to the ongoing debate about parking in downtown Bangor.
Ideally, I would like to be able to buy something like a paper towel dispenser from a store that I can walk to. The same goes for ink cartridges, screws and nails, and fresh fruit and vegetables. But most people drive for those easily portable things. Without a car, errands take some planning, because stores are located for the convenience of drivers. For at least the past half-century, businesses and local governments have catered to car owners. Downtown businesses die or move to outlying streets for more parking, which coerces more people to drive. It’s a vicious circle.
But the pendulum has begun to swing back. Bangor already has an active, walkable downtown. It needs more diversity of business, to be sure, but one thing it does not need is more parking.
Instead, the city needs to do all it can to encourage use of the public parking garage for those who drive, and the Community Connector bus system for those who don’t. Improved pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure will also improve the quality of the downtown experience, even in a car. Every driver who chooses another way to navigate downtown frees up a parking space for someone who truly needs it.
When people walk more and drive less, they are healthier and leave a smaller carbon footprint. They probably experience less stress, too. New Yorkers, who live much of their lives on foot, are healthier and happier than their car-bound compatriots.
Bangor is not New York. But nor is it Holden, Millinocket, or Blue Hill. At just over 30,000 residents, Bangor is a small city. But it is also a metropolitan center for some 150,000 people. Many of them drive in from small towns, where they are used to being able to park in the dooryard of any business they might patronize. They aren’t used to things like parking garages, paid parking, and public transportation.
The Age of the Automobile is gradually giving way to a movement toward more centralized, mixed-use communities. Cars will still be around for the foreseeable future, as long as people live in rural areas and commute to the city for jobs. But more and more people are discovering that the personal vehicle is not the necessity they once thought it was. Smart municipal governments must keep that in mind as they plan for the future.
NOTE: This Wednesday, January 11, I’ll be discussing pedestrian friendly downtowns on the Rockland Metro show on WRFR radio from 5-6 pm. WRFR can be heard in Rockland at 93.3 FM and in Camden at 99.3 FM.