BANGOR – I’ve been commuting another way since January 2007, when I made a New Year’s resolution to stop owning cars. I live in Bangor and split my work week between two jobs, as an adjunct English professor at the University of Maine and a consulting editor for two local magazines, Bangor Metro and Maine Ahead.

The magazine office is a short walk, and even shorter bicycle ride, from my home. In good weather, I sometimes bicycle to or from the university, but much of the year I rely on the bus.

On rare occasions when I’m at the university after 6:30, I’ll take a cab home, and for some out-of-town magazine assignments I’ll rent a car. I’ve also used the Concord Coach bus for trips to Belfast, Rockland and Portland.

Giving up my car brought two immediate and ongoing benefits. I lost 10 pounds, and have kept the weight off ever since by walking and bicycling; and I had more money left at the end of the month because it wasn’t going to car payments, insurance, gas and repairs.

Maine is a rural state, and its transportation infrastructure is built around the car. We may never reach the point at which the perceived convenience of the car is outweighed by the problems it creates.

Our air quality is still pretty good. But we do have sprawl, and a downtown that struggles to remain vital. We also share an obesity problem with the rest of our car-happy nation, and, not coincidentally, we pay higher per-capita health care costs than any other country on Earth. Tough economic times are precisely when public transportation should be augmented, rather than cut. A household that can give up one of its two cars can save an average of $7,000 a year. When people have more money to spend, local businesses benefit, and the economy improves.

I’m not suggesting that all or even most of us can give up our cars. But we do need balance in our transportation picture. Few people think about all the hidden subsidies that encourage driving and discourage the alternatives. Just one example: When you visit the mall, WalMart, Home Depot or any other large store, a part of the price you pay at the cash register goes to the construction and maintenance of the parking lot, for which there is no charge.

If you walk, bicycle or bus to the store, you still pay this extra cost. The non-drivers subsidize the drivers.

Businesses can be part of the solution, too. The University of Maine charges for parking, but provides bus passes for all its employees and students. Other large employers in the area could follow the university’s lead, reducing the demand for on-site parking and helping to alleviate traffic.

But it all starts with the individual, with each of us. You can live well in 21st century America without owning a car. It does require an adjustment of attitude and some creativity. If it takes half an hour longer to get somewhere, use those 30 minutes productively.

You can walk or bicycle instead of setting aside time to go to the gym. I correct student papers while riding the bus. With a little planning, you can structure your day so that you’re not zipping from place to place, jockeying for position with other drivers.

You might have to rethink where you live or where you work — but millions of Americans make those kinds of decisions based on school districts, property values and climate. Why shouldn’t transportation count, too?

If you decide to live somewhere that is miles from any commercial center and accessible only by car, you don’t have much credibility when you complain about traffic congestion and demand that government build better, wider roads for you. On the other hand, if you live where there is at least some public transportation, and make use of it, you encourage the creation of further transportation alternatives.

If you ride a bicycle, you help to create a need for bike lanes, bike trails and bike-friendly policies. Whenever you walk someplace instead of drive, you do your small part to establish and maintain a pedestrian community.

More and more people are discovering that they can live well, and save money, without their own personal vehicles. The road to a more sensible transportation future runs undoubtedly through the halls of government, but it is paved by the attitudes of individual citizens. When attitudes change, so will the infrastructure.

 

– Special to the Press Herald