If you saw a strange man crashing through the bushes between office parks in South Portland the other night, don’t worry. It was probably just me trying to find a bus stop.

I have a car, but I’d left it at home Thursday as a kind of experiment. I support public transportation. I believe in it. I would never say I like it. But I never use it, and I was wondering why that was.

This concern came to me after hearing about the proposed development ban on Commercial Street in Portland, where fishermen and the businesses that work with them are feeling crowded off the wharfs they need to access to do their jobs.

The problem is too many cars. Fishermen say they can’t find parking spaces, and vital services, like bait trucks and ice deliveries, get caught in gridlock. The city is proposing a six-month moratorium on new development, but if they can’t figure out other ways to move people, it won’t matter what gets built down there.

Thinking about them got me thinking about me.

I have never participated in America’s love affair with the automobile. I like to drive, but I hate everything else about owning a car. I don’t give cars names, refer to them as “she” or spend a Sunday afternoon rubbing one with a cloth. I resent every second I’ve ever spent in a garage or the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Three decades ago, I moved to one of those “walkable neighborhoods” in Portland and worked my way into a job a mile away. My “commute” was a 20-minute stroll or a five-minute bike ride. Friends would complain about parking and traffic and I would nod sympathetically, trying to pretend I knew what they were talking about.

That all changed a year and a half ago. The newspaper moved my office from downtown Portland to an industrial park southwest of the Maine Mall.

Instead of a brisk walk to work, I climb into a car. I get less exercise, use more gas, wear out my tires and – did I mention? – I hate it. But until last week, I had never ridden the bus, and I wanted to know why.

The first leg of my trip was one of those walks downtown – I could have taken a bus, but I didn’t have any cash for the fare. I like to walk, though, and as I passed the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, I heard the bells ring out a hymn.

I bought a 10-ride pass at the Metro office so I wouldn’t have that excuse in the future, and took a seat on the No. 5 for Gorham.

Buses have changed a lot since my school days. The Greater Portland Metro bus I rode had free Wi-Fi, and if I hadn’t been worried about missing my stop, I could have been reading my email, or doing something else productive.

There are a number of cellphone apps that tell you when your bus is coming, and when to get off.

Mine told me to transfer in Westbrook where I had a short wait for a connecting bus, which got me almost to my office.

The last quarter-mile was on foot, with the advised route along a high-speed road with no sidewalk. I found my own way, cutting through a few hundred yards of empty parking lots, and a small stretch of bushwhacking.

On the way home, I retraced my steps, but it was harder to find the bus stop in the dark.

When the driver pulled over, he looked surprised. “You are the first person I have ever picked up here,” he said, and I believed him.

On the bus, I could relax. I read a book, and listened to snatches of the other riders’ conversations. When I got off in Monument Square, I saw the Christmas lights on Congress Street. Walking home, I bumped into a neighbor and we talked about getting together after the holidays. It couldn’t have been nicer.

So will I do it again? Maybe. Probably not very often, or at least not every day.

The main reason is time. Not counting the walk, the bus trip took an hour each way, as opposed to my 16-minute commute by car. There’s nothing Metro could do about that – I never had to wait for more than a few minutes for a bus. It’s where the industrial park was located and how it was laid out. Ample parking came first and people second.

But it’s not just time.

Our cars demand a lot from us, but they also give us something. They give us the illusion of being powerful and free, the exact opposite of how I felt crashing through the bushes or waiting in the dark for a bus.

It’s not just the industrial parks – our whole culture is built around cars and changing that is what it will take to tame traffic.


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