Wheels in mind of new transportation columnist go ’round and ’round – usually sustainably

July 3, 2017 at 7:14 am Leave a comment

Originally published in the Maine Sunday Telegram’s Source section.

Denver’s 16th Street transit and pedestrian mall

“Mom, stop taking pictures of that crosswalk!” my 10-year-old daughter begs me as we ride the bus to the library. My phone overflows with photos of streets, sidewalks, trails, road signage, bus shelters and the people who use them. These shots may be embarrassing for my daughter, but they are helpful for my work as a transportation consultant to improve the quality of life for commuters and the livability of communities.

My photo archive is also confirmation of my certified Transportation Geek status – and it can drive my family a little crazy. There was the time my daughter and I visited my sisters in Colorado. When we returned to Maine, my husband asked to see photos. Oops. Instead of family pictures, or maybe mountain scenery, I had endless shots of Denver’s light rail and the city’s pedestrian mall. “Really, that was important to document!” I said in my own defense. “Can you say ‘transportation fetish?’ ” my husband retorted.

A transportation nerd conversation runs constantly in my head. For instance: I’m working on a pilot project with the Maine Department of Transportation to deliver walk safety presentations and high-visibility gear in Bangor and Brewer to especially vulnerable folks, such as seniors and people with disabilities. I am writing this from the Bangor Motel 6, in town to work on the project, and I just sprinted on foot across three lanes of busy U.S. Route 2 to the Shell station to pick up some toiletries.

Want to know what I was thinking about? “Wow, that Park & Ride lot over there is full. How great is all that carpooling! But check out this traffic. This road seems to be designed to encourage speed. Can vehicles even see me? No sidewalk and only a minimal shoulder, so I better walk facing the oncoming cars (it’s the law and statistically is the safest way to go). And could I even walk here this winter if there were snowbanks?”

More true confessions: I’m the kind of person who gets a thrill out of putting my bike on the Concord Coach bus, loaded with oversized exhibit materials, like I did last month to get from Portland to the Bangor Senior Expo. That was a treat, to catch up on email, nap and finish prepping a document while someone else drove. Then I could scoot around Bangor by bike, coming to know the city a little better by experiencing it at a slower speed – I loved the Webster Avenue walk and bike tunnel under Interstate-395!

My transportation heart and consulting work come from a melding of jobs and interests over the past 25 years. In high school, I signed up for the automotive program at the Bath Regional Vocational Center. The instructors were excellent and encouraging and, through our work on cars, physics came alive for me for the first time. My interest in people led me on to college and a degree in political science. Afterward, I spent five years as a community organizer in Maryland – amazing and intense work with groups and public planning and advocacy efforts.

When burnout hit, I pivoted to recuperate, working as an auto mechanic at a nearby garage in the heart of Baltimore. Over the next five years, as I fixed cars in Maryland and then back home in Maine, I slowly grew tired of how unprepared/unable many people are to spend the necessary money to maintain and fix vehicles and how many dirty cars I had to put back on the street – leaking fluids or exhaust or with check engine lights still on with an emissions failure. I started teaching fiscally and environmentally responsible car ownership through Portland Adult Education and encouraged my students and customers to consider how many vehicles they really needed. I asked them to explore other ways of getting around. My consulting work grew from there.

Let’s be clear, I’m no purist. My family has a car – it’s outside in the Motel 6 parking lot right now. And to be frank, if a second vehicle were available in our driveway, I’d be the first one to use it. I’m glad to be nudged – forced, really – to travel by bus, on foot, by bike, and sharing rides. Of course, we know these ways of moving around are good for us. They save us money, they’re better for the planet, they’re healthier for our overweight American bodies.

However, the things that motivate my work most are less tangible and somehow more powerful. They are the bits of Yankee ingenuity and magic involved when we walk, bike, take the bus and carpool. The world is simply more real – warts and beauty – all of it. For instance:

  • With some quick planning, you share a ride with friends to an event – catching up or maybe laughing so hard at some point that your face hurts.
  • I walk down the street headed to get groceries and smell the salty tang of fog. I smell the sewage treatment plant. I notice the first day lilies appearing in a neighbor’s yard.
  • After working inside all day, you stand at the bus stop and feel the late afternoon sun on your face for the first time. So good, that moment!
  • I jump on my bike on a cold, rainy day, moaning about how much it stinks that my husband has the car and I have to get to a meeting. And then within five minutes – I swear – I’m warmed up and grinning into the spray for the sheer joy of being outside and using my body and embracing the elements.

We are awake when these things happen. We connect – with people around us; with the tiny, unique details of the places in our community; and with the natural world that sustains our daily lives. We renew ourselves in these moments and at the same time knit our communities tighter together. That feeds me the most.

I look forward to learning and sharing more about the myriad ways we all get around. In the meantime, if you find yourself in desperate of need a photo of a Portland crosswalk, or Bangor’s bike/pedestrian tunnel, or Chicago’s bike share, you know where to find me.

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Entry filed under: Active Transportation.

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