A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Friday, June 27, 2008

"Wheel Still Has Its Devotees"

If you read this blog, apparently you can count yourself in the good company of award-winning international journalists. Colin Woodard sent me this item he'd found on ancient microfiche in the basement of the Portland library. It's from the June 24, 1904 edition of the Maine Sunday Telegram [no link, since it's about 85 years older than the web, but you can find it yourself at the library]:


Forest City Has Many Enthusiastic Bicycle Riders
Get As Much Fun As They Ever Did Out of Riding, Good Work of the Portland Wheel Club in Keeping Up Interest in Bicycling

These are automobile years, and the years of the motor cycle. For the great general public the bicycle "fad" has passed and gone. A fad we are now forced to call it, although five years ago we never for a moment suspected that this would be the term by which we would have in the future to designate the almost universal riding of wheels...

Today what a different condition of things is in evidence from five years, even three years ago when "everybody" rode! Great has been the falling off, and today but few people ride. Yet most of those who do still remain faithful to their old friend the bicycle are enthusiasts. They are to be found upon the saddle almost as much, sometimes more than in the days when the wheel was seeing the fullness of its use.

These enthusiastic riders who have thus remained faithful to the bicycle are for the most part men of middle age, and moreover, men not to be influenced by the coming and going of "fads" nor the turning of the fickle public fancy. Many if not most of them ride as much as they ever did. Furthermore, they employ the wheel for business uses as well as for the pleasure which its riding affords them...

The real wheelman of the good old fashioned type loves the bicycle just as it was at that time when all the world derived an honest, healthful, and lasting pleasure from its riding. That pleasure he derives still.

Another phase of wheeling is the practical use to which bicycles are now-a-days put by many persons. The wheel is used in this practical manner to a greater extent, perhaps, that at the time of its great popularity as a means of obtaining pleasurable enjoyment.

Who has not seen the working man returning from his work at night, mounted upon the seat of a bicycle, and who has not a hundred times seen this same workman riding as fast as he might to his home for dinner at noon, and back again to work? When he lives in the suburbs [note: "suburbs" in 1904 referred to the close-in neighborhoods just outside city centers - places like Deering, Riverton, and Mill Creek, not Buxton or Gray], or when his place of employment is at some distance from his home, he saves both time and many dollars in car fares.

Hundreds of Portland workmen go and come thus from their employment and hundreds of wheels save hundreds of dollars every month of the year.

The lead paragraph's talks about cycling as a "fad," succeeded by the automobile. But what this article is really about - which is especially evident in the last few paragraphs - is the transition of cycling from a sport and a leisure activity to a mode of transportation.

Other parts of the article that I didn't bother transcribing discuss the diminishing price of bicycles, and the role of cycling clubs in keeping the sport alive.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Highway to Irrelevance: The Decline and Fall of the Maine Turnpike Authority, Part 1

Gas is over $4 a gallon and rising, greenhouse gas regulations are imminent, truck companies are losing market share to trains and ships, and Americans are clamoring to leave the suburbs and get better transit.

These are fascinating times, with revolutionary changes in how we get around just starting to happen. Ridership on the Downeaster train was up another 37% last month. Portland is about to implement a visionary new transit plan. While gas prices crimp households' disposable incomes, Americans and our economy as a whole are desperate for ways to drive less.

And in the middle of these revolutionary changes, one of Maine's biggest transportation bureaucracies, the Maine Turnpike Authority, is working hard to... build a new $40 million toll plaza?! Are you shitting me, MTA? This is the most pressing work you dopes need to be doing right now?

It's more outrageous than fiction, but the Turnpike Authority is moving ahead with plans to replace a good-enough existing toll plaza with a supersized, $40 million facility. $40 million for a McMansion toll booth.

The same amount of money could pay the capital costs of expanding Amtrak service from Portland to Lewiston. Wouldn't that be nice? Tough shit, you're getting a tollbooth instead.

I know I'm not the only one to be slapping my forehead at the MTA's idiocy right now. Today's Portland Press Herald features two letters to the editor from disgruntled neighbors of the proposed Taj Mahal Toll Plaza:

"The conceptual design of the proposed York tollbooth is larger than the toll barriers on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the lighting at the new location would be brighter than three Wal-Mart Supercenters. Does spending $40 million to supersize the York toll plaza make sense when the annual revenue would be virtually unchanged? ...

"Everyone who uses the tollbooths in Maine would pay for this new plaza with increases in tolls. To fix the problems at the current site does not warrant a $40 million, state-of-the-art New Jersey tollbooth in Maine. Wouldn't that money be better spent on roads and bridges in the rest of the state?"
Unless you work at the MTA, the answer to this rhetorical question is obvious.

Compared to the Maine Turnpike Authority, even Exxon Mobil looks like a radical Earth-First collective. At least they're acknowledging the fact that things are changing (see billboard).

Here's my prediction: gas prices will continue to go up, Turnpike traffic will continue to decline, Mainers will continue to clamor for more affordable transportation choices, and the MTA will continue to waste the public's time and money with idiotic engineering wet-dreams like this one, instead of real transit-based solutions.

As this goes on, more and more people will realize that the MTA is doing nothing to solve Maine's transportation crisis: in fact, that they're a big part of the problem. And they have to go.

I give the MTA two to three more years of existence, tops, before the state Legislature consigns them to the dustbin of bureaucracies lost. Hopefully it will be sooner. In a new feature here at the Rights of Way blog, I'll be tracking the Decline and Fall of the MTA right here... stay tuned for many (but not that many) future chronicles.

Monday, June 23, 2008

New blog for Freeport

New for the blogroll: Future Freeport, a blog about place, community, and quality economic development in Freeport, Maine. Here are some recent interesting posts:

Thursday, June 19, 2008

This is what leadership looks like

Old news, but last Wednesday, on June 11th, the House of Representatives in Washington passed “The Rail Passenger Improvement and Investment Act,” reauthorizing and increasing Amtrak’s funding through 2013 (the the first re-authorization in 11 years). The bill also includes "$2.5 billion in capital investment grants to states for increasing ridership and quality of service" and "requires the Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak, and the Surface Transportation Board to assess the rail transportation needs of communities and populations that are not well served by other forms of public transportation" (source: Vote Smart). The bill also includes funding for bike racks in railcars for traveling cyclists.

The focus on capital investment and serving areas without public transportation could be great news for passenger rail in Maine... if only our transportation bureaucracies weren't so hidebound to and preoccupied with obsolete, money-sucking highway projects. In all likelihood, I'm afraid this federal money will go to states that have their act together, instead of to Maine.

Also in Washington, the House passed a bill, HR 3021, that would provide grants to state school systems to make schools more energy-efficient. An amendment sponsored by Oregon's Earl Blumenauer also included provisions to allow the funds to be used for improved bike and pedestrian access to schools.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Journalists Ride Bikes!

Newspaper journalists make it their business to be informed and to provide sound advice for citizen readers.

So I'm encouraged by a recent spate of pro-cycling columns written by newspaper staff in the local papers:

  • First was a wistful look back at Forecaster editor Steve Mistler's carefree bike-commuting glory days, and some resentment for their car-dependent lives in Vacationland: "We spend a lot of time in the car. We both hate it," he writes. But he still manages to ride his bike from time to time on his 34 mile commute from Falmouth to Bath.

  • Also in the Forecaster, journalist Kate Hayes writes about a recent Sunday bike ride on which she encountered as many bikes as cars. "The price at the pump may be a reality check for our national economy, but it is also forcing us to check our personal realities," she writes. "If that means less time in the car, and more time outside, less time spending frivolously, and more time with family, there is some good to the bad."

  • Last but not least, in today's Press Herald, editorial writer Greg Kesich declares himself a bike commuter. Kesich lives on Munjoy Hill and has a much shorter ride than his counterparts at the Forecaster: "I roll down Congress Street on a beat-up old hybrid with my tie flapping over my shoulder," he writes. Sounds like a lot of fun.

I've written before about how many of the Forecaster's staff would be happier workers and better connected to local news stories if they had an in-town newsroom, instead of their isolated suburban office located behind a car dealership in Falmouth. Even though I work in a walkable village center in Yarmouth, I still envy Greg Kesich's short bike commute through the heart of Portland, and I'd bet that Mistler and Hayes would feel the same way.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Train and Bus are Cheaper

The total costs of driving, including owning a vehicle, paying for insurance, and the rest of it, have exceeded the cost of riding a bus or taking a train for a long time. But since most people own cars anyway, they tend not to think about the total costs on a day to day basis. What really matters for individual trips is the marginal cost - the cost of tolls, gas, and parking. For a long time, the marginal costs of driving a car to Boston have been cheaper than the marginal cost of buying a bus or train ticket.

But not anymore.

With gas over $4 a gallon, it's officially cheaper - and in some cases, much cheaper - to buy a ticket to Boston on the Downeaster or Concord Coach than it is to buy gas and tolls on the Maine and New Hampshire Turnpikes. Here's the breakdown of vehicle costs:

Gasoline costs (110 miles each way at $4 a gallon):
$29.33 for a 30 MPG vehicle; $59.66 for a 15 MPG vehicle
Maintenance costs (source: AAA):
$8.75 for a small vehicle; $11.15 for a large vehicle
Total vehicle operation costs:
$38 for a small sedan; $71 for a pickup or SUV

Tobin Bridge toll (southbound only): $3
NH Turnpike tolls (both directions): $3
ME Turnpike York tolls (both directions): $3.50
ME Turnpike entry/exit toll (both directions): $1.20
Total tolls: $11.70

Total costs of tolls plus gas and maintenance (parking not included):
$49.70 for a fuel-efficient sedan; $82.70 for a gas-guzzler.

A round trip on Amtrak's Downeaster, which includes wi-fi and electric outlets for productive work time, comes to $48. A round trip on one of Concord Trailways' hourly busses costs $35.

Also, four hours wasted behind the wheel is equivalent to $50-$100 in lost wages for most workers, which effectively doubles the cost of driving - and that assumes no traffic. When you take the opportunity costs of sitting in a cramped car into account, even carpooling becomes more expensive than riding the train.

Monday, June 9, 2008


First: it's official: the nationwide average price of a gallon of unleaded gas is over $4 a gallon, via the AP wire. Here in Maine, gas prices have been above $4 a gallon for several days now. Who could possibly have predicted such a thing?

Second: meanwhile, the price of a barrel of oil is headed towards $150... seven times its nominal price six years ago. That's an annualized inflation rate of 115%.

Third: In Portland, a new network of free shared "white bikes" is set to launch: see WhiteBike.org. Spotted one outside of City Hall this afternoon.

Free bike shares have a notoriously lousy track record, since riders have little incentive to take care of the bikes and they frequently end up getting parked in peoples' backyards. This program will try to avoid these problems by including a combo lock on every bike, with a combination that's published on the web site. I'm still skeptical, but I'll hope against hope and call out any cyclists who seem to have appropriated Portland's commie bikes for their exclusive, private use - hope you'll do the same.

And, if the white bikes have disappeared next month, may I suggest a capitalist solution to bike sharing? Like Paris's Velib or Washington's DC SmartBike?