Was a response I received with concerned faces from a few friends of mine when telling them I made a short trek to a local breakfast place. I quickly cleared up that I only walked a few blocks. They still were mesmerized. These interactions I stumble upon nowadays become an immediate wonder to both parties – myself wondering why it is such a chore to walk or use my bicycle to get to places and to the other who wonders what is happening in this man’s life to lead him to this industrious activity.
I used to be on the other side of this issue. Growing up in the South I saw my family totally dependent on the family car and rightly so. It was highly likely our destination was more than 10 minutes away drive time. I remember even looking out the window in my youth feeling apathy for the folks who were using a bus or walking to get where they needed. I often wondered why they had sidewalks on the Memphis & Birmingham streets. Who was using these paths that took up room where they could just put another car lane?
Almost four years ago I relinquished my beloved Jeep for an expected more multi-modal transportation region in or near Washington, DC. So far, I haven’t looked back and consider it to be a solid decision. My family has one car now. The decision to have one vehicle and to not be car centric has done a lot of good in our family’s lives so far. For one, it has made us move close to pedestrian friendly businesses for groceries, dining places, barber, etc. (It also helps that we live in the 3rd best small town in America.) Also, it has “forced” us to make friends with families close by and develop close bonds with those people, not scattering our closest friends across the metro area. The decision has also forced me to learn more of the city, to become more intimate with its benefits mostly due bicycle riding through the area.
I started pondering these thoughts yesterday when seeing Birmingham and Atlanta metro areas being totally crippled in traffic by snow and ice. I’m not here to pick on these folks because they are my friends and family but, when you look at the situation that transpired one of the things you see is the South’s total dependency on being a car-centric society. And why not? Every one of their destinations was far away, enough to warrant a car. This fact alone caused a slippery slope of repercussions (no pun intended). I saw the whole situation as sad, it doesn’t have to be this way. When you have simple multi-modal infrastructure (biking/walking) alongside streets you open closed off communities to one another. Take one repeatable instance in Birmingham, AL one of the most prominent neighborhoods in this town known as Mountainbrook, has 3 different “villages”. Each one of these villages is unique and has its own stores, atmosphere, etc. To get to one village to another you most likely would drive to each even when they are at most, a little more than a mile from one another. Admittedly, there is some sidewalks between each but no multi-use paths. Why close off these villages?
Take a look at an Arlington statistic below to see how the local infrastructure allows for multi-modal commuting. Arlington has its own fair share of communities or “villages” if you will.
Now, let’s compare the city of Birmingham (Mountain Brook included) and Arlington using Google Maps and then the bicycling route filter, the results are striking. Bottom line: more green segments = more multi-use paths.
I’ve often confessed that I don’t believe humans were physiologically designed to have friends and jobs many miles away. I doubt any caveman, knight, or a 20’s coal worker decided everyday to make a 50 mile trek to their destination. Each of these individuals made a conscious choice to place themselves in areas that gave them the most benefit for acquiring most of their life’s needs.
There are a lot of factors that force people to not commute and live close to their desired community. For practical reasons though, I just want us to ask ourselves, what would a community built on traveling on our own power look like? Looking past immediate challenges, if your car was taken away from you, and you were placed in an area that let you comfortably live, how would that change you and your family for the better? Could it actually be a freeing?