I am a stalwart pedestrian. This is a subject of endless amusement to my friends and people I meet, especially now that I have moved out of the Big City... because it means that at 30, I still have not gotten a driver's license. I had a permit for years, took some lessons, never quite got the test, and the permit expired and I'm back to nil. The only ID I have is my passport (only recently renewed) -- and for a while I didn't even have that.... which is a whole other story, and another area of incessant hilarity around the bar.
Now, let's make sure we're on the same page: I am not opposed to the concept of a Driver's License, per se, and frankly I think we should be required to not only learn to drive but to fix and operate vehicles. They should simply teach this in highschool as part of the curriculum -- I can tell you that as a high achieving high school student in an urban area with no financial prospect of having a car in any remote future I chose extracurricular activities over those lessons (expensive, to boot). Even my family didn't have a car. We hadn't had a car for 10 years, and even if their families owned them, none of my friends had or drove cars (yet) so I wasn't anticipating what was to come: college, a land in which 99% of people have come from places where cars are an essential part of the High School landscape. A place where they do not give drivers ed, and where it would be useful to have the ability to be a designated driver.
When one lives in a major city, for instance, no DD simply means you all get on the subway (or more likely, in a cab). Cabs in suburbia or rural areas are no laughing matter -- often scary, rarely easy to find, and prohibitively expensive -- not really an option for college students, the large majority of the time. Myself and many others are lucky to be alive -- something I remembered this weekend as more than one friend of mine suddenly disappeared from an event we were at, only for me to realise with horror that these more-than-tipsies were on the ROAD. To call or not to call? God help me if they crash answering my "you shouldn't be driving!" phone call.
For this reason among others (such as the current state of auto-based urban planning in this country, and how that affects one's employment prospects) I'm in fact planning to get my license very soon, but really, I wish I didn't have to. And yes, I am trying to do something about it (previously mentioned employment prospects, bringing both my Urban Planning background, Transportation Planning strategies, and LEED concepts to non-urban settings). But at least in the span of this article, I'm not trying to remap the road and rail system of the US....yet. There's a much simpler solution that I want to address: walking.
I live in a city of 18,000, with a strong boost to that number from out of town visitors: a tourism industry bolstered by a major museum, many well respected galleries, as well as a booming antiques sector, ample hiking both mountainous and otherwise, kayaking and watersports, and the offerings of local agriculture; to add to this there is another city of even larger size immediately across the Hudson with whom we share a healthy flux of warm bodies.
One of the reasons I chose this location when I escaped from New York (not to be confused with the eponymous film, thankfully) was because, to my delight as one of these frequent visitors, it was eminently walkable. In the heyday of the Hudson Valley, many such industrial small cities were built. On the backbone of a lucrative industrial region had been built factories for manufacture, packaging, and shipping, and local businesses supplied a more than adequate labor economy for not only a bustling commercial district but also a sizeable residential population, served entirely by this valley's ample local food supply.
The city's planning was based, as so many were, on a central Main Street, flanked on two ends by railroads (one now long since defunct). Commercial activity of the daily kind was centralized here, with schools and other civil services (police stations, etc) sprinkled out into the residential areas. From the car boom of the 50's on you can see a nodal second level of commercial additions -- a ice cream parlor here, a 4-store strip mall there -- but these remain peripheral both in location and attention.
Even with the industrial collapse (er, offshore relocation for the benefit of greedy capitalists, COUGH) of these booming cities, the Main Street of my city and many others remains the central, and largely successful artery of this place. The businesses serve the major needs (food, pharmacy, post office, hardware store, et cetera) of a large portion of the population. Coffee shops and restaurants teem with chatter and people.
And yet -- on days when the tourists who come up on the train aren't around, and in particular, as soon as there is a drop of rain, or (heaven forbid!) snow there is nary a pedestrian to be seen. Well, there's usually at least one: ME. Me, because I came up without a car. And often, the elderly and the young, not to mention a certain, less than savory, population of drifters -- those without access to vehicles for one reason or another. Who can't yet drive, who can't drive anymore, who can't afford to or aren't allowed to drive... but everyone else? The large portion of the time, everyone else drives TO their intended location, and drives back.
Perhaps the car will be left near said intended location, and a few blocks might be walked, but even this is unlikely. And yet, there is nothing here that is more than a mile away from anything else. Sure, if you live on the outskirts of the residential area, or aren't really in the city proper, a walk to Main Street is a healthy one, but at the very least once you get there it is so incredibly easy to leave your car in one spot, not to return to it for at least some time.
But not return to the car -- for what reason? Why would there be more time spent than that intended at the specific location? For the car has also changed our perspective on how we treat the street: a space between our private life and transactional interactions, a small passageway between the door of our car and that of the establishment from which we expect and exact a particular service or item.
The perception of the street as a public place, really as a place in its own right, that everyone should and needs to be a participant in and on in order to make and sustain that "public" has gone the way of the Dodo. And so too, for all intents and purposes, has that public: for without the street, there really isn't a public to speak of.
As a child I used to sing along with that song that went, "These are your people in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood....the people that you meet, when you're walking down the street, the people that you meet each day...." and the fact is, that it is necessary to walk down the street to meet those people. It goes on to mention shopkeepers and mailmen and so forth, all of whom you might meet in your individual transactions, but doing so in this way gives your life -- and relationship to the physical place in which they transpire -- a decentralized quality, an array of isolated points rather than an integrated web of tranversed people, places, and things.
The human energy of a pedestrian city is tangible. But it is less the cities themselves as it is the pedestrians IN them: who for reasons of successful public transportation programs -- or simply tradition, as in the case of the Italian passagiata -- take to the streets en masse, exchanging molecules and glances, coming into contact as a whole, breathing, population. A public. Baudelaire's "bath of humanity."
As a case in point, operating even in my largely autocentric city as Lynne the Carless Wonder, I have met and established friendly relationships with neighbors, shopkeepers, and civil servants (among others), in what appears to be light speed to those who leave their cars to traipse around with me from end to end of town and all around. I know everyone, and have developed a happy and friendly rapport simply by being there, smiling, and making human contact. It's amazing how much that counts.
Similar to my harangue on shopping and establishing "value" again it's a choice -- one many don't even conceive of as one they have made. It seems so natural, obvious, so endemic to modern life. Not driving doesn't even occur to most, so "driving" does not therefore assume to be an option but simply a fact -- and yet, it's not. It's a choice, a statement of value, a statement of priority -- my time/life/comfort over interaction/heat/cold/etc -- and one that bears acknowledgement.
I know many many people who lament the loss of community and wonder why efforts at organizations and funds fail, while they get in their cars again and again at their garage door, go to their meetings, dates, work, the store, school, etc, and return again to the garage door, without a single instance of contact with the public: the fabric of which community must be quilted.
These are good people, compassionate people, people who care -- and yet, simply from my time on the streets here I have learned how much the actions of "community" organizations and initiatives are perceived as affronts to a local public, are seen as colonial-type actions, aggressive and blind. And how could they not be? From our homes, our cars, and our computers, when we lament our loneliness and attribute it to a lack of community, who do we seek to comfort but the person, disconnected, in the mirror? But a local "public" isn't a collection of oneself and those who happen upon the same modes of reaching out (in particular, the internet, ironically) as we do -- this sows the seeds of discord and misunderstanding.
So much effort is then both put in and wasted on community action that is conceived of, planned, and implemented from behind closed doors, creating camps of people who understand each other less and less when the verbal goal is "community" -- so much could be achieved by simply getting out of our cars and learning who our public is, coming face to face with eachother everyday.
Then of course when you learn this and once in a while need to escape (which is inevitable, even our family turns lethal after we really get to know them) I recommend a long drive across country. In small doses.