Clear December day
Distracted by Tahoma
I step in goose poop
Clear December day
Distracted by Tahoma
I step in goose poop
In late June, after SPS finally released its hostages for the summer, our family made its annual pilgrimage to Bus Nerd’s hometown of Detroit. In the past, our visits have mostly been confined to Detroit proper and its nearby suburbs, but this year, at my insistence, we ventured out a bit.
I had been dying to visit Mackinac Island, a small island in Lake Huron between Michigan’s mainland and its Upper Peninsula, ever since I learned of its existence a few years ago. Because of its beautiful setting, old-fashioned vibe (think quaint Victorian village), and preponderance of fudge shops, Mackinac draws a lot of tourists — almost a million every year. Under ordinary circumstances, I would not be eager to visit a crowded island that bills itself as an homage to a “bygone era”* and boasts a giant military fort (complete with regularly firing cannons) as one of its main attractions. But in this case, the circumstances were not at all ordinary: Mackinac Island does not allow cars. (!!!)
When “horseless carriages” came on the scene in the late 19th century, Mackinac was already a popular tourist destination. Residents did not appreciate the presence of motorized vehicles on their lovely island; they were noisy and dangerous, scared the horses, and generally disturbed the peace. So, in 1898, the municipality formally banned automobiles. The ban remains in effect today.
The idea of experiencing life without cars, even in a somewhat contrived setting (and despite the irony that I had to ride in a car to get there), was too compelling to pass up. So I dragged my crew all the way up there for a three-day visit.
And, what a beautiful three days!
To my children’s delight, there are still plenty of horses on Mackinac. They pull the “cabs” and sightseeing carriages that ferry tourists and also do the bulk of the hauling and delivery. But bikes are the most common form of transportation on the island. Bikes are everywhere: available for rent by the thousands, parked in front of every business, covering porches, filling the streets. It is amazing.
One of the most striking things about Mackinac was the quiet. Without the constant roar of traffic, you could hear the sounds of people. There was a band playing at the public park near the ferry dock on the evening we arrived, and the sound carried all over town. The quiet also allowed us to enjoy the near-constant clip-clopping of horse hooves.
Our first morning on the island, we got up early and biked around its perimeter on M-185, the only US highway where motor vehicles are banned.
I don’t have the right words to describe how it felt to just ride, without the fear, without the constant vigilance. I never had to worry about a car crossing the center line, or following too closely, or turning into us in an intersection. In other words, I never had to worry about dying (any more than I usually do, that is) in the course of my travels. Instead, I focused on the beauty of the island, the feel of the wind on my face, the pleasure of zooming along under my own power. The kids loved it, too. They never had to get off their bikes to cross a road or look and look and look and listen and then tiptoe past the parked cars and look again. All of us rode freely and with total joy.
After that first ride, I was desperate to get back on a bike ASAP. We spent more than we should have on bike rentals, because I could not get enough of that feeling of freedom and exhilaration. On our second rental, I even let Busling convince me to skip the helmets, since, as he pointed out, we were the only people on the entire island he’d seen wearing them.
Those few joyous rides made me realize that I had never, not a single time in my 45 years on this planet, ridden a bike without worrying about encountering a car.** And they reinforced the fact that what stops me from riding more often when I’m at home is not helmets or rain or even hills; it is the absence of a safe place to do it.
Since we’ve been back in Seattle, I’ve done it anyway, finally fulfilling the promise I made to myself back in 2016. We replaced the kids’ old bikes with bigger ones (with gears and hand brakes!) and so far have ridden almost every day this month. Sometimes it’s just in circles at our local park, but sometimes, it’s to actual destinations. We’ve ridden to church on the Greenway two weeks in a row and have made several bike-based grocery runs.
I know I won’t be able to recapture that feeling I had on Mackinac. I also know that transportation infrastructure in cities that exist for reasons other than recreation will necessarily be very different from transportation infrastructure on a vacation island. Still, Mackinac Island has a lot to teach us about how to make our cities more livable for all. In addition to pretty postcards, I brought home with me a commitment to be part of a culture change that will lead to more safety and freedom in the “real” world.
See you in the streets! (Actually, probably on the sidewalk.)
* Those of us whose oppression is inextricably linked to those bygone days tend not to romanticize them. The current situation is bad enough.
** There were a few times when one of my parents put bikes on (or in) the car and transported them to a recreational path, but don’t count those.
“Part of the mystery of walking is that the destination is inside us and we really don’t know when we arrive until we arrive.” — John Francis
I don’t remember how I came across the talk, because I had never heard of Francis or his extreme walking before I happened upon it.* A little background:
In 1971, when John Francis was in his 20s and living in Inverness, California, two oil tankers collided under the Golden Gate Bridge and spilled close to a million gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay. The resulting devastation disturbed Francis deeply. He volunteered to participate in cleanup efforts, but it didn’t feel like enough. So, after some soul searching, he decided to give up riding in motorized vehicles and walk to get around.** According to his official bio, Francis “started walking because he felt partly responsible for the mess that washed up on the shore.”
A few months after this decision, Francis also decided to stop talking – at first to take a break from the arguments with friends and family that his new walking lifestyle had prompted, and then as a discipline. Not talking helped him learn to listen and, paradoxically, strengthened his ability to communicate.
Over the next 22 years, this silent walker (and occasional cyclist and sailboat rider) earned several degrees, including a PhD in land resources; taught university courses; wrote oil spill regulations for the US Coast Guard; started a nonprofit; and traveled the world as a UN ambassador.
But what is interesting about Francis’s talk is that it is not about the decades he spent walking. It is not about the struggles, triumphs, accomplishments, or even the recognition that resulted from his steadfast adherence to a decision he made as a very young man.
No, Francis’s talk is about the reasons he decided to stop walking — or, to put it more accurately, to start riding again. He didn’t change his mind about what he believed, nor did he simply grow weary and disillusioned and give up. Instead, he evolved. Over the years and miles, Francis’s understanding of humanity’s abuse of this planet deepened and broadened.
“Environment changed from just being about trees and birds and endangered species to being about how we treated each other. Because if we are the environment, then all we need to do is look around and see how we treat ourselves and how we treat each other.”
He began to see the connections between our disrespect for other human beings and our disrespect for other species. He began to see justice and ecology as intimately intertwined. And he began to see that he had an obligation to spread this message as broadly as possible. To do this, he would have to put his days of taking years to travel across states behind him.
“I realized that I had a responsibility to more than just me, and that I was going to have to change. I was afraid to change because I was so used to the guy who only just walked. I was so used to that person that I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t know who I would be if I changed, but I [knew] I needed to. I [knew] I needed to change because it would be the only way that I could be here today. And I know that a lot of times we find ourselves in this wonderful place that we have gotten to, but there’s another place for us to go, and we kind of have to leave behind the security of who we’ve become and go to the place of who we are becoming. And so, I want to encourage you to go to that next place, to let yourself out of any prison you might find yourself in, because we have to do something now. We have to change now.”
I relate to John Francis on many levels. I relate to his love of walking. I relate to his deep appreciation of the natural world. I relate to his horror and sense of helplessness in the face of unprecedented environmental destruction, motivated by unprecedented greed. I relate to his extremism, which in my case, has its roots in part in an “all or nothing” mentality and in part in a self-righteousness that I have only in the last few years begun to acknowledge and attempt to address.
I relate to his conviction that racism, war, inequality, colonialism, environmental destruction, and all forms of abuse are symptoms of the same sickness: the sickness of disconnection and separation, of viewing “self” as being contained within the walls of one’s skin, rather than as one essential part of a beautiful, connected whole.
I relate to the way he tied his identity to his mode of travel — and especially to his eventual chafing at this connection. For many years, my identity — or at least, my public persona — has been built upon how I choose to get around. Yes, public transportation is something I deeply value. It speaks to me on many levels, and I intend to keep riding as long as I am able, which I hope is for the rest of my life. But my identity is not dependent on my transportation choices.
I will never tire of writing about buses, because they are much more than a way to get around. But I have more to say – about motherhood, and community, and spirituality, and justice, and history, and ecology. And I, like John Francis, believe I can do a better job saying it without the yoke of an identity that is no longer serving me.
Though our family will continue to live without a car, and I will continue share my love of public transit — here and elsewhere — I’m ready to write about more than just buses. And really, it’s about time.
* Of course, after the talk, I went straight the library and checked out his book. I’ll report back.
** I have no idea why he didn’t consider using a bicycle to facilitate his travels. Perhaps he has the same mental block that I do.
Some months ago, I turned 44.* One of the many blessings of being over 40 is a deeper understanding that right now – this year, this day, this moment – is your life. There is no ‘maybe someday’; there is only now.
One thing that’s been on my “someday” list for a long time is to try riding a bike to get around. In the 13 years I have lived without a car, I have taken fewer (probably far fewer) than 13 bike trips. This is mostly because I am terrified to ride in traffic.** But, it is at least partly because I don’t have a bike. Or at least, I didn’t.
The grown-ups in our family rarely request or receive non-edible birthday gifts, but this year, I requested. And folks, I did receive. Behold, my bicycle:
I call her the 6*** (thanks, Justin!), since there is no King County Metro route 6. That way, I can say stuff like, “I’m taking the 6 there,” and confuse everyone with my clever bus chick tricks.
The good news is, I’ve had a ridiculous amount of fun on the two recreational 6 rides I have taken with my family: one along the path at a neighborhood park (in the pouring rain — still fun!), and one several times around our block after dinner. The bad news is, those are the only rides I’ve taken in the over two months I’ve owned a bicycle.
I have many reasons for resistance, even in addition to my aforementioned fear: weather, locking ineptitude, helmets, hills, etc., etc. But, I rarely even get to those. The main issue is, when I have to go somewhere, it simply does not occur to me to take my bike. My deeply ingrained habit is to walk out the door and head to a bus stop – or just keep walking. Most of the time, I forget that the bike is even there.
My car-free life generally (ahem) works pretty well for me as it is. A lot of my regular destinations are within walking distance, and most of the rest is bus-able. But there’s a category of travel — when it’s too far to walk in a reasonable amount of time, and there isn’t a decent bus option — that I want to use a bike for. There are plenty of trips in this category that I simply don’t take, because I’m not going to transfer and wait and deal with infrequent schedules just to travel a couple of miles. I want to expand the number of trips I say yes to, to experience the kind of freedom and access and point-to-point, on demand travel that a bicycle provides. And I want to do it while my body still works well enough to allow for the option.
So, I have promised myself that 2016 is now for me and Miss 6. At least once a week, from today until the end of September, I will use my bike to get somewhere I need to go. I will figure out how to lock it correctly. I’ll deal with the helmet. I’ll even attempt a few hills.
Maybe I will develop a habit. Maybe I’ll decide to stick to park paths with my kids. Either way, I’m going for a ride.
* Yes, I realize that I’ve pushed far beyond the years that one can reasonably call herself a “chick.” Unfortunately, there’s already a bus lady, but I’m seriously considering a change to “bus hag.”
** No, I am not trying to perpetuate the idea that bikes are dangerous. Quite the contrary. I am very clear that cars are the vehicles that are dangerous. Because of this, I believe that there should be safe places to ride them – places that do not include cars or vulnerable pedestrians.
** Chicklet has proposed a different name, “Orca Sparkle,” which her brother fully supports. Fortunately, the bike is flexible and will answer to either name.
Until recently, I’ve have a complicated relationship with neighborhood greenways. Though I have always been supportive of the concept of making streets safer (and more comfortable) for cyclists and pedestrians, I’ve also been skeptical that minor changes to neighborhood streets* would make much of a difference.
Then they added a greenway to our neighborhood. OK, I haven’t actually ridden on it yet, but I have walked behind my budding bicyclists on a number of excursions. Folks, I’m a believer.
Our neighborhood greenway just happens to provide an almost door-to-door connection between our home and our church, so we will be using it fairly regularly.
The little people still ride on the sidewalk (and will for the foreseeable future), but the changes still made a huge difference in their safety and comfort. One example: At all the intersections where there are four-way stops, we allow them to ride across the street instead of getting off their bikes and walking, which increases the fun factor and decreases the tedium by a lot.
When they are old enough, I would absolutely feel comfortable letting them ride in the street. And if I ever make good on my promise to get a real** bike, I will use the greenway (no, really) for kid-free neighborhood trips. While walking will always be my preferred mode of transportation, sometimes you just need to get there already.
*As opposed to building more sidewalks and adding protected bike lanes to major streets
**The one I have now is a folding bike I won at a transportation fair in 2007. I have ridden it less than a dozen times.
Last week, Portland bicycle activist* Elly Blue published a piece in Bicycling magazine about how her decision not to have children has enabled her carfree activism: both her ability to afford life as an full-time rabble rouser and her general freedom to cycle without the physical encumbrance and time constraints of transporting children.
Some UCLA researchers have thrown down some science about women and bicycling. The gender gap in cycling is so huge in the US (by comparison, to say, the Netherlands) not because women are particularly afraid or particularly fussy about their hair, but because of the pure logistics of the combination of errands, drop-offs, pick-ups required to run the Mom Taxi.
I read about this new work with interest. I’ve never owned a car. And I’ve never had kids. Both these factors have contributed to my ability to get around by bike, write about bicycling, live a bike-obsessed life. Otherwise, there isn’t really a practical connection between these two definitive—and in some circles, oddball—life choices, but they’re linked in my mind, in my own story of my life. And that link is very much economic.
While Blue’s piece is on the one hand a celebration of her freedom to make these choices, it is also an implicit acknowledgement that her circumstances are unlikely to be replicated on a broad scale.
As someone who, in over 11 years of living without a car, has taken fewer than a dozen bicycle trips**, I am hardly the right person to say what will get folks on bikes. (Or, perhaps I’m exactly the right person.) But, I do know a thing or two about what it’s like to parent without a car. And I have some thoughts.
On the one hand, we should definitely challenge the concept of the “mom taxi,” both the mom part and the taxi part. It is past time for us to address the cultural (and economic) conditions that chain mothers to their cars.
On the other hand, people need to live their lives. And currently, just getting to the most basic destinations is not feasible by bike (or transit, for that matter) for most parents–most people–in most parts of the country. To have any hope of shifting the paradigm, we must provide robust, affordable***, accessible, safe, reliable alternatives to driving.
* Or, as I affectionately refer to her, “bike hustler.”
** I am working hard to raise two cyclists, though!
*** And by “affordable,” I mean free.
One of my close girlfriends lives in Renton. Not Renton as in, near the Renton Transit Center. Not even the Renton Highlands. No, this friend lives deep in Renton–miles from the nearest bus stop, a long way even from a sidewalk.
Every once in a while, I take a Zipcar to visit her at home, but usually, we meet somewhere–either for dinner near RTC or downtown, or with our kids at a bus accessible park, library, or similar.
For our most recent get together, we agreed to meet at Coulon Park, because she had somewhere to be in Renton right after our visit; the kids and I had the whole day free; and when the weather is good, I am always (always) down for a transit adventure. Especially when the adventure includes a train.
On the big day, we got up early to pack a picnic lunch, swim suits, towels, and a few toys, then headed out the door at 8:30 for a long-ish walk to our first bus: the 48. We took the 48 to Mount Baker Transit Center, where we transferred to Link. (Just for today, I’ll refrain from complaining about how horrible that transfer is.) We rode the train all the way to Seatac–easily the best part of the adventure–then transferred again to the 560. Our stop in Renton was less than a half mile from Coulon, and we arrived at the entrance about an hour and twenty minutes after walking out our front door–a few minutes early for our 10 AM meeting time.
Yes, 80 minutes is a long time to travel from Seattle to Renton (twice the amount of time it would have taken to drive with average traffic), but we really did enjoy the trip. Our waits were short, our rides were smooth and air conditioned, and we had plenty of interesting scenery–inside and outside of the vehicles–to entertain us on the way. When we go on transit adventures, we think of our travel time as part of the fun.
The rest of our Coulon adventure was even better than the ride. The kids played on the playground and the beach for hours while I caught up with my girl. After she and her daughters had to leave, we played for at least an hour more. And after everyone had thoroughly exhausted themselves, we made the long trek home. Chicklet insisted on the exact same itinerary, so we could have one more chance to ride the train.
Perfect adventure. Perfect day.
Here is my Chicklet, on the last Monday of the academic year, heading to school the way she has every day of her kindergarten career.
She and sweet B, who attends preschool on site at her elementary school, have walked (and sometimes run) in every kind of weather, a hilly half mile each way, without missing a single day–or ever being late. A half mile is nothing to my little people, but over an entire school year, those short walks have added up. My babies walked to Portland!
Numbers aside, though, our walks have always been some of our best times together. We meet neighbors, inspect plants and insects (usually on the way home, since we’re almost always in a hurry in the morning), make up games, and talk. When we are walking, they tell me how their days went, what they dreamed the night before, and who they enjoy playing with. And, they ask a lot of questions. The kinds of questions that take time to answer. The kinds of questions that spark more questions.
One of the things I will miss most when my children are grown is our time spent on the ground together, hand in hand in hand.
Rollin’ to the pool for swimming lessons:
He loves that little bike so much, he’s getting me exciting about cycling. Look out, Bike Month!