Wisdom from a walker

“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 recently watched this very interesting talk by John Francis, aka “Planetwalker.”

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.

Damn.

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.

2016 is the year (no foolin’)

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:

My new baby, showing off in the sunshine

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.

I digress.

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.

When I grow up…

I have a lot of sheroes. Some of them are world renowned, or breathtakingly talented, or otherwise leading big, public lives. Many are ordinary people who conduct themselves with dignity and integrity. And a few are just ridiculously good at riding the bus. Today, I add another person — one who has integrity in spades and a PhD in busology — to my list of ordinary sheroes. Fellow bus chicks, I present Ms. Janis Scott, “the Bus Lady.”

It just so happens that I attended the same university as Miss Janis. After I finished school, I stayed in Houston to teach, so I am familiar with the particular challenges of riding the Houston Metro. Of course, I lived there before the city had light rail, and long before the agency’s recent restructure, so I don’t have a very good understanding of what it’s like to ride these days. I do know that, in a city that is 627 miles square, with precious few sidewalks, it would take a miracle-working transit system to make busing convenient. But I digress.

Like Miss Janis, I love cultural events, and, theoretically, I take the bus to partake of them. (I say theoretically because I have kids, and I don’t get out much these days.) But there’s more. I, too, have served on innumerable transit-related advisory committees. (Too bad the committees in Seattle don’t offer free rides as a perk.) And finally, almost exactly seven years ago, I, too, had the honor of being featured in a Streetsfilm.

Maybe this means that my destiny is to follow in the footsteps of the Bus Lady. In my vision of my own future, I will be living much like Miss Janis does: doing my life on the bus, sharing my expertise with others, and helping to elevate the needs of riders.

“Common sense and mother wit.” Yes, indeed.

“Mix, mix, mix!”

Southbound 106 stop, Rainier & Henderson, 4:45 PM

A group of young women are passing the long wait for our bus with conversation.

Woman 1: “It’s the body’s attempt at achieving equilibrium. I learned that in psychology.”
Woman 2: “Girl took one psychology class, and now she’s an expert.”
Woman 1: “Two, honey. Two. I failed one and then took it again.”

Four (little) things you can do to drive less

I have a tendency to write about our family’s extreme adventures. I write about how we ride the bus to Coulon Park or the Puyallup Fair or Yakima, about the three-bus trip with my toddler and week-old baby (in January) to my Goddaughter’s first birthday party, about many of the ridiculous things we’ve transported on the transit.

I’m not sure why I focus on this stuff. I think it’s partly because I’m a bit of an extremist. If I’m not careful, I can drift into the literal, rigid, all-or-nothing mindset of my second grader. (Who am I kidding? She’s a chip off the big chick.) But mostly, I think it’s because the extreme tends to be more interesting and memorable than the mundane. I doesn’t (usually) occur to me to write about our daily walks to school, or our 48 rides to church (which are much less awesome since our stop was removed—ahem), or our uneventful 8 rides* to the dentist in Columbia City.

Our extreme adventures might be useful for entertainment value (emphasis on the might), but they’re not especially good at inspiring folks to action. In my experience, taking small steps, if they go well, leads to taking larger steps, and before you know it, you’ve spun yourself a big, beautiful bus ridin’ positive feedback loop. I, for example, started my journey to completely insane bus fanatic with a simple decision to use my free bus pass from work once in a while. Actually, my journey officially began when I started riding Metro to school at eight years old. But I digress.

The point is, despite my impatience with the concept of incremental change (and the fact that we’ve long since passed the window for baby steps), I understand that it is only possible to move people when you meet them where they are. Or when you become a dictator. (The dictator thing could really come in handy in other ways, like for making sure there’s frequent and reliable transit for people who are willing to use it. Sadly, I don’t have the charisma — or soldiers — to pull it off.)

Though I don’t have many of the skills necessary for effecting change, I do have many years of experience getting around without a car. The least I can do is provide some reasonable, achievable advice to help people drive less. So, in order of difficulty, here’s a (short) list of things you can do to spend less time in your car.

1. Take transit every time you go downtown for non-work trips.
This is a no brainer. Driving downtown is stressful. It’s difficult and expensive to park, and there’s almost always too much traffic on the way in and on the way out. On the flip side, most neighborhoods, even neighborhoods where transit is scarce, offer decent, direct service to downtown. Save yourself hassle and money, and just do it.

2. For optional, leisure trips that are a mile or less, walk or ride your bike.
Spring is almost here, and being outside is good for your body and soul. If you’re going somewhere just for the fun of it, make getting there part of the fun. Chances are you’ll see neighbors you don’t often have the chance to talk to. You might pass a business you’d like to visit. And, I can guarantee you’ll see something you never knew was there. (A few Sundays ago, we took a different route home from church and discovered a house with a giant goldfish pond in the yard.)

Ideally, the walk/bike zone should be two miles for able-bodied people, but I’m starting small because I want these tips to be achievable. Walking two miles (really four, since any trip is there and back) is a decent time commitment, and biking with a family presents complexities. If the kids are very small, special equipment is required. If they are old enough to ride their own bikes but not old enough to ride in traffic, it can be challenging to find a route. (Sidewalks are not ideal for groups of people on bicycles.)

That said, if you have the time to invest in a longer walk, you don’t have kids, or you’re willing to figure out how to make bicycling work for your family, make two miles your goal and give yourself a gold star.

3. Do more in your own neighborhood.
One of the reasons people drive so much is because our culture teaches us to search out “the best” of everything: the grocery store with the most selection, the absolute best swim lessons, the tastiest burger. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t explore. (My family loves exploring.) I’m saying that all this searching for more and better has caused us to forget that there’s such a thing as good enough. And, it has kept us from being fully connected to the communities we call home.

What if you made a commitment to appreciate what’s in your neighborhood (including your actual neighbors, by the way) more often, instead of constantly looking elsewhere? The more reasons you have to participate in your own community, the more you can take advantage of tip #2.

4. Change how your kids get to school.
When you’re crunched for time and have more than one stop to make, driving feels like a necessity. Parents who have to ensure that their kids get to and from school or daycare often drive daily because it is simpler than trying to figure out how to manage multiple stops using a different mode. But what if you thought about your commute and your child’s as two separate trips? Chances are you have options.

If you have school-age children there’s a decent chance there’s a school bus available for them to ride. (In Seattle, kids are required to attend neighborhood schools, so this isn’t the case for most elementary students.) If you live too close for a school bus, find out if there’s a “walking school bus” (a volunteer-led, group walk) in your community. If not, consider organizing one. Or, try walking with them. If they are old enough, consider letting them walk or bike to school on their own or with friends.

The best part is, changing how your kids get to school can sometimes expand the options you have for getting to work. If your kids can get to school without you (by school bus, walking school bus, or walking or biking alone), you can then reconsider how you get to work. Even if you are walking with them (or for that, matter, driving them), you can plan your commute starting from their school. Is there a bus that stops nearby? Do you have coworkers you can carpool with? Can you bike with them to school and then bike from their school to work?

The key is to separate the trips and figure out what the options are for each. It might not be as difficult as you think.

Happy (almost) spring, everyone. Hope to see you out there!

***

*Starting on March 26th, the ride to Columbia City will require a transfer, which will necessarily make it more eventful. But hey.

Remembering why I ride

“What’s the Flux?” is a six-month, grant-funded project by KBCS radio that examines commuting in the Puget Sound region from a human level. I was fortunate enough to participate in the project; my interviews with reporter Yuko Kodama were broadcast earlier this month.

Ordinarily, I don’t like doing radio interviews. Time is limited, or the focus is political (which can feel more like a race to make your point than an actual dialog), or the host asks all the wrong questions. But this interview was a lot of fun. I talked with Yuko twice, for well over an hour each time (though fortunately, she edited my ramblings down to digestible segments), and I managed to explain — and as a result, reconnect with — most of what I love about the bus.

I’m sharing the recordings here in hopes that they will help you remember (or discover) what you love about sharing the ride. Also, because it lets me pretend like I have a podcast.

On buses and boundaries

Earlier this month, I wrote a short piece for Seattle’s Child about how Bus Nerd and I teach our kids to interact with strangers. Here’s a taste.

[We] don’t discourage our kids from talking to “strangers.” Like most parents, we have taught them never to go with a person they don’t know. But we also encourage and model safe and positive interactions, including making eye contact and greeting people, engaging in conversation, and helping those who need it.

We teach our kids how to recognize signs that someone is not safe to interact with: erratic behavior, inappropriate or aggressive language, invading personal space. And we empower them to decide what sort of interactions they’re comfortable with.

I certainly don’t have a magic bullet to protect my children (or anyone’s) from danger and violence. But the thing is, the more we isolate our kids and hide them away from the people they share the world with, the more disconnected and dangerous our communities become. We end up with fewer neighborhood friendships (and thus, more strangers), fewer “eyes on the street,” and lots more people in cars. And, as the number one killer of American children, cars are a significant threat to the safety of our communities.

Here’s to saying hi!

Art + buses + community = life (part II)

My former coworker, Kate, bus (and bike) mama extraordinaire, moved from Tacoma to St. Louis over the summer. Kate and her crew are so far enjoying the transit life in a city that offers service after 7 PM (ahem) and have wasted no time integrating themselves into their new community.

Last Saturday, they attended a birthday party for the Gateway Arch and painted a bus.

Bus painting in STL

[O]n Saturday, October 24, children and adults [transformed] a 35-foot MetroBus into a rolling work of art that will travel on routes in St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis over the next year.

You guys. You guys.

How cool would it be to see a bus you helped paint rolling through your neighborhood? How cool would it be to ride on one? What a beautiful way to foster feelings of belonging and build community!

Transit agency/arts organization types who are reading: Make this happen in your area.

Respect to those who came before, part V (Or, Why we need Indigenous People’s Day)

Last Thursday, I heard a story on my local public radio station about the “remaking” of Seattle. The host interviewed geology writer David Williams about his book, which details a series of landscape-transforming projects — razing hills, filling in tide flats, and cutting a canal between two lakes — undertaken by white settlers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to Williams, Seattle’s forefathers chose the site for their city based on its useful deep water port, but they found the actual landscape — hilly, and covered with rivers and trees — to be unworkable for their purposes. So, they decided to change it.

During the interview, Mr. Williams described these settlers’ actions as “bold,” “naïve,” and “ambitious.” He even called them insecure, based on his belief that early Seattleites wanted their city to be considered “world class” but weren’t sure it quite measured up.

I paid close attention to Williams’s version of the story, because, only a few weeks earlier, I had seen the documentary Princess Angeline at an event at the Duwamish Longhouse. The film addresses these very same projects, but from the perspective of the Duwamish people, who were the original inhabitants of the land that became Seattle. Far from improving the “habitability” of their homeland, the landscape-altering projects completely destroyed the Duwamish way of life.

Canoe

But there was not a single mention of the Duwamish people — by Mr. Williams or by the host — in the entire seven-minute interview. There was no talk of violence, greed, or racism, despite the fact that the rivers the Duwamish had used for sustenance and travel for thousands of years were either filled with dirt from the razed hills or poisoned by all of the rapid “progress.” Instead, the interview encouraged listeners to imagine brave, industrious settlers taming an empty (and troublesome) landscape.

This kind of revisionist history, this kind of erasure, happens again and again in the ways we talk about our city — and our country. It reinforces the myth that the United States was founded by pilgrims and pioneers who discovered an empty, resource-rich land and built an exceptional nation. We rarely trouble ourselves with the inconvenient fact that the land was already inhabited when these adventurous, freedom-loving pioneers arrived. Nor do we consider that their descendants continue to live among us.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a talk by one of my favorite writers, Isabel Wilkerson. Ms. Wilkerson is the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, a history — viewed through three first-person accounts — of the Great Migration of former slaves from the American south to northern cities. The Warmth of Other Suns is easily the greatest work of nonfiction I have ever read, and Wilkerson is an extremely thoughtful and sensitive scholar and writer, attuned to the stories of people who are discounted and marginalized.

And yet, at the end of her talk, she emphasized that each of us in the audience, by virtue of the fact that we were in Seattle, were the descendants of migrants, people who had come from somewhere else in search of a better life. She was doing so to illustrate the parallels between the participants in the Great Migration and immigrants who came from other lands. But her statement involved a basic assumption: that no one in the audience (and by extension, no one in the city) was a descendant of the people who are native to this region.

When we receive — and repeat — these kids of messages, we are reinforcing the idea that Native people either never existed or are a people of the past. It is easier to believe this than to face the truth. But we must face it. We must learn as much as we can about what happened, what was lost, and how we can forge a more just path forward.

Duwamish people in canoes on the Duwamish River

So I am beyond pleased that we have decided as a city to honor, celebrate, and especially, to hear the people whose land we now occupy.

Happy holiday, everyone. See you at the celebration?