Tag Archives: walking

Moving beyond the margins, part II

Recently, a dear friend of mine moved from Seattle to a small city in the desert southwest. It wasn’t exactly a voluntary exit (a casualty of the rising cost of living in our shared hometown), but the destination, selected precisely for its “different-ness” from the sparkling, blue and green beauty she was leaving behind, was a welcome new adventure.

Shortly after my friend and her husband settled into their new home, a series of unexpected circumstances conspired to leave them without a car. Their lives almost completely fell apart. Bus service in their new city is hourly on most routes—and essentially nonexistent after 7 PM. Sidewalks are limited. Crossings are inconvenient, dangerous, or both.

My friend and her hubby both have jobs. (Hubby works shifts outside of business hours, so no bus commuting for him. ) They also have many pets and so must haul giant bags of food and litter on the regular. And, of course, they must manage all of life’s other errands, obligations, and appointments. Without a car, their lives became consumed with figuring out how they were going to get where they needed to go. It was difficult and stressful and time consuming and not at all workable for the long term. So, they did what they had to do to return to the ranks of vehicle-owning Americans.

Talking to my friend about her struggles getting around reminded me of some similar struggles in my own past. As I’ve mentioned, I couldn’t afford a car for most of the time I lived in Houston. Back then, I wasn’t proudly “car-free”; I was broke and desperate for reliable transportation.

Sidewalks are not a given in our nation’s fourth largest city, and walking is often isolating and risky. Almost every time I left my apartment, I was forced to walk through parking lots and in drainage ditches and an on the edges of roads. (As a bonus, I also regularly experienced street harassment.*)

Houston is huge – 628 square miles, to be exact – with no real center of commerce, so traveling by bus would have been difficult even on the best-run transit system. And back then (ahem), Houston did not have the best-run transit system.** Poor frequency, awful transfers, and some drivers’ tendency to blow past stops to avoid missing green lights (OK, maybe it was just that one driver) made it very hard to arrive anywhere on time. I was fired from one of my many college jobs for chronic lateness.

When I started teaching and could finally afford it, I bought a reliable used car. A few years later, I bought a reliable new car. I was so happy and proud and excited and empowered on the day I drove that car off the lot, I could not have imagined that, only a few years later, I would hand over my keys and never look back.

I have not owned a car in almost 14 years. To this day, I think of my decision to live carfree as one of the best I have ever made. It has changed my life in innumerable positive and beautiful ways. This does not mean that my choice has been painless or without challenges, but most of the time, and certainly on balance, it’s pretty darn good. I would argue, however, that a significant percentage – dare I say a majority? — of people who don’t own cars do not feel enriched by their circumstances. Instead they feel helpless, disconnected, and vulnerable.

So what makes the difference between being happily carfree and desperately carless? Certainly, a lot depends on where you live. In Manhattan, living without a car is easy. In Yakima, not so much. But in Seattle, or Pittsburgh, or Houston, or St, Louis, it can go either way. The most important determining factors are a person’s neighborhood and life circumstances. Shift work, kids and errands, sprawling communities, poor transit, mobility struggles, and high crime rates increase the challenges to living without a car.

It is in these “in-between” places where we have the greatest opportunity to improve people’s lives  — the most low-hanging fruit, as it were. In these places, we need to design our transportation systems to accommodate the shift workers, the errand runners, the physically challenged, and the vulnerable. This means frequent, reliable, affordable (preferably free) public transit, all day, every day. It means safe, comfortable transit stops and convenient transfer points. It means sidewalks in every neighborhood. It means protected bike infrastructure. It means accessible everything.

Of course, these improvements will benefit everyone, as they should. Living without a car, whether voluntary or not, should be as painless as possible, for as many people as possible. It is the only way we will build more equitable communities, or reduce car ownership, or lower the cost of living in increasingly expensive cities.

All we are missing is the will.

Mother and son walking to preschool in Kent, WA (Photo credit: KUOW)

Mother and son walking to preschool in Kent, WA (Photo credit: KUOW)

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* To be clear, this happens on pedestrian-friendly streets, too. In fact, the more dudes there are walking on a street, the more likely one is to experience harassment.

** Since I moved back to Seattle in 1998, they’ve added light rail and completely revamped the bus system, so I really can’t speak to what it’s like now. Hey, if it’s good enough for Janis Scott

 

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.

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* 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.

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!

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

Why we walk

Fun figurines at small people’s eye level:

Chicklet's favorite window

 

 

 

 

 

 

My small people have been enjoying these dolls, displayed in a ground-level apartment window on one of our well-beaten walking paths, as long as they’ve been aware enough to look around. Chicklet’s favorite is the dancing couple in the back. Busling likes the guy with the “insrament.”

Upcoming events for transit types

Feet First Neighborhood Walking Ambassador Training
What: A “free training for community members to learn how to lead walks in their neighborhood.”

Neighborhood Walking Ambassadors lead inspiring walks around their community, connecting neighbors in a unique way with their surroundings. More people walking means more eyes on the street, which creates safer and healthier places for all of us to live, play and work.>

When: Saturday, October 29, 10:30 am -12:00 pm
Where: Rainier Beach Library, 9125 Rainier Avenue South
I love walking (more than busing, in fact), my neighborhood, and Feet First. Wish I could be there. If you can, send an email to this address to register.

That’s it for October–that I know of, anyway. Next month, there are many opportunities for citizens to provide input about transportation issues.

Road Safety Summits (City of Seattle)

The Summit[s], convened by Councilmembers and the Mayor, will be a series of three meetings and a Town Hall where agencies, community members, partners and other leaders will convene to discuss the best ways to improve safety and responsibility on our streets.

The summit at City Hall has come and gone, but here’s the information about the other two:

Tuesday, November 15th, 6 PM
Northgate Community Center, 10510 5th Ave NE

Monday, November 21st
Southwest Community Center, 2801 SW Thistle St

Transit Master Plan open houses

SDOT will be hosting 5 open houses this fall to share information about the TMP Draft Summary Report and to get feedback from the community. Please join us to learn about the draft plan and share your thoughts.

Here’s the information about the remaining events:

Tuesday, November 15, 6 PM
Ballard High School, 1418 NW 65th St

November 17, 6 PM
New Holly Gathering Hall, 7054 32nd Ave S

Public meetings about service changes (King County Metro)

When Metro launches the new RapidRide C and D lines in September 2012, we will be changing existing bus service to improve the transit system and provide more connections to jobs, schools, and other destinations in Seattle, Shoreline, Burien, Tukwila, SeaTac, and Des Moines. Now is the time for community members to review Metro’s ideas and share their own.

In November, we will be sharing proposed changes to bus service and listening to public comments. We invite you to participate in this process by attending a meeting or information table and completing our online survey. The proposed changes are posted at www.kingcounty.gov/metro/haveasay.

There are some big changes in the works, so make sure you visit the site to see how your travels will be affected. Oh, and show up at one of these events.

Wednesday, Nov. 2 – Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., 12:00-2:00 p.m.
Thursday, Nov. 3 – Adams Elementary School, 6110 28th Ave. NW, 7:00-9:00 p.m.
Monday, Nov. 7 – Catharine Blaine Elementary, 2550 34th Ave. W, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Nov. 9 – Chief Sealth High School, 2600 SW Thistle St., 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Monday, Nov. 14 – Greenwood Senior Center, 525 N 85th St., 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Nov. 15 – South Park Neighborhood Center, 8201 10th Ave. S, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Thursday, Nov. 17 – Madison Middle School, 3429 45th Ave. SW, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Busing with two (not so) babies, part III

My two babies at a bus stop

Recently, it occurred to me that, at 20 months (or, “one an’ a haff,” as he says), Busling is long overdue for some baby bus nerd walk training. After all, Chicklet was months younger when I started forci—er, encouraging—her to walk on our outings, and it’s paid off. These days, she can hoof it a mile and a half (two, even) at my pace without blinking an eye.

I’ve been putting off walk training Busling, in part because he’s the baby (they grow up fast enough as it is!), but mostly because I simply do not have enough hands. I stubbornly cling to my beloved baby pack, despite the fact that Busling has been too big for it for going on eight months, because it leaves one of my hands free for luxuries like, say, carrying an umbrella. (The other one, of course, is hanging on to Chicklet.) And, there really aren’t any good alternatives.

I can’t wear Busling on my back because I’m just not skilled enough at the on-and-off maneuvers, and sitting can be a challenge with a person right behind you. Plus, he pulls my hair.

As I’ve mentioned before, strollers and buses don’t mix. That brings us to option three: traveling with two walkers. You don’t have to think about this option long before you start seeing the challenges. Ever tried holding two hands and, well, anything else? For that matter, ever tried holding a toddler’s hand for longer than 30 seconds at a stretch?

Well folks, I have.

Since last Thursday, we’ve been experimenting with Busling on foot–with the baby pack stuffed into the bus bag, just in case. So far, he’s done great. (The kid is a trooper, like his big sis.) Not surprisingly, he travels at an excruciatingly slow pace, but he hasn’t complained or asked to be picked up, not even on steep hills.

I couldn’t be prouder of my baby boy, but I already know it’s going to be a long fall and winter. I still have no solution for rain, shopping bags, or tired legs, and I can only fall back on the pack for so long before my back gives out. (If I’m still strapping the kid on on our walks to elementary school, please, call someone.) We’ve entered the bus parenting “awkward stage” I’ve been dreading since B was born, and I don’t foresee it ending until he is close to Chicklet’s current age (four in less than a month!).

The perks are still the perks, though. As with all of my previous challenges, I’ll keep trying—and keep you posted!

Walking with Chicklet (or, Why I shouldn’t worry about my kid)

The entire Bus Fam is walking home from the 27 after a lovely downtown shopping adventure*. On the way, we run into a young gentleman who, though possibly somewhat intoxicated, is perfectly friendly and polite.

After saying hello to all of us, he puts his fist out, at Chicklet level, and asks for a pound. Chicklet looks down at his hand, gives him her (in)famous side eye, and says, “My knuckles are hurting.”

The man shrugs off the slight and tries again, this time with an open hand. “How about a high five?” he asks.

Chicklet looks at his hand, then her own, repeats the side eye, and replies, “I think my hand is hurting, too.”

***

*The purpose of said adventure was to purchase “big-boy dress-up clothes” for Busling, for a wedding we’re attending next weekend. My boy in dress-up clothes = cu-ute!

snOMG, pedestrian edition

One of the things I appreciate about living in the city is that I’m never far from basic necessities. So, times like now (when even buses are down for the count), I can still walk to the grocery store, the pharmacy, the library, and et cetera. At least, theoretically I can.

Ahem.

Slippery sidewalks in Seattle

Slippery sidewalks are bad for bus riders

Don’t even get me started on the hills.

Several of my readers have asked me to remind Seattle folk that property owners are responsible for clearing the sidewalks in front of their homes and businesses. (In case you care, the requirement is spelled out in section 15.48.010 of the Seattle Municipal Code.) I happen to think this is impractical for several reasons*, not the least of which is the fact that (if we are to judge by the condition of the sidewalks) no one seems to know this.

But, in the absence of any concerted campaign by the city to inform citizens of this rule, we pedestrians must take matters into our own hands.

Psst! You have to shovel your own sidewalk. Pass it on!

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*Who’s in charge of the bus stops? The sidewalks in front of parks? The stretches of sidewalk with no adjacent homes or businesses? Those folks aren’t doing any shoveling!