I don’t travel that often for work, but I do so enough that I’ve been able to see a number of cities new to me. Last year, I went to Indianapolis, which surprised me with its Midwest charm. I’ve also been to Denver, Dallas, Austin, and San Francisco. (I’d been to San Fran before, but always with my parents.) With these cities, I’ve spent the large majority of my time doing scheduled work activities, but had some opportunities to observe the layout and functioning of the cities. One of the continuing themes I’ve noticed is that I’ve had a much different experience depending on my mode of transportation and how it relates to the character of the city.
In all of the cities except San Francisco, I was on foot, public transit, or shared van the entire time. I try to avoid renting a car on work trips under all circumstances. It saves money for the government, minimizes my carbon footprint (which is hideous because of the plane rides already), and simplifies everything. Thank goodness for Supershuttle. In Indianapolis, Austin, and Denver, getting around on foot was perfect. There were numerous restaurants and bars within walking distance. Denver even has a mile-long pedestrianized area, with hybrid-electric compressed natural gas buses as the only vehicles allowed up and down it. Both Austin and Indianapolis had lovely river-front multi-use paths for running and biking that I took advantage of. All of them had a vibrant nightlife, with plenty of people on the streets, increasing the feeling of safety. Frankly, these were areas designed for walking. They felt like the more social, less residential neighborhoods of Washington, D.C.
On the other hand, Dallas was not. Unlike some cities where walking is dangerous because of narrow sidewalks and poor pedestrian signals, the area of Dallas I was in seemed quite safe from that perspective. It was just distinctly unfriendly. There were also very few restaurants or stores on the sidewalk level, making it less enticing to wander. The buildings were all similar, lacking the character that permeates interesting neighborhoods in any city. In the middle of the day, when the sidewalks are bustling in D.C., there was no one on the streets of Dallas. It felt like I was in the beginning of 28 Days Later, when the one survivor of the zombie outbreak is wandering abandoned London. At night, this lack of a crowd felt straight-up dodgy. As a result, I had no desire to explore, an unfortunate feeling in a place that I had never visited before.
All of this was in distinct contrast to my experience in San Francisco. Unlike most trips, where I’m going to a multi-day conference in one location, my meeting for this was just one day in Berkeley. Since it’s dopey to fly all of the way to the West Coast for one day of work, my supervisor suggested that I visit one of our facilities that’s about 45 minutes away from the hotel. As there’s absolutely no public transit to that area, I was forced to rent a car. The night I arrived, I planned on meeting a colleague in downtown San Francisco for dinner. Having an hour and a half of downtime in-between but not enough time to drop the car off at the hotel, I planned on finding a place to park and wandering around. Instead, I spent all of it driving around, continually frustrated by one-way streets, stop/start trolley cars, incredibly high parking prices, and snarling traffic. Instead gazing up at the funky architecture, grinning at the mash-up of cultures in Chinatown, and bopping in and of stores, as I would be on foot, all of that glorious hustle-and-bustle directly downloaded itself into my brain as stress. Getting out to the less congested parts of the city was a relief.
While the experience reinforced my belief of “I hate driving,” I can see how others would translate it as “I hate driving in this city.” From there, it’s only a short jump to “I hate driving in a place with so many pedestrians, buses, and bicyclists.” Because San Fran is swarming with them. While I longed to be part of that group, if you’re not used to walking, biking, or taking public transit, I can see how they could just be seen as a nuisance. Even though I live in a place with great public transit, I come from a suburb where getting anywhere without a car is extremely difficult. Driving is so baked into the culture that the summer I spent training for the AIDS Ride, my use of a bicycle for transportation was looked upon as quite odd. The idea of having everywhere look like downtown San Fran can be quite threatening if you’ve never experienced how easy and pleasant it can be to get around without a car.
This fundamental culture clash is one that bicycle and pedestrian advocates have to both address and be sensitive to. Just telling everyone just to walk, cycle, or take public transportation – even in places where it’s safe and possible – is not a solution. Helping people ease into this transition is necessary, and will be even moreso as we try to transform cities like Dallas.
One great way to do it is to take advantage of cities where walking, biking, and public transit are already available and far more convenient than driving. You can have a far richer experience of the culture on foot or two wheels than you ever can from the windows of a car. In San Fran, taking a trolley car even counts as a visit to a historical monument! So next time you visit a city, if you normally drive around and have the physical capacity to get around without one, I challenge you to go without a car as much as possible. If you must have one on the trip, leave it at the hotel as much as possible. If someone’s visiting you who is used to driving, show them around on foot or bike. Then get out and see that city and perhaps the world from a different perspective.