In the suburbs I learned to drive and you told me we’d never survive

(Credit to Arcade Fire for the title.)

I visited my hometown in upstate New York over the holiday weekend. Appropriately, Chris and I drove up there, for a 17 hour round trip. I say appropriately because the thought of using anything but a car for transportation is preposterous there. In our current town, having a car is a pleasant convenience, but we could survive without it. Doing so in my hometown is nearly impossible. When I visit, I feel a bit of culture shock, even though I lived there for 20 years.

Unlike New York City, upstate New York is a vast rural landscape with occasional blips of urbanity. I’m from a town north of Albany, one of the many distant suburbs. The average lot size is about 3/4 of an acre. Green lawns spread out as far as the eye can see, with gray streets winding through them. Hardly anything is within walking distance, especially if you live in one of the subdivisions. The Walkscore is 20, and based on the things they say are nearby, I think that’s too kind. As a kid, I lived three miles from school, a distance that I would have found challenging on a bike. Public transit is non-existent, except for the single daily commuter bus that travels into Albany.

Even if you want to bike or walk somewhere, the facilities are limited. There are sidewalks, but crossing signals are short and dodgy. Just walking between the mall parking lot and the supermarket involves crossing a multi-lane highway. The town has built a few bicycle trails, but they’re largely for recreational purposes and don’t go anywhere particularly useful. Many of the roads have a large enough shoulder to bike on, but bike lanes are still a twinkle in some unborn city planner’s eye.

If you decide to brave the streets for transportation, the reaction from drivers is apathetic at best. When I was training one summer for the AIDS Ride for Life, I rode as often as I could to my summer job. Like any bike commuter, I would bring a change of clothes and wipe my face off in the bathroom. Although I didn’t think much of it, people were shocked when they heard I rode my bike a whole five miles to work! Similarly, my family would walk to our church, which was a little over a mile away, on nice summer days. Even in the most pleasant weather, people would offer us a ride, assuming that we would prefer to be in a car.

Unfortunately, this lack of comprehension translates to dangerous road conditions for commuters who want to bike. Cycling for recreation is common, with many people out for a spin on weekday afternoons and weekends. My parents have logged thousands of miles in our area without incident. But because cycling for transportation occurs at different, inconvenient times of the day, it requires a whole different perspective from drivers. People in my hometown would be baffled and taken off-guard by someone riding at rush hour or at night. While there are a lot of unfortunate stereotypes about commuting cyclists in D.C., people at least acknowledge that they exist. Drivers’ ignorance of cyclists is far from bliss.

The frustrating part is that it’s not just my hometown. There’s no regional network of sustainable transportation either. My mom would love to bike to her job in the next town over, but there’s a dodgy bridge crossing and the shoulder is crumbling. As the road is only two lanes and highly congested, taking the lane might inspire road rage. Even though she’s an experienced cyclist, the route inspires justified fear.

But perhaps the most frustrating part is that this entry could be about almost any other exurban town in the U.S. Living in a city or close-in suburb, it’s easy to forget how isolating and car-centric most of North America is. It’s simple to say, “Why don’t people just give up their cars? I certainly can.” But it’s just not that easy. My parents didn’t move to my hometown because they loved their car so very much – they moved there because it had a good school system. People can’t just pull up their entire lives or for that matter, the infrastructure of their towns. We have to deal with and build from what we have here and now.

As a bicycle advocate, I strive to help people see how bicycling for transportation can fit into their lives. Perhaps we need to help people see how it fits into their towns as well. With places like my hometown, it will inevitably be a slow process because every bit of infrastructure fights against being walking and biking-friendly. With others that have maintained or rebuilt a main street, it might be a little easier to reintegrate walking and biking into both the physical geography and people’s attitudes.

But I do believe this transformation can occur. My current town used to have a defunct mall where a beautiful, active town square now stands with a plethora of bicycle parking. We’re actually so far along in our bicycle infrastructure and awareness that we’re hoping to get a Bronze Bicycle Friendly Community designation from the League of American Bicyclists. So because of what I see and experience every day, I think that for every mile of bike lane, every few blocks of sidewalk, every Safe Routes to School class, and every community ride, there’s another person asking themselves, “Do I have to take a car to get there?”

Did you grow up in a bicycle or pedestrian-friendly area? Has your current area always been bicycle and pedestrian-friendly?

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10 Responses to In the suburbs I learned to drive and you told me we’d never survive

  1. BB says:

    Eeeekkk!!! Sounds hideous and makes me feel very fortunate. I’m off to cycle 15km into the heart of the city along a bitumen cycle path and I will appreciate every minute. 🙂

    • Shannon says:

      That sounds lovely! I remember there was a bike path like that in York that I really enjoyed. We rode from the hostel into downtown.

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  3. Jean says:

    Yes I did grow up in bike friendly area…meaning the small area within a 2-3 mile radius from home. We lived on a way street in downtown area of a city that was then, 50,000 people. 10 min. walk was transit. 15 min. walk to shopping plaza…downtown.

    That experience spoiled me onward in life…I’ve always consciously chosen to live near transit and some services. 80% of the places where I lived were bike-pedestrian friendly areas.

    • Shannon says:

      I would have killed for that as a kid. I personally like our neighborhood because it combines the small town feel with the accessibility.

      • Jean says:

        By the way, I believe the new city planning director just came a few months ago from Montgomery County, MD. I’m not sure what your area is like..

      • Shannon says:

        My current area (which is in Montgomery County) is actually pretty great. My particular town is more bike-friendly than the county in general, but the county is a lot better than my hometown. In fact, it actually has two different Bicycle Friendly Communities, only one of which is mine.

  4. J.A.B. says:

    Not all suburbs of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy are hard to cycle in. I spent thirty years living half-way between Voorheesville and New Salem, and went everywhere in the Tri-cities area by bike all that time — at first, my bike was the *only* way I could get around; I took my first driving lessons after we moved there.

    When people finally stopped freaking out when I showed up for an appointment on a bike, they started freaking out whenever I showed up in a car. Perhaps they believed that only devout religious fervor can ever get any adult onto a bike.

    Since there wasn’t any supermarket in Voorheesville until shortly before we moved away, I regularly bought groceries at a Price Chopper not too far west of Stuyvesant Plaza. I also went to Albany once or twice a year to buy underwear at Lodge’s on Pearl Street, and to Schenectady once a month to deliver reproduction copies to a printshop, until the printshop went broke and we got a more-convenient one on Route 20. And, of course, I went to shopping centers and big-box stores north and west of Albany. I particularly liked coming back from Wal*mart by way of Six-Mile reservoir. I rode to Clifton Park only once or twice; there was nothing there I couldn’t get closer to home.

    Aside from rare outbreaks of chip-seal, which caused vibration that made my hands swell and itch until cars pounded the chips flat, only two roads were any problem. (Well, the interstates were a royal pain and a Chinese Wall, but I mostly knew ways around them.)

    New Karner Road had breakdown lanes that, from the driver’s seat of a car, appeared to be paved shoulders plenty wide enough for a bike to get well away from the traffic — but they hadn’t been so much paved as used as a dumping ground for unwanted asphalt, and the lanes were not continuous. Some stretches were long enough to be worth merging in and out of traffic for — but there was a drop-off between the travel lanes and the breakdown lane sharp enough to spin a car; since the breakdown lane was wide enough to allow shenanigans, it was reasonably safe to drop over the cliff onto the “shoulder”, if you turned sharp, but there were very few places where I could get back onto the roadway without stopping and picking up the bike.

    I didn’t use New Karner Road if there was another road that went where I wanted to go, but if the stretch of Western Avenue between State Farm and Stuyvesant Plaza was the only way to get somewhere, I just didn’t go. The president of the bicycle club gave up riding to work when they painted “bike lanes” on Western, but I had alternate routes. If I wanted to go to Crossgates, Normanskill/Johnston led straight there, and if I wanted to go to Stuyvesant Plaza, I could turn off Johnston onto Church road, which ran sorta parallel to Western, cut through an apartment complex to Schoolhouse road just before Church came out on Western, and cross the interstate on Schoolhouse.

    Looking at the map, I don’t see how I got from Schoolhouse to Stuyvesant, but that route did get me past the “push button to teleport” section underneath the Northway.

    I usually came back through the Sherwood Forest housing development north of Western, but don’t recall how I got there. (Checks map) Ah, by way of Gipp Road.

    The map says that Paradise Natural Foods is still on Gipp Road. I miss Paradise Foods, particularly when I’m collecting dried fruit for my Christmas cakes. Warsaw Health Food is a much smaller place because this is a much smaller town. But they have a walk-in cooler of flours; Paradise had only a dairy case. (And May through October, I can get fresh-ground flour at Bonneyville Mill.)

    Getting back to your question: the area where I grew up is extremely bike-unfriendly now. They put cheap gravel on the roads –one of the large stones in the cheap gravel once flew up and knocked my car out of gear– and they use the money saved on gravel to pay graders to keep the stones so loose that heavy cars have trouble. The rolling stones make it difficult to walk along the road, even at the extreme edge. (They’ve also stopped maintaining the ditches.)

    Even when gravel roads are properly maintained, a five-mile trip on a bike *is* the remarkable achievement your co-workers think it is. (Particularly on the sort of bike that children in the forties rode.) I never attempted to ride to any destination as long as we lived at the Scircleville place — every place that wasn’t in walking distance was a major expedition by car.

    • Shannon says:

      It’s true – not all of the New York State Capital Region region is awful. One of my friends in Albany gets around only by bike and I interviewed the President of the Albany Bike Coalition once, who thought Albany’s biking was fine. But generally, the area does have some serious connectivity problems, especially the further north you go. There are a lot of roads I would be okay riding on, but a lot of people would feel too afraid of them to try in the first place.

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