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?