Today I took a walk. I sauntered down my street to the southern end, where it terminates at Elmwood Avenue, a four-lane highway posing as a residential collector route. This section of road, which sees over 10,000 speeding cars per day, was suddenly quiet. I crossed the street without having to play frogger. I listened to a podcast in my headphones without having to turn it up. Instead of the sound of speeding cars and trucks, I heard birds chirping, eagerly awaiting the first breaths of Upstate New York Spring.
For the first time in my many years of living in our apartment, I walked along Elmwood Avenue at rush hour, and it was a perfectly pleasant… even quiet.
The Coronavirus has temporarily changed our world, leaving a devastating trail of death and economic hardship. But the worst times often lead us in the direction of opportunity. If we have ever been curious about what life is like when cars aren’t dominating our living spaces, now is the time to find out. If we have ever wondered what effect cars have on us as we bike or walk, we now have a chance to see.
America, I task you with this. Throw on a mask, stay more than 6 feet from other people, and take a walk to your nearest busy street. Perhaps you’ve tried to walk along this road before, only to realize it’s not pleasant. The noise, the smog, the fast moving traffic… all these elements send a message to our brain that this is not a place we want to be. But now, for what we hope is a short time, we have the opportunity to see what this same road feels like without the elements of oppressive automobile traffic, deafening noise and the subsequent aversion that these elicit. Take a deep breath and smell something other than exhaust. Listen to the quiet… experience what it’s like to NOT strain against the under-appreciated roar or fast moving cars. Feel the relaxation and comfort as this usually dangerous thoroughfare now feels much more serene and manageable.
Notice that even though there are cars on the road, simply having fewer of them makes the experience more pleasant. Imagine if a more robust transportation system, with trains, trams, buses, bike and pedestrian infrastructure allowed us to take half the cars off of the road, or drive 50% less. Here is our chance to realize what it feels like to walk out of our homes and apartments and feel the safety and serenity of a car-light world.
This is our opportunity to see the difference between a pleasant walk and a car-happy arena of speed, fumes and deafening roar. Put on a mask, go out alone, keep your distance from others and see what a brisk walk along that busy road feels like today.