Before I was a champion of city life, I lived in the distant “white flight” suburb of Victor, New York. While it was disconnected from any thought of diversity, it was a great place to spend a majority of my school years. I had friends in the neighborhood, making for after school mayhem, including backyard football, mountain biking, whiffle ball and shooting hoops in my bud’s driveway. When the sun went down, the neighborhood kids would spontaneously gather in the side street for “bloody murder,” a sort of hide and seek/tag hybrid game (we thought we were so cool). We had endless hours of summer fun, and even made the Upstate New York winters tolerable together.
And while I now see the exclusivity inherent in suburban America, I grew up in a community of friends, connected by sidewalks, side streets and a slower pace. We could gather a group of friends for a game of tackle football in 15 minutes by simply riding bikes and knocking on doors. Texting was still 20+ years away and rotary phones (which I remember owning) were just a disconnective imposter.
If we wanted a cheap meal, there were inexpensive diners and even Giovanni’s lunch cart on Main Street. The Market Basket, a small grocer alongside the train tracks powered our insatiable need for Pixie Sticks, Big League Chew bubble gum and Mountain Dew.
In small roving packs of two-wheeled machines, we ruled the neighborhood transportation scene with our sidewalk and side-street riding fury, using our desire for freedom, friendship and fun as our fuel. Everything we needed was within an 8 minute pedal, and life was good.
Furthermore, we knew who lived in nearly every house. The Turners, the Holdens, the Barrys, Harloffs… all of them. We’d see them on their porch, out for a walk and raking leaves, and give a shout, “Hi Mr. Groth!”
OK this is starting to sound like one of those “back when I was a kid, the world was better” Facebook posts. Few things make me slam my head against the wall like the unwavering need for each generation to wax lyrical about why they had it right and everyone that came after screwed it up. That’s not where I’m going with this.
I was one of those kids who was scared to drive, especially since I had to learn on a stick shift. OK I will pull a little “generational rank” here for kicks… learning to drive on a standard transmission is literally twice as hard as learning to just drive. Driving is the easy part… figuring out how not to stall, or smoke the tires every time the light turns green is a process that engenders a heightened humility.
But I finally got my license, just in time to commute daily to Finger Lakes Community College. We didn’t have money, so my college career would have to start humbly. Every day, I drove about 20 miles round-trip to class. I liked to drive at the time, so it was just fine. And while I made new friends at school, I started coming home to a neighborhood I didn’t know anymore. Gone was the intimate familiarity with my old friends, my neighbors, my community. The spontaneous encounters with Mr. Emmons or Mrs. Turner out in the front yard were no more. The neighborly wave to Mr. Sale on the way to picking up a pack of baseball cards at the Market Basket had ceased.
I didn’t realize until many years later that those spontaneous encounters that walking and biking engender are the roots of what create strong communities. When I learned to drive, I unknowingly succumbed to the tragic assimilation of the “destination prioritization” life that most of us embody when we learn to drive. Life stops becoming a about the journey in favor of how quickly and efficiently we can access a destination.
But if there’s anything I’ve since learned about being a public transportation advocate, a cycling ambassador and a density-based supporter, it’s that (and forgive the under-estimated cliche) the journey really is as enjoyable as the destination. The massive over-reliance on the automobile and the subsequent sprawl that this dynamic has perpetuated negates the power of community and togetherness through the beautiful and spontaneous encounter-based culture. The shift to see these encounters as variables that need to be eliminated from the day-to-day routine over the last 100 years is frankly disturbing. It negates the very fabric of who we are as human beings, and what we require for a happy and healthy existence.
Sure, I advocate for cities, but what I really do is advocate for the possibility that our adult lives have a little bit more of those elements we all seem to leave behind as soon as we learn to drive. When life forced us to view our communities from a slower, more intimate pace… when the lack of a drivers license put us in significantly greater touch with the people around us, even in passing… these are the variables we have worked so hard to negate, and the very ones people like myself believe we all secretly need to live a fulfilling life.
I was a better citizen before I learned how to drive. This is a topic we could debate forever, but I already have my answer. Walking, biking, and the ability to access everything we need without a car makes us more connected human beings.