At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I lived in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. As August rolled around, I made a spontaneous move and have spent the latter part of the pandemic from Waco, Texas. My experience in these two extremely different contexts has given me a chance to see how the way I moved around a city affects how connected I feel to it.
As Brooklyn adjusted to COVID, I scaled back on my number of trips to Manhattan and easily transitioned to a more local style of life. I stopped riding the metro and began walking and biking most places, spending more money with local shops. I had never really lived this locally before and was delighted to discover how easily I could go weeks at a time without a single ride on the subway or ever stepping foot into Manhattan.
In contrast, during my first 10 months in Waco, I couldn’t get anywhere without driving. While I was thankful for a roommate who shared her car with me, it was disorienting to lose the freedom of walking and biking to get where I needed to go. My sense of place was more disjointed. Slowly, I learned where the best shops in town were, but they were all random stars on my Google maps, disconnected from each other, separated by a dizzying array of roads.
While I could drive those roads and get from shop to shop, my sense of connectedness to the journey felt less robust. Because my car had been doing all the work and getting me from Point A to Point B, I had no relationship to these roads, no sense of how these businesses were connected to each other.
Regaining a sense of the local in a car-dependent world
The relationship between our modes of transit and our sense of place has been long discussed by urbanists, especially as we confront the rising cost of car-dependence in America. Every technology brings with it a set of values, and this was no different with the car. Introduced to the city in the 1900s, the private automobile was especially disruptive to city life because of how intensely it valued speed and distance.
To shape a city around the car meant to reconfigure it to meet these values. In the 1920s, city planners began spreading homes and businesses farther apart, widening roads, providing millions of parking spaces, and keeping other road-users (trains, pedestrians, children) out of the car’s way.
Unfortunately, it’s a challenge to this day to ensure safety, as cars continue to claim lives in accidents. Over the past few years, broader financial and public health costs of car-based design have become increasingly evident as well. Harder to measure but still important is the way car dependence can lead to a fractured sense of place.
Feeling connected to a place requires moving at a pace that allows the close observation of pertinent details. Driving at 45-60 miles per hour through the city makes such observation extremely difficult. It’s hard to take in details because they’re moving too quickly past our window. It’s like saying you’ve been to Rome because you’ve flown over it.
Feeling connected also requires experiencing the landscape in an embodied fashion. We feel more connected when we process a place with our bodies and senses, whether that’s feeling the strain of our muscles as we walk up a hill, feeling the wind in our face as we bike to work, or noticing the change in sound and smell as we move from neighborhood to neighborhood.
We also feel connected when we take on risk or apply some level of creativity. I think this is why biking, walking, and public transit can be more enjoyable than driving. These are all stimulating, demanding forms of transit that require us to put up with some kind of obstacle, apply our creativity, and exert effort for something.
How to enjoy your area without a car
As more Americans receive COVID-19 vaccines, “getting back to normal” has become the phrase du jour. But when it comes to the design of our cities and neighborhoods, some city leaders are wondering if getting back to normal is truly worth it. Should we really be going back to relying on cars for every single outing?
Some leaders are saying no. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo is on a mission to drive cars out of the City of Light. Several cities including New York City are making their “pandemic parklet” programs permanent. And as office retail plummets and more people work from home, more cities are starting to explore the idea of the 15-minute city.
There’s a personal opportunity here too. As we build our post-pandemic lives and rhythms, what would it look like to rethink normal when it comes to how we move around our city? While we can’t change very much about how our cities are designed, the one thing we can challenge is how we move through them.
While many of us have inherited a car-based relationship with our cities, it’s not one we have to keep. Here are five ways to rethink normal when it comes to how you move around your city.
Take a deep dive into your neighborhood
Often, our neighborhoods contain unique local shops we’d be interested in; we just haven’t discovered them. Discovering interesting local businesses is surprisingly difficult when we’re driving at 45 mph...we simply don’t have time to look out the window!
Using Google Maps, zoom in until you have a circumference of 3-5 miles around your home. Search for various amenities like cafes, grocery stores, bars, and so on, and save them with a golden star. Once you’re finished, look at the stars you’ve collected: what’s reachable around you without a car?
Give public transit a shot
Many times, I’ve lived in a city and instantly assumed that public transit would be too dangerous or unreliable to use. I was wrong on both accounts. For example, while living in Providence, Rhode Island, I remember realizing one day that I could get from my house to downtown in 10 minutes for a dollar without incident and not have to worry about parking.
We might be assuming that our city has no public transit because this is the case in most cities; but in many cases, this is not true. With a little research you might find that with some planning and courage, it’s possible for you to safely conduct an errand or two on the local bus.
Share your car and errand load with friends
Almost half of all car trips in the United States are for short errands, yet account for more than half of all carbon emissions. Why not collaborate with friends to help each other with errands or carpool together? If one person is going to Target, they could pick up a few things for the group. Heading to the post office? Send a quick text to see if anyone else needs stamps. Big grocery-shopping day? Pick up a few friends first and make one single trip. Not only will collaborating on errands give you more chances to connect with your community and friends, but you’ll also be reducing your carbon emissions.
Take a walk
As people who have been conditioned to drive everywhere, it’s almost impossible to envision that anything else is possible. While sometimes walking truly is undesirable, sometimes it’s actually possible . . . we just don’t know.
Once you discover a few shops, a bar, or a café within walking distance from you, lace up your shoes and walk there. What details do you notice along the way? How does the design of the street make you feel? How do you feel mentally and emotionally once you arrive? P.S. This is a perfect way to get in that podcast you’ve always been wanting to listen to!
Biking is probably my personal favorite way of getting around town. The pace of biking allows for meaningful observation while still moving around efficiently. The physical exertion and the ease with which I can maneuver the streets never fails to release endorphins, and I never have to stress about parking.
If you take up biking, here are a few tips: ride on residential streets instead of on busy corridors as much as possible, learn your hand signals, avoid rush hours, and invest in good lights and a sturdy crossbody bag. Study a map ahead of time so you can anticipate hills and one-way streets along your route.
How it feels after reconnecting with my local area
Three months ago I moved to a different part of Waco. I’m living with friends with a bike to spare, so I now bike about two-thirds of the time around town. I try as much as possible to only use a car for trips to the grocery store or for evening events, because biking here in the dark is quite unsafe.
In the past three months that I’ve traded car keys for bike keys, not only have I been happier, but my sense of connectedness to the city has improved. Biking has introduced me to the city’s landscape in a new way. I have discovered hills I didn’t know existed and have a more detailed knowledge of the roads and traffic patterns. I’ve supported more small businesses because they’re closer to me than the chain stores, and I have waved to more neighbors. This is a new normal I could get used to.