Legend has it that Cortés, after landing at what is modern day Veracruz, Mexico, burned his ships to prevent further mutiny of his forces. The sugar coated version we were taught as children pins the reasoning on motivating his men to push forward with confidence. While the ships were run aground, not burned (the result of a mistranslation of the original Latin record), and one ship was in fact spared scuttling to maintain communications with Spain, I still like the parable within the romanticized version: Sometimes we have to dispose of the things that hold us back in order to move forward.
Last weekend I sold my car. I have no intention to replace it with another. I just don’t need or want to drive on a regular basis anymore. Including the two hour drive (the irony of which was not lost on me) to the East Haven CarMax to get an appraisal, the entire affair was over with in the matter of a morning. However, this decision was the end point of very long evolution in thought, spanning the better part of the last 30 years. I should probably start from the beginning.
I grew up in exurban sprawling greenfield housing developments in what had originally been forest and agricultural land, far from any significant metropolitan centers, dispersed, and with no public transportation. Even if there had been alternate means of mobility, the closest points of interest (strip malls, regular old malls and big box retail) were 20 minutes away, and a large city (Philadelphia) was an hour or longer. I was unable to travel anywhere autonomously until the age of 17, when I received my driver’s license. Even then, personal travel was heavily (and sensibly) monitored in the interest of my safety, and the only places I could go with friends (other than their homes) weren’t that interesting, anyway. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, or suggest that I had an awful childhood, because I’m not and it wasn’t. I was safe and had plenty of opportunities to spend time with my social circle. But looking back through the lens of my own experiences discovering some of the great urban environments of the US, Europe and Asia, I see the loss of opportunity to have learned at an early age what it means to engage with one’s community—the whole community. The world looks, feels, sounds and smells different when it is not experienced as a collection of isolated points connected by prolonged confinement in a steel box with velour seats on wheels.
My undergraduate education brought welcome change, in that for the first time I lived somewhere that was designed with walking as the primary mode of transportation in mind, and with a surfeit of places in which to meet and get things done (or goof around, as the situation warranted), even if it was in the middle of nowhere.
During a summer I lived and studied in Urbania, a small town in southern Italy. It was my first experience with a town square. People and families would go out after dinner to congregate around the piazza, for no particular reason other than to talk, mingle and stroll, many staying out until the wee hours of the morning. This was totally normal for them, and almost alien to me. I liked it right away. After my month stay, I stormed through western Europe on a short trip before returning home. I was so busy trying to absorb everything I was seeing that it didn’t occur to me how unusual it was that I was able to do all that without having used a car for the entire adventure.
I landed in Philadelphia for my first full-time job and experience as a financially independent adult. Though I kept a car for periodic travel and carting needs (I was a freelance musician by night), most of the time I happily toted my pouch of SEPTA tokens to get around by subway, trolley and bus, unless the weather was nice, when I just walked. If I drank like a fish during happy hour in University City, by the time I walked across town to Queen Village I was more than sober enough to order and enjoy a satisfyingly savory and greasy cheesesteak at Jim’s. I burned enough calories to not feel guilty about it, either. Convenient.
I relied on my car more while at graduate school in Charlottesville, Virginia, for intra-town trips for groceries and other necessities, but choose an apartment that was walkable to the Darden school grounds. Twice daily, I walked up and back a half mile on the very steep Arlington Boulevard and Massey Road. I ended up with epic calves as a result.
Though I didn’t consciously have the thought at the time, it was visits to San Francisco, London, Hong Kong and cities in mainland China, my summer internship in New York City and second year exchange study in Tokyo that I would later understand to be the seeds of my desire to change the way I live and help shape the world in a way that enables others to do the same. I was beginning to understand that there are places where the street represents the full embodiment of the public realm, supporting the many needs of all the stakeholders in the community. Streets were not just for cars. Where I was used to seeing solid walls, glass or parking lots that divided sidewalks (if they existed at all) from the private spaces within, I found storefronts with wide open shutters, spilling (metaphorically and literally) out into the street. As someone on foot, you could tuck yourself in and out of little harbors, down narrow alleys, and over bridges, all of which were teeming with activity. Urban planners call this permeability. I just call it stimulating. This sensation might have been what I was thinking of when I named this blog like a fish in water.
I should mention that, up until this point, I hadn’t lost affection for cars and driving. I tried to minimize its use, but did not yet feel it represented a burden on me or my community. That changed after I moved to the Washington, DC metro area and experienced both positive and negative feedback as I went about routine activities. The negative came in the form of the horrendous traffic congestion that made it painful to navigate local areas by car, to say nothing of trips into the city itself or to northern Virginia suburbs on the opposite side of the beltway from my home in Silver Spring, Maryland. The contrast with my no fuss and comfortable commute by metro was stark. I choose Silver Spring because it was affordable, had metro access, and had undergone significant revitalization development bringing in many new businesses and public spaces to what had been a shaky neighborhood. It was the latter that I really learned to appreciate while I lived there. I could meet virtually all of my needs without getting in my car. By wandering around, I discovered places that I would never have found on a Google map. On weekends, the street adjacent to a large public square was closed to traffic for a farmers market. Children ran through the water fountain. People came out in droves and milled about from early morning until late at night. It was a little like being back in Urbania. One forgot that (according to the voice of the mass flight from the city to suburbs and exurbs in 20th century US) urban environments were supposed to be uninviting, scary and dangerous. Many are, but they don’t have to be, if enough people care to do something about it.
I left Silver Spring and moved to New Jersey after getting married and began looking for a new apartment with my wife. The desire to be in a walkable neighborhood with access to public transit became explicit and leading criteria in the search. We wanted a location that would allow us each a reasonable commute, her by car to Bridgewater, and me by train to New York, but also have a town center and life of its own. This turned out to be more challenging than we had anticipated. Many of the NJ Transit rail stations were simply designed for commuters arriving by car from even farther away. Of those that did build a town center around the station and integrated the rail infrastructure into the community, not all had apartment options within walking distance. Of those that did, only a subset were affordable for us. We had almost lost hope when we finally made our way to and fell in love with South Orange, where we’ve made our home since.
I’m not sure what I expected to find when that last search began. I figured that the compact transit oriented development I had explored in Tokyo’s suburbs was a bit beyond what would be available in the US, but I hadn’t thought, so close in to NYC, that I’d still find the heavy influence of the same detached house, car dependent bedroom community like where I grew up. There is unmet need here. We can do better than this.
So, back to the car. You remember this was a post about selling my car, right? (Don’t worry, I kind of forgot, too.) With regard to the car itself, there wasn’t a “last straw” that prompted the decision, so much as the need to acknowledge the reality that I hadn’t driven on a regular basis for the past three years. Other than a handful of appointments, which can be managed by scheduling ahead of time with my wife to use her (now the “family”) car or relocating my business to the city, my car had been reduced to a large dust magnet that required regular installments of garage rent and insurance. This was the lifestyle I had purposely chosen, I was just behind in jettisoning the piece I had made obsolete. There was another force that prompted me to get up and act, from a direction that would have been unexpected even a year ago.
These past several years, I’ve pressed deeper into the proverbial “What will I do with my life?” search, pursuing a handful of strong interests but not having the kind of breakthrough realization that brings the picture into focus. I knew that I was concerned about the human impact on the environment. I first approached this through the channels available to me when I worked at IBM, which weren’t many. In my current work, which is enjoyable and valuable, I do have the opportunity to dive deeply into the challenges of corporate environmental sustainability, but I still find it to be too detached from public discussions that would lead to broader understanding of how the way we live impacts our communities and ecosystems.
While all of this had been going on, I had also been reading up on transit oriented development and walkable neighborhoods, topics that came to the fore for me during our apartment hunt, while I studied for the LEED Green Associate exam (there is a rating system for neighborhood development), and particularly during my long stay in Tokyo and subsequent visits to Asian cities. I couldn’t get enough of the days I spent wandering about places like Shimokitazawa, so much so that after exhausting my photo archive I would hit the internet in search of content from others’ adventures there. I wondered if there was a way for me to just walk around great neighborhoods with a camera, documenting what I loved about them.
These continued for quite some time as separate tracks. I had my job, which addressed the environment issues (at least as they concerned large companies). I had this interest in neighborhoods and transit, which didn’t offer a clear path to a career option. There is no shortage of amateur street photographers and trainspotters, so creating a valuable service out of this seemed like a stretch too far. It was when I started reaching out to others for career guidance that things started to click for me. When asked what I was interested to do, I would rattle off long lists of topics. About a third were environment issues, a third transit and neighborhoods, and the remaining got at human behavior and change. There was very little in the way of a focal point. The smart people who worked with me were the ones who wouldn’t let me get away with not specifying the outcomes I would like to see and the work I would need to do to achieve them. This made the task of sorting, filtering and combining interests much more fluid.
Ultimately, I was able to see the convergence of my environmental sustainability and transit oriented development interests. By living in compact neighborhoods with mixed use of space and access to transit, we reduce or eliminate reliance on cars. More closely knit communities facilitate greater sharing of resources, so our overall footprint is lower. These are direct environmental benefits. But there are many other facets to this story. For example, our reliance on cars (and correlating lack of physical activity built into daily routines) in the US is a contributing factor to soaring obesity rates. Walking has been systematically engineered out of our lifestyle for over half a century. Getting back on our feet would have significant public health benefits. Personally, I’m most interested in the idea of the third place, a location that isn’t home or work, but facilitates social meetings and contributes to community engagement, such as squares, parks and cafes. I want to be in a place that I care about. I suspect many others do, too.
So my plan (and it’s a very rough one) is this: I’m going to find ways to use multimedia content (primarily writing, images and video) to facilitate understanding and encourage public discussion about the state of our communities and the tools at our disposal to make them work better and meet the needs of all stakeholders. Residents, business owners, developers, and others should all be able to participate in planning discussions, but to do so they will need information that is accessible and understandable beyond urban planning professionals. In the model of scientists explaining complicated theories to a lay audience, I think there should be a conduit that bridges PowerPoint presentations and urban planning wonkspeak to the people who live in places that are being (or should be) redeveloped. Publications like The Atlantic Cities, Streetsblog and Streetfilms do some of this work already, though the latter focuses heavily on cycling and all are primarily oriented toward existing urban centers. I think there’s a bigger picture here, in how we accommodate the many different types of users of multiple modes of transportation, and especially in how we improve linkages to and within suburban regions. Most importantly, this work needs to consider human behavior and motivation, so that the solutions we develop result in the kind of infrastructure they want to use and communities where they want to live. The journey and the destination are equally important.
So the reason I sold the car (ah, finally getting to it!) was to free up capital for the professional still and video camera I’ll need to begin work on pilot projects. A shutter trigger opens up a whole world of creative possibilities that a gas pedal just couldn’t compete with. I’m not sure how this is going to turn out, but I think it can only lead to somewhere interesting. After all of that deliberation on what to do, all I really wanted was to share the experiences I’ve had and show others what I want my world to look like, in hope that they are encouraged to do the same. In searching for my calling, the story I told others about what I wanted to do slowly but gradually became the story of my own journey.