It got me to thinking...
Over the years I've read a lot of blogs, articles and what not on the idea of becoming "car free." Meanwhile, Denver's been undergoing an incredible growth boom, and the topic of public transportation looms large here, as the city grapples with the influx of new people, and the limitations of our automobile based infrastructure.
Now, don't get me wrong. I think public transportation is critically important, and I have nothing but the utmost admiration for people willing to take on the challenge of living entirely car free.
But the thing is, commuting is still commuting, no matter how you get from point A to point B. And if you have to spend as much (if not more) time commuting via public transportation than you did in a car (which, unfortunately, is often the case) then I'm not sure you've really gained all that much, other than greenie bragging rights.
Sometimes I wonder if, with all the frenzied efforts to find better ways to move people around, we aren't missing the bigger picture here. To me the natural question is: why do we need to move so many people so many miles on a daily basis anyhow?
Obviously, the answer to that question is somewhat complex, and way beyond the scope of a simple blog post. But for the moment, let's put aside the "why" and just look at the reality of the situation.
The average one-way commute in the US is 25.4 minutes - that works out to about 4 and a quarter hours per week or nearly 9 solid days (as in 24 hour days) per year! To add insult to injury, the average American spends around $2600/year on commuting costs.
To put that number into perspective, consider this: the average American has less than $1000 in savings! So think about it, if the average American could find a way to ditch their commute, and simply pocketed the money they would otherwise have spent on commuting costs, they could more than triple their savings over the course of a year, plus they'd get 9 days of their lives back!
The thing that gets to me about this situation is how much people take commuting for granted... like it's just the way it is, and always will be. But the thing is, there was a time in the not too distant past, when our society didn't work that way.
Now, CatMan and I are fans of old movies, and not long ago we watched a Cary Grant classic called Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House.
The movie was made in 1948 and it's basically a light-hearted romantic comedy about an ad executive and his wife who decide to move their family from their cramped NYC apartment to a beautiful home in Connecticut. And while the intent of the film is certainly not to make any sort of societal statement, it inadvertently serves as a glimpse into the beginnings of the flight to the suburbs that ensued shortly after WWII.
The story begins with the couple waking up and suffering through their morning routine - tripping over each other in the bathroom, no room for storage, yadda, yadda, yadda.
They end up buying an old farm house, which turns out to be uninhabitable, so they tear it down and set about constructing the perfect home. There are a series of humorous mishaps as anything and everything that can go wrong does, but they all end up happy as clams at the end in their beautiful, spacious new home.
Of course, they also end up mortgaged to the hilt, and exchanging a somewhat civilized lifestyle for one that I consider to be barbaric. Back in the "cramped" apartment, our protagonist got up at 7:30 in the morning, had breakfast with his family and then walked to his office. But now that he has his "dream house" he has no choice but to to get up at 5am to catch the 6:15 train into the city every day! It's hard for me to see how this is an improvement!
Honestly, I had a difficult time watching the film. I mean, it's cute and funny and all... and it's hard not to like Cary Grant & Myrna Loy, but I just couldn't escape the sensation that I was somehow witnessing the genesis of societal doom.
There MUST be a better way! And I truly believe that there is.
You see, Fiona's quest for a commute-free life is actually not a new idea for me. Waaaaay back in the 1970's my dad & stepmom did the same thing. They rented out their house, and moved across town so they could live just a few blocks from the hospital where they both worked.
Dad's "new" house was actually nearly 100 years old, as was the neighborhood where it was located. So besides being able to walk to work every day, they also enjoyed many long lost benefits of the pre-automobile world, like having a corner grocery store. I have many fond memories of my step-mom handing me a few dollars and sending me down to the end of the block to pick up a few missing ingredients for dinner.
|This isn't the store in their neighborhood, but it's about the same size & looks very similar|
Over the years I watched as my mother's daily commute grew longer and longer... partially because her office kept moving further away to newer and groovier office parks, and partially because every year the traffic got worse.
By the time I was in high school, my mom had to leave for work before 7 in the morning, and didn't get home until after 7 in the evening. I'm sure some of that was due to working long hours, but at least 2 of those hours were spent commuting... every. single. day.
And somehow, it was like the whole pace of life at my dad & stepmom's house, was just completely different than it was at home with my mom. I mean, my dad & stepmom took a walk to the local park after dinner every night. They knew every single neighbor on the block - they still do, in fact, as they still live there 40 years later. Meanwhile, the only neighbors we knew in our suburban sub-division were the families of my school friends. It's like my dad & stepmom actually inhabited the neighborhood where they lived, while we simply "camped" in ours between other activities.
|Our neighborhood wasn't actually this bad, but you get the idea|
Then, I quit my job and started "working" from home, and everything changed. I suddenly realized that I had virtually everything I needed within easy walking/biking distance, and I actually started to live in my own neighborhood. It's hard to describe how different it feels, but these days I feel grounded and connected here. I know most of the people (and all of the dogs) on the block, the mailman waves to me when he sees me out on my bike, and I just feel like I have a genuine investment in what happens here, more so than I ever did before.
Anyhow, this post is getting really long, and I'm not entirely sure what conclusion to draw or what point I'm trying to make. I just can't help but think that we, as a society, might all be better served if we focused a little bit less on finding new and better ways to shuttle people in and out of our cities, and a little more on creating a society where commuting is unnecessary in the first place.
So if anyone out there is considering a lifestyle change, and you're trying to decide between going car free and going commute free, I highly recommend the latter. It will change everything for the better.
What do you think? Have you ever lived without a car or without a commute? I'd love to hear about your experiences and thoughts on this whole topic.