Spending the summer in Europe opened my eyes. Or did it?
Finishing up a pressed eggplant panini and iced tea at dwelltime, I bounded out to the sidewalk along Broadway near my office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After only a few seconds, a taxi driver was honking at me, staccato beeps, alerting me to his presence. You surely need a ride, he was saying. Why else would you be out walking?
Was it the way I was dressed? The way I was walking? To this cab driver, I clearly looked like someone who got around in some kind of private motorized vehicle.
Now, I have long history of walking, and biking as well. My high school was only a mile away from home. I grew up partially in New York City. I pedaled from Wilton, Connecticut, to Montreal when I was 13. More recently I’ve been focused on pedestrian policies and street design, partial to the woonerf, the Dutch-inspired concept of equalizing cars and bikes and pedestrians and encouraging eye contact. I always stop for pedestrians in unsignaled crosswalks, as per Massachusetts state law. I was delighted with my colleague Julie Campoli’s book, Made for Walking, which details the design ingredients for walkable neighborhoods.
Still, I drive. I used to drive much more shamelessly. I had a BMW 328i, which back in 2009 overheated the very same day of the launch party for my book Wrestling with Moses, and was convinced it was the ghost of Jane Jacobs, chiding me to pocket the keys and take the T. I traded for a Prius shortly thereafter.
Driving has been on my mind lately. I spent four weeks recently in Europe, at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center and then traveling through Switzerland, getting around solely by rail and on ferries and buses and funicular trains up steep hillsides. And walking. Down steps and winding pathways into town, and back up again at the end of the night. For 30 blissful days, my commute was on foot. I toted my wheeled luggage behind me when moving to new destinations.
It is a singular experience not to get behind the wheel for a long period of time. One’s mindset changes utterly. No more getting up in the morning, driving to work, driving to the supermarket, driving home. No more hunting for parking spaces and all the thought that goes into parking – all the strategizing, setting aside extra time, calculating the costs.
It may a cliché to say so, but Europe makes it easy not to drive. The two main factors are the built environment — the density and proximity of shops and workplaces — and of course the reliable transport systems. The Swiss tourism office actually discourages renting a car, which not incidentally is very expensive. Mass transit is part and parcel of the culture. Trains to just about everywhere are available every hour.
What is also pause for thought is how easy it is to get back into the car culture, once back stateside. Back behind the wheel of the Prius, I left the carless lifestyle behind, as if it was some strange, out-of-body experience.
And that walk from the Internet café down Broadway in Cambridge? I confess. I had gone to lunch while the nice people at the gas station did a state inspection on my vehicle. I had driven there because my sticker had expired while I was away.