I’m reading a book called Divorce Your Car. I didn’t seek it out or find it in a free library. I found it on my boyfriend’s bookshelf. The idea of driving less appeals to both of us.
I skipped over the first half of the book that describes how we became so dependent on automobiles. I was more interested in reading stories about how people had downsized their driving. There are separate chapters on walking, biking and transit riding. All of it is very interesting to me.
The book has me thinking about the 15-minute city, a residential urban concept in which all city residents are able to meet most of their needs within a short walk or bicycle ride from their homes. The concept was popularized by Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris, France who was in turn inspired by the work of French-Colombian scientist Carlos Moreno. It has been described as a “return to a local way of life.” 15-minute cities are built from a series of 15-minute neighborhoods, also known as complete communities or walkable neighborhoods.
I’m visiting one of my daughters who is in college in Oberlin, Ohio. It’s a boring 5-hour car drive from Chicago. I’ve made the drive several times, but never on my own. I decided to take an Amtrak train. It was not an easy decision. The train times were terrible. I did it anyway.
College towns do a really good job of getting close to being 15-minute cities. It makes sense since most students don’t have cars. I don’t often think of it in these terms but Evanston, where I live, is a college town being home to Northwestern University. So which came first? The chicken or the egg? Did it grow to be more of a walkable city because of that?
I’m grateful to have developed more of an environmental justice viewpoint. I attribute that to the Environmental Justice Discussion Group that we started this year and our excellent facilitator Lesley Williams, who month-after-month, asks us the hard questions. If she were here, I think she’d be asking if all of the neighborhoods in Evanston meet the criteria for being a 15-minute city? The answer? No. The reason? Most likely racism.
The word convenience has gone from a positive word to a negative word in my mind. I think its steady downfall began eleven years ago when I learned about commercial composting and zero waste events. Disposables are more convenient. Driving is more convenient. But are either more desirable? Do they add to our quality of life or subtract from it?
Meatless Mondays analogy
In my slideshow presentations, I talk about how picking one day a week to not eat meat is an easy way to ease off of eating animal products, to combat climate change. The Meatless Monday website is a great resource for that. In the Divorce Your Car book, Katie Alvord talks about this cool exercise called The Circle Game: How to Reduce Your Driving, devised by John Schubert while working at EcoTeams in Bend, Oregon. It’s a fun way to help you analyze your car usage. (I wanted you to be able to cut-and-paste the directions for the game, in case that would be helpful to you. I have to credit another blogger Joe George of Urban Simplicity, who pointed me in the direction of this link. You can read his blog here but unfortunately the app he references for doing this exercise electronically is no longer linked.) Essentially, you find your location on a map and using a compass, draw a circle that is a two-mile radius. You mark the places that you generally visit in a two-week period. After you’ve done that, you pick one of the places to which you’d ordinarily drive and walk or bike instead. After you’ve incorporated that change, you pick another, and so on.
I don’t know how to draw a circle on Google Maps but I got a general idea of what my two-mile radius is just by plugging in a few addresses.
I know that if I’m used to driving somewhere, I may have convinced myself that I couldn’t possibly walk or bike there. I also just realized that because I upgraded from a one-speed fold-up bike to a bike that has internal gears, that I have expanded my comfortable biking range. It may be more than two miles, maybe closer to three or four.
Transportation Time Audit
Another exercise in Divorce Your Car that intrigued me involved doing a Transportation Time Audit. You may find that, in some instances, driving does not actually save you time. In this exercise, you pick a trip that is a mile or less from your home and time it door-to-door. First by driving, then by walking. You do not have to take the exact same route. Even if the trips take the same amount of time, walking is better for your health.
I recently read Unsheltered, a novel written by Barbara Kingsolver. One of the characters, Tig short for Antigone, the daughter of the main character, had spent time in Cuba and described what is a state-sanctioned form of hitchhiking, wherein you check in with the yellow man or El Amarillo, named for the color of his uniform, tell him your destination and he secures you a ride. Apparently, the practice is not fictional. Certain government-owned vehicles are required to stop and pick up passengers. In the novel, it is represented as a way of sharing resources, a practice that is better for the environment. In further reading on the topic, it seems that it is in response to struggles with the upkeep on the transit system perhaps exacerbated by the U.S. embargo. Author Dave Eggers wrote an amusing piece on this practice for Time magazine in 1999.
I wondered how I might apply the concept to my life. I can’t say that I’ve completely figured that one out yet. I’m not going to be picking up hitchhikers anytime soon but switching my thinking to the idea that a full car is better than a nearly empty car is a good first step.
My travel time back from Oberlin was pretty long. Nine hours and 15 minutes, door-to-door to be exact. It included many legs: a 20-minute car ride from Oberlin to the train station in Elyria; the Amtrak train ride from Elyria to Union Station in Chicago; a walk from Union Station to Ogilvie Transportation Center to catch a Metra commuter train; a Metra ride from Chicago to Evanston; and the final leg, the walk home.
On the Amtrak leg of my trip, I rode in one of the coach cars. It was a good break from the white, suburban, middle-class bubble that I live in. I realized that driving would have been like watching a movie alone on my laptop but riding the train was like being in the movie.