Car Free in Cortland Part IV

We have a problem with the way we see walking and biking and public transit in Cortland. A lot of us see it as a last resort, an indication of class or ability or the amount of money we have. And I mean in a negative way. Sometimes, as I cross the street in front of a car waiting at an intersection at an inopportune time for the driver, I get nasty looks, impatient waves. Hurry up, they say.

But you know what? Drivers can make up that time in a moment, and are limited by the cars in front of them. If they accelerate until they reach that limiting reagent, then there’s no net loss. It’s my road, too. And we’re all pedestrians. You don’t drive up to your desk; cars are made specifically to get people to a place where they start walking. Parking lots are as much for walkers as for drivers. They’re blacktop portals where drivers transform into walkers (no matter if they’re walking a mere twenty feet).

Jan’s post about empty buses makes me think of something else, too. There are complaints that there are only one or two riders on a given route during the day. If you don’t see enough people on the bus to make you happy as a community member, or public agent, or taxpayer, then YOU SHOULD RIDE THE BUS. We’re already paying for it. So milk it. It’s cheap (the absolute cheapest I’ve ever encountered), it’s easy, we have a system that lets you get on anywhere along the route and get off at personalized destinations.

So what are we doing in our cars? What does it take to shift the paradigm? I’d argue that our perception, our very language, is an important first step. I walked to Hall’s Hill Blueberry Farm a few weeks ago to stock up on the most delectable blueberries I’ve ever tasted. It’s safe to say they are absolutely and deliciously gone by now. The owner was a bit stunned when I showed up with my backpack and water bottle, sweating and smiling. He asked why I was already sweating, and when I said I had walked, he said “No, you didn’t.” That’s not the first time that’s happened to me, either. People express confident doubt upon learning I walk from x to y. It’s a funny thing, a little difficult to respond to; “Um, yes, I did, actually.”

They might be impressed. “Wow, that’s six miles. Each way.” And as much as I am flattered by the awe, I’d love if it weren’t a big deal. I’d love if people walked and biked and took the bus all over the county, region, nation. Wouldn’t that be a beautiful norm?

And it happens, gradually. My coworkers have easily gotten used to my tales of travel by foot. They’re supportive, which is awesome. And nobody’s worked up about it in either direction – no one says it’s impossible or dangerous to not have a car, and I’m not evangelical about walking. I wish our society and culture were more zealous about it, but that’s a long process. It’s happening in other places, though. There are towns in Germany that don’t allow cars except in a parking garage on the outskirts for regional trips, and Jan has posted about more than one city ripe with bicycle culture and pedestrian pride.

People (though perhaps more U.S. citizens than not) think we’re the greatest nation in the world – comprised of innovative leaders, brilliant social entrepreneurs, thinkers light-years ahead of their time. But it all comes down to what we do. And if what we do isn’t smart, isn’t sustainable, isn’t forward-thinking, then neither are we.

Emma Ignaszewski

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