Carlessness and the radius of everyday life

20 06 2010

Atrios writes:

On those occasions that I head out into the burbs I’m struck by just how much space is used. It reminds me of when I was living in Pwovidence, Vo Dilun, during a time when they were trying (somewhat successfully) to revitalize the downtown area. A presenter noted that you could fit the entire downtown inside the footprint of one of the local malls. Anyway, it’s helpful for understanding why people see mass transit as some sort of alien and at best unpleasant thing, given the distances involved. For me, 3 miles is a a rather generous estimate of the radius of my every day life. For many, 3 miles is the minimum distance to anything.

This got me thinking about how access to different types of transportation — car, bike, bus, train, feet — radically changes your experience of the place you live.

Living without a car dramatically reduces the radius of your daily life.  Right now I live in a city that has excellent bus service and limited rail service. I do not own a car or a bicycle, so I depend on the bus and my feet to get from place to place. The radius of my everyday life is about 4 miles.  My threshold for a decision to take the bus rather than walk is usually about half a mile.

But there are exceptions to this rule – lots of them.  Yesterday, I was healthy and uninjured and had lots of free time, and the weather was beautiful, so I walked about three miles total to get to and explore a park near my home.  I never would have done that in below-freezing winter weather, though.

On one occasion last month, I had planned to go out, but it was pouring rain and windy so that I would have gotten wet even using an umbrella.  So I stayed home instead.  A couple of weeks ago, I was ill and I seriously considered waiting an extra day to fill a prescription that I needed rather urgently, so that I wouldn’t have to deal with all the extra walking and waiting required by Sunday bus schedules.  With a car, it matters a lot less if it’s raining or if you’re sick: I wouldn’t have changed my plans in either of the above cases if they had involved transport by car.

Not owning a car also means that I have to carefully plan my grocery shopping.  I can’t buy too much at once, so I have to shop more often.  I’m also largely on my own when it comes to bagging: there’s a strategy I’ve settled on*, but the baggers at the stores where I shop don’t understand how I need to have my bags packed, and it’s easier and quicker to just bag my own groceries.**

All this is to say that even if your place of residence is arranged so that a smaller radius of everyday living is feasible and comfortable, little things – like being sick or injured, or bad weather, or having to carry a heavy load – can make not having a car suddenly and strikingly inconvenient.

That said, one of the best things about my current city is that there is no social expectation, at least among the people I work and socialize with, that I should own a car.   In my previous city, acquaintances would get annoyed and frustrated with me for being unable to immediately provide driving directions to places I had been – even knowing that I habitually used public transit rather than a car.  Some people had odd ideas about what counted as a good enough reason not to own a car: the politically active Democrats I spent time with often assumed my lack of car ownership was due to personal convictions about saving the environment.  I quickly learned to just let them assume away; if I admitted it was really because I didn’t have enough money to buy and maintain a car, they responded with contempt – not always, but often enough.  There were other ways that I was subtly and not-so-subtly treated as a lesser person because I did not own a car.  Fortunately, that isn’t the case here.  As a result, even though the ease of access to my workplace and other places I needed to go is about the same for the two cities, I’m immeasurably more comfortable with my transit situation in my current city.  (It’s ridiculously cheaper, too – that helps!)

Conclusion: Land use matters.  Availability of transit matters.  But so do the attitudes of people around you.

Readers: what’s the radius of your everyday life, and how do day-to-day circumstances cause it to expand or contract? Are you happy with your transit situation?

* Heaviest things in a backpack, the rest divided into two loads of equal weight using either two or four bags – one or two for each arm/hand.

** I don’t mind bagging my own groceries, but I can’t do that and pay at the same time, so I wind up being that awkward person who’s holding up the line.