Now that gas prices are rising steeply, and more oil than ever comes to us from the troubled Middle East, I hear more voices questioning the car-based lives we lead. About time. Eight years after making a profoundly European choice about our lives less stuff, more time I realize that we made the right decision. Never mind that the money saved on gasoline more than covers our higher property taxes and my newfound tranquility balances my tantrums about stupidity in City Hall. Never mind that I am more physically fit than I was when I fought traffic in the West End every day. Never mind that the battery on my truck runs down from nonuse, and I had to buy a home charger for my rare trips. More important to me is that every day I have ample time to mull these and other matters over, as I walk to GRTC's bus-stop. On the rare days that I drive to the office, there's always a flow of suburban commuters roaring past me in the other direction. My peaceful, short trip reminds me of how placid driving used to be in Richmond, even 20 years ago.
Most days, after a one-mile stroll, I am the lone white man on a bus headed toward Libby and Grove with maids, cooks and other workers for Richmond's plush Old Money and workaholic Yuppies. My rides have educated me far more about the struggles African-Americans face than would any seminar in racial diversity, but the best effect of my switch to hoofing it has been, well, hoofing it.
A walker notes things that a driver cannot. From early July to October, I have watched blooms on a favorite group of crape myrtles open, one tree surprising me with its velvety, crimson blossoms. Its neighbors are pale pink, and the effect is not unlike the fine sunsets I used to catch at Parham and Patterson, even as other westbound drivers seemed to see nothing as they fumed, honked and began the next vapid conversation on their cell phones.
Instead of gridlock I now have rabbits, re-colonizing my neighborhood after decades of urbanization. I imagine that a few mating pairs must have hidden in some back lot never developed, only to do what rabbits do best, once anchor fences and outdoor dogs became rarer in my slowly gentrifying part of town. I do know that very young rabbits are so tame that a few will come to me when I call, until they think better of it. Sometimes I also see them on the larger streets, brown-and-pink smears after they have been flattened by car-tires.
At times I wonder if we too are not rabbits, blinded by the glare of our own headlights. People thought it fascinating, if slightly eccentric, that I went to the U.K. mainly to walk 300 kilometers, but when I mentioned the health benefits of city living here, uncomfortable silence followed, or remarks followed about crime and high property taxes. I would then lapse into my own angry silence, or growl out a lowbrow stereotype of neurotic cubicle-clones, racing home in 3-ton SUVs to the gated confines of "Deer Run," only to run miles on treadmills.
Stereotypes aside, who can deny that we endanger our health, environment, and sense of community by making all our plans and communities around driving? Oil prices may well fall long term, or we might make heroic sculpture from cast-off SUVs and burn clean fuels in cars. Even so, other stresses caused by a car-based lifestyle will not diminish until we reduce our drive-times by moving into the core, rewarding employers that allow telecommuting, punishing those who encourage sprawl and connecting the entire metro region with a cheap, clean and modern mass-transit system. Right now we cannot get zero-emission buses on the streets or, out of the race-based inertia that has long paralyzed this town, even get the buses we have to the counties.
Our taxes go to less noble things, including subsidizing sprawl by building and widening roads, so why not create some long-term jobs with monorail networks in all sprawl-afflicted metro areas? That's my dream for tomorrow, when we finally get serious about climate change and the loss of open space.
I have a gift certificate to a store at Short Pump. After checking my battery, starting the engine and burning a gallon of gas, I will get to see how the other 85 percent live. I plan to buy a couple of pairs of walking shoes. With a $20 bill I recently found blowing down the street, I'll see what's for dinner. The next day, headed to work in my new shoes, I will imagine electric trams silently gliding 20 feet above medians all over the metro area. As angry or sad faces race past me, I'll put one foot in front of the other and enjoy my walk. SJoe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond.
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