May 25, 2006

When normality isn't normal

I biked to get Chinese takeout this evening. When I was halfway there, I realised how normal this felt. It briefly occured to me to take the car, because it was a little chilly, and my daughter had a last-minute desire to come along. But it was a very brief moment. It's simply not practical to take the car. How wonderful.

Let me explain. I live in Belgium, near the center of a small city. My daughter's school is less than half a mile from our apartment, butcher, baker and frituur are less than 100 meter away. We have a great little coffeehouse two doors down. The Chinese restaurant was at the other side of the town square - less than a mile away.

So I don't drive a car all that much (except for work). We even have two large supermarkets less than a mile away. So why did it strike me as strange that "not driving" felt normal?

Well, because I lived almost all my adult life in the US. In one of the most liveable cities in the US, actually: Naperville, Illinois. In our last apartment there, we had an almost perfect setup. It was about 2 miles to the city center, but there was a sidewalk all the way there. There was a small mall right across the street, with a supermarket, a Starbucks and some small restaurants. I used to walk there too. But it never, ever, felt normal. Part of it is that no one else is doing it. Outside the city center, you'll see very few people walking. If they are, they're simply taking a stroll around the neighbourhood (very rare) or exercising (reasonably frequent). Going shopping without a car? Why?

As a consequence (and reason, the way these vicious circles work), the infrastructure for walking is simply horrendous. I mentioned that there was a sidewalk from our apartment, all the way to the city center. That's rare. It was one of the reasons we took the apartment. Sidewalks often simply disappear for a few hundred yards, making them completely useless. And they're all in disrepair. Our trek to the city went over some seriously cracked concrete plates, and part of it went over a red brick path, with numerous holes in it. Twisted ankles, anyone?

Since driveways intersect the sidewalks, invariably there would be a half dozen houses where the driver decided to put their car across the sidewalk. Sometimes because the entire driveways was full of cars (and no, that doesn't mean they were throwing a party) or junk (you sometimes have to see it to believe it), but sometimes just because they couldn't care less that some people actually do use sidewalks.

Even the little jaunt to the mall across the road was never "normal". The road to cross was a 4-lane major road (#34), but with turn lanes at each side, so that you actually had to cross 6 lanes. The light was short, so you really need to get getting. And then there is this moronic "turn right on red" rule in the US, which allows you to turn right at a red light, after checking that there are no cars coming. Cars being the operative word. Many people DO NOT check for pedestrians, at least not when they're outside of the center. Certainly not when they were in a hurry.

No, walking around in Naperville was often quite pleasant. But it never felt normal. So it takes me aback how fast life without a car can feel normal. Not pleasant, not morally better, not less stressful. Just normal. Like it should be.


Blogger Alice said...

Amen sister. I take the el. How did you find my blog, btw?

1:41 AM  
Blogger Endorendil said...

Hi Lukku, I'm new to blogger, and have been hitting random blogs fairly regularly, to see what's out there. Your blog is fab - one of the few large blogs I have bothered to read (almost) end-to-end.

1:05 PM  

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