Commute Like You Give a Damn

1 06 2013

A lot of people talk about transportation, and how different it is in, say, Europe compared to the U.S. They have punctual trains that can take you anywhere and everywhere. We have miles of 6 lane concrete ‘free’ways that become a personal prison during rush hour. Your symbol of American freedom- THE CAR- is your cell.rush hour traffic

Commute time is a source of stress, and something we all want to minimize. There is no opportunity for chatting with a stranger, accidental networking, or even a pleasant smile from someone who lives in your community. Instead, I find myself bracing every time I step into my hybrid. When I get home from my hour long commute, I am drained.

I’m the mouse on the road, and hyper-sensitive to the potentially dangerous maneuvers of my fellow drivers. When the semi-truck in front of me starts drifting into another lane, my brain immediately starts calculating alternate escape routes. When traffic gets backed up, I’m glued to my rear-view mirror to anticipate whether or not the idiot speeding towards me has noticed yet that we are all stopping. I leave twice as much following distance to allow for the errors of others, and gracefully accept those who want to take advantage of my cushion of safety to dart across all three lanes of traffic to make a last second exit ramp departure in thirty feet.

INTERSTATE PILEUPSometimes I feel like I am the only person who appreciates how inherently dangerous and serious to concept of driving is in America. Don’t get me wrong, I actually LOVE to drive! It’s the high ratio of idiots to drivers during peak travel times that causes me anxiety. My sensitivity is not based on the size of my vehicle, rather, personal experiences.

When you’ve been in a rollover accident where the truck you’re in twists and crunches the cab, pivoting upside down around the place where your head should be, you appreciate the inherent risks of driving a wee bit more. And that was only going 25 mph. But this is not where I learned my lesson.

One Saturday morning in mid-July, I was awoken early by my mom. She told me there had been an accident.

My two brothers had been driving separately home from a late night at a friend’s. No drinking was involved. They were simply having fun on a long stretch of empty, rural road. Kurtis went to pass Brian’s truck on the left. He swerved out into the oncoming lane, his tire bit the gravel shoulder, and his Camaro immediately spun out and flung into a tree at 60mph.

For seventeen years I have watched as my mother takes care of Kurtis in her home, with the help of 24 hour care. He will never again use his 6’-4” height to run in the Junior Olympics. He cannot walk. He cannot move his limbs, except for his left foot and his thumb. We worked for years in physical therapy and hyperbaric oxygen chambers to get him to this point. Kurt can’t talk, but communicates (irregularly) through eye blinks. One is yes, two is no, three is I don’t know, or his eyes are just tired and dry. I never really know if he’s answering my question or not.kurt mom kurt dr

I miss my brother terribly. I know that he is gone, to some degree, but his body remains. I was only 16 when I lost him. Even after this much time has gone by, as I type this, I am mourning the loss, tears streaming down my cheeks. That’s the really tough thing about this car accident- the wound can never truly heal.

As you can imagine, that simple miscalculation on the road changed my life forever. My family fractured. I clung tightly to a young but solid relationship for solace. And you’d better believe that not a day goes by when I get behind the wheel that don’t think about Kurtis and the risks that I am taking when I drive. If everyone drove like me, I’d be perfectly happy and comfortable. But, they don’t. So I am left to make up for their carelessness by being overly cautious and anticipating the next dumb thing to happen around me.

I meant to write this blog post about transportation and sustainability. About how people in other countries actually get to enrich their lives through social interactions while riding the bus, or bicycling past street vendors, or walking through a crowded piazza. I meant to talk about how isolating and terrible our system of single person auto commuting is by comparison, and how 90% of the auto trips in the U.S. involve only one passenger.

I really miss working close enough that I could ride the bus, or spend a relaxing 38 minutes on my bicycle to commute to the neighboring downtown. Even biking can be dangerous when on the road with absent minded drivers, so I have a little mirror that sticks to my helmet so that I can anticipate those moves as well.

One of the most striking things about transportation in our recent trip to Asia was how different the interactions are between cars and… everyone else.

tuktuk bethany tuktuk kelly tuktuk cambodia moped dogs  There, the ratio of cars to bikes or mopeds or tuk-tuks is far different than in the U.S. Therefore, cars do not rule the road, and their drivers are cognizant of this fact. They always look before changing lanes, fully aware that there could be a family of 4 on a moped just beside them. It looks like utter chaos- a cacophony of traffic endlessly weaving in and out and around one another- but when you stop to really observe, you see that it is like a sort of ballet. They move seamlessly, in a balanced, well-planned orchestration. Nobody gets mad! Honking is just a polite courtesy to let someone know you are going by, and everyone understands what it’s like to be that person biking or trying to cross the street with no traffic signals.

When we were in Veng Vieng, Laos, a small town of 30,000, we had free cruisers available to borrow from our guest house. We took those bicycles farther than any basket-toting, single speed bike has ever gone! We cruised up the main road, where cars actually slow down and swing wide to pass you. There are no bike lanes, no shoulders, just an unmarked swath of asphalt, replete with crumbling potholes and an occasional herd of cattle in the middle of the street. We had no helmets, which normally would terrify me, but I had zero fear of being run off the road by traffic here.bike laos bike luang prabang

We biked 50 km that day. We stopped to ask for directions in our broken Lao language, using maps and apps to try to translate. The roadside stand was staffed by a couple, who spoke no English, but they smiled big and tried their best to help us find the cave we were looking to go hike. We veered off down back roads, totally off the map, but we didn’t care. There was a mountain in front of us, and that would always be west, so we couldn’t really get lost. We biked down cow paths between rice paddies and the irrigation river, and waved back at excited children. We had an amazing time on those bikes, and all of that would have been missed had we simply hired a driver or rented a car.

I know that I cannot recreate the charm of a rural Laotian town, but I can still seek out those kind of local, quality interactions. We are social beings, and the automobile separates us from one another. I want nothing more on my commute than to have a chance to say hello to you. To ask how you are enjoying the beautiful spring weather. To buy a piece of fruit or admire your loyal dog who rests by your side. Is that too much to ask?

Though there is little that I can do about my current one hour commute, I can prioritize this. I can change jobs. I can demand that I be able to get to work by more than one mode of transportation. I can go out of my way, once I do park a car, to walk past places where random social encounters are more likely to occur.

bike kids in streetI will live my life like it could end tomorrow. Kurtis taught me that. Life is too short to not go out of my way to find simple joys in daily living. Sometimes I just need to give myself a little pep talk to remind me of these important lessons.

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