Wednesday, September 9

The Walk of Life

You could find more diametrically opposed communities than my hometown and New York City, but what would be the point?  NYC is NYC.  And Stanton is about as small town as you can get and still maintain all the services that rural residents need for daily life.  2,700 souls and change…
So for comparison you could find a smaller town in American than Stanton.  But for practical considerations it makes good sense to compare and contrast these two megalopolises.  Well, one may actually fall into the nanomicropolis category.
Over Labor Day weekend we took a sprint road trip north to New York to visit my wife’s family.  We actually stayed outside of “The City” at a place I like to call Bushwood.  My son did his best Napoleon Dynamite impression all weekend and the in-laws put on a show for the esteemed guests as well.  Imagine Jersey Shore but with an Appalachian flavor.  I am not kidding.
Anyway, what I am actually here to talk about is walkability.  On Saturday the entire tribe went into “The City.”  It’s about a forty minute train ride from Rye Station to Grand Central.  According to Google Maps it would take about an hour to drive and then parking would become an issue.  In 2002 when my wife and I visited her grandfather we walked a mile from his house to the station and took the train into the city.  No cars were involved.  Saturday we parked at the Rye police station and walked across the street to catch the train.
Once we were in NYC we utilized the oldest form of transportation: walking on sidewalks.  Our intent was to walk shorter distances and take the subway for longer ones.  If we hadn’t been such a large group (eight) I would have opted for a CitiBike instead of the subway.  In fact, I was jealous of the cyclists we saw even though the thought of riding in such a large city (THE City) gave me butterflies.  But I digress.
We walked from Grand Central to Central Park and then from the southeast corner up to Strawberry Fields.  We caught the subway there and rode it down to Tribeca.  We walked a couple of blocks south to Ground Zero.  In 2002 Mandy and I walked from Grand Central all the way to Ground Zero, then on to Battery Park (about four miles), and took the subway back to Central Park.  Then we walked from Central Park to Times Square and then back over to Grand Central.  All total we walked about six miles during our visit in 2002.  With the four kids we knew walking that much was out of the question.
Not counting navigating around subway stations we only walked about 2.8 miles around NYC this trip.  We covered about the same amount of ground (minus the jaunt to Battery Park and accidental subway excursion into the Bronx) as we did thirteen years ago but with greater use of public transportation.  The biggest difference for me is confidence in using the system. 
San Diego streetscene
Since my first visit to New York City I have navigated public transportation in Denver, Chicago, and San Diego.  By the time I got to San Diego I had it pretty well figured out.  I was all over that city swiping my five day metro pass to ride the light rail and buses to visit Old Town San Diego from downtown and going as far as Mission Beach and El Cajon.  I even took the bus over to Coronado one morning to run on the beach.  NYC is a little more intimidating than San Diego but much less intimidating with so many more miles under my belt. 
I won’t even get into what it was like to drive around Rye, Port Chester, and points in Connecticut.  By the time we were traipsing west across the Tappan Zee early Monday morning I was honking and “tweeting” with the best of them (New England drivers).  I tried not to translate my experiences to my morning commute into Lexington this morning.  It was hard not to fly the bird randomly.
Anyway, imagine moving about a city like THE City, using public transportation, walking, cycling.  And then transport yourself in a day’s time to…Stanton, Kentucky.  The town is a mile across.  To walk from one end to the other it is necessary at some point to walk IN the narrow street.  No shoulders.  No sidewalks in most places.  It should be ridiculously easy to be car free in such a condensed and laid back place.  It’s not.
This is the best we've got
There is almost no space carved out for pedestrians where I live.  It feels more dangerous than walking around the biggest city in North America.  It feels less welcoming.
What is most troubling to me is that it would cost so much less to build or have built adequate pedestrian infrastructure where I live.  Construction costs are proportionately less even if we don’t have the population demands to necessitate sidewalks and transit opportunities.  Essentially, there is no reason my hometown shouldn’t have sidewalks on every street. 
The real difference is timing.  Much of NYC was laid out before the automobile came onto the scene.  Much of the infrastructure was either built or conceived and allocated before we became so enamored with supreme vehicular freedom.  Conversely, Stanton grew to its current size after the Mountain Parkway was constructed in the late 1960s and the Big Sinking Oil Field in Lee County boomed around the same time.  My hometown’s development was driven mainly by car culture, and it shows. 
We value our conveniences.  They make us feel wealthy.  If we can drive the mile to the grocery store we probably should.  It’s an exercise in freedom and modernity but not of our bodies.  Except—as Mark Twain recognized—we are twenty years behind the rest of the world here in Kentucky.  Maybe by the time my kids are in my shoes things will finally catch up in good ole Powell County.  Maybe by then we’ll have a few more sidewalks and a bike lane or two.

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