Monday, December 14

THE Commute

I distinctly remember driving eastbound on I-64 between Winchester and Lexington and vowing to myself that after I graduated from EKU I would never make the commute from Powell County to Lexington ever again.
The theme in my forties has been: never say never.
Each and every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday I make the commute forty-five miles west to Lexington and forty-five miles east back to Stanton.  It’s still better than it was in 2007.  During my undergraduate sentence I commuted forty-five miles to Lexington to work at UPS, then thirty minutes to Richmond to go to class, and then forty miles home after class.  I did that two days a week unless I had a class I could not shoehorn into the Tues-Thurs schedule.  I loathed night classes.

What has changed in my early forties (I was in my early thirties back then) is that sitting wrecks my back.  I don’t know if its tension, age related decrepitude, or the general abuse I’ve put my body through since my teens, but the longer I sit the worse I feel.  At night I can’t relax knotted muscles enough to get decent sleep.  In the morning the first thing I do is get back in the goddamn car and sit for forty five minutes trying not to remember the vow I made to myself, only to reach the cubicle farm where I then sit for seven and a half hours before another forty-five minute stint in the car to return home where I generally collapse into a snarl of knotted muscles and weep.
When I was still in school I understood that long commutes were not sustainable or healthy.  When my wife and I started looking for places to relocate one of our criteria was that we could live and work close enough together to be able to walk or ride a bike to commute.  And so Denver was one of those cities that fulfilled a lot of criteria, and that’s why we landed there.
The move back didn’t go as planned.  We had fully embraced the car-free/car-lite lifestyle and did not want to give it up.  We knew short term we would be living back in Powell County until we could find a place closer to Lexington.  I was okay with that because I felt like in my job I would be working to correct the poor conditions that kept people locked in long distance car commutes in Central Kentucky.
Three years have passed and we’re stuck with a money pit that won’t quickly become marketable.  And so for the time being I am a dedicated car commuter putting in over four hundred fifty miles a week behind the wheel compared to the one hundred miles I commuted by bike in Colorado.  
I’ve tried making the forty-five mile commute by bike.  It works okay on days that my wife or someone else can either drop me off or pick me up in Lexington, but I really can’t put in five or six hours a day just commuting.  And the Lexington side of the commute is stressful.  There are no low traffic options to get into town.  Every road into the city from the east has a high traffic count.  None of them have shoulders to speak of either.  High speed, high traffic, low light in the AM = one dead bike commuter.  When you throw all of those conditions together as a bike commuter you begin playing a numbers game. 
The problem wouldn’t be solved by moving closer to Lexington.  The “death zone” around the city is pretty well defined.  See, way back in the dawn of time Lexington, Kentucky was one of the first—if not the first—city to establish urban service boundaries.  The reasoning was at least partly political, to keep suburban development from creeping into the expensive sport horse farms that surround the city.
That resulted in the workforce (it’s natural habitat is suburbia) leapfrogging the horse farms into the surrounding counties.  Therefore Lexington’s job market is served by a lot of commuters from outside Fayette County and sometimes (like myself) from two or even three counties away.
I understand this is probably normal for any big city, but there is no suburban fabric to patch the urban to the rural.  There’s just the “death zone” where all the roads are narrow, lined with historic stone fences and big beautiful trees, and no one is willing to accommodate cyclists or pedestrians, and the distances are prohibitive anyway.
Change is slow, but it is coming to Central Kentucky
This was the opening of a new section of the Brighton Rail Trail
It just needs to go a few more miles east!
In Denver I was able to go anywhere in the city by winding around connecting low speed and volume suburban streets with greenways, urban bike lanes, and even open space trails.  Lexington is fortified against that kind of shenanigans.
You might be wondering why we don’t just move to Lexington.  It’s complicated.  The aforementioned money pit is keeping us put for a little while.  To be honest I don’t want to live in Lexington.  If I didn’t work in the city there is very little Lex Vegas has to offer to entice me within the Circle (New Circle Road).  I loathe driving anywhere in Lexington and want to scream and yell and bite my steering wheel anytime I have to get on Man O War Boulevard (which is every day).
My wife would like nothing better than to move into the Horse Capital.  I’ve got my issues that make city living difficult and Lexington represents all of the things that invade my mind and make me crazy.  I kind of need the reprieve I get from driving out of the urban core rot where I linger every day.
You might wonder why I don’t just get a job in my hometown.  I’ve never been financially stable enough to start my own business, and it would be risky there for sure.  There are really no decent jobs outside of the school or local government, and I want something that allows me to see that I’m making a difference.  I don’t need to save polar bears, but I don’t want to spend my life pushing widgets out the door and struggling to pay the bills, or run for office and wonder what I’ll do after I get beat in the next election.
In future posts I want to explore the more concrete barriers to entry for cyclist (and pedestrians) in Central and Eastern Kentucky.  

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