One of the things you hear about Americans from outside of the country is how “in love” with the Automobile everyone is, and how public transport is all but nonexistent. Like many of these views from the outside, there is a lot of truth, together with a lot of misunderstanding in that statement. When I spent some time in New York city I found that the Subway and bus system was fantastic for getting around the City; in San Francisco the BART system is really impressive; and here in St Louis we have a great Metro connecting east and west of the city, and a reasonable bus system that can get you to most places.
On the other hand, most of the country is not urban, and a lot of people live in small towns, or urban suburbs that are impossible to get to using any form of public transportation. And even for those of us where this is an option, it’s normally much easier to jump in the car, because the places we want to get to are so far apart and difficult to get to any other way.
In the last couple of weeks we’ve been busy with kitchen improvements, which started when we needed to replace our garbage disposal. A simple matter, and while we thought about it, what about a new faucet too? So we did some on-line viewing, and drove over to a couple of stores and came back with the new equipment. But then we wondered, is it sensible to put this new stuff on our old sink, when sometime down the line we wanted to replace that as well? and so we began another round of checking out items on-line, before going to the store to order a new sink. Of course, it wasn’t that easy, and we actually came home with one sink that was on special offer, but then decided against it, and so had to return it and do a special order, and then go back to collect it when it came in. Also, since the area under the sink was kind of untidy, we got new cabinet storage. Only the one we bought was too big, so I needed to take it back and get something else.
And then, the very next day after ordering the sink, our dishwasher stopped working, and we started a round of investigation and going around stores to talk about deals. We eventually settled on what we wanted, and then somehow – and I’m really not too sure how – we got to thinking about our kitchen pantry cupboard, and how it would be much more useful if it had better storage in it. So more trips to look at options, and order and then to collect the shelving.
It seemed that I was always driving back and forward to the same few stores every few days, and I knew that for almost all the places I’d been, it would have been possible to get there by some combination of bus and Metro. But I also knew from my days before having a car that it would have taken hours to get there and back, and carrying the items back and forth that way would have been impractical, in not impossible.
Then last Saturday I was almost finished with the installations, but I just needed two more small items from the shelving store, and I also wanted to look at possibilities for changing the lighting. So three stores all close together (although in 3 different malls), and only a small item I needed to carry; I decided that I needed the exercise so I went out on the Metro to the nearest station, and set out for the stores.
This is a very different experience from driving. First, you realize how much of a second class citizen a pedestrian is. There will be a nice sidewalk for a while, and then suddenly it disappears, and you have to share the roadway with the on-coming traffic. And the parking lots seemed endless as I trudged through them to get away from the roaring traffic. But apart from these inconveniences, what surprised me was how much easier it was to walk between them, and I loved how much more I could see that I missed when driving.
To go from the shelving store to the lighting store by car, I would leave the store, walk to my vehicle, get in and reverse out of the parking space, drive to the exit and the inevitable wait at the traffic lights, go around the buildings to the parking lot of the lighting store, find a place to park, lock the car and go in.
To walk, I just left the store, crossed the road at the light (which I still had to wait for) walked along the service road, through the parking lot and there I was at the other store. It took about the same amount of time either way, but the walk seemed so much less stressful.
And along the way I got to see that there was a riverbed running under the road, a tiny stream when I crossed it, but by the size of the cutting, it must fill up with water from time to time. Just after this, there was a small gazebo, very well-built and maintained, but with no obvious path to it, just sitting at the side of the service road. I wondered if it was an outside smoking area, but there were no signs of ashtrays or cigarette buts, so maybe it was going to be something, but got overlooked.
After leaving the lighting store I went over to a big superstore, through small roads which meandered back and forth between the buildings, and with almost no traffic. These buildings were mostly built for function rather than style, but here and there were some interesting architectural features; one building had details in red brick on a white stucco background, another (empty) one had door handles in the shape of canoe paddles, maybe pointing to a previous use.
It was a cold day, and I was glad to get back indoors eventually. There is no doubt that t had taken me longer to get around than if I’d been in the car, and I will certainly use my vehicle for most of these types of shopping trips. But even so, it was great to get out of the confines of the car and go “off-road” for a while, and to see that there really is life outside of the parking lot.