The Train Not Taken
Car dependence makes the world smaller
A few times a year my wife and I visit one of her friends in Arlington, specifically the transit-rich neighborhood of Crystal City. It’s just across the river from Washington, D.C. and is pretty built up.
She used to live in an apartment building with extremely limited parking, and for that reason my wife almost never visited. If they went out, she’d just drop her off when they got back. A couple of years ago, she moved to a different building, and the first time we visited we parked on the street, which was limited to two hours. I renewed it once—by driving around the block and finding a new space—and then we left.
Later on, we realized that a nearby hotel offered a pretty cheap all-day parking option in their garage, so we did that a few times. But the most recent visit, just last month, the hotel parking had nearly doubled in price. Add gas and tolls, and you could easily spend $30 just to get there and go home.
“Why don’t we take the Metro?” my wife suggested.
Now I know that there is a Crystal City Metro station—I’ve used it before—and the closest Metro station to our home in Reston is only five minutes away. We use the Metro to go into D.C., and I used to use it every day for my old commute.
But somehow, it simply had never occurred to either of us to hop on the weekend Metro—when garage parking is free and fares are only $4 round trip—to visit her friend in Arlington, who she really would like to see more often.
I mapped her friend’s apartment and the Crystal City Metro station, and the walk was basically the same as the walk from the hotel where we used to park. And here’s a funny thing: her old building—the one with parking so tight that my wife never visited at all—is right next to the Metro station! As luck would have it, her friend is actually moving back to that building later this summer, so now visiting her is a cheap, car-free breeze.
This dovetailed in my mind with a discussion I was having recently with one of my own friends, during this Northern Virginia tour I gave her. She’s in suburban Montgomery County, Maryland, along the I-270 corridor, which runs northwest from D.C. She’s a bit further out from the final Metro rail station in Rockville. Like my wife’s friend, she does not own a car.
Last year, we explored Frederick, Maryland, and even though she’s closer to Frederick than D.C., there’s no transit that will get her there. (There was supposed to be, but it was scaled back over the years until Larry Hogan dealt it a final blow.) When I met her in Virginia, she had to take a bus to the Rockville Metro station, ride that into downtown D.C., transfer to my line, and ride that all the way to its western endpoint. To get home, I dropped her off at the end point of a different Metro line, all the way down in southeast Fairfax County. The transit ride back up to northwest Montgomery County, via downtown D.C., is not short. (Why did we never build a rail line that tracked the Beltway?)
Anyway, we were talking about driving and riding transit, and how well she knew the region’s transit map. I couldn’t really have planned the route she did; I admitted, in fact, that I don’t really even know how to read the bus map. Looking at it feels a little like opening an algebra textbook; there’s a part of my brain that just shuts off (math was not my favorite subject, as you can probably guess). It’s all what you’re used to, though; driving must seem scary and difficult to someone who isn’t used to it.
This all made me think about how hard it is to choose to use transit, when you have the choice of a faster, more private car ride, with easy parking at your destination. And how that habit in turn narrows your perception of a place and how to get around it. A pro-housing group I belong to in Northern Virginia is planning a visit to the really interesting Eden Center strip mall next month, and the organizer noted that you can easily arrive by bus. Well, I bet that would require at least one transfer and take double the time it takes to drive.
But maybe it would be a breeze. Maybe I simply have my car blinders on. I have never really taken the effort the find out, for most routes, going to most places. It’s sad to think that my wife could have visited her friend whenever she wanted if we had simply thought outside of the metal box. What else are we missing?
This brings to mind a story in Charles Marohn’s first book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. Here’s a 2013 interview with Marohn, a few years before the book, where he recounts the same story:
Charles Marohn, a Minnesota-based civil engineer and urban planner, tells the story of how he and his wife bought a typical suburban home before they had kids, thinking it would be a great place to raise a family. Years later, after his oldest daughter’s first day of kindergarten, she told him, “Dad, I’ve met the most wonderful person! I think she’s going to be my best friend!” Marohn learned that his daughter’s new friend not only lived directly across the street, but that the girl’s family had lived there longer than his own family. “The way we have arranged ourselves on the landscape is so isolating from each other,” Marohn says, “that we can actually exist five-hundred feet from my daughter’s best friend and not even know she was there… How much more full could our lives be, how much more fulfilling could we be as people, how much more productive could we be if we were arranged differently? How many of us have best friends that we’ve never met and never will meet because we just don’t have the opportunity?”
The lesson here—how we organize land use influences our behavior—is something some people simply do not want to acknowledge. “It’s your fault for not meeting your neighbors,” they might say. “It’s your fault for not taking the Metro.” As if we’re just an assemblage of people in a vacuum, 320 million societies of one, as if facilitating society is some kind of undeserved shortcut. I wrote critically about that view here, with an example of interior home design.
Sometimes, you can start to think that land use is the preeminent issue in everything, and look, that’s an exaggeration and its own form of putting on blinders. But everything happens in the context of places we’ve built, so of course the details matter.
But even given subpar land use and transportation, it is possible to bend your habits in a different direction, to rethink your regular assumptions. For me, in this case, that means consciously thinking about how I’ll get somewhere, instead of automatically jumping in the car. I live in the Northern Virginia suburbs, and I usually get in the car anyway. But the world feels bigger when it’s not my only option.
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