Monday, December 04, 2006

The Seattle Transition

I have been reluctant to get on the buses here in Seattle. There is no reason why I should not, except that I don't know where they run and don't really want to find out. People use the buses every day and, technically, I only need to travel in a straight line from home to work and back again.

And it's free. I live and work inside the free zone in downtown Seattle.

So why do I continue to pay for parking near the office?

For one thing, if I need to get to my car, it's at least a 20-minute bus ride away -- and that doesn't allow for however long I would have to wait for the bus. So what is the value of saving 30 minutes of my time by walking for 30 seconds to get to my car? Multiply that by two, going both ways. How much is an hour of my time worth?

On a busy morning it takes me 10 minutes to drive to worrk. On a busy evening, it may take 15 minutes to drive home.

Like so many other Americans who don't live in downtown Seattle, New York, Chicago, etc. I am married to my car. I refuse to go shopping at stores that don't have parking lots. I don't care if I have to pay for the parking. I want to have my car there. And that is because when I walk out of the store, I want to take as many packages as I can put in my car.

A few weeks ago I tried walking about 4 blocks to a local store to buy some groceries. It was raining but like a good tourist I took my umbrella. Naturally, when I came out of the store with a load of plastic bags (they did not have paper bags, which would have been easier to carry), I had to keep switching the bags from one hand to the other as the circulation in my fingers choked off.

And then I dropped the bags on the wet sidewalk, and had to scramble to pick up my groceries in the rain while I missed being able to walk across the street. So I had to stand there in the rain, waiting for the walk light to change again.

"I won't be doing this again," I told myself. Once was enough for me.

Now, with practice you can learn to do anything well. I see people carrying their groceries and parcels on the street all the time. But there are a lot of sick people here in Seattle. I mean they have colds, flus, bronchial infections, etc. I got one myself and after 10 days of taking antibiotics I don't want another.

How did people live without cars in past generations? I cannot imagine how much time had to be spent taking care of tasks that cost so much time out of the day. Would Henry David Thoreau have been able to write Walden while living in a city where he had to go buy his groceries every day because he couldn't carry more than an armload for a mile?

I don't think so.

Not that I write anything like Walden with the time I save. Mostly I just stay out of the cold and wonder what I'm going to do with all my spare time.

To be honest, I've been living on a budget because it's expensive to move 2,000 miles and set up in a city you've never lived in before. I've been spending my discretionary income on dining out, parking fees, and the occasional splurge with my girlfriend.

In Houston, everything was so spread out where I lived. You would see people walking on the street but most of them were doing it for the exercise. There is public transportation in Houston, to be sure, and some people use it. But you almost need a car to get around town in any decent amount of time. I lived close to everything in Houston, but I still had to budget anywhere from 45 minutes to 90 minutes to go grocery shopping just because it took time to drive there, park, and get into the store, etc.

4 Houston blocks' worth of traffic equates to about 8 Seattle blocks of traffic. I mean, when I get on the streets here, I usually can drive a half mile to a mile before having to stop. The traffic signals are so much better syncronized. In Houston you start and stop, start and stop. Of course, the traffic signals are placed much farther apart in Houston. A city block in Houston is equal to about 4 city blocks in Seattle.

Of course, when I lived in Houston I actually lived in West Houston, outside Interstate 610 and inside the Beltway. I didn't live in downtown Houston. I'm not sure anyone can live in downtown Houston. The two cities have very different downtown areas.

In Houston, I planned short trips on the basis of how long it would take me to get to my destination, park, and finish my task.

In Seattle, I plan my short trips on the basis of whether parking is available or if there is rain.

In Houston, you assume there is parking to be had.

In Seattle, you assume that anyone fortunate enough to park their car is fighting the clock and may come back to find they no longer have to worry about parking.

In Houston, people mostly think that anyone who doesn't drive a truck is poor or just plain crazy.

In Seattle, people mostly think that anyone who drives is a tourist.

My boss commutes to work. He parks his car in the suburb somewhere and rides a relatively comfortable train. He doesn't have to fight with traffic. He doesn't have to look out for pedestrians. He is a pedestrian.

I'm lost without a set of car keys in my pocket. Even though I walk to lunch at work, and there are maybe 70-100 restaurants within 3 blocks of the office in almost any direction, I feel vulnerable without those car keys. Just in case I need to get in that car and drive somewhere.

How long does it take to get over the feeling of being lost without a steering wheel in your hands?


Anonymous DG said...

I don't know how long it takes to get over the feeling of being lost, but after a few years, the excitement for driving comes back. To be fair, the excitement came back when I moved out of the city.

I like muscle cars. Tuning a muscle car to perfection to sit in traffic with it is a frustrating experience. In fact, I don't drive in large cities. Since I moved back to the country eight years ago my frustration with busy traffic has grown to the point where I simply refuse to drive into a city at all.

Bouncing down a winding country road in my pickup is an enjoyable experience. Screaming down a winding country road in my Z28 with the top down is close to sublime. Sitting in traffic with my foot on the clutch waiting for the light to turn, not once, but three or four times, surrounded by cars that look like electric shavers, turns me into Mr. Hyde.

For short trips to town for perishables I saddle a horse and enjoy the slow pace and the sound of horseshoes on blacktop.

I don't miss having car keys in my pocket. These days though, when I turn the engine over, I get excited about driving.

7:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Michael--a correction: in Seattle, we mostly think that anyone who drives downtown is a clueless idiot.

Were your comments on "having" to drive four blocks made with the Martinez tongue in the Martinez cheek? We who read Seattle's Metroblog hope so, because a blogger there linked us all to your post about your painful car addiction, and a lot of folks are laughing their asses off at the notion that a Texan can't handle standing in the rain for thirty seconds.

If you are actually serious, well.... could you please consider the effect your choices have on the planet, and on the world you hand over to any children you may bear? Here is a Website/news source grown in Seattle that might help you with that task:

Good luck with your addiction--start by telling your mirror, "Hi, my name is Michael, and I'm a car addict"!

12:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a Seattleite that works and walks downtown. The adjustment period when you stop driving takes a little while. But I've found that walking and taking the bus saves me time and is a better deal than driving. I just had to arrange my life a little differently and get over that inital vulnerablity.

My commute serves as my time at the gym - I've lost weight since I started walking. I don't need to plan a big trip to get groceries - I just pop into the market on the way home from work. I never have to waste time in stuck in traffic or trying to find parking. The money I save by not paying for parking or car maintenance is money I get to use for fun stuff.

It also helps to get a big, strong reusable bag or backpack for groceries or packages so you don't have plastic bags breaking on the street.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Michael Martinez said...

Given how much electricity Seattlites use every day, I'm pretty sure my 2 gallons of gasoline per month won't hurt the children.

But it is better to blog and be laughed at than to have never blogged at all.

9:14 PM  
Blogger Michael Martinez said...

Thanks for the suggestion of the reusable bag. I'll keep that in mind.

I've been told that the day is coming when I'll lose that convenient parking near the office.

9:17 PM  

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