Gracy’s latest newsletter is worth your time. She also made a number of observations that have overlapped with my own experience as we’ve been a single-car family with four kids. Here’s Gracy:
As I proceeded to and from school, I found there were excellent walking and biking paths toward town I could use, and multiple bus routes that were easy and safe to access. The time cost was largest with walking (it would take me 30 to 45 minutes to get to my nearest school building), but the benefits to walking were also huge. It gave me opportunities to exercise, to pause mentally and emotionally, and to enjoy the beautiful scenery and architecture around Oxford.
Walking my commute, especially when the weather was nice, also provided opportunities for the sorts of serendipitous encounters that built friendship and community: I constantly run into people I know, and have found this one of the most important factors in cultivating a sense of belonging in a given place.
When we haphazardly encounter people we know, we realize that we are part of a communal fabric that is large, complex, and fluid: it helps us to connect specific streets, parks, and buildings with ideas of commitment, accountability, and care. The street grid and the relational networks we depend on become layered, part of each other in an inextricable fashion. And this is the sort of process, I would argue, that builds our deeper love for a place. As long as our networks of community and built environment remain separate, we grow a more detached admiration. We will likely appreciate the place where we live, but we may not feel part of it in the same way we do when we realize, “Around that corner, or the next, I meet see someone I know.” For me, at least, the process of serendipitous encounter shapes a strikingly different experience of the city. It changes the way I perceive a place, as well as the way I explore it.
We’ve also found the bus to be an excellent and important means of transportation. It’s way cheaper than the car, and more environmentally friendly. It’s also a space in which we can try to cultivate the sorts of behaviors and habits that support community. On the bus, or at the bust sop, we build up “little debts” and courtesies that encourage us to be neighborly.
Some bus drivers wave people on board when they don’t have the right coins, others recognize our routines and know our stops. I’ve met little old ladies who play games with my tired toddlers, helping me avoid a tantrum (or two) as we wait to get home. And then there are the random conversations I’ve had with friendly people at the bus stop: an AI scientist, a clarinetist, an Oxford native who knows all the streets and buildings that have changed over time.
Riding the bus can be taxing, exhausting, annoying. Sometimes I—or my children—just wanted to get home. But the bus has also given me opportunities to think through the ideas of membership and courtesy we’ve discussed here at Granola over the years. As David Sax recently wrote for The New York Times, “Engagement with strangers is at the core of our social contract. … Far from random human inconveniences, strangers are actually one of the richest and most important resources we have. They connect us to the community, teach us empathy, build civility and are full of surprise and potentially wonder.”
I do not know how much my four-year-old will remember from our time in Oxford, but I do know she’ll remember and love the double decker buses.
Just yesterday my wife had three of our kids running errands and I decided to do a short outing with our four-year-old. So we took the bus. As we waited for the bus, I was struck by the fact that there are so few moments many of us have in which we aren’t expected to be doing something or focusing our attention on something: When you commute places by car, your attention during the commute is necessarily focused on driving. And when you have arrived at your destination or are back home, there’s always something (and usually several somethings) that need your attention. But yesterday while we sat at the bus stop waiting, I just looked around at downtown Lincoln—you’ll become far more aware of your home place if you drive less and rely far more on walking and public transit—while Austin sat nearby playing with a small diecast car.
Something similar happens on the bus, of course: You don’t need to pay attention to the road. If you know when you need to get off, then you can just sit and wait, not thinking about anything in particular or doing any particular work during that time. (This is one of my favorite things about visiting New York City, incidentally: I usually stay in Queens and take the E or F into Manhattan for meetings, which means I start and end my day with a 30 or 40 minute ride on the subway where I can just read a book or sit around doing nothing.)
Gracy is also right, of course, about the social benefits of all this: Austin got to see a bunch of people and overhear conversations he wouldn’t have in our van. He also had to walk what was for him a long way from the bus stop to the stores we were visiting on our outing.
The other thing I’ve enjoyed with using mass transit, this is more when I’m just going somewhere by myself, is that the Lincoln bus schedule imposes certain constraints on my schedule. If you’re a writer and editor, it can be very hard to stop working because, well, you’re always turning over ideas in your head, either pieces you want to write or ideas for how to improve something you’re editing. And because this work is all mental, it’s work you can do basically anywhere at any time. Thus all the stereotypes about absent-minded writers. Work from home, which I love in so many other ways, can also play into this problem: It can be easy for work to just take over every spare moment in your day. The other problem is that when work can take over every moment, it’s easier for it to actually take over every moment because you feel like there is always time to do a bit more.
What’s nice about taking the bus somewhere to work is that I have to be mindful of the time, I need to stop work at a certain time, and then I’ll have that short time of not working while I wait for and then ride the bus home. Anyway, read Gracy’s piece (and subscribe) and start figuring out ways of traveling without a personal car. You’ll be glad you did.