Road warriors

by Yule Heibel on November 13, 2012

The other day I saw a car with New Hampshire license plates and a school sticker from a nearby private school parked in my neighborhood. I surmised that the driver, an attractive early-40s woman who was fiddling with her phone, was in all likelihood the parent of a student at the well-regarded school. The school is about five minutes from my house, but the closest New Hampshire town is about 30 miles away.

Gotta say, that lady really gave me pause.

Warning: boring personal stuff ahead – go to below the map to skip…

[Also, see Addendum at bottom of post]

In 2002, my family and I moved away from the same neighborhood and city on Boston’s North Shore to which we then returned in 2012. We had begun homeschooling in 2000, and by 2002 we opted to live in Victoria, Canada (the capital city of British Columbia). One of the great benefits of moving to Victoria was that it got us out of the car.

Before we moved I used to spend a lot of time driving my kids around: to school, to extra-curricular classes, to other people’s houses. It was a lifestyle that continued even after we started homeschooling. It seemed that any place anyone wanted to go to required a car (not least because, aside from the commuter rail into Boston, public transportation isn’t exactly a great alternative around here).

After our move to Victoria in 2002, all that stopped. The children instead walked, biked, or bused to most of the places they needed (or wanted) to go, whether it was the Victoria Conservatory of Music (VCM), the YMCA, the library, or, later, a year of high school or university.

Downtown was just a few blocks from our house in one direction, and in the other lay densely populated residential neighborhoods. We could walk to three full service grocery stores, a couple of bakeries, a spring-through-fall farmers market, movie theaters, live theaters, the opera, the art gallery, parks and beaches, shops, restaurants and coffee shops in “villagenodes, Chinatown, Old Town, and more. If the walk was too far, there was a bus, and if that was too limiting, there were bikes. And of course there was also the car, and we used it. But not excessively.

I am dead serious when I say that getting out of the car was the best thing we did for our kids. Seeing the road warrior with the New Hampshire plates and a kid in a North Shore school hammered home just how different our ten years in Victoria were, compared to the nonchalant embrace of pavement that’s so common here.

If I pick South Hampton NH as the closest point across the state line, the daily trek to that private school in Beverly Massachusetts is ~33 miles. The drive will take between 45 minutes to an hour, if conditions are favorable. The parent may or may not be heading to points further south, adding to her journey. At any rate, the road-warrior-in-training kid has almost two hours of vehicle time per day, five days a week.

Hard to comprehend.

Equally difficult to fathom from a more urban perspective is the no doubt low-density, probably homogenous, possibly wooded-but-suburban enclave this youngster is growing up in. When my kids walked downtown to the VCM, they encountered the homeless shelter next door, and, sadly, the junkies shooting up outside the music building. And along most of the downtown streets, they often ran a gauntlet of panhandlers. This wasn’t a good thing, but it gave them a perspective on life choices – and life disasters. They developed a feel for how to engage (or not) with street life, and how to feel safe (and not paranoid). You sure didn’t want to engage the tweaking meth-head falling down on the sidewalk, but it was ok to respond to the panhandler’s sometimes sarcastic passive-aggressive/ sometimes genuine “have a nice day” with “you, too, man,” …even when you didn’t give him or her any money.

It’s not the case that my kids only saw junkies and beggars on Victoria’s streets (although the downtown seemed to have more than its fair share): my point is that they saw many people who were not like them, who were different. Admittedly, Victoria (which is an expensive place to live) is predominantly white, and if not white, then Asian. Minorities really are a minority. But even within that mostly white population, there’s diversity – in age, income, outlook and lifestyle.

If, on the other hand, you live a good chunk of each day in your car, you’re perforce isolated from other human beings. The car creates a bubble and barrier around you, cuts you off from experiencing the humanity that’s past your windshield. That’s why drivers can be so rude: it’s like being online – you do things you wouldn’t dream of doing to someone close up, face-to-face.

If on top of that your home is a house in an area without sidewalks, where you must drive to buy basic necessities, your contact to “different” people is even more limited. And until you’re able to drive yourself, your dependence on mom or dad for any sort of mobility is cast in bronze – or whatever extruded material car makers use these days.

I’ve often wondered why parents drive their kids to school – there are so many reasons. Now I wonder why someone would drive their kid +/- 33 miles to school. And maybe I can guess why: because at this particular school, the student will find all the lovely qualities missing in other areas of her life:  a sense of belonging to something larger, a well-curated feint at diversity, community outreach (soup kitchens, etc.).

This school will produce a well-rounded graduate with all the right extra-curricular achievements – like community service in diverse social settings, so crucial to the college application. Why those good things aren’t baked into our built environments, however, is a conundrum. Something is backward here.

Addendum, Nov.14:

Just a thought, but you know how we’ve been hearing that sitting down for large chunks of our daily 24 hours is shaving years off our lives? And you know how recent reports say that life expectancy is actually declining for (some) Americans (i.e., young people today will live shorter, rather than longer, lives than their parents)? Maybe all that sitting around in cars – starting at very young ages – is a contributing factor to bad health in more ways than we ever suspected.

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