Parked

For a week, one city resident lets her feet meet the street, bus steps and bike pedals as she tries to live without a car

August 03, 2008|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

I'm wobbling down Light Street toward a busy intersection, clinging perilously yet stylishly to a sleek hybrid bicycle: metallic gray with gears to shift and a beverage holder clearly meant for someone brave enough to pry a hand from the handle bars.

That's not me.

Normally, I'd be motoring through Baltimore's morning rush, obliviously ensconced in a Honda - air blowing, stereo humming, coffee in easy reach.

But not today. Today, I'm vulnerable to the gust of each passing sedan, pickup and - gasp - bus. Today, every bump, pebble and cigarette butt on the road threatens my already shaky balance.

Today, I'm doing without a car. It's part of a weeklong experiment to see how - or if - I could get by in this town without one.

I'm a driver. Like most people in Baltimore, and in America for that matter, I drive to work, I drive to the grocery store and I drive to the mall. I drive to get my hair cut, I drive the cats to the vet, I drive to meet friends for dinner.

A car trip bookends almost everything I do. But with gas at $4 a gallon, and near-constant warnings about global warming and carbon footprints, I wanted to see if I could park the Honda.

I wanted to see if, in Baltimore, I could have the lifestyle of a Manhattanite, a Londoner or a Parisian. I would do everything I usually do, go everywhere I usually go, but without getting behind the wheel, taking taxis or begging rides from friends.

After six years in this city, I'd never taken a bus, never ridden the light rail, didn't own a bike. I live 1.79 miles from work, but had never tried it by foot.

This week, I'd try all of it.

According to Walkscore.com - a site that rates neighborhoods across the country for their proximity to things like stores, restaurants and parks - with my Patterson Park address, I all but live in a pedestrian's paradise.

Who knew?

Not I. Certainly not the neighbors I compete with every evening for a half-decent parking spot.

In Baltimore, July comes with certain indelicate realities, realities the streets only exacerbate. When I mentioned the plan to a friend, he said, "Uh, do you know it's going to be like 96 degrees?"

I did.

And when I left the house that first morning, determined to walk to The Sun's Calvert Street office, the air had already heated to a damp, oppressive summer brew.

Over my shoulder I'd slung a bag stuffed with a change of clothes, respectable office shoes and powder and makeup to blot the inevitable "glow," as the women's magazines euphemize.

I plodded toward downtown, Birkenstocks slapping the hot pavement. Westbound cars stacked up on Baltimore Street but the sidewalks, they were all mine. The buzz of crickets rose and fell over weedy lots. Almost no one crossed my path.

When I drive to the office, unless you count the steps from the parking garage to my cubicle, walking isn't a big part of my day. But my trek, doorstep to desk and back again, topped 10,000 steps on the pedometer, or about five miles.

Driving, I arrive at work before three songs play on the radio. It's triple that on foot, but not bad, if you consider the trip a commute and workout rolled into one.

If walking took fortitude, the bus required homework.

I regularly hear the squeak and hiss of buses moving through my neighborhood, but - being a card-carrying AAA member - sadly, I had no clue where they went or where to catch them.

Lesson: Don't expect to easily get that information from the Maryland Transit Administration.

When I bought my weekly pass for $16.50, I tried to ask the woman behind the counter where exactly I could use it.

"Yeah," she grunted without looking up.

The MTA online trip planner, seemingly a godsend - just plug in where you are and where you want to go and the site spits out mass-transit options - let's just say reliability isn't its strong suit.

The first time I attempted to catch a bus, I arrived 10 minutes early at the corner where the Web site directed me to go.

Twenty minutes later, I'm still there, increasingly late, increasingly glowing.

When the bus finally appeared, to my extreme dismay it seemed prepared to roll right by. I began jumping and waving my pass. Probably out of curiosity, the driver stopped.

I stepped on and hesitated, not sure what to do with the pass. "What do I do, just show this to you or stick it somewhere or," I started to ask the driver who interrupted in the flattest tone possible to say, "This ain't a stop."

"It's not?" I sputtered, as the bus lurches into motion. Clinging to a pole, I added, "'Cause they said on the MTA Web site that this was the stop and ..." The driver interrupted again, motioning as we drive past the next block, "That's the stop."

I slinked back to a seat.

Miscommunications aside, the ride itself is a pleasure. The powerful blast of air-conditioning puts my car's to shame. With only about four other riders, I can sit anywhere. In no time, I hop off at the intersection of Calvert and Lombard and walk the final blocks to work.

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