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In Car-Loving St. Louis, Pedestrians, Cyclists and Transit Riders Have Many Miles to Go

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Jason Stenar Clark enjoys life as a "permanent pedestrian." - PAUL DECOURSEY-CLARK
  • Paul DeCoursey-Clark
  • Jason Stenar Clark enjoys life as a "permanent pedestrian."

How do you use Metro? #DumpThePump," the transit agency (@STLMetro) tweets on June 18, National Dump the Pump Day. A handful of riders, including me, send enthusiastic replies: "For everything! We have been car-less for almost three years." "Car free's the way to be!" "Metro makes it possible for our two 12yo cars to sit most of the time. Saves us big $."

Soon enough, two other Twitter users take it upon themselves to dampen the tone of the discussion.

"Really...how much do you value time," writes one.

Another chimes in, "For someone who owns a car it's not a competitive option, it's a massive time suck."

In the time it takes to think, 'Let it go,' I've begun typing a comeback: "Could transit in #STL improve? Yes! ... The best way to contribute to a better transit system is to ride it." That's no guarantee, of course — especially in a metropolitan area where voters have at times turned down needed investment and expansion — but increased demand for the service and vocal participation build the case for making it a regional priority.

Our lifestyles and circumstances can be emotionally fraught, especially when it comes to a subject like transportation. Status, class, race and values invade the seemingly mundane topic of how we get where we're going. In my own experience, choosing to give up my car has exposed a rough edge here and there among friends and family. Most people are encouraging, but a few conversations — not just online — have left me feeling silly, even careless, for going car-less. And I can be prickly and defensive about it myself.

On my birthday a couple years ago, my casual comment over ice-cream cake that reckless and mean drivers can make bike commuting really stressful drew an unexpected reaction from a characteristically kind-hearted, generous, suburban-dwelling friend.

"You're driving me crazy!" she suddenly fumed, standing up to leave the room full of acquaintances. "What do you expect me to do — strap my kids on the back of my bike? Cyclists are in my way, and I'm trying to get somewhere. You need to get a car." We've since patched things over and remain close friends, but I am more cautious now in approaching these issues, sensitive as they are.

Catherine Werner, St. Louis' director of sustainability, notes that patience with each other is crucial.

"In my opinion, the key to effective sustainability lifestyle shifts is not encouraging people to go from standstill to full throttle, but to gradually ease in to the change by slowly accelerating," she says. "Lots of things come into play, and we need to be respectful of the fact that everyone has their own personal timeline, preferences and experiences. If we can each just worry about ourselves, and ensure that we do one new thing to become more sustainable, my feeling is that will be the answer over time."

Meanwhile, climate change looms eerily before us, and a sense of urgency and impatience with the status quo feels appropriate. How is it possible, in the face of the sobering challenges ahead, that so many of us still consider doing without a car such a strange option?

"It's an American thing," says Jason Stenar Clark, a thirty-something poet and teacher who became my friend when we were both graduate students in Laramie, Wyoming, before I moved to St. Louis five years ago. "Some have found it shocking, truly shocking, that I have lived my entire life without owning a car and have only rarely driven one."

It was Clark's father who most influenced him to "walk lightly," as he puts it. The Clark family explored, ranched, farmed, fished, hunted, mined and wandered the West, with his father providing a strong example of living delicately, he says, "with care for animals, plants, what Wallace Stegner called 'all the little live things.'"

Clark regularly walked three miles from west Laramie, a more rural part of town with livestock and dirt roads, to the University of Wyoming campus. Several times I drove past him, in my then-not-yet-donated sedan, as he trudged through one of the coldest locales in the country, where snow regularly blankets the landscape as early as September and as late as May. Easy to spot with his lanky frame and, sometimes, cowboy hat, he didn't look miserable or weary, despite the brutal chill and lack of sidewalks in many places. It was his time to think, and he still considers walking the best way to enjoy a city or countryside.

"As a permanent pedestrian, the pacing and appearance of life is more deliberate, slower, and allows for more attentiveness," Clark says. "Living in west Laramie, I got to know on which houses the owls stopped, where the lambs were being raised, how the colt that lived next to the highway felt most mornings, the mood of the red-winged blackbird flocks, what freshly pressed rabbit paw prints look like in untouched snow, and what is happening at any given moment in the day with friends and neighbors."

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