Advertisement
News

Parked

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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?

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

"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."

Advertisement

"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.

Bus conquered, I want to flex my public-transit muscle with a more complex maneuver - a shopping jaunt to Hunt Valley involving bus and light rail.

I made it by bus to the North Avenue light rail station, where a helpful rider with a golden-teeth grill warned me the light rail wasn't running all the way to Hunt Valley, that I would have to hop a shuttle at Timonium. Another detail the MTA trip planner neglected to mention.

The good news: I found an adorable dress at the mall. Less good: The trip essentially ate my entire Saturday. I left at 11 a.m. and didn't get home until after 5.

Advertisement

Lesson: Public transportation isn't for people on tight schedules.

Then, the bike.

A lot has apparently changed since I left the two-wheeled life more than 25 years ago, kickstanding my banana-seated Schwinn in my parents' garage. Riding a bike, as they say, may well be like riding a bike, but somewhat less so if it has been decades and the reunion takes place, as mine did, on the streets of downtown.

After a harrowing ride to work, during which I got so intimidated by traffic that I got off the bike altogether and pushed it along the sidewalk, people with actual cycling skills told me they won't take bikes anywhere near Pratt and Light streets.

Noted.

Although I won't be doing it again - unless I buy a bike and spend some quality getting-to-know-you time with it - for a few moments there, coasting on a paved straight-away behind The Sun building, stirring breeze, I saw the benefits.

Advertisement

By the time I wrapped up my week, my feet, the bus, light rail and the devil bike had taken me to work near Mount Vernon, to Federal Hill's business district, to North Avenue to catch a train, to Lexington Market to buy a drink and Berger cookie, to a cute dress in Hunt Valley and to the Sunday Farmer's Market, from which I walked home dragging a bowling ball-sized cantaloupe and four ears of corn that might as well have been pins.

Through it all, my car sat parked under a tree, becoming a favorite spot for area birds to relieve themselves upon.

At the beginning of the test, I promised myself that carlessness wouldn't stop me from doing anything I needed or wanted to do. And it didn't - at least, until the last night, when I had planned to see the water ballet in Riverside Park.

After a vicious downpour, the online weather report predicted an 80 percent chance of more evening storms. I just couldn't rationalize slogging through two miles of puddles for a want rather than a need. So I canceled.

Ironically, the forecast was a dud. Storms never stormed. My friends, who live on that side of town anyway, enjoyed the show without me.

Lesson: With the Manhattan or London lifestyle, one can't be afraid of getting wet.

Advertisement

All in all, my week proved that it's very possible to get by without a car in Baltimore.

More realistically, however, I realized I don't have to drive everywhere, all the time, for everything. If it's a nice day, I not only could walk to work, it would be a relaxing, somewhat Zen way to start the day. I not only could take a bus to the Inner Harbor, I'd save those exorbitant parking garage fees.

Jeffrey Miller, president of Thunderhead Alliance, a national coalition of bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups, told me that hundreds, maybe thousands, of people nationwide are doing what I did - reconsidering their cars.

A decade ago, Miller preached the gospel of alternative transportation to people who couldn't care less. But gas prices and environmental awareness changed that. Now he can't even return all his calls.

With half of all car trips being less than five miles and a quarter of them less than a mile, Miller thinks small lifestyle changes might work for a lot of people.

Like me.

Advertisement

"Walking or bicycling will save you money, but it's about the things that are priceless, too," he says.

"Having your health come back to you. Walking to work and seeing and smelling and noticing the cool things in your community. Encased in glass and steel, you never noticed."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com


Advertisement