Tuesday, September 29, 2009

MFM Day 28: Hard to Be A Saint In the City

September 26th, 2009:

Motor Free Month Day 28: Hard to Be A Saint in the City

I often wonder when I'm riding by sleepy neighborhoods in my town, what people live in those houses? What do they do? Where do they work? Is anyone in there? In contrast, the city seems so busy, so full of people, of life. In the city everything is out in the open, every life is lived on a stage in view of every other actor. Where do they all come from? Where do they live? You don't have to wonder as much in the city because you can see them all out there on the street. Here comes the lawyer, the bum, the young punk, the student. All brought together on the same street at the same time, brought together for an anonymous moment, and then separated forever. The constant variety, the movement is almost overwhelming in its fluidity, bordering on chaos yet maintaining some sort of internal logic, unknown to the external interloper from the small town. The city changes so fast!

And yet the city is rooted by great buildings and monuments that seem to exist out of time altogether. There's a comforting permanence to it. The play constantly changes, but the hall remains the same, even as the set is subtly altered with the time of day and the passage of seasons. Great buildings dominate downtown, reflecting the first lights of the morning like a rooster's call, and capturing the last light of the evening like a beacon, drawing everyone to the center of everything. I've always loved tall buildings. I remember as young boy looking out the car window, straining my neck around to just stare up at these vast creations. I also remember getting trapped in the emergency stairwell of the Republic Building in downtown Denver once (Pictured here; I think it's the tallest of the three most tall buildings downtown), and having to run down over 50 flights of stairs in order to exit the building successfully! That was painful.

I was reminded of that episode quite powerfully as I stood in front of the open elevator at my hotel. And here I was now contemplating how much effort it would take to carry my bike up 22 flights of stairs in order to get to my hotel room, versus stepping into the elevator like every other rational human would, excepting perhaps someone who lived still in a primitive culture and had never seen an elevator, or an unfrozen caveman. Even an unfrozen caveman lawyer. Are elevators motorized transport? Undoubtedly, yes. Is this Motor Free Month? Yes, also true. So to take the elevator would be in violation of Motor Free Month. A sin, even. As the song goes, It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City (David Bowie Cover) .

I didn't hesitate long; I wheeled my bike into the elevator and pushed the button. The motor churned and the door closed. I felt, ashamed? happy? scared? nothing. I felt nothing. It was easy, it was logical. Certainly I wasn't following the letter of the law here, but what was I to do? Could have requested a room on a lower floor, could have taken the stairs, but I didn't.

Besides, I had already taken an escalator upon leaving the Great American Beer Festival, so I'd already sort of blown Motor Free Month. I tried to take the stairs, but the security guards were only allowing us to leave via the escalators. I hesitated. I almost stopped and explained to the security guard that I wasn't supposed to use motorized transport. I thought also about going crazy, maybe hitting the emergency stop button on the escalator and walking down the steps. Or running down the steps more likely, as the security guards would surely be giving chase if I pulled that stunt. But really, what was the point? What am I, Amish? Amazonian? Unfrozen? The escalator in particular; that thing runs weather or not I'm on it. Sure it works harder if I'm on it, but actually it might work less hard if I'm going downhill on it, which I was.

The first sin comes after deliberation and agony. The second after a slight pang of guilt and the search for justifications. To be imperfect is to be human. So into the maw of the elevator I stepped. The doors closed and the digital numbers counted higher as I was carried in my magical floating box, and I felt something. Appreciation. Thank goodness someone had the foresight to put one of these elevators in my hotel! And whatever did we do before elevators? This was a glorious thought, really. I'd never taken the time to appreciate the elevator before. What a marvelous creation.

But still, what a compromise. The city does that to you, forces you to choose. Listen to me, one day in Denver and I'm already dispensing hard-fought street wisdom. The city does that to you... I started to reflect on how much more difficult it would be to live Motor Free in Denver, or any large city by extension. In Fort Collins everything I need is close by. Not just the shops and my office, but also most of the things I like to do are close by, and most of my friends live nearby as well. In fact, excepting outdoor activities, there's not much that isn't close by.

This is in contrast in Denver, where there are a lot of cool things going on that are in pretty far-flung locations, and the people you want to see may still live "in town", yet 10 or more miles away. The problem isn't necessity; assuming you don't live in the 'burbs, where you're almost required by law to have a car to go to the store, in the city most things you need are probably within a few miles of your home. The problem is that there are so many interesting things to do, and they're all over town! I've determined that on a bike, the realistic normal distance one can travel is about 4 miles before the advantage of the car becomes dramatically pronounced and impossible to discount. But where I live in the Fort, 4 miles takes me pretty much to the far reaches of town. There's not much else to see:

4-mile radius from my neighborhood in Fort Collins. Note relative lack of city outside radius.

Luckily for my sanity, there's enough to entertain me within my 4 mile radius. But I do wonder if I'm satisfied partly because I really don't have any choice. You know, bounded by a nutshell. Put me in the middle of Denver though, and although there is likely more interesting things I can do within the same 4 mile radius, there are also certainly many many more interesting things to to in a 8 or 10-mile radius as well:

4-mile radius from representative central location in Denver. Actually I think it's centered on an old abandoned envelope factory. Hot neighborhood, I assure you.

And because those things and those people are out there, and they are easily within our motorized grasp, we feel deprived if we can't have them! It's easier not to be tempted by far-flung frivolity.

Going to the mountains is another point of discussion, and it also gives my small town a more pronounced but less critical Motor Free advantage. In Fort Collins I can be in the foothills rather quickly on my bike, but the options are limited unless I drive somewhere. In Denver I pretty much have to drive if I want to get away from the city. So if you can obtain maximum satisfaction from a limited set of outdoor options, then the Fort can be satisfyingly motor free. Denver really doesn't stand a chance there; you pretty much forgo the option of getting to the mountains at all.

And lest we forget the impact of narrow streets and increased traffic in Denver. In my (very) limited experience, I find that riding in Denver is far less enjoyable than it is in Fort Collins. That's no knock on the fine citizens of Denver. The streets are more narrow and crowded. There are far more stoplights, at least downtown. Maybe if I lived there longer I would find the bike-friendly routes through Denver, the Stover and Stuart equivalents. But I suspect even those would be less amenable to cycling than the streets upon which I like to ride in the Fort.

Bonus song of the day: Snow Patrol, Take Back The City

But for all these disadvantages, the irony is that it is probably easier for someone to live Car Free in Denver than it is to live Car Free in Fort Collins. The simple reason; public transport. Denver has an extensive bus system and a recently-expanded light rail system. Fort Collins, bless it's little heart, tries hard but can't seem to get any widespread acceptance or usage on its bus system, and has no form of public rail system, unless one counts the novelty trolley that runs from City Park to Old Town in the summer. Ironically, since Fort Collins seems so well suited for bike transport, it probably ends up repressing public motorized transport usage. And since we're in the business of compromising our ideals in the city, I happily concede that taking the bus and light rail train is in the spirit of Motor Free living. Like a cousin to Motor Free Living. An older cousin that buys you beer.

The realization I came to, then, is that environment plays a critical role in determining one's ability and aptitude to becoming Motor Free. Fort Collins is well suited to living a Motor Free lifestyle. Denver, less so. But on the other hand Denver is more suited to living a Car Free lifestyle. Doesn't make one city better then the other, just different.

And of course one is far more likely to find themselves needing to take an elevator or an escalator in the city. Cities are built up in order to achieve higher density living and working conditions. This is on the whole a good thing. But it generally necessitates the use of these motorized-people-moving-contraptions. We really do take it for granted, stepping on an escalator or an elevator. To be truly Motor Free and live in the city, and avoid taking the light rail and refuse to use elevators and escalators, seems near impossible. At least that's what I kept telling myself all weekend.

So I ended up making 3 round-trips in that elevator, and took three trips down that escalator by the end of my trip. But other than that I was a good boy, I promise! The Beer Festival was a hoot and a hollar. I poured a lot of beer for thirsty patrons, and had a few samples myself. "Norm" from the TV show Cheers (George Wendt) was there, he gave the, uh, keynote speech at the awards ceremony. Buckbean Brewing Company sadly did not win any award this year but people were particularly impressed with Buckbean's pilsner offering. Oh well. And Denver Mayor Hickenlooper was also in attendance, I presume he still owns the Wyncoop Brew Pub? It was fun but by the end of three sessions I was burned out with the whole beer fest thing. So I left the convention center and went to, well, another beer festival -- the Larimer Street Oktoberfest. They had a polka band and a 80s cover band, and Pauliner on tap. Good times. I went to bed late, and got up early the next day in order to begin my journey home and complete this epic adventure.

Continued tomorrow!

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