Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Car-Free: Day 4

It’s my fourth day of living car-free. I will begin by stating the obvious: there is a reason they call it Chapel Hill. But I am finding that biking the hills in reality is not as difficult as I make it out to be in my mind when feeling lazy. I am rather enjoying life by bike. It’s slower-paced, but I’m more active. I am forced to think about where I go rather than making impulsive expeditions. I am feeling fitter already and acclimated to the heat.

It helps to look at this month as an athletic challenge as well as a lifestyle change. (My goal is by the end of the month to make it up the big hill on Airport Drive without having to get out of the saddle). I also am finding that my fear of traffic is lessening somewhat, as I get more comfortable being out on the roads. Still, I think Chapel Hill has a long way to go to be the bike-friendly community that local politicians like to talk about.

I think that more people would be tempted to commute by bike in Chapel Hill if safe bike lanes existed on commuter routes. The empty bike racks behind UNC Hospitals are a sad commentary on the lack of safe local bike routes. At a hospital that employees thousands, I usually see two other bikes in the racks during the day.

I commute four miles to UNC Hospitals from North Forest Hills, riding south on MLK Jr. Blvd (aka Airport Drive) and then cutting across campus. MLK Jr. Blvd. has rather dangerous inconsistencies in its bike lanes, transitioning abruptly from a marked bike lane before Estes Drive to a “Share the Road” sign that is hidden behind tree branches until you’re right up on it. Stormwater grates on that section of the road make it particularly dicey, especially when trucks pass at high speeds with little room to spare. Yet there is room along most of the road for sidewalks to be widened to accommodate bike lanes. Town council, do you hear me?

Full disclosure: my husband and I drove to Sewanee, Tennessee this weekend for his high school reunion. It was about 1,000 miles of driving round trip. I began to wonder during the hours sitting in the car about the contradictions inherent in trying to live with a reduced carbon footprint. On one hand, I challenge myself to live without driving for 30 days, but then I take a trip that burns more fuel in a weekend than I would in 30 days of typical driving. So am I a hypocrite? I don’t think so. The many of us trying to live more sustainably are not trying to return to a time in which people lacked material goods, technology, and transportation. We are trying to live thoughtfully, usefully, and with appreciation of what we have, rather than mindlessly, impulsively, and wastefully.

To me, one of the most important parts of living more sustainably is thoughtfulness about how I use resources and for what I use them. This involves daily choices about values—do I need this new shirt or I am experiencing fashion lust? Do I really need five more minutes under the hot water in the shower during a drought? Do we need to travel to my husband’s reunion? The answer in the latter case was yes. It was important to him to reconnect with his classmates and the place where he spent some of his most formative years. Still, it’s disconcerting to do the calculations—660 pounds of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere in just one trip. Living a modern American lifestyle is hard on the environment--and my conscience.