Thursday, June 14, 2007

Freedom? I don't think so.

When I stepped onto my front porch this morning, I thought I was in Costa Rica.

At 7 AM on most June mornings in Greensboro, North Carolina, it is already unsettlingly warm, a harbinger of the choking, sweltering afternoon to come.

But this morning, the air was different. Cool, gray, moist. So humid it wasn’t even mist, really, so much as tiny droplets of rain suspended in midair.

I breathed in the sickeningly sweet perfume of our privet’s tiny white blossoms, not unlike the cloying scent of the pink guavas that flavor Costa Rican air. I breathed, again, closing my eyes until the waves of nostalgia slackened enough for me to climb upon my bike and pedal down the sidewalk.

As I crested the hill on Spring Garden Street, I was astonished to see the buildings of downtown completely obscured by an impenetrable curtain of gray. No number racing today. I usually like to use the clock atop the JP Morgan tower to time myself as I creep up the final ascent toward downtown, but this morning I couldn’t even tell the tower existed. I’d just have to pedal hard and hope for the best.

As I circled the roundabout onto McGee, I caught a whiff of sizzling sausage in the air. Instantly, the Costa Rican neblina became a familiar English fog. I thought of the little sausage rolls my brother ate at a Tesco’s deli in York, eleven years ago. I breathed in deeply and now I was riding, not through Costa Rican jungle pathways, but down English high streets, the alleys behind our village’s bakery. Longing stirred again deep in my chest.


But now was no time to dream. Elm Street, the main artery of downtown, means dodging streams of commuter cars, buses, trucks, pedestrians, and the occasional fellow biker. As I flew past a line of vehicles waiting impatiently at a light, I set my sights on a dump truck some four blocks ahead. “Prepare to meet your match, dumpy,” I whispered, and started pedaling like crazy.

The dump truck got stuck at the next light, while I whizzed past a coffee shop, a bakery, a theater, a club. I zoomed over a cross walk, circumventing another motionless lane of traffic. Now I could hear the rumble of the dump truck’s engine. Perfect – now it had gotten stuck at the Smith Street intersection. I rode as hard as I could.

As the light changed, as the dump truck shifted into gear, I shot through the intersection, surging into the lead. Grinning from ear to ear, I gloated as I screeched to a stop in the parking deck. The truck rumbled past.

As I chained up my bike and pounded downstairs to the office, my face was glowing with heat, despite that cool, unearthly mist. My heart was pounding, my leg muscles were alive and awake. As my sleepy co-workers shuffled into their cubicles, yawning and clutching cups of coffee, I tucked my bike helmet under my desk and smiled.

Waiting for my boss to arrive, I sipped my tea and read the morning paper. “Drivers go it alone on way to workplace,” proclaimed a headline on page A3. Despite gas prices over $3 a gallon, the article told me, the percentage of commuters driving to work alone has reached an all-time high of 77%.

“It’s very hard to find someone to ride with, and it’s very hard to find public transportation,” explains Alan Pisarski, author of Commuting in America. “There aren’t a lot of options for people.” Part of the problem, the article clarifies, is the housing and work patterns of most suburban commuters, and the few alternative options available in most areas.

However, other transportation experts attribute the trend to an American need for freedom and independence. “The freedom of mobility that comes with the use of a personal automobile is something we are very, very reluctant to give up as individuals,” says Geoff Sundstrom of AAA. “Commuters,” he says, “are willing to drive more fuel-efficient autos but are loath to give up the keys entirely, regardless of gas prices… many people equate carpooling and mass transit with ‘a decline in their personal standard of living.’”

I set the paper down. Freedom? What had I experienced this morning, if not freedom? I’d been to two continents. I’d daydreamed, raced, dawdled, soared. Standard of living? This morning I’d gotten a jolt of free exercise, a boost of confidence and excitement; meanwhile the drivers I whizzed were stuck at stoplights, trapped in machines that greedily guzzle their gasoline, money, and time.

It’s true that in some ways, relinquishing your car is losing the ultimate convenience: total mobility, at your whim, all the time. When I carpool out to our construction yard, it’s true that I am not free to leave the instant my work is done. I do have to wait until my co-workers are done, too, and I have to endure a longer ride home as we go by Catherine’s house and Jeremy’s apartment before mine.

But in another light, I am more free: free from dependence on foreign oil, free from the burden of caring for a car, of earning money to upkeep its needs and feed its hungry gas tank. Free from the guilt of contributing to our nation’s insatiable, war-mongering need for more, more, more. Free from the responsibility of the realization that, in order to avert the energy crisis that we are on the brink of, some things have to change. Our definition of freedom, for instance. Our definition of what it means to live well.

by Sadie Kneidel

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