A few days ago I boarded the No. 4 Metro Transit bus and headed south to visit a grieving family. As the bus trundled along Lyndale Avenue, it paused to let on an elderly passenger. The passenger boarded gingerly and remarked while paying, “It’s one of those blue-cold days where you say thanks when the bus door opens.”
A mile or so later, the elderly passenger pulled the stop cord, and the bus acknowledged it by announcing “stop requested.” The passenger shuffled to the door and slowly exited. All seemed well until the passenger yelled, “I’m down, I fell. Please help me.”
Over the past few weeks, new mayors, City Council and Park Board members, county commissioners and other local elected officials were sworn in. As they begin planning and implementing their vision for this region, I want to ask: What kind of a community can we create together?
If I were to seek a vision for the community some residents want, judging from numerous commentaries published on these pages as well as from reactions to those commentaries, I would say the only thing they want for sure is to maintain the primacy of their automobiles (and the parking to accommodate them). They for sure do not want protected bike lanes, investments in mass transit, high-density housing, and safe and walkable sidewalks.
But we cannot create flourishing communities by propping up a car-centric world.
Relying solely only on automobiles for our transportation needs limits our ability to see faces, empathize and make connections with one another. Driving requires tunnel vision to make snap decisions while navigating, and any speed over 15 miles per hour hampers our recognition abilities.
This lack of contact and recognition causes us to be more suspicious of one another. Walking, biking and sharing space on public transit, by contrast, cause us to be more trusting, more hopeful and more empathetic with one another, because we see each other face-to-face; we see the scars and wounds we carry on our bodies; we hear the joy and distress in our voices; and we see our humanity reflected in one another. One cannot experience this while driving in a sealed, climate-controlled aluminum box.
As the passenger pleaded for assistance the other day, the bus driver looked at me and asked if I would be willing to help. I was. As we positioned ourselves on the sidewalk, the passenger asked us to be gentle, mindful of artificial knees. The driver and I wedged our feet underneath the rider’s, gripped a hand and an elbow, then lifted with all our might.
After becoming vertical, the passenger embraced me in a bear hug and said, “Do not let go till I get settled.” I held on tight. Once sure footing and equilibrium were established, the passenger thanked us for our help and walked toward home.
If I had been driving my car (a Dodge van; I’m not anti-auto), I would have not seen this incident. But if I had been walking by, or riding in the bike lane, I would have (just as I did aboard public transit).
We all like to think we are autonomous, able to take care of ourselves, thank you very much. We can temporarily place ourselves in transporting protected pods going to and fro. But this is an illusion. We are all connected and in need of one another.
I return to my question: What kind of community can we create together? I hope elected officials and concerned citizens will join me in helping to create a community where, if I fall down on the ice (or your grandmother falls down), someone will see, and help. Or if I’m in pain, someone will at least acknowledge me rather than driving by, oblivious.
And what better way to help create that kind of community than walking, biking and taking public transit? When you walk, you employ your two doctors, your right and left legs. When you bike, you’ll find all the free parking you can imagine. When you ride public transit, you don’t have to warm up your car or scrap the ice off the windshield.
But, more important, you will engage with others, make connections and build the ties that bind a community together.
The Rev. G. Travis Norvell is pastor at Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis.