The Wandering Scientist

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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Carless in the Midwest

For two weeks, I am living out of a hotel in Urbana, IL, visiting lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Since the hotel is only a ten-minute walk from the lab, and car rentals are kind of outrageously priced, I don’t have a car. I am carless and foot-bound.

To be sure, there is actually public transit here, and the bus traffic seems to be pretty busy. But for some reason, I’ve never felt comfortable with buses the way I am comfortable with subways. (I can see where the trains go. There is only one tunnel. But when a bus leaves that stop, it’s free to roam the whole infinite grid of a city.) In any case, after arriving here I decided to embrace the fact that I will have to walk everywhere. I have good feet and good shoes, and walking is what our ancestors did, right?

Fortunately, Champaign-Urbana seems to be a fairly compact city. Downtown is within a thirty-minute walk, and Green Street (the obligatory collection of cheap booze and food within a close proximity of a college campus) is less than twenty minutes. The weather is tolerable – the afternoons are on the warmer side of things, but that’s just an excuse to get the second beer when I get to wherever I was going. The nights are outright pleasant.

Having a car always at my disposal had grown into such an attachment that at first I felt rather unsure about how this was going to work out. The possibility of walking for thirty minutes instead of driving for five was a bit uncomfortable, especially in an unfamiliar city.

However, two things. First – smart phones and Google maps make it almost impossible to be lost. I can easily estimate the route and time before I leave, and I can always reassure myself of my location and direction when I am out. Second – there is something incredibly liberating about getting to my destination and being able to simply walk in and enjoy the spot. I don’t have to scour the place for parking or worry about getting tickets or towed. Living in DC may have traumatized me in this respect.

Not to mention that experiencing the city – any city – on foot is radically different from experiencing it from a car. Doubly so if you are the one driving. As a driver, you live in a tunnel until you park the car. As a pedestrian, you are completely free to examine every oddity, enjoy every bench, and pull into any bar just because it has a cool sign. I’ve come across street art, beautiful scenes of classic urban abandon, and the spot where wild flowers are growing furiously around a railroad bridge. In a car, these things wouldn’t even exist for me.

And there is the breathing.

I feel like I can inhale these streets. The hot gravel, the dusty grass, the peeling paint, the half-century-old cars, the lived-in neighborhoods. I feel like I can take a bit of Urbana back home with me, in my lungs, in my every fiber.