I used to have a 100% human-powered commute. It was a point of pride to say I had made it 365 days without driving to work or even riding the bus: I ran the seven-mile round trip to and from my downtown office for a year straight.
At the end of the day, I would finish up my workout at the elementary school where I picked up my kids. I would casually mention my unbroken record amongst fellow parents as we stood on the playground watching our children play. When it rained, I entered the after-school program looking like a drowned rat, boogers and water dripping from my nose. I flaunted the obvious unpleasantness of my commuting experience like an in-your-face victory lap for all of the other families to see.
I was dedicated to my lifestyle and proud of it. Maybe a little conceited. Then, in 2010, I suddenly and painfully fell ill.
The doctors diagnosed me with a serious illness, something that could affect me my entire life. I immediately underwent a difficult surgery. Multiple surgeries and procedures followed. I started periodic treatments that continue to this day. Needless to say, my life changed dramatically. But once my stitches healed, I was able to return to work.
Today, no one can tell that I am “sick.” I look the same, even better than before the illness. My medical condition doesn’t preclude me from running to work like I had been doing for the last 13 years. In fact, I still run, just not to work. I bike. And occasionally, when I’m feeling particularly uninspired, I ride the bus.
It’s not that I can’t run to work. I could load my work clothes into my backpack the night before, get up at 5:30 AM and change into my lycra and tennis shoes in the dark, tiptoeing out as my family sleeps. I could don my wool hat and gloves and set out into that silent, private place that darkness creates. Solitary, fresh, exuberant: I could still do it. I could still enjoy it. But I chose to move away from that once-idealized transportation option. I regressed.
At first, I wasn’t completely happy with the change. Guilt lingered. My pride suffered. My identity as a tough cookie sagged as if I were wallowing in spilt milk.
Doing something for the sake of saying that you did it was not enough for me anymore.
Then, one day, I was sitting on the bus as it carried me towards home, watching listlessly as traffic moved around us. I noticed a semi truck out the front window. The driver was awaiting the best moment to make a difficult move. As I watched, that moment came. He quickly executed an elaborate reverse turn into a tight loading dock that let out onto the busy street where we all waited. He decisively took the opening in the traffic and backed in fast and smooth, maneuvering his enormous cargo into the tricky slot with the ease of someone who knows exactly what he needs. I was impressed with the speed and confidence he exhibited. His bold reverse earned my respect.
As the bus started up again, I thought about my own reversal, going from avid running commuter to slow cyclist and sometimes transit rider. Heck, I even drove to work a few times when appointments dictated it. When I decided to give up my running commutes, I somehow knew it was the right decision. Although I couldn’t put a finger on why, I simply knew what I needed.
This realization diminished the importance of my less-than-perfect commuting score, of no longer out-suffering my friends and neighbors in the name of sustainability and independence. Living under the weight of something as serious as not living made me realize that bragging rights are solely for braggarts. Doing something for the sake of saying that you did it was not enough for me anymore.
When it comes to my commute, I am doing what feels good for me. And the truth is that most people do what feels good to them. We low-car eco-warriors have to be OK with that. Sometimes sitting in a dry, warm car feels pretty good. If we want commuting habits to change, we have to offer choices that feel better.
—Read Cathy’s earlier columns here.