When I moved to Detroit earlier this year with nothing more than a few suitcases of clothes and an assortment of mismatched furniture, kitchen supplies, and favorite books, there was much uncertainty; at the time I was working a part-time job (getting barely enough hours to make rent), looking for full-time work, and volunteering with a different organization every week to network. Perhaps the one thing that was very clear, however, was that I would certainly be without a car.
I’ve already shared my views about Detroit’s bus system; while I’ve recently-dare I say, upgraded?-to my lovely, five-speed road bike with red handlebars, starting off car-free in Detroit would have been extremely difficult without Detroit’s Department of Transportation. Maybe it’s because the memories of waiting for 20 plus minutes in minus 10 degree weather has long faded but I do think the buses fill a definite need in the city. That said, there is also a need for more buses on some of the heavier utilized routes, like the Woodward (and one piece of advice if you were ever to ride buses here: Detroiters refer to buses by street name rather than number…it took me a long time to pick up on this, as I am much better with numbers and constantly referred to my bus of choice as the “53” rather than the “Woodward”). Like a fellow rider once joked: “You got a can opener?” as we boarded a packed bus one afternoon, riders are indeed crammed like sardines at rush hour; it’s during those crammed 4:00pm rides down Woodward, as the bus driver darts in and out of traffic, is the need for a light rail down this main drag most evident.
But those days are now behind me. I’m happy to report that I’ve been bus-free for well over two weeks now and couldn’t be happier. Sure, I have my criticisms about sub-par road conditions and unaware drivers, but in general I’ve enjoyed beginning to explore Detroit by bike. I also can’t help but think that there is so much potential for Detroit to become a biker-friendly city. As a colleague recently pointed out, if there’s one upside to the loss of population here, it’s the amount of under-utilized roads that can serve as unintentional bike lanes.
Now that I’ve acquired a bike and a job, it’s time for the next challenge: figuring out a way to lure Zipcar into the city.
When I tell people I want to try living car-free, they are skeptical. And then when I tell them I’m going to try it in Detroit, they all but say it’s impossible. Sure, Detroit has its challenges (and public transportation is certainly one of them) but what city doesn’t? To be fair, I have relatively easy access to a friend’s vehicle when my timely arrival is crucial (i.e.: job interviews) but for the most part I’m holding myself to bus-only travel in the Motor City.
This week I was tired of scrambling for quarters at the bottom of my purse, so I walked over to the new Rosa Parks Transit Center and purchased a weekly pass for $14.40. Considering I already used it three times today, I think it will prove to be a good investment (as a regular bus fare would run me $1.50). This new transit center is great; there are 13 docks with electronic signs listing the upcoming bus departures and times, as well as the current time and any important travel advisories. This is also the downtown drop-off point for the Megabus and SMART buses, which are shuttles that run to and from the suburbs. In addition to the arrival and departure docks, the Rosa Parks Transit Center also consists of an indoor complex with a ticket window, bus schedule brochures, and a waiting area.
The majority of my bus rides thus far have gone by without a hitch. Well, there was that one time last week when the 53 heading north on Woodward stopped abruptly about three blocks from my destination. After five minutes or so, passengers (me included) began to stir impatiently. After a lethargic game of telephone ended where I was sitting in the rear, everyone already knew that the bus had broken down. Unconvinced by the driver’s reassurance that the mechanic “would be here in a minute,” I disembarked and walked the rest of the way to work. I’d say I got $1.25 out of my $1.50 bus fare that day.
Then there was the time a few months ago when I needed to get back downtown from Café con Leche in Southwest Detroit. Detroit’s Department of Transportation website gave me a bus route and pick-up location at a nearby intersection, which I thought would be easy enough to figure out. When I got to the cross streets as directed, however, I realized that the bus signs were not marked with route numbers; I had a total of eight signs to chose from! As I narrowed it down to two possible stops (after using my questionable sense of direction and gauging the cardinal points by the positioning of the sun in a dreary, overcast November sky) I realized that Detroit’s public transportation system had some work to do. Then, to top it off, my bus pulls up, unmarked. Yep, there was no indication that the bus at the curb was in fact the eastbound 27, until such information was confirmed by the bus driver.
Like I said, there is work to be done.
There was a lot about my daily life in Thailand that left me healthier and more balanced than when I arrived. Teaching and living in Thailand for a year afforded me the opportunity to unplug from the chaotic life I knew in the States, most recently as a graduate student, and really build a life I always wanted. I began practicing yoga on a regular basis, I ate mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, and I read lots of books. Changes, physical and other, were slow and went largely unnoticed by myself; it wasn’t until I shared company with loved ones again in the States (or when I was lucky enough to have visitors) did these changes really become apparent. I had shed the extra weight that crept on during graduate school as a result of papers, projects, and an absurdly constructed schedule that was always bursting at the seams. My hair and nails were stronger. I spoke slower. And I began to regard elders with more respect. Now I view interactions with my grandmother in an entirely new light.
Two notable, personal discoveries also occurred during my year abroad. Though they are independent of Thailand, they are very much in harmony with the Thai life I was living: 1) Through a New York Times article on consumerism I discovered Tammy Strobel and the minimal living mindset, and 2) I read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Both minimalism and the consumption of real food are things Thailand does quite well and I was excited to be a part of it. I arrived with two suitcases (which in retrospect was too much!) and a computer, living with essentially an armful of clothing for a year. I was also consuming fruits, vegetables, and animals that were raised in the fields and farms I passed by every day going to school. The big question I kept asking myself: could I do this after my year in Thailand was over, back in the States? Back in the Midwest?
So here my next chapter begins. I’m moving/returning to Detroit in search of community-based work. Beyond that I have no idea what’s next, and that’s both exhilarating and terrifying. Maybe I’ll get involved in the urban agriculture movement, take a class at Wayne State, or tutor English language learners. I will continue my yoga practice and keep working on my holiday knitting projects, in between the job search, of course. I think I’ll also explore minimalist life in a post-industrial city. What does that look like, and is it compatible with what Detroit has to offer?
Thanks for joining. I’m looking forward to this project and am happy you’re here for it!