Simple Living Tip #1: Reconsider Your Commute (Be a Citydweller)

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The view from my usual seat

I’ve been thinking about the things J and I have done to simplify our lives over the last couple of years, since we started this whole Project Minify in the summer of 2010. We’ve learned as much about what not to do as what to do! In the interest of shaking things up, I’m taking a break from habit change and writing a series of tips (or lessons learned) about simple living.

One of the first things we did, even before starting the blog, was reconsider our commute. We knew in moving from Asheville to Chapel Hill that we wanted to change our driving ways. We were each commuting at least 90 minutes round trip from our cabin in the mountains into town for work each day.

When we moved to the cabin the first month we were married, we thought we would love living in the mountains, in 400 adorable square feet, among the trees and the wildlife. And wildlife we had – we heard owls and coyotes and saw all sorts of critters. I got to see an owl up really close when I hit it with my car. And that sums up what I felt about living in the mountains – I felt really bad about my destructive impact on the mountains I loved. (The owl glanced off the windshield one night as I was driving home. He lived, but he was really pissed off). I wanted to quit driving then and there (especially when I found out that the rural community in which I hit the owl was called Owl Town – I assaulted their mascot with my vehicle!). But what could I do? We drove everywhere. There was no walking, no biking, because we lived on a beautiful winding road where the speed limit was 55 miles an hour. Cars and transfer trucks regularly went 75 down our stretch (that’s 120 kph for you metric folks!) We had to stand behind the mailbox – as far as we could get from the street – and reach around the front of the box in order to safely check the mail. We were always in our cars. It was a 40 minute round trip to get groceries, an hour and a half to work, a minimum of an hour to grab a drink with a friend. We spent $600 to $800 a month on gas. So that affordable little cabin in the mountains, the super cute one with the really low rent? That’s a simple living don’t. Pastoral does not equate simple – we learned that quickly, and reinvented ourselves as urban creatures. Both sick of the auto-dependent lifestyle, when we moved, our first priority was a home accessible to local transit. Fortunately, Chapel Hill has an awesome free bus system, which runs all over town, six days a week (Sundays are our only auto-dependent day during our current ordinary week).

We live a little over a mile and a half from town/campus, which means we can walk or bike, but mostly, we bus it. It’s been one of the best changes we’ve made to our everyday lives. I love the free buses. I particularly love my regular bus driver. Here’s why: One semester my bus broke down on the way to campus. This doesn’t ordinarily happen. I was anxious about being late for class, as I didn’t have quite enough time to disembark and walk it with hopes of being in my seat before class started. My driver got on the radio and asked them to send another bus to get his passengers. When he heard that it was going to take a while, he got on the radio again. “You need to get another bus here now!” he told the dispatcher. “I’ve got to get these children to their school on time!”

We “children,” mostly med school and dentistry and allied health students in our twenties and thirties, rejoiced to have him looking out for us. He did indeed get us to our class on time.

The bus is full of fellow students, faculty, local residents taking the bus to shops to run errands, school children riding to after school programs at the planetarium, little ones catching the bus to daycare with their parents in the morning. We passengers include the local homeless population, the graduate student population, the business class in their suits with their smartphones. It’s a chance to read or listen to music or just relax on the way to or from work and school. My favorite part of the local bus culture is the tradition of thanking the driver as you disembark. Almost everyone does it – my favorite driver asks me how I’m doing every morning when I get on the bus, and wishes me a good day as I disembark, and I always thank him for the ride. It is, on the whole, a dramatic improvement over driving in my Honda (which I still have, by the way. It’s possible to make radical changes in your commute and keep your car, if you’re like me and reluctant to give it up). If you want to live more simply, this is the best advice I can give: think about how to change your morning commute. I know not everyone can do it, but for those who can, it’s well worth moving house to break free of the old automotive. Bus it, bike it, catch the train…you’ll be glad you did!

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