How amazing is offline Google Maps? If I was famous enough to be chosen as a spokesperson for a product it would be that. I thought this as I dragged my small, but reasonably cumbersome, suitcase along the sidewalk in Austin, Texas, my shirt starting to stick to the sweat developing on my chest and belly hair. I was walking from a hostel near UT (University of Texas) to the outskirts of the Austin city centre where I had booked a motel room at four that morning.
(Five years ago I vowed never to sleep in a hostel dorm room again, but in a moment of budget panic, I booked myself into a hostel dorm room. Cut to: me, eyes frantically scanning Booking dot com on my phone, as the young man below me thrashes around in his sleep and two other young men return to the room just before dawn. I’m uncomfortable: my face is inches from the ceiling, my feet are cut off by the bunk bed barrier. I’m too old for this.)
So I followed the blue line on my Google Maps app (*smiles, holds phone up to camera, prepares invoice*) that directed me to the motel and a last minute discount on a room with two queen-sized beds in it. I’m all for traveling on a budget, but lines have to be drawn somewhere, and a blue line from relative squalor to relative luxury is where I find myself these days. I also found myself to be the only person walking on the sidewalk, except the occasional vagrant. Cars whooshed by me on the asphalt already hazy in the hot, humid Texan summer.
I got to the motel and the receptionist, a man who seemed at once surprised and agitated that I was there asking him about a room, told me I couldn’t check into the room until after 2pm. I left my bags with him and headed back outside, and found that even in my sleep-deprived state I had the energy to feel excited about exploring a new city. The knowledge I could mooch on two queen-sized beds later kept me perky. So I walked along the sidewalks of Austin, over freeway overpasses, past the odd person waiting at a derelict-looking bus stop, across almost empty roads when the sidewalk just disappeared, and finally around the back of the impressive Texas Capitol building and onto Austin’s main drag, Congress Avenue. Being in Texas, USA, I wasn’t surprised by the lack of pedestrians – it’s a well-documented phenomenon outside of New York City that the country runs on a well-doused rag. What struck me, however, was that because of this the city blocks contained an odd and unfamiliar array of shops. Refusing to pay the exaggerated price for a bottle of water at Starbucks I ventured further into the city centre where I imagined I’d stumble on a convenience store or bodega or even a big name supermarket. But there weren’t any. I’m used to a twenty minute walk from my front door in the inner suburbs of Sydney to work in the CBD. On this walk I pass a ridiculous amount of shops, so if I’m feeling thirsty I never get parched. I realised this was the paradigm I was bringing to Austin, but it was discombobulating nonetheless. So I stood in the shade outside a Starbucks – of which there were a few – using the free wifi (thanks!) and typed ‘supermarket’ in the Google Maps search bar. One place within walking distance – but still 1.5km from the main street of the city – came up, a Whole Foods. Not just any Whole Foods, I was soon to find out, but the flagship store. But between me and it, there was nothing. It would be a 5km roundtrip from my motel and still the closest thing like it. Of course there were scattered restaurants and cafes, but all I wanted was water and other comestibles with which to fill my motel fridge. It dawned on me how my psycho-geography was completely out of step with everyone else’s in the town and complaining would be a moot point. Where’d ya put yer car, pardner?
Outside the inner suburbs and CBDs of Australian cities, it’s much the same. Our cities are heavily car-reliant, covering vast distances with even fewer people living in that space than even some American cities. Australia followed the US’s lead being in a similar position post-WWII: a boom in wealth and mostly planned Victorian-era grids to play with. Extensive tramlines in Sydney and Adelaide were ripped out to make way for mass motorisation. Compared with Europe and East Asia, our public transport systems aren’t very cohesive (and I’d argue that Melbourne’s trams are loved more for their idiosyncratic addition to the city than for their speed and coverage – several times I’ve jumped off and walked knowing it would be quicker/less painful to wait in traffic with the cars). Having said that, however, Australians haven’t placed such a stigma on public transport as Americans have. This stigma has been fed by a longer period of time with available low-cost vehicles (who can’t afford a car?) and the low-cost of fuel, the tax on which gets funnelled back into roads. In Europe and Australia a sustained government support of public transport means there’s a standardisation of efficiency and orderliness that’s hit and miss in the privatised world of the States. Even when these companies have caught up (in Austin and Los Angeles I saw new buses with ticket touch sensors and bike rack features), the locals will still fret about your choice to use them, let alone walking. Furthermore, US traffic laws don’t protect pedestrians and cyclists, which increases the general distrust of the world outside of ones motorcar.
Even in compacter European cities car culture permeates, but there have been pushes against its dominance. Most recently, Oslo has promised its residents a car-less downtown in the future, following the lead of the French city, Lyon, which pedestrianised most of its city centre under the fervent vision of municipal councillor, Gilles Vesco. Helsinki was a frontrunner in integrating its public transport with smart phone technology, reducing anxiety over waiting for buses that never come and increasing Finnish trust of the system. And even UK punchline, Birmingham, is trying to untie the knotty mess of roads it acquired when it became Britain’s car-manufacturing hub and ergo champion of motorised transport. It’s not just a hippy-dippy carbon-neutral dream, either: a heavily pedestrianised urban centre creates more and longer-lasting business trade. Outside of Europe, mega-cities like Mexico City and Mumbai have started to play with road-closure-as-civic-rejuvination ideas that Bogota spearheaded with its Ciclovía – handing over highways to cyclists and pedestrians for the day.
A huge part of travelling for me is being able to walk around a city to get a feel for it – something that “taking an Uber” doesn’t quite replicate. For a start, I don’t want to pay that much to be driven around a city without a destination, and the whole point of walking aimlessly is that you discover things that might not be on the tourist map. I thought this as I dripped along the road, feeling like a pariah, to Barton Springs — a ‘must-see’ natural swimming pool just outside downtown Austin. It’s situated inside a big park, where I saw people jogging and walking, but only after driving there. I must add here that I enjoyed Austin despite my bitching. It has migratory bats that shoot out from under a bridge at sunset! I also had the space and time to write in my air-conditioned motel room. It just became apparent that I couldn’t enjoy it the way I could’ve with a car, or even with a friend, as so many eating places were destinations (like the park), rather than holes-in-the-wall that you stumble upon and anonymously dine in. Whole Foods was the saviour of my neuroses, even though I had to plan that trip carefully, too.
After Austin I caught a Mega Bus to San Antonio (losing count of how many drive-thru fast food joints we passed) where I met up with a blog-buddy, Andrew, for the first time. He had planned my very short stay very well, driving me to places to try Tex-Mex cuisine and dropping me off at tourist places to get a feel for his hometown. I highly recommend the Institute of Texan Cultures – a very well-informed museum of immigration and indigenous peoples – where I was greeted like a visiting dignitary and spent the first half an hour there alone (this was, I was assured, an anomaly). San Antonio has its own strategy to pedestrianise its centre: the River Walk, which sits just below street-level. It takes you around the city’s main attractions away from traffic and with the option of canal boats. It’s rather lovely, even though a lot of people I spoke to bemoaned its uber-gentrified aesthetic. The city also boasts a share-cycle system, which I used on my second-and-last day to see the missions along the San Antonio River. It was great to use, but I noticed I had the bike paths to myself for most of it. I’m not sure if it was the weather (it was quite hot) or whether the idea is yet to take on, but it was reassuring to see these anti-car gestures after my frustrations in Austin.
Next was Houston, where more blog-buddies, Gio and Daniela, showed me their city. Luckily for me it was the weekend and I had all their attention. This meant that I got to experience Houston like a local – in a car. It also meant that Houston became my favourite experience in Texas: my hosts took me to places they would’ve visited anyway, but there was no insistence to do anything in particular. So it was a nice surprise to see the Menil Collection and James Turrell’s ‘Twilight Epiphany’, and be taken around the Third Ward, and grandiose suburbs, and Mexican supermarkets. I loved the luxury of being driven around, but I couldn’t imagine how any of it would have been possible without a car. And that’s the point: the greatest cities in the world work for both the local and the visitor. You want to be able to get out a map and feel like the city is within your control, and what better control do we have of how we get around than going for a walk?