Kea Wilson: The Making of an Advocate

Before I could walk, it was impressed on me by everyone and everything I knew that the street was not a place that was meant for me if I didn't grow up to drive a car. Here's the moment that changed my mind.

Via Creative Commons
Via Creative Commons
Streetsblog's Kea Wilson
Streetsblog’s Kea Wilson

I have no idea how old I was when I realized that the street beyond the sidewalk was a place where I could easily die.

I do know this: it happened before I was old enough to walk, or talk, or even conceptualize what a street was. As a 6-year-old, I learned to ride a bike in a church parking lot, armored not just in a helmet, but in full-on ’90s-style elbow and knee pads. I held an adult’s hand every single time I crossed a grocery store parking lot, was loaded into the backseat a minivan every time I traveled more than a couple of blocks.

How old were you when you first learned that the street didn’t have to be a dangerous place for anyone outside of a metal-enclosed vehicle?

Maybe your childhood was a little like mine: happy, padded in safety gear, carted about in climate-controlled cages. Or maybe it was more like my adolescence, when my family moved deeper and deeper into rural Ohio, landing finally in a condo on a freeway on-ramp. Car ownership is pretty much mandatory in the part of the country I called home, unless you live on one of the dozens of Amish settlements in Geauga County and churn your own butter instead of driving to the Giant Eagle to buy it. Without a car, my summer job choice was either working the McDonald’s drive-thru (a five-lane dash across a state road with a 55 mph speed limit) or working the register at the Kmart that backed up to my dad’s apartment complex (a muddy clamber up a dirt embankment, and anyway, the Kmart wasn’t hiring.)

Later, in high school, I found myself in a place where I could finally go for a walk.

How old were you when you realized that not driving is awesome?

As a teenager, I got in my head that I wanted, more than anything in the world, to be a writer, and the most efficient route, I told myself, was to head to an arts-focused boarding school four hundred miles away from home. (It wasn’t.) The one I chose was in a part of Northern Michigan that gets an average of 120 inches of snow every year. I lived in a dorm on the school’s campus within snowshoeing distance of the building where I ate 95 percent of my meals, and another where 95 percent of my friends lived. Students were not allowed to bring cars to school.

I had never been happier.

This was years before I learned how our country’s dependence on the private automobile torpedoes our health outcomes compared to our European counterparts. This was just about biking in the snowy woods around that Michigan campus and how strong it made me feel.

I’ve noticed something in my 15-odd years as a bike, pedestrian and transit evangelist, especially when I talk to other advocates like me: nearly every one of us had a moment when we realized that our lives could be happier if we drove a lot less. We are reluctant to talk about pleasure in the advocacy world, and I understand why; we have lives to save, and justice to demand, and climates to bring back from the brink of collapse. But we do both ourselves and our cause a disservice when we forget that for many of us, those ethics came later — that our passion started, at least at first, with simple joy.

I didn’t connect my joy to economic development, or urban renewal, or all the convoluted ways our government has justified running highways through nearly every major American city’s downtown over the last 70 years. But when I took the bus from campus into walkable downtown Traverse City, the ride I took to get there along desolate, strip mall-studded roads suddenly looked different to me.

I certainly had no idea that in 15 years, I’d be living in my adopted home of St. Louis when Michael Brown was stopped by a cop for an act of criminalized walking, and it would lead me to re-examine everything about my life, and ultimately, decide to commit to helping (in my own small way) to reshape cities and how we treat the people who move through them.

All that would come later.

When was the moment you realized that making our streets better for people outside of cars could help achieve nearly everything you care about?

If that hasn’t happened to you yet, it will — and it will hit you like a lightning bolt.

I’m honored to be joining Streetsblog, which has been delivering me those lightning-strikes for over a decade, when I first discovered this space just as I was starting to call myself an urbanist. I’m humbled to have the opportunity to hurl a few lightning bolts back, even if you don’t yet think not-driving is awesome, or you can’t imagine that the street outside your home could ever be less dangerous, or you simply think the American experiment in autocentrism is too far gone to ever turn back the clock.

But no matter who you are, tell me this: when was the moment you knew you could be a part of changing the way we move through our world? If your answer is “not yet,” it will.

Kea Wilson started last week as senior editor at StreetblogUSA after working at Strong Towns. She is also a novelist, neighborhood advocate and manages small-scale affordable rentals in transit-rich neighborhoods. She can be reached via email or by DM’ing her on Twitter.

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