It’s been a while since I’ve written a “Pre-Car-Free” post and I think it’s time to jump back into the topic. I was inspired to write about Springfield, Missouri when I stumbled upon a bike blog based in the Queen City of the Ozarks: Carbon Trace. It’s certainly not exclusively a bike blog, it’s more of an Urban Density advocacy blog. But the guy bikes, and like many bikers who are advocates of urban density, he sees biking (and walking) as a big part of improving cities. He seems very committed to changing Springfield for the better and I wish him luck.
I lived in Springfield from 1993 to 1998, basically my four years at Missouri State University (Southwest Missouri State University at the time), plus one year of working and hanging out until I headed to the great wilds of grad school in the Northeast. I’ve lived in 6 cities so far: Overland Park, Springfield, Troy, Boston, Edmonton and Providence. Springfield is by far my least favorite city. I’ve also visited many cities in my lifetime, and I have yet to see a city as ugly as Springfield (but I haven’t been to Houston yet!) Seriously, here’s a picture of the downtown skyline:
Those are MSU dorms in the foreground – I lived in one of them for a couple of years. In the back are a few office towers that might as well be dorms, they show the same level of architectural insight. I could go on about aesthetics, but let me just say: there are no beautiful buildings in Springfield. Maybe a couple of kind-of-sort-of pretty old houses, but no good architecture. Well, Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts is passable. And of course there is fine example of architecture.
Springfield is also the most car-centric city I have ever been to. The city is basically 100% sprawl. There’s a vestige of a “downtown” area, but there’s no real housing density to speak of. MSU is adjacent to downtown and has about 20,000 students. There are a few other small colleges in town – but Springfield has none of the features that make living in a Midwestern college town tolerable. There’s no equivalent to Massachusetts St. in Lawrence KS – full of independent stores, interesting restaurants, bars and live music venues. There’s simply none of that. With over 150,000 people in the city and over 400,000 in the metro area, you’d think there would be some sort of center or destination to the town. You would be wrong. Instead, there is strip mall after strip mall each with unregulated signage shouting for your attention. The main “centers” for the town seem to be Battlefield Mall and Bass Pro Shops World Headquarters.
I’ve been struggling to come up with a good way to illustrate how car-centric the culture was in Springfield. Then I remembered my daily commute. In my “in-between year”, I lived in an apartment near the university and worked at an office downtown. Here’s a map of my commute:
It was .8 miles – and I drove every single day! I never even tried walking it.
Something else to notice about this map – look at all the parking lots! (Here’s a link if you want to zoom in or pan around). Many of them are for MSU, but some of them are for various office buildings, apartment buildings, etc. It’s just assumed that you are going to use a car if you are going somewhere. In fact, the students at MSU pretty much demanded new parking garages so they could live off campus and drive in for class. The parking lots at MSU are connected to the campus by a dedicated shuttle bus line – so that once you drive your car to the giant parking lot, you won’t have to walk more than 10 minutes to get to class.
I’ve heard it said that when people go to college, they essentially live and work in an excellent example of smart planning. Everything you need is within a 1/2 to 1 mile radius (depending on the size of the school). You can walk to class, walk to eat dinner, walk to visit friends, even walk to a shopping area if you’re lucky. Somehow, we forget about this when we graduate and enter the real world. We buy a house in a suburb and start driving everywhere. I skipped the part about moving to the suburbs, but I still drove everywhere.
I bought my first bike as an adult the summer before my senior year at MSU. Nothing special – a Diamondback Sorrento DX. It was a mountain bike of sorts, but like most mountain bike purchasers of the late 90’s I hardly ever went off road with it. I used it to get to class and occasionally ride out into the country surrounding the city. That was one good thing about Springfield – it was small enough that I could leave it pretty quickly.
For the last 3 months of my purgatory in Springfield, I lived in an apartment at the corner of Kimbrough and Walnut (about .3 miles from my office), and I finally decided that it would be better to walk. I really enjoyed those 7-minute walks to work, it wasn’t a pretty neighborhood to walk through, but it was far more pleasant than driving. I’d say that this was the first step on my way to becoming car-free.