The Contiguity Spectrum

[Down the hill to downtown.]
In wintertime, I end up walking more. A lot of it has to do with the sub-standard transit system where I live, some of it has to do with being a cheap bastard, and some of it has to do with the simple stubborn pleasure I get from adventure. But I end up walking more, for example, I’ll routinely walk the two mile distance from my house to downtown Saint Paul, or the mile and a half to the coffee shop on West 7th Street, or what have you.

One of the nice things about walking is that you end up with a strong sense of the physical relationships between things, the geography of your city. You notice the gaps in the urban fabric, the topography of the land, the tucked away homes or blank walls or bridges. You get a great sense of what I call the contiguity of space.

[The view from the High Bridge sidewalk.]

This contiguity is something I'll also notice when in a big city with a great train network. For example. If you take the subway everywhere in New York City, you miss out on the actual distances and contiguity between places. When I used to live there, I'd occasionally walk over one of the East River bridges, and it was a completely new experience of the city. You noticed the contiguity, the river, and the parks in ways entirely bypassed by the subway's tunnels and speed. 

A similar thing happens when you take the train a long distance. Flying from city to city is not contiguous. You've literally got your head in the clouds, and plop down in a completely new world without much sense of the flyover land beneath you. (Protip: It's called the Midwest.) On the train, you can look out the window and see every house, town, and river valley from start to finish. It's a much better sense of contiguity, of the actual distances and geographies between places.

Cars and bikes are somewhere in between. Cars offer a level of contiguity, but the monotony of the interstate freeway system  is difficult to underestimate. Basically, the experience of space in a car is reduced to time and traffic. "It's seven hours to Chicago, depending on traffic," is a thing you'll say. You might stop for gas, but all gas stations are the same. (Driving on back roads, as a good friend of mine insists on doing, is another matter.)

Bicycles are probably the next most contiguous mode of travel after walking. For one thing, you experience the hills and valleys. But there are also the smells, sounds, and the many other ten-mile-per-hour sensations. 

Anyway, here's a rough spectrum of travel modes (real and imaged) ranked according to contiguity. Enjoy, and feel free to suggest additions or subtractions in the comments.

[Click to enlarge.]


PhilmerPhil said...

I'd put skateboarding at the same level as walking. Riding a skateboard makes me hyper aware of my surroundings. On regularly traveled routes I know where the cracks, crooked sidewalks and manhole covers are. I am on a constant lookout for new spots. And because when you're on a skateboard, no rules apply. Skate down the middle of streets the wrong way, cross streets at will, weave between traffic, etc. I've built a strong relationship with urban space that I credit to skateboarding.

Adam said...

If I'm heading cross-country on a road trip, and I have the time, I really prefer driving on the old US Highway system. You have to deal with stop lights as you go through towns, but most of the way the travel isn't that much slower than the interstate and you get to actually see thing and get a sense of place. Also a sense of history as much of what's off the US Highway is decaying.