Way back in 2004 in this space, I went off on a little riff about the power of sight compared to the power of hearing, and if you were faced with some brutal dilemma that forced you to choose between living with one or the other but not both.
The obvious choice seemed to be sight. As I argued back then some might even see a life without sound as a blessing, a chance to “live free of the audio intrusions that grate against our consciousness. You could miss the John Philip Sousa march that announces an incoming call on a cell phone. You would not have to tune out when whenever the leaf blowers get fired up, or the radio waves lap across the open water of the lake.”
But there would also be some serious downsides associated with that loss of hearing. “We cannot see a crazy driver coming around the corner at us, but we can hear the shrieking tires a good distance away. We cannot see our child sneak out of bed, but we can hear him clomping down the stairs at 5 in the morning,” I pointed out back then. “If I had my hearing but no sight, I would no longer be the eagle-eyed editor, but I might be a better reporter, with a better ear for a telling piece of dialogue.”
Recently I presented myself with the horns of another hypothetical dilemma: Would you choose to have the power to drive yourself in a car wherever you wanted to go but not be able to walk long distances or would you prefer to give up access to the car and instead have the ability to walk as far as your heart desired. (The choice sounds far-fetched until you realize that people make that choice when they choose a place to live: Young people renting an apartment in a big city discover they can’t even afford to park a car, let alone own one. Another person living in a suburban McMansion may not be able to connect with anyone or anything unless they jump in the car first.)
For almost four weeks this winter — thanks to the installation of that new knee — I couldn’t drive or walk more than a few feet a time. But then I was suddenly able to bend my right leg enough to get in and out of a car and I was also able to walk four or five blocks with the aid of a cane. So I got a chance to feel the exhilaration of each form of personal mobility.
Being able to drive meant that I was no longer dependent upon dear friends to ferry me from home to physical therapy appointments, and to pick up groceries. At the beginning of my ordeal I had made a half-hearted attempt to arrange some third party transportation for myself. The Princeton Senior Resource Center offers one program, but the killer for me was the scheduling. When exactly would my PT sessions be? How far in advance would I need to reserve a ride? What would I do when the session was postponed because of inclement weather? I could envision the phone calls flying back and forth.
Getting behind the wheel of a car made all the difference. And the whole experience made me appreciate the argument that says that mass transit will never make it in a town of modest density, such as Princeton, until the service is provided so frequently that you never worry about missing a bus or a trolley or the latest and greatest personal transportation device because you know another one will be coming “in no time.”
With the euphoria of my rebirth as a driver still fresh, I had my opportunity to take my first extended walk. Cane in hand, I stepped down carefully from my house to the sidewalk (“down with the bad, up with the good,” as the physical therapists say), and headed to Nassau Street. Destination: The Kiosk newsstand, three blocks away.
It was an adventure, sometimes a little daunting. As a pedestrian I never felt so vulnerable. The 10-second countdown before “walk” would turn to “don’t walk” at Nassau and Witherspoon streets jacked up my heart beat.
I discovered that the Christian Science church has finally found a replacement for the liquor store at 174 Nassau Street. The UPS store at 66 Witherspoon Street will be moving there soon. I shopped at three different stores and browsed the sidewalk display of Labyrinth Books.
I ran into Peter Crowley, CEO of the Princeton Chamber of Commerce, whom I hadn’t seen in eons. Crowley’s office is no more than 200 feet from my house and our cars have probably crossed numerous times. But in just one stroll up Nassau Street I run into him.
The expedition took no more than 45 minutes but the quantity and quality of human interaction was terrific. Would I trade that interaction for the convenience of being able to jump into the car and drive to wherever I wanted whenever I wanted? While I was weighing the pros and cons, a nonprofit advocate of responsible land use policies, New Jersey Future, issued a report that introduced another variable into the equation: age.
As the population ages, the organization said in a February 18 press release, “many residents will find themselves living in car-dependent areas not well equipped to accommodate their changing mobility needs. Those people not able to relocate will face the possibility of increasing social isolation.”
New Jersey Future listed four factors that help determine how “age-friendly” a town is: The number of destinations per square mile; the presence of a mixed-use “downtown;” a well-connected local street network, allowing for walking and more direct access to destinations; and access to public transportation, greater mobility for those who don’t drive.
Lots of towns in New Jersey with a high proportion of senior residents don’t score well on this basis — Monroe Township was one example. On the other hand four towns scored high on all four measures, but still had over-55 populations that made up less than 20 percent of their total, compared to the state average of 25 percent.
Those towns were Jersey City, Hoboken, New Brunswick, and — yes — Princeton. On my walk down Nassau Street I was the only pedestrian I saw using a cane. As time passes, I expect there will be more.