I’m 3 years old, and my mom is working in the garden my parents’ had in the backyard. She comes inside and tells my older sisters and me she is driving over to the “flower store” to buy some plants. My dad, who was upstairs and unaware that my mom had left, asked me where she went. I tell him the flower store, but he didn’t know where that was. As I had been there once before with my mom, I tell my dad I’ll show him how to get there. So my dad, up for an adventure, buckles me in his car (virtually all families in my town had two cars), and we head out to the nursery. It was eight miles away.
Being 3 years old, I certainly couldn’t comprehend street signs, so I guide my dad literally as a backseat driver. “Go this way” (pointing at the upcoming street). “Now go that way.” I do this for the entire 15-minute drive to the nursery.
We get to the nursery and see my mom, who was definitely surprised. My dad told her I gave him directions, and they were both stunned that I was able to do that. I have no recollection of this day, but my parents have told the story a number of times over the years that I have come to know it pretty well.
This was the first time someone has asked me for directions, but not the last – so much so that I used to joke that my dream job would be a Professional Direction Giver. Not really a job, but imagine if that could be my job!
In recollection, I feel this moment is the cornerstone for my passion of human transport, and the plans and policies that are intertwined with it. Getting from Point A to Point B. Finding the most efficient route. Diligently looking at road maps, rail maps, and trail maps at my own leisure. Questioning why transit routes are laid how how they are, why streets and highways take the path they take, why does a rail line go through this area by not that one, where does this river go, what was the decision behind this road or that bridge? It even goes a little further, in that how far do people live from trains or buses, how many people use this bus stop/train station, how affordable are certain areas near transit, why are most suburban offices prohibitive to people who rely on transit.
In essence, these questions have a common theme: providing people the means to get to where they want to go.
And that’s where my passion still is: understanding directions, mobility routes, and means of transport so people can get to work, school, concerts, baseball games, the cleaners, grocery stores, daycare, parks, polling stations. Even when I’m indoors, I always feel a sense of which direction I’m facing (e.g. “I’m sitting on the couch, facing east.”) It might just be some innate idiosyncrasy and probably why I was able to give my dad directions. But I’ve also found it to be very valuable over the years when planning on going somewhere and helping others who need directional assistance, whether it be a friend, coworker, or stranger on the street.
Of course I was fortunate when I was 3, that the flower store was on an easy driving route to remember. And of course not everyone needs directional assistance. But if all of us can just all take a little time to help others with direction, or think about how people are affected by mobility (or immobility) and planning, we would be better as a society.
So profound, I know.