An Exceptional Commute: A Q & A with Emily Livingston

Emily and her husband Nate Wilson

March 04, 2020

Tell me about the kind of commuting you do, and how long you’ve been doing it.

“I was born and raised here in Spokane. I think that a lot of people who are from Spokane have always known and been told that you have to have a car to live here, that we’re just a car city. I grew up north of Spokane, and if you live outside of Spokane, you have to have a car to come into the city. So I always had a car when I was younger, I went to school here at Gonzaga and had a car while I was here, and never really thought anything of it. Then a couple years ago my husband and I decided we were tired of living outside of Spokane. I work and go to school at Gonzaga, and my husband now goes to school here, so our lives are here in the center of Spokane and we didn’t understand why we were living north of the city. We ended up moving into Kendall Yards a couple of years ago and we love being close to everything. I never really thought anymore of taking the bus or anything until I did the Sustainability Leadership Program through the Office of Sustainability and learned more about our ZagCards and how they are also a bus pass. It was something I had heard about but never really thought about. I was still kind of timid about it until Angela Ruff, a friend of mine, offered to take me on the bus and show me how to do it. That was great because I was just afraid I wouldn’t know what to do, I didn’t understand that your ZagCard could be used directly, I thought you had to take it to go get a bus pass. So one day we met up and she taught me how to take the bus, and it was super fun and I learned just how easy it is, especially where we live since it’s so close to downtown and the Plaza. Eventually we decided our car was getting too expensive, and anywhere we want to go is not that hard to reach by STA. That’s what people always ask me, aren’t there places you can’t go anymore? But there really aren’t any places that have come up. It’s been about a year and a half since we started casually commuting by bus, and it’s been about eight months since we actually got rid of our car and have been doing it full time, completely.”

What inspires or motivates you to engage in this type of alternative commuting?

“For us I would say it’s probably sustainability and environmental reasons, mostly, starting with when my husband and I watched Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. That kind of sent us on this journey of trying to figure out ways to lessen our footprint on the environment. We actually ended up going vegan two or three years ago, that was one of the first things we did after we learned about the effects of the animal industry on the environment. Another step we took was moving into a smaller apartment, we moved into a studio apartment in Kendall Yards because it’s just the two of us and our two cats, we really don’t need that much room. Before that, we were living in a two bedroom apartment and we were just spreading out our stuff to fill up that space we didn’t need. We did have two cars before we moved into Spokane, and when we moved into town we were able to get rid of one car. After that, we were interested in seeing if there were more ways to take that even further, and transportation was one of those things we considered. After realizing how easy it is to take the bus, we decided getting rid of our second car was just one more thing we could do to lessen our impact on the environment.”

Have you seen changes in the built environment of Spokane?

“I know that STA is trying to make it easier by bringing the new Central City line in, and listening to people to see what they can do with different routes to meet identified needs. In the neighborhood that I live in, Kendall Yards, they offer a free bus pass to anyone who lives there. Even if I wasn’t at Gonzaga, or my husband wasn’t at Gonzaga, we could still use the bus system. I’m pretty sure all the people that work there also get bus passes. They’re trying to encourage less people to drive there. One thing we discussed in the Sustainability Leadership Program was the fact that Kendall Yards thought that because it’s right on the trail people were going to walk there, but they found that what people do is they drive to Kendall Yards, park their car, and then go walk on the trail or go downtown, so they’re trying to make it better so that people who live there can take the bus and there’s less parking.”

What support have you received? On the other hand, have you had people be concerned or question your decision to sell your cars and rely completely on STA?

“There was a little bit of pushback at the beginning, especially from my family. My mom was really worried that if we got rid of the car and were just dependent on the bus, what we would do if anything happened, and my father-in-law was also concerned about that. I think people don’t understand what you do without a car, and being concerned about getting to work, and thinking that you won’t be able to do the things that you’re doing right now, but it was also good because I was able to have a conversation with those people and let them know that we were selling the car, but we basically had been riding the bus only for the months prior. We didn’t just all of a sudden do it, we started taking the bus and then sold the car, so I was able to explain to people that everything we wanted to do we’ve been able to do. Any of the restaurants we like are on a bus line, going to visit my mom is on a bus line, so there was a little bit of pushback, but for the most part, people were just interested, because people just don’t think about it when they’re used to having a car. For us, it’s also really easy because of where we live. There’s a grocery store in Kendall Yards. If we want to go to Main Market, we just walk. It seems really long, but when the weather’s nice, it’s a really nice walk.”

How has using the bus system helped form a community for you?

“Costco is usually something we plan out with other people, which is a nice opportunity to visit with my mom or my father-in-law. There’s always people around when we need a car for something, so it gives us the opportunity to interact with people more, because we have to depend on people for certain things. I feel like I spend more time with my family and more time with my friends because we have to actually plan to go do things together.”

What is the biggest challenge you have ever faced as an alternate commuter?

“This winter there have been a couple of times that the bus got stuck downtown when it was icy, but other than that, it’s just been a couple of small things. The biggest inconvenience was one day when the bus got stuck when it was icy and my husband had a final so he was trying to get to Gonzaga at 8:00 AM, so he ended up getting off the bus. Some construction worker stopped and offered to give him a ride to Gonzaga, so he was able to get here on time. Every day, I feel like it kind of sets an intention that my day is on purpose, in a way. I have to plan that this is when the bus is picking me up here to take me to the Plaza, and then my bus leaves the Plaza at this time, in comparison to before when I was always rushing out the door and the car was just there. Using the bus feels more intentional. I think using the bus is fun, but I recognize that some people have to take the bus, they don’t have another option of transportation, so sometimes I feel bad about saying that it’s fun because it feels very privileged. I could afford a car if I wanted a car, it’s a choice that we make, so I try to keep that in mind, that there are a lot of people that depend on public transportation.”

Have the changing seasons impacted your use of the bus system?

“Really, it just takes a little bit more planning. If we have to get somewhere at a specific time, and it’s really important to get there on time, then we just have to plan it out a little bit better. I’d say, sometimes when the weather isn’t the best is probably the most challenging. If we lived up on the South Hill, that would be really difficult, but we’re able to just plan around that. So far, it hasn’t been a hindrance. It hasn’t really stopped us from being able to do something that we really want to do, it just requires more forethought.”

What do you wish more people knew about using the STA bus system?

“I really wish that people knew that it’s not as bad as they think it is. I think a lot of people worry about it being safe, and I would just tell people that it really is safe. I remember when we had a barbecue for the Sustainability Leadership Program and in the Office of Sustainability there was something on the wall asking a question about whether the Plaza is unsafe or just uncomfortable. And that’s definitely what it is, a lot of the people that work at Gonzaga are middle-class people, so to be put in that situation, where you’re around people who are impoverished or homeless, it can be just a little bit uncomfortable, but to me, I think that’s a good thing, to be around people who are different than yourself, and to understand that it doesn’t mean that you’re unsafe in those environments. I’m not hanging out at the Plaza at 10:00 PM by myself, but that’s just general advice, I don’t think anyone should be downtown at 10:00 by themselves. But going early in the morning, and even times when I’ve had class until 8:30 and I’m coming home at 9:00 at night, I’ve never felt unsafe. I would recommend that for people, common sense measures are really all you need.”

Do you think there is anything that Gonzaga could do to get more individuals involved with carpooling, walking, biking, or riding the bus to work?

“I think that the Office of Sustainability has been doing things with showing people how to take the bus. I think that would be great to do more. Even simple things like how to scan your card, I remember being trepidatious about that. And people not understanding that all you need is your ZagCard, you don’t have to go get a pass, you don’t have to buy it somewhere. Lots of people have probably never been to the Plaza, they’ve just heard things about it. It would be nice to show people these are all the buses that are heading North and East, or whichever direction. And to show the different zones, and which buses could take you to Gonzaga.”

Any final thoughts or words of wisdom you want people to know, whether about using the bus or life in general?

“I don’t want to be super dramatic with people about society, but we’re getting to the point that we can’t go on living the way that we have been. I think that we’ve gotten really used to being entitled to going wherever we want whenever we want, and doing whatever we want whenever we want, and buying whatever we want, and the environment, I don’t think, is something that the government is going to be able to force people to do things to fix, I think we really have to take that individual responsibility on ourselves. And not everyone has to be perfect. I love the phrase that we don’t need a small handful of people doing zero-waste perfectly, we need everyone doing zero-waste imperfectly. Even if you can’t sell your vehicle and start riding the bus all the time, just think about a couple of days a week where it might be possible for your spouse to take the kids to school that day and you take the bus instead of taking the car. I would just encourage people to start thinking outside of the box. There are so many small things that each of us can do, and I think each of us is kind of responsible for taking that journey on our own and taking responsibility for that and figuring out what we can do to help fix these problems.”

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