Transportation, Walkability, and How We Gather as Churches

By Sean Benesh

Many Bikes“The way we move largely determines the way we live.” (Speck, Walkable City, 55)

That quote stopped me in my tracks. I circled it, added a bunch of stars around the quote, dog-eared the page … and then double-dog-eared the page. It was a Eureka! moment for me and continued to confirm different ideas and concepts that I’ve been wrestling with over the last few years. Transportation and walkability (and bikeability) are truly important topics for me and this quote nailed it on the head.

But the connection we fail to make is in relation to church life. Think about the quote … the way we move (car, foot, bike, bus, light rail, etc) determines the way we live. Most often lives are frantic, scattered, and out of sorts and statistically one of the reasonings behind that, believe it or not, revolves around commuting. “In his book Bowling Alone, Harvard professor Robert Putnam documents a marked decline in American social capital, and notes that commute time is more predictive than almost any other variable he measured in determining civic engagement.” (Ibid., 49) So why are most of our churches and their growth predicated upon auto-based commuting patterns? Why do many people struggle to engage in the life of the church? Maybe it is because it ends up being another commute.

What about walkable or bikeable churches?

Yesterday was a rare sunny winter day in Portland which meant a great opportunity for me to jump on my singlespeed bike and go for a ride. It had been 10 days since I rode last due to the flu. What started off as an idea of taking an easy 45 minute warm-up ride turned into a 2 hour exploratory ride through Portland, across the I-5 bridge, and into Vancouver, WA. During the ride I zipped through 2 distinct neighborhoods / districts that stood in stark contrast with one another.

I love vibrant street scenes and living in Portland means there are ample … Belmont, Alberta, Mississippi, and many more. I have a particular interest in walkability and finding great neighborhoods that are marked by that. Often times these are the best places to plant churches because of the missiological implications of walkability.

While on the other side of the Coumbia River I rode my bike through Uptown Village in downtown Vancouver as I had heard about it from a friend. The label was that this was a “Portlandy” part of Vancouver (or “Vantucky” as some Portlanders call it). As I pedaled through the numerous blocks I passed quite a few restaurants, cafes, pubs, coffee shops, boutiques, and so on. It certainly looked kind of Portlandy … but it was dead. Maybe it was because it was Sunday afternoon? I recall seeing maybe a couple people out walking on the sidewalks and only one bicycle parked in front of a shop. That’s all. However, in their place the street had multitudes of cars parked in front of these various establishments. The street scene was dull even through architecturally there were some fun things to look at and the place was brimming with potential. The problem though … everyone drove cars.

After riding back across the I-5 bridge I wove my way through where I entered the hub of the Kenton neighborhood from the north. Passing the Paul Bunyan statue with the MAX light rail immediately on my left I emerged into Kenton’s core. This out-of-the-way North Portland neighborhood stood in stark contrast to Uptown Village. Although both reside in proximity to the Columbia River, life on both sides of the river couldn’t have been more different. Kenton’s little hub on Denver Avenue was a good 1/3 to 1/4 smaller than Uptown Village. However, immediately at the first block there was a buzz of activity. Pedestrians galore trekked up and down the sidewalks and within 3 blocks I counted roughly 40 bikes out front of coffee shops, restaurants, and pubs locked up at the various bike parking corrals.

What was the difference? Many might assume the answer would revolve around architeture  and density. Surprisingly, both neighborhoods had rather low densities. Uptown Village actually had more density to it than Kenton. But it was like there was a seismic change as soon as I crossed the river from one location to the other. For my whole journey through different parts of Vancouver I encountered maybe 2-3 other cyclists. I far surpassed that in the first block alone on the Portland side of the river in Kenton.

So why do Portlanders walk and bike so much while Vancouverites drive? Portland certainly isn’t a model city in regards to density … it’s not that much different than most other cities. Why was one neighborhood vibrant while the other, despite concerted efforts and cool signs, was still mostly dead?

In one city it simply makes sense to plant churches that focuses on walkability (or bikeability). It is part of the culture of the city and mindset of the citizens. Surprisingly, the church as a whole has still yet to make this transition as most are still auto-dependent (you can find some stats in The Bikeable Church). In places like Uptown Village in Vancouver, I think a church would have a ripe opportunity to be walkable and bikeable and really add value to a city that on many levels seeks to emulate those attributes.

Are we willing to address the topic of transportation when it comes to church life and how we plant churches?

Sean Benesh

Sean Benesh (DMin, Bakke Graduate University) lives in the Pacific Northwest and is the author of View From the Urban Loft: Developing a Theological Framework for Understanding the City (2011) and Metrospiritual: The Geography of Church Planting (2011). He is involved in urban ministry in the capacity of professor, researcher, consultant, Director of the Epoch Center for Urban Renewal, and church planter. He blogs regularly on various urban themes and topics at The Urban Loft.