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My pedestrian existence

July 11, 2011

As a non-driver who rarely travels overseas I have a problem. The problem is not, as you might expect, with getting myself from A to B. No, I’ve never driven so I’ve planned my life around walking and using public transport. My problem is more of an identity crisis – I have trouble proving who I am.

It seems that in Australia the Driving Licence acts as a defacto identity card, with the passport acting as back-up. As a non-driving, infrequent traveler, who was also born overseas (which complicates matters further) I may be the only Australian citizen who actually wishes we had an official identity card.

I first noticed this problem last year when I realised that both my Learners Permit and my passport had expired. And unfortunately my passport was beyond the grace period for easy renewal. As I don’t drive for medical reasons it seemed silly to reapply for a license just to have ID, so I tried applying for a new passport. But, to obtain a new passport without already holding a valid passport or a licence I needed two Australian citizens, unrelated to me, who had known me long enough, to sign forms verifying my identity. This sounds simple, but there is a catch. The passport application is several pages long, and must be filled out in block capitals with no mistakes. If you, or one of the people verifying your identity, makes a mistake anywhere on the form, you need to start over. Many kind friends and colleagues verified my identity, some repeatedly, but after about seven or eight forms I still didn’t have a single application which was complete without a mistake. I was over it, and I didn’t feel I could keep asking people to repeat the paperwork again and again, so I tried a different approach.

I applied for a Key Pass, a photographic ID card that can be used by non-drivers. This is much cheaper than applying for a passport, easier to keep on hand, and as it turns out, easier to apply for. I filled out the forms, got a passport photo, had my Dad officially verify my identity at a police station, and paid my fee. Then having moved house, I made another trip to their offices, and paid another fee, to update my card. Problem solved?

Well sort of. I can prove my identity with the Key Pass most of the time, but not always. And, when the Key Pass isn’t accepted, it seems that I should be expect to be treated like dirt.

For example, last week at a local post office, when I needed to prove who I was, the lady “helping” me, made it clear that I was most unreasonably making her job complicated. First, she rolled her eyes when I responded in the negative to her questions about having either a licence or a passport. Then she seemed to take pleasure in refusing to accept my Key Pass as ID. She then grabbed the form I was holding, and rattled off a list of identification documents that I might have brought, (and many of which I had in fact brought) in a rapid staccato which was too fast to either take in or respond to. I tried to be patient with her – I work in customer service myself and I don’t like to get short with people. But when she started tapping her pen impatiently on the counter to indicate that our interaction was taking too long, I actually kind of snapped, and told her to stop. So she changed tack, from rude and impatient to pitying and condescending: “Don’t worry, you’ll get your license one day” she reassured me…

In the end, I proved my identity to the officious lady at the post office. But it took far longer than it would have if she had been patient and helpful, and I left feeling shaken and demoralised, like a second-class citizen who had been firmly reminded of her status. My pedestrian status.

But Australians are in fact an increasingly pedestrian bunch. According to today’s Age, Australians have been driving less each year since 2004. And the numbers of adult non-drivers are also increasing. Environmentally and socially this is wonderful news. Being pedestrian should be celebrated.

Usually, I am proudly pedestrian. While I would love to have the opportunities that driving would allow me, there are many wonderful things about my pedestrian and public-transport dependent existence. I believe that my reliance on walking and public transport affords me a connection to the world around me that regular drivers mostly miss out on. I get to observe my community close up (the good and the bad) as I slowly travel through it. I love watching the world pass by from the window of a tram, bus or train, observing the changes in houses, fences and trees over the months and years. I also have time to reflect, to read, to write, to sketch, to ponder, to day-dream, to develop ideas, to meditate or simply to relax while I travel. And being able to walk to the shops or to work on a sunny winter’s day feels remarkably luxurious.

Hopefully we are now on the tram track to a society in which it is not assumed that all grown citizens will drive – a world of many bike paths and railway stations, with easy-to-access services, and a strong sense of community. A world in which the young, the elderly, and the differently-abled aren’t isolated, or given the choice between risking their own lives and those of others or having opportunities. A more connected and more active world which might enjoy lower rates of obesity and depression.

I may have trouble proving my identity, but I know who I am. I am a proudly pedestrian idealist. And I don’t have the licence to prove it.

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