Posted by Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist) on September 8th, 2021 at 9:07 am
My mother’s life vocation for a decade was to drive from one soccer practice to the next, on endless repeat.
You know what I’m talking about. The setting is The Suburbs. It doesn’t matter which suburbs. They’re all the same. Sterile. Isolated. Where every neighborhood is a self-contained island, and every house its own island within the neighborhood. They have sidewalks, but they don’t go anywhere. A pedestrian can only walk in endlessly boring loops, staring at endlessly boring houses and lawns, or cross the street to go into the next subdivision and walk in endlessly boring loops over there. To escape this monotony, you must have a car. Otherwise you are stranded, by design. There’s no other way out. Not even to buy a cigarette, which I don’t endorse, but think I would definitely need, if I ever had to move back.
I grew up in the ‘burbs, and the stifling, car-dependent, design meant that, as kids, we couldn’t get anywhere on our own. We had schedules full to the brim with sports practices and extracurriculars, and we were effectively stranded until we turned sixteen. And so enters, by necessity: The Suburban Soccer Mom. This default lifestyle required my own mother to schlep me and my sisters, all afternoon, every afternoon, to every activity. My mother’s life vocation for a decade was to drive from one soccer practice to the next, on endless repeat, with drive-thru dinners crammed in-between. She was stuck in her minivan like a prisoner in purgatory. God bless her sacrificing soul; and God save me from such a fate!
My husband and I have another life in mind. We dream of our kids getting themselves to their own activities by bicycle, bus and light rail. We dream of our kids freely exploring their community, zooming down hills on bikes, running around at the park, and biking to the corner store for ice cream or groceries! We dream that our kids could, without a chauffeur, visit a friend’s house or stop by the library. My husband and I would like to restore the seemingly bygone days of childhood transportation independence and freedom. That’s the sort of life we dream for our kids (and ourselves), but it’s an unconventional and even controversial idea, according to modern American lifestyle and parenting standards.
First, the typical idea seems to be that when people have children, they are supposed to move farther and farther outside of cities, in favor of bigger yards, more space, and (supposedly) greater safety. This leads to longer commutes (and less family time, unless you count car rides), not only to access city jobs, but also everything else. Farther-out suburbs often have zoning laws that prohibit mixed-uses, so it’s impossible to have a residence near a grocery store, hardware store, clothing shop, or coffee joint. Schools are often far away from students, as they service sprawling suburban districts without a core. Public transportation is non-existent. Cars are a requirement. Long drives, and constant driving, are inescapable.
Secondly, American parents and their neighbors don’t believe kids should ever be out of parental sight. Something terrible is likely to happen. The unwatched child will be abducted, never to be seen or heard from again. That’s a pretty terrifying belief to challenge. What kind of parent would risk such a thing for the sake of a bike ride?
Thirdly, even if a parent were lucky enough to live in a place with walking, biking, or public transportation access to desired destinations, and apparently crazy enough to allow children to transport themselves around town, state and local laws can actually make this a dangerous endeavor. Child neglect laws, ambiguously or specifically, can target parents with criminal neglect for letting a child walk to the corner market, or spend time “unattended” at the local playground. Concerned neighbors can — and do — call Child Protective Services for such parenting offenses, forcing parents to endure lengthy and invasive investigations while fearing the threat that their children will be taken from them, this time from the authorities.
These are formidable obstacles to our dreams of independent active transportation for our children. Where do we live? How do we handle the neighbors’ fears, along with our own? And can we be confident that the laws will support us, if we make this radical choice: to let our children transport themselves?
Much is rightly said around here about biking and other active transportation infrastructure, but there are also less obvious sorts of intangible infrastructure to consider, especially when it comes to childhood transportation indepence. These include zoning laws and urban (and sub-urban) planning, new housing and commercial developments, societal attitudes, fears, mom-shaming, public transportation rules, and even criminal negligence and child abuse laws.
That’s a lot to take on. Dreaming of the life we want for our family is the easy part. Making it happen? That is going to take some work. Might even be an uphill climb, but it’s going to be worth it. Because I refuse to live in my minivan for the next sixteen years!
— Shannon Johnson, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Shannon is a 36-year-old mom of four (soon to be five!) who lives in downtown Hillsboro. Her column appears every Wednesday. Contact her via email@example.com