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Shannon’s recent column, Our sometimes difficult resolution to keep activities close to home, struck a chord with many readers. She described how the extracurricular activities of her growing family challenged her resolve to get around by bike, and to be true to her and her husband’s “vision of what we want our family life to look like.”
One commenter, Zoe, offered what read like a companion piece to Shannon’s post. Saying that she wanted to “push back gently in one regard,” she went on to describe the many social policies that support — or don’t support — the individual choices we would like to make.
Here is what Zoe wrote:
This is a struggle that resonates a lot with me. Previously a bike or transit commuter and a recreational cyclist, I found myself driving a lot more once I had a child. And I hated/hate it.
However, I want to push back gently in one regard, namely on the framing of this issue as one to be solved through individual mobility choices. I think it’s important to connect the dots between the need for broader societal changes. Parents’ decision to drive are frequently the result of a lack of family-friendly policies that would enable everyone in the community to live richer and car-free/car-light lives. And I’m not just talking about urban planning measures but broader social reforms.
As a point of comparison, I’ve spent about 5 years living in Europe (in Scandinavia but also in lower-income Eastern European countries). In general, families, including the many who were carless, had many more options available not only because of higher urban densities, national policies supporting families. For example, within just a 5-minute walk of one apartment I lived in in Eastern Europe (and not in a wealthy neighborhood), there was an elementary school, two preschools, a small grocery store (that contained a pharmacy), a playground, a dog park, a library, a few cafes and restaurants, and a bus stop for a frequent service line (and children routinely rode city buses by themselves from age 7 onwards). Social policies that support families: national healthcare, paid parental leave for 1 year (or more!); the presence of neighborhood medical clinics, subsidized childcare, subsidized public transit, etc. (Also there were the ‘sticks’- expensive gasoline, extensive paid parking zone, and the cost to get a driving license was roughly the cost of an average monthly salary).
By comparison, I find that even when living in a relatively walkable/bikeable/transit-rich neighborhood in Portland, my decision to drive as a parent has been shaped by myriad factors that at first glance seem only peripherally related to urban form: what neighborhoods I could afford to live in (and tax policies that incentivize home ownership); lack of “third spaces” or insufficient funding for those third spaces in the public sector (parks, community centers, libraries); private health insurance governing where we could get care; the location of affordable (or even available!) childcare; the need to retain my employment as a new parent (because of the need for health insurance, and the lack of any paid parental leave) and insufficient vacation and sick time, Portland Public Schools’ lack of support for the neighborhood school model (I have personal experience with this) resulting in more cars on the road, and TriMet’s family-unfriendly policies (requiring parents to fold strollers upon boarding; not sure if this has changed) making transit a challenge for parents to navigate. And most recently we have employers forcing employees who work remotely to return to the office (when they can effectively WFH).
Individual solutions will come in various shapes. In my case, I chose to limit my carbon footprint by having only 1 child. I will drive my child to some activities (within limits- no traveling sports), in part because I can’t afford to live in neighborhoods where many of the amenities are available, and also to participate in activities with my small cultural community (which is scattered across the region). But I also have been teaching my child from a very early age to ride transit, cycle in traffic, and to navigate his neighborhood on foot, and we try to support local activities. However, beyond looking for changes in individual choices, I’d like to see us also continue make explicit the connections between the US social policies and how these policies (or lack thereof) ultimately impact and constrain individual choice.