Comment of the Week: Cars, kids and (how much) choice?

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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.

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.

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.


Thank you Zoe for taking the time to share your broad perspective. You can find Zoe’s comment, and many other engaging comments too, under the original post.

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)

Lisa Caballero is on the board of SWTrails PDX, and was the chair of her neighborhood association's transportation committee. A proud graduate of the PBOT/PSU transportation class, she got interested in local transportation issues because of service cuts to her bus, the 51. Lisa has lived in Portland for 23 years and can be reached at lisacaballero853@gmail.com.

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1 year ago

One of the most insightful and well-reasoned comments I’ve ever read on this site. Thank you Zoe for sharing your thoughts.

Austin Palucci
Austin Palucci
1 year ago

Good comment. “…challenged her resolve to get around by bike,”.
With the closure of the 2 Portland Walmarts it’s going to be even more difficult to get shopping done (within bike range) for many people. It’s an affordable option with a wide selection for many of us who don’t enjoy a high income. Really a shame Portland couldn’t support these retail locations.

blumdrew
1 year ago
Reply to  Austin Palucci

Portland should not be supporting Walmart. It’s a not a positive for the local economy. It drives traffic away from local businesses and forces the regions social safety net to pick up lots of costs owing to terrible labor practices. And while Walmart is affordable at the point of purchase broadly speaking, factoring in quality makes it generally less of a good choice non-consumable products.

Bstedman
Bstedman
1 year ago

One more point to this: in Europe you have mostly just public universities with no or low tuition. Here, parents and students feels much more pressure to excel at sports for scholarships or do extracurricular activities to have better chances to get into elite colleges. Of course, I want to support my kids‘ talents and sports and other activities are a big part of that, but to what extent do I have to support that? We have tried to limit extracurriculars most to a 3-mile radius, even though we often drove (since we live in SW Portland with lots of hills and little bike infrastructure). For example our kids did rec soccer. If you do higher levels that suddenly means more practice time, more games and more games somewhere else in the state.

Kurt
Kurt
1 year ago
Reply to  Bstedman

Our youth sports system is broken in many ways which limit its’ ability to serve our children wether they are destined to go to the Olympics or just want to have some fun. We should be emulating Norway.
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/28/sports/norway-youth-sports-model.html

John
John
1 year ago
Reply to  Bstedman

This just feels like kind of encouraging people to play the lottery. Like, sure, if that’s your only way into college I guess play the lottery. But how many spots are there total in a school of thousands of people to get a scholarship to college. It’s just not a sustainable or reasonable practice to put all this time and energy into playing a game so some school might, MAYBE, with fairly small chance, pay you something to go to school there.

Fred
Fred
1 year ago
Reply to  John

True dat, John – and then you get injured and lose your scholarship, which happened to a friend’s daughter. Then you are really stuck. You can go to community college for free in Oregon – a much more stable option than playing the sports lottery.

maxD
maxD
1 year ago

Excellent post! Comprehensive and insightful! I like that the commenter calls out TriMet and PPS for further reinforcing car culture- I believe PBOT deserves to be in that company as well. This recent snow was a great illustration our priorities: People driving. That is the beginning and the end of the list. People were driving so poorly, that TriMet was not running trains through downtown. Instead of shutting roads down, Portland just inconvenienced transit riders. You may dismiss that because it was just the beginning of the weather emergency, well think again! I rode the MAX in this morning- the train stop is STALL covered in ice! On Thursday, many of the roads were clear, but I was one of a half dozen people trying to help someone in wheelchair transfer from the yellow to blue line trains with no shoveled sidewalks. The priorities are crystal clear, and I agree with Zoe that we as City, county, state and country need to continue to “ make explicit the connections between the US social policies and how these policies (or lack thereof) ultimately impact and constrain individual choice.”

X
X
1 year ago
Reply to  maxD

I saw the same thing. On Saturday, days after the snow, there was still too much snow at transit stops and stations. MAX platforms and stairs were unsafe. TriMet is challenged to keep its vehicles moving and can’t take care of its passengers.

Weather forecasts largely missed this event. People were already committed to work trips in cars, only to find wet snow on the roads at 4:00 PM. Portland doesn’t have the best snow management but what we have was on the wrong foot.

On Thursday I saw snow plows bumping their blades over icy ruts. How do we always miss the crux in these situations? Is it possible to train for things like mounting plows on trucks, or clearing switches on rails? Could we build a shed over the switches at the Rose Quarter so the tracks that EVERY MAX TRAIN has to go through aren’t blocked?

I quit biking for four days. That’s everything I know about Portland bike infrastructure in snow, XXVII.

For gravel in bike lanes, call 503-823-1700 and talk to the (human) dispatcher. You’ll need to give them the street name, direction of travel, and cross streets at either end.

soren
soren
1 year ago
Reply to  X

I quit biking for four days. That’s everything I know about Portland bike infrastructure in snow, XXVII.

I commuted to work by bike on Thursday and Friday because there were no public transit options due to route closures (real-time tracking showed no buses over many hours).

Chris I
Chris I
1 year ago
Reply to  X

Once it is packed and melt/freeze into icy ruts, a snow plow can’t do much to alleviate the situation. They are really just for removing snow and laying down gravel. I don’t think PBOT has any of the scrapers needed to deal with ice like that.

Fred
Fred
1 year ago
Reply to  maxD

PBOT absolutely deserves criticism for not doing enough for cycling. They don’t prioritize sweeping of bike lanes, for example. All winter they sweep every street with a curb in every neighborhood, while bike lanes on major arterials remain unswept. Watch how they treat the bike lanes in coming days, after the big snow. They’ll sweep the dead-end streets in your neighborhood and get to the arterials when they get to them. Pathetic.

X
X
1 year ago
Reply to  Fred

Portland has a strong tendency for complaint-driven resource allocation. If we stack requests for sweeping they’ll either do the right thing or shut down the request line. A phone call seems better to me because it’s real time and you get feedback from the people working.

In the past it has taken three calls at two week intervals to get sweeping (they did acknowledge my earlier calls). I’ve also seen debris in places that were not reported remain for as long as six months. Squeaky wheels, etc.

Charley
Charley
1 year ago

Can we have a Comment of the Year for this one? Zoe’s comment reflects a lot of thought, and a depth of knowledge about the systemic incentives influencing our behaviors.

I come away thinking about the way in which trying to shift policy in one arena (to encourage more cycling to lower our carbon footprint, for example) is like trying to stop a flooding river by throwing a paper towel roll into the raging waters.

I think encouraging cycling is good for a lot of reasons, but cycling will almost certainly lose, when up against forces like “I need to have good schooling for my kid” or “I don’t feel like riding 12 miles to Kaiser Sunnyside when I am sick.”

It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense throw our hands up in failure “because capitalism” or whatever. I want a safe ride to work now! I don’t want to wait until President Bernie Sanders convenes a second Continental Congress and rewrites our Constitution to make the US a social-democratic paradise.

On the other hand, when fewer people ride bikes after a period of steady bike infrastructure improvements, maybe it makes sense to have some humility about what we can change. There are powerful countervailing forces, some of which we couldn’t plan for in advance (Covid!? Social distancing!? WFH!?).

And how could we even choose between competing values, as illustrated by her mention of neighborhood schooling (less traffic, but more racial and class segregation)? It’s truly a sticky problem.