Comment of the Week: The transportation independence of teenagers

As two bills addressing e-bike regulation wind their way through the Oregon legislature, BikePortland readers responded with a slew of strong comments to last week’s article which focussed on one of them, House Bill 4103

Comments came in with a wide variety of opinion, commenter Eric even remarked, “I find it fascinating that I kind of agree with every perspective voiced so far in this comment thread.”

In her statement to BikePortland, Sarah Iannarone, director of The Street Trust, introduced the issue of transportation independence, “we have seen time and again how the transportation needs of teens in particular are regarded as a nuisance…”

Expanding on that thought, commenter Al Dimond got to the heart of what is really at stake — how auto-mobility has restricted the freedom and independence of teenagers. What you think is normal, or how things should be, is “both about when we grew up and where.”

That caught my attention, because one thing that I always found fascinating when we had a child at home, was the lack of consensus among Portland parents concerning how much independence they considered to be safe. It ranged from one neighbor who became panicked when she learned her child was walking door-to-door (really close to home) with another child, to another who had her 10-year-old taking the MAX alone to Hillsboro for an after-school activity. (Hint: one family was from Europe, the other from California.)

It’s something Al Diamond has thought about too, and here are his musings on the topic:

There’s this thing in here about what technology allows and what technology requires. Some of us remember a childhood where we could easily bike or walk to get around independently… some of us don’t… it’s both about when we grew up and where.

For my part I’m somewhere in the middle. As I got up through high school I was able to get around more of my suburb by biking, but I also developed more needs to travel beyond easy biking range, and also to destinations where non-car access wasn’t even an afterthought. That’s the suburbs for ya. The two cars in everyone’s driveway (at least as we perceived it) made that kind of lifestyle possible, and that, in turn, made it feel obligatory.

In the world of the car, everything has been going up for over a century. The cars get faster, the cars get bigger, the cars add more safety features to compensate for the greater speed and bulk. The roads get bigger to add safety margins between the bigger, faster cars. Rinse and repeat. Normal people not only feel like they need to have the cars to manage their obligatory travel needs but that they need four-wheel-drive because nobody’s going to excuse their absence on the one or two snow days every year. Of course, they’re encouraged to feel that way by marketing that exploits their fears of not keeping up or not keeping their kids up.

The obligation to drive to achieve full participation in the car-dominated world took freedom from kids. In families that could afford it, they clawed it back at age 16 with driver’s licenses. Safety concerns saw kids’ driving privileges scaled back. Now we have, with e-bikes, the freedom to travel greater distances becoming possible again, but mostly surrounded by ever-bigger and ever-faster cars in ever-more-hostile environments.

It’s true that kids can hurt themselves without e-bikes, without wheels even. Also true that additional speed can multiply danger. Also true that in many scenarios around cars the critical speed isn’t carried by the bike. Teens, pre-teens, kids, need some ability to get around independently — I think it’s an important part of learning to live in a free society. That’s never going to be safe if they’re obligated to navigate the extremes of today’s car-world by any method.

I can’t stand on any firm principle for or against e-bike regulations for kids, or for anyone else, that comes out of the US west coast. The only thing that’s really clear is that we need a better public realm in all our cities, towns, and suburbs, where we don’t have to go out on the highway for everything, where we can rely on public transit for trips where our legs won’t carry us.

If we do that we’ll be able to see where e-bike speed causes real problems. If we don’t do that, every time we try to work at e-bike regulation we’ll flail around blindly because everything else is drowned out by car considerations.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Al. You can read Al’s comment and many others 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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Lazy Spinner
Lazy Spinner
2 months ago

An excellent commentary!

I also want to add that several decades of bad publicity surrounding public transit and child safety has also driven car centric thinking. While much of the fear mongering is urban mythology (There’s a murdering pedophile behind every bush waiting to kidnap children walking to school!”), there are well documented incidents of crime, mental health crises, and twisted behavior on buses and MAX trains. The general perception is that the city and Tri-Met do very little to keep these modes safe and most parents don’t want their kids using them. Sprinkle in a sensational case or two about criminal ride share drivers, and most parents are more than happy to give Jackson the keys or buy Madison her own car.

In addition to better bike laws and infrastructure, transit needs to be made markedly cleaner and safer. Otherwise, we will continue to have parents shelling out for a used SUV for their kid because it is “safer”.

Erik
Erik
2 months ago
Reply to  Lazy Spinner

When I lived in DC, I took Metro every day and biked way less there than I do in Portland. The subway train was clean, fast and efficient and went most places I needed to go even though I lived several stops away from the downtown. I started biking mainly for exercise and enjoyment, but most of the time I preferred to get around by train and sometimes bus too. The public transit enabled me to be car-free for a majority of the time I lived there. When I moved to Portland in 2011 I saw the sharp contrast between the city’s transit system versus Washington, DC’s metro. I live in SE Portland, which I consider a transit desert. The only way to really get around is by bus, which is the least clean, fast and efficient methods of transit. There should be streetcar lines or subway lines all throughout every quadrant of Portland like there is in DC. That will be the key to solving the traffic safety issue. Make the public transit system so nice, convenient, fast and accessible that people will crave using it because they won’t have to worry about traffic and the costs associated with owning and operating a car. There are a lot of urban design elements that can help with safety, but until we get transit usage to a critical mass level, we haven’t done much.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
2 months ago

When I saw this comment of the week, I had assumed (wrongly) that it was related to the article about the 12-year-old in Beaverton who was killed while (legally) riding his non-ebike on a sidewalk near Starbucks on a poorly designed stroad.

Fred
Fred
2 months ago

That is a truly great comment, which I missed the first time, so thanks for highlighting it.

Mark smith
Mark smith
2 months ago

I’d much rather see a teen on an ebike or an e-moto legally or otherwise than “legally” behind the wheel any day of the week. But don’t take my word for it. Talk to all the dead teens that their parents thought they were “safe”.