Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Making Our Cities Family-Friendly

Usually, when I hear the term "family-friendly," it is referring to parents' ability to protect their children from seeing or hearing about sex, violence, foul language, rock n' roll, or nipples. For a city to be labelled "family-friendly," it must also have good schools, some parks and/or museums, a low crime rate, and a small visible homeless population.  All worthy goals, to be sure.

But as you've probably guessed, I am not referring to any of these admirable qualities when I talk about making our cities family-friendly. Instead, I'm thinking about ways we can make it easier, safer, and more pleasant for people of all ages and life stages to get around without a car. This used to be the norm in all American towns and cities because, um, people didn't have cars, or only had one family car. The postwar boom years changed all that, and many of our cities are just getting around to correcting those mistakes, as we begin to see where this automobile-centric development has gotten us.

Though you'll notice that I am unequivocally in favor of car-free and car-light living as much as possible, this post is primarily aimed at exposing the follies of policy-level decisions about urban and suburban development that do not promote walkability (what I would call livability).

But why should we frame this as a family issue?  I'll look at it from two angles, the health and development of children, and the health of family finances. Both arguments apply equally well to singles, couples without kids, families with pets, the elderly... you know, humans in general.

Cars (our own and other people's) are not good for our kids 

This is a shockingly traitorous thing to say in a country that loves its "family" cars, the bigger, the better.  My husband and I got married having never owned cars, and no one seemed to mind (especially as we were starving grad students in a very walkable city).  But once we were expecting our first baby, the not-so-subtle hints started rolling in... "How will you get to the hospital?"  "How will you take the baby to the doctor?"  "What will you do in the winter?"  With this highly ingrained notion in our culture that the smallest children require 3500-pound vehicles to get around, it might seem crazy to argue that kids might be better off without so much car travel in their daily lives, but here goes.

Car accidents are the most obvious manifestation of the fact that cars are bad for us. Accidents continue to be among the leading causes of death for all age groups, and the number one cause of death for children. To be fair, something has to be the leading cause of death, and I bet we would all prefer for it to be accidents than, say, pneumonia. All the same, any other cause would have a ribbon color and charity walk assigned to it by now. Unfortunately, the individual choice for families to go car-light or car-free does not necessarily remedy this situation, as pedestrians and cyclists are not protected from being hit by cars.  In the name of safety, many cities continue to widen roads, which only leads motorists to drive more recklessly.  Ironic.

Besides accidents, cars also contribute more than their fair share to pollution, spewing exhaust and emissions into the air that children should really have the right to breathe without concern. This affects children in cars, as well as children walking and bicycling (though kids walking on busy roads during rush hour will get the worst of it). 

And of course, our kids are becoming obese in higher numbers than ever before.  High fructose corn syrup doesn't help, soda doesn't help, TV and video games don't help, but for many kids, a sedentary lifestyle stems from their real inability to get anywhere safely without depending on their parents' (or eventually their own) cars. Kids walk and bike to school more rarely than previous generations did, and then they often need to be driven around to after-school activities by taxi moms (no fun for the moms, either).

Constant car travel also isn't great for parental interaction with kids.  The ungenerous laws of physics dictate that our youngest, most vulnerable children should be as far away from us as possible in a motor vehicle in order to keep them safe. Our littlest babies face the back of the car, missing out on the face-to-face time generally considered beneficial to human interaction and development.  When we do turn around to address squabbling siblings or a lost pacifier, we are putting our kids in danger.  Compare this to walking with a baby in a carrier or stroller, or walking side-by-side with an older child (on a safe and beautiful sidewalk) - every moment is an opportunity for conversation, learning, and relationship-building.    

The necessity of owning a car (or two) is not good for family finances

Anything that leads us to waste money is not family-friendly. Spending more unnecessarily means working more and/or saving less, which means less time with our family, more debt, later retirement, and more stress due to financial difficulties. And cars are undoubtedly a huge financial drain, from purchasing (including financing and depreciation), to use and maintenance (insurance, gas, repairs, upgrades...). 

They are certainly a useful waste of money, in their place, but unfortunately, many of our cities are built in such a way as to mandate their use. This means that families need to spend more money (on the order of $8000 a year per vehicle), work more, and sometimes sacrifice the luxury of having an at-home parent, just to keep their two or more cars.

A good chunk of a second income earner's salary often goes just to pay for that second car, which in turn is necessary to get to work and drop kids at school or daycare. Even in the case of a stay-at-home parent, a second car may still be necessary because schools, groceries, libraries, doctor's appointments, and parks are not within walking distance. How many extra hours of work do we put in, just for the privilege of getting from place to place!

What do we do?

Obviously, cars are useful and have their place.  I like to think of them like fast food: convenient, sometimes practical, fun on occasion (like road trips), but definitely not something you want to use every day of your life.

We need to look at what we can do on a city and community level, as the title of this post suggests. At the very least, our cities should be safe and welcoming for all kinds of families and individuals, particularly those who cannot drive cars and end up being the most vulnerable (i.e. children, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor). By developing cities (and suburbs, and exurbs) where car ownership is an implicit prerequisite, we condemn these groups of people to a life of dependency on motorists.

On an individual level, we can make the decision to live car-light as much as possible, or even car-free.  This depends a lot on where you live, but thankfully, most of us have some control over where we live.  We have found the site very helpful in determining the most walkable neighborhoods in our city.  If you plan to change jobs or cities soon, that makes this lifestyle choice even easier: set up your life such that your home and work are both in walkable areas, preferably within walking and/or biking distance from each other.  Take advantage of the opportunities for walking, biking, and public transit that do exist in your community (and they exist in almost every community), and make sure your elected officials know that you support the type of infrastructure that makes this possible and enjoyable.  The chances are good that the less walkable your city/town/community is, the more access you will have to your local elected leaders, so make sure they know that you support infrastructure for walking and biking.

Imagine a residential area that is mixed-use so a stay-at-home mom can drop older kids at school, take little ones to the doctor or library, and pick up groceries on the way home, all without using a car. Imagine the money they will save for retirement, college, or just for that mom to be able to stay home. Imagine a child who grows up with walking as a way of life, built-in exercise and bonding time with parents or siblings. Imagine an elderly couple being able to stay fit and active in their community, without depending on their kids for a ride. This is what is at stake. This is what walkable, livable communities and smart growth are all about.

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