Monday, May 20, 2019

Is it possible for car-less/car-light transport to become normal?

For those who may not know, during the school year I work as a crossing guard. It was something that just kind of fell into my lap after we moved a few years ago and even though I wasn't certain I'd continue on after the first year, the kids that come through are such amazing people that I continue to come back. It doesn't take up much time either, so it's an easy way to have some interaction with other humans since my primary job is pretty solitary.

The year is getting ready to wrap up (it's hard to believe that this week is the end of the school year) and as part of the end-of-year festivities, the school reserves a day during which students are encouraged to walk or bike to school. This day was supposed to take place a week and a half ago, but due to a forecast of severe weather, the date was changed to this past Friday instead (of course, it is spring in the Rockies and it was thundering and hailing that day too).

Normally, this crosswalk is not horribly busy. Although there are many children in the area, most of them are driven to school by a parent, grandparent or another individual. I was amazed to see that for this "event" on Friday there were easily twice, if not three times the number of kids walking or riding bicycles to school -- Which was fantastic!

What was rather disappointing was the high number of parents who parked on the street next to the crosswalk and walked their child across the street to the school so that it appeared that they had walked to school for the event. There were possible prizes for students who walked or biked to school and fresh fruit being given out to parents and students alike, so I suppose a free piece of fruit was motivation to lie about having walked from home to school? I think many of the individuals missed the point.

Although I don't have precise or verified numbers, I would estimate that more than half of the students live within a walkable distance of the school (within a half mile), and about 80% live within an easily bikeable distance, even for those who don't regularly ride (within approximately a mile), and yet, parents continue to drive their children to school.
*Image from Google (w/indicators drawn in by me)
The schools in this neighborhood are set up very close together, with an elementary, middle and high school all within three blocks of each other. Even for families with children attending different schools, it would be reasonable to walk or bike them all together or to have older kids escort the younger ones on foot or bike. The speed limits on all of the adjoining streets are a maximum of 25-30 miles per hour (depending on the street) and at the schools when the children are going to or leaving classes, the speed limit drops to 20 mph. There are abundant sidewalks and bike lanes on all the major thoroughfares.

I suppose I am disappointed in a few things that took place during this walk-or-bike-to-school day.

The first is that it is perplexing that the school waited until the end of the year to encourage students to walk/bike. In my mind, it would make sense to have this day early in the school year (say mid-to-late September) and encourage the children to continue to do this throughout the year. Creating a single day for this activity, at the end of the year no less, makes it seem as though it is out of the ordinary or special, when in reality there are students who do this on a daily basis, throughout the seasons of the year.

As indicated above, it's also disheartening that the biggest pull for parents and students to participate in this day was to receive a piece of fruit or an inexpensive toy, even at the cost of "cheating" and driving to school while pretending to have walked. I have a difficult time understanding the motivation to pretend to have transported oneself under their own power to receive something that is of very minimal value. I also wonder about the lesson this is teaching the kids.

Perhaps the biggest point that sticks in my mind is that it would be great to see more of a push to integrate this behavior into the everyday lives of students, rather than a singled-out day. It is a similar issue that I take in life when others make a fuss about walking or biking to a destination instead of driving. It happens regularly to me when meeting up with friends or colleagues. When I show up on a bicycle they behave as though I am some type of super star because I rode a couple of miles to meet up instead of driving, when in reality I find it's often easier (and certainly more fun) to bike to a destination than to drive (there are exceptions to this - but as a general rule, I've found this to be true).

I have reached a point in life in which I understand that cars are deeply ingrained in U.S. culture/society and the likelihood of this country becoming a car-less one is unlikely. I don't pretend to never drive a car myself - it is a convenience that I am grateful to have at times and in some situations makes for a more efficient mode of transport. Still, I believe it's possible for things to change dramatically if more people can actually experience for themselves what it's like to walk and bike to destinations that are relatively close to home and/or work.

Imagine if every household makes three trips by motorized vehicle a day and just one of those was replaced with a trip by bike or on foot. In reality, it's estimated that each household takes somewhere around 10 trips per day (the data linked is about a decade old, so it may be different today). What if three of those trips were non-motorized transportation trips? Taking out just some of the driving could have such a profound impact on individuals, our communities and the environment (not to mention bank accounts).

Having bike or walk to school (or work) days are a great way of bringing this idea into the consciousness of individuals, but the day itself seems to become more of an event and less of an educational process or a means of illustrating to others how simple, efficient and fun it can be to use alternate methods of getting from one place to another. Since the majority of the educators don't walk or bike to school either (though I admit many of them may be traveling much greater distances), it seems as though it would be more challenging to ask this of the students (and their parents).

I used to believe that modeling the action would be enough to help others see that biking and walking can be very efficient ways of getting around, but I now think there has to be something more. Although seeing others participating in an activity may encourage some to try it out, I don't think it's enough to bring about real and permanent change. It almost seems as though there can be too much extremism on both sides -- both those who believe we should never use individual motorized vehicles and those who will only use individual motorized transportation.
*Image from City of Longmont, see video link below
There was a study done locally in which the researchers found that 55% of respondents (*note this stat can be found at 8:20 in the video) would like to try riding a bike for transportation, but don't due to one or many factors such as not feeling safe or other reasons. So, more than half are interested in riding, but don't for one reason or another. I will also add that 30% of the respondents said there was no way they would ever ride a bike, regardless of infrastructure or comfort on roadways.  Still, that leaves 70% of the local population (which I assume would be similar to statistics in other towns and cities across the US) who are either already riding and at least somewhat comfortable doing so, or who are willing to try it if given the right infrastructure and feeling of security.

So, how does actual implementation and change take place? When I stand at the corner each school day and watch all of the single-occupant vehicles buzzing past, I wonder what has to happen in order for people to begin to make small changes in our lives so that we aren't always traveling in multi-ton, personal cars. I realize this is a complex issue and that there are so many factors at play such as city sprawl, income and disposable income, terrain/geography, weather, physical ailments or challenges, lack of infrastructure, personal history or anxieties, and other aspects, but is it possible to shift the consciousness of most of the population so that more people are willing to give up personal vehicles some of the time?


  1. It's incredible planning to have all those schools close to each other, yet a smidgen walk or ride to school. I can't tell from your photo, but do you have sidewalks on all the streets? Sidewalks make for safe walking and riding.

    1. And I'd like to confirm that here also, by far, people's excuse for not riding more for transportation is lack of safe infrastructure. 90% of my riding is on segregated bike paths or little trafficked neighborhoods. I go out of my way to ride on either of these options, or on sidewalks on main thoroughfares, if I need to get somewhere in a straightforward manner.

    2. The planning is pretty phenomenal, and I wish I knew more about the history (whether it was accidental or intentional, if they hoped it would make it easier for the children to get to school, etc). Might need to do some digging at the library or have a conversation with someone at the city to see what I can find out.

      There are sidewalks on all of the streets. The area is primarily residential with a small retail center running in a strip just above the high school (it's primarily small restaurants/coffee shop). The main arteries through the area have bike lanes as well.

      I think it's often just a mindset and then habits that develop in regard to transportation. It's easy to get caught up in routines and I wonder if there was a longer stretch of time (say a week or two) that encouraged the kids to walk/bike if it would become a more regular occurrence? It's hard to say.

  2. Very well thought out post. "but is it possible to shift the consciousness of most of the population so that more people are willing to give up personal vehicles some of the time?" - I sincerely hope it's possible but how do we do it? Traffic in our local area has increased noticeably in the last few years due to a lot of house building. I've experienced it this week on two days when I cycled at commuting time - it was horrible on the busy parts of my route. And as for schools......... recently my husband and I walked round a lovely village in the Cotswolds at school (primary, so aged 5 - 11) finishing time and I was horrified not just at the number of drivers waiting to pick up children but at those who left their engines running while waiting for them. This was on a sunny spring afternoon when children could have had a lovely walk or cycle home on country lanes. I was so incensed that I made a "turn off your engine" sign to one mother. I felt so sad too at what these children were missing. This is happening in lots of villages.

    1. Lizzie,

      The traffic has increased significantly here over the last few years as well, and navigating through the tighter spaces can be tricky when more and more cars are present. I am thankful that there are many paths that can be taken locally to avoid the very busy roads.

      I suppose my mind keeps wandering to thoughts of what is being taught to children about transportation. If we only teach modes of transportation that involve personal motorized vehicles then the behavior continues to get passed down through generations. I appreciate parents who take the time to walk with their children to school each morning or who have taught them that walking to school is a very normal routine. It's difficult to watch vehicles idling, waiting for the kids before/after school, particularly when I know that the majority of people live very close to the schools.

      I think there is a perception that it takes longer to walk or bike to school (or work), but often times (at least for reasonable distances), the time variance is not much at all, and in heavy traffic, often walking or biking can be faster. But, this isn't what we're taught -- at least most of us.

      I wish I had the answers and could implement a plan for getting more people using self-powered transport, but I know I don't so I won't even pretend to have a solution. I think there are many factors at play, including government, the oil/gas/auto industry, and changing mainstream perception of "normal" transportation, to name just a few. Perhaps as more big cities implement infrastructure and laws, it will trickle down to smaller communities as well? I just wonder if it's possible to change moving into the future.

  3. Unfortunately, it's a horribly ingrained sense of empowerment that the "dream" means owning and driving vehicles. Personally, I am more empowered and free from not driving, but the majority don't think that way. Triggering the shift may come from a very dark place, necessary to save our planet, but it may arrive too late.

    1. On an interesting note, I recently read Streetfight by Sadik-Khan. She points out that major shifts in transportation are and will be happening in cities where density and lack of parking forces cities to beef up bus, train, and bikeways to deal with population growth. A fascinating book.

    2. It is very much a part of life here it seems, Annie. Unfortunately, as you said, I think the only thing that will really bring about change is having no other option - and it will likely be too late at that point (we may already be there). I want to believe things can change though.

      I need to give Street Fight a read. I think I've just been concerned that it would depress me and since there is enough happening to bring me down, I didn't want to make matters worse.

  4. Hey, sorry I've been away so long... just catching up on your adventures! Lots of thoughts here, as my husband Adam and I have been active travel advocates involved in lots of "initiatives" like this in several communities over the past decade or more... but what strikes me is, I don't think it's the fruit that's the reward, it's "being seen to be doing the right thing" - I think it's called virtue signalling these days? Horrible phrase but I reckon it's got its uses... basically, good ol' holier-than-thou self-righteousness. :p

    1. Glad you had time to "stop in" and say hello! Hope things are going swimmingly for you and Adam. :)

      You are likely correct in your assessment that folks just want to appear as though they are doing what is right or expected in the situation. It makes more sense than being motivated by a prize of little value.