Category Archives: Kids and Cars and Getting Around

Three Easy Ways to Fix the Streets around the College

For a few more precious weeks, she sits in front of me as I ride her home from school. The bleary-eyed days of babies screaming the house awake two hours before dawn are being replaced by mornings I consider serving the kindergartener a cup of coffee before school.

Today, though, this last baby chatters about the “app-ohs” she had for snack, asks if dragons are allowed in our house, and repeatedly demands chicken nuggets for lunch.

DSCF6584

We cut through Hope College’s peaceful campus to take advantage of their leafy sidewalks, but a wrong turn this week brought us down one of the streets directly adjacent to the school instead. It was lined with parked cars on either side, and we enjoyed the slow pace of the street, a pace that matched our own. A car pulled out behind us as we rode that street, glided past us as we turned the corner. Two blocks later the driver pulled into a driveway, safely home.

American to the core, the student appeared to have driven five meager blocks. And this is our culture: we drive as a default, as a reflex. We drive because it feels like an indulgent waste of time to spend those precious minutes on a walk. We drive because it’s easy and we’re promised parking on the other end – and sometimes because it freaks us out to cross that one road. Most of us have done this, myself included.

But this student’s journey suggests a set of solutions to the questions our city is facing this season.

Front page in the local paper last Tuesday: Record enrollment at Hope College has huge impact on Holland.

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The two big issues are parties and traffic/parking.

The college has and maintains 998 total parking spaces, said Tom Bylsma, Hope College’s chief financial officer and vice president of business. Students must have permits to park and earlier this month, a total of 955 had been sold. It is standard to leave a small cushion of spaces for snow piles in the winter, he said.

“That should be enough,” Bylsma said, adding that historically, about one-third of the students have a vehicle.

The car-lined streets in the Hope College Neighborhood is a concern mentioned numerous times by people who live there.

Homeowners on 12th Street said if there is practice or a game at the soccer stadium, it is near impossible to get in or out of driveways.

Yet Hope officials have not had any formal discussions about a parking structure, Bylsma said, but added they would be open to conversations about it with city leaders.

“We want to be good neighbors,” Bylsma said. “No matter what college or university you go to there will be parking challenges. We feel the parking is sufficient.”

The real challenge is parking behaviors of people, he said. People tend to want to park as close and conveniently as possible to where they want to be “and often people park where they shouldn’t,” he said. “And often times that is what creates the problem.” (Emphasis mine.)

“I see the biggest problem is going to be parking,” City Councilman Wayne Klomparens said Wednesday, adding it was a problem when he went to school there.

Councilman Myron Trethewey suggested allowing parking on only one side of the roads in that neighborhood to help ease congestion.

I rode through campus again today to see how all those parking lots are looking, and I bet you’ve guessed it already:

Hope College - parking lotb

Tom Bylsma, quoted above, nails it: we want to park as close to our destination as we possibly can, and will only choose otherwise if there is a compelling reason to do so.

In addition to all the dedicated student parking lots, there is free street parking everywhere in the city during daytime hours. Much of this parking is blocks closer to the classroom buildings than the parking lots. The streets by the college are, indeed, lined with cars for much of the day.

Hope college - 12th street

Much to the neighbors’ chagrin, there is no disincentive to driving five blocks.

This is actually not a problem that’s difficult on a technical level. It’s been addressed, successfully, in many other places. But it does require us to begin to think a little bit differently about when and how we use our cars in the city. With that said, here are some great options:

Option 1: Meters

This would be a fun experiment. Leave everything precisely the same as it is now, but meter the on-street parking at a reasonable rate (I’ll leave it to the experts to determine what’s reasonable, though parking guru Donald Shoup suggests setting a price that produces 85% occupancy). Given my memories of how far I was willing to walk in college to avoid paying for parking, this might solve whatever problem we have all by itself.

The powerful thing about this option is that it’s revenue-producing. Even though we think of providing street parking as a free service, it’s not. Our streets are built and maintained out of the big bucket of property taxes that we all pay into, so we’re subsidizing all this extra driving and parking as a community (city-wide, not just in this area). Although we could just use the revenue to offset the additional wear-and-tear from the weight of the parked vehicles, this would also be a great opportunity to improve our city’s bikeways as an additional step in solving the parking problem. We’ll talk a little more about that below.

Option 2: Parking districts

Chicago parking pass

Homeowners on the street might not be any too enamored with the idea of meters on their streets, but there’s a tried-and-true workaround here, too – the parking district. The sticker above is still stuck to the windshield of my car from last weekend’s trip to visit my adorable niece (and her wonderful parents) in Chicago. My brother has a resident sticker on his car, and can park anywhere in his neighborhood zone for free. This is a guest pass, which is good for 24 hours and cost them about fifty cents.

(As a side note, maybe someday I’ll tell you guys about how much car ownership costs in Japan. Seven years back, and I still can’t get over how cheap it is here in comparison!)

Option 3: Quality network of bike lanes

Putting a price on parking will deter students who drive five blocks, but presenting a viable alternative to driving is essential for those who live further off-campus. Replacing parking lanes with appropriately-sized bike lanes – ideally, separated from moving traffic – would respect the transportation choices that so many students are already making and be an economic win for the city as a whole, too. I’m hoping to talk about this in more detail in coming weeks, so I’ll leave it there for now.

Rainbow shoes

My friends tell me that the pigtailed toddler in rainbow shoes will be headed off to college before I know it. I hope the city of her choice, the school of her choice, will have set up systems that make active transportation easy. I hope that spending the inordinate amount of money necessary to own and maintain a car will be a choice for her, and not a requirement. I hope that someone has decided to make room for her on the roads if she chooses to travel on two wheels, as she does today. And let’s do the same for our neighbors kids.

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She Wants to Ride the School Bus, but It’s Not Working

This cartoon popped up in my Twitter feed via @BrentTodarian. I haven't found the artist yet.
This cartoon Yehuda Moon cartoon (produced by Rick Smith & Brian Griggs) sums it up – but for parents making this decision every morning, it’s not quite so simple.

“It’s not the first two streets that are the problem; she can cross those. It’s that last street, because it doesn’t have a stop sign. And people drive SO fast through town.”

We stood in one small circle of conversation among many others, the room buzzing with questions about the first week of school. Flocks of small children swooped around our legs, swiping cups of lemonade before flying off to bring mayhem to some formerly-quiet corner of the church.

“It’s frustrating, because I really, really wanted her to ride the bus to school. It’s good for her to learn to take the bus and to have that independence, and to know that if she’s not out there on time she’ll miss it.”

I play with the edges of the paper coffee cup, folding the handle up and down as I listen. The coffee is thick and almost greasy somehow, leaving its mark on the sides of the cup.

“But I have other kids, too – honestly, if I have to wake them up anyway to walk her to the bus stop, it’s just easier to stick them in their car seats.”

Yes, the agony of organizing multiple children for school runs. Pulling the sleeping child out from under their blankets, draping that floppy, unwilling weight over your shoulder as you run out the door, returning to the house to pull a second droopy kid from bed. Tears falling from those bleary eyes, always, mama frazzled and late.

We talked through a couple of possibilities. There aren’t any other kids on her block going to the same bus stop, so a walking school bus (uh… to the school bus?) is out. The problem is that one street that’s hard to cross.

Almost all of the east-west streets around here stop at every intersection, but the north-south streets normally go eight blocks or so between stop signs. Of course, this means that traffic on these streets is much faster and that they’re more difficult and dangerous to cross. They’re designed so that people passing through by car can make good time – but they don’t add value to our neighborhoods.

I can think of three women just off the top of my head this morning who are driving their kids to school because there is a street too busy for their child to cross. I accompany my capable children every day for this same reason. The profound irony of this, of course, is that 20% or more of morning traffic is made up of parents doing just that. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

When we begin to talk about a Montessori City, we’re talking about a place where kids can practice age-appropriate behaviors without being unnaturally constrained by their environment. This is entirely do-able, but it’s going to require us to make some changes – and the sooner we allow our kids to live full lives right in their own neighborhoods, the better off our whole community will be down the road.

“It takes me seven minutes to walk her to the bus stop, longer if her little brother insists on walking. It takes me ten minutes to drive her to school. I think I’ll let her take the bus home, but I’m going to start driving her to school. This just isn’t working.

Three Ways to Love on ALL the Kids Starting School

DSCF6396 They walk off this morning, bright backpacks on their backs and sweet-smelling lunchboxes in their hands (heaven knows those things won’t smell so good at Christmastime). Bouncing down the sidewalk with first-day enthusiasm, excited about new friends and new work. I trail behind, snapping pictures and wondering how it is that these kids who climbed into our bed every single night for years on end are suddenly so confident. So BIG.

We walk with them today, and probably will every day this year. It’s a walk they could easily manage, but you know – traffic.

And so, here’s what I hope the people who drive through my neighborhood this year do as they go on their way to drop off their own little babies-turned-big. (Last year I was one of those driving through, so I get the challenges.)

  • Hide their phone from themselves.
    We saw it already this morning, the good guy we know talking on his cell phone as he breezed through the crosswalk. We can do this. We can put our phones down, turn them off, set them to airplane mode, when we’re going somewhere. It feels like we’re cutting off an appendage, but you know how Jesus said that if a part of your body was getting you in trouble you’d be better off without it? This counts.
  • Slow down.
    I won’t belabor this because we’ve talked about it before and will again, but the human body is not designed for collisions with steel and fiberglass. An adult body considers anything above 20 mph a high speed. With kids, it’s even worse. For every single mile per hour faster we drive – yes, really, in increments that small – there’s a dramatic and measurable increase in the likelihood that a person hit by our car will die. We don’t want that. You don’t want that. We don’t want that for our communities, and we don’t want a kid who makes a mistake to pay for that mistake with his or her life. That’s not the kind of people we are. So let’s slow down.
  • Chill out.
    Some of the worst behavior I’ve ever seen in adult humans has been while waiting in the car line in the past couple years. Honking, yelling, cutting people off, swerving around the whole car line at ridiculous speeds while there are kids walking around – insane. One of the most frustrating pieces of driving is getting stuck in traffic we don’t expect, and we want to make up the time. But it’s not worth it. Let’s keep our cool.

    We can do this, and it’s worth it. Why? Because we believe in the beauty, the potential and the right-now awesomesauce of every kid starting their new school adventure this fall. We believe in the futures of the children pulling up in minivans and in the futures of the children who are skidding up on Huffys. We watch out for our kids – ALL of our kids – because as a community, that’s who we are.

  • Snow Day Survival Guide, including a free printable!

    Adorable. Fresh, clean snow.
    Adorable. Fresh, clean snow.

    If you’re all in a panic because your kids are going mad and you don’t have a thing prepared for them to do on the millionth snow day in a row, go on ahead and skip to the end. I won’t tell!

    This winter is no joke.

    It’s snowed every single day since forever. We haven’t had school since last Wednesday, and wind chills for today are forecast to hit about -30F (which is -34C – we’ve almost converged!).

    But what do you do? There are only so many days you can spend huddled inside waiting for spring, especially if you live with lots of little humans.

    There’s something to be said for celebrating the place you live, crazy climate and all. In honor of our fourth straight snow day, I’m offering a few hints on getting outside to enjoy this unique weather with a free printable below to wrap it up.

    Dress in layers.

    And I mean lots of them. Two pair of socks; leggings, long underwear, or fleece tights under jeans; undershirt, long-sleeved shirt, and sweater – this is your base layer. Then add your boots, snowpants, hat, mittens or gloves, and scarf. It’s so much easier to enjoy being out in the snow if you’re dressed for it!

    Stay out of the wind.

    Play on the sheltered side of the house and avoid open areas – it will make a tremendous difference in how long you’re able to stay outside. Good old-fashioned snow forts make great windblocks, too.

    Come in for warming breaks.

    This is a new one to me that came from a woman who grew up in Alaska. You can get outside in some crazy cold weather, you just need to come in periodically to let your skin warm up. So send the kids out for twenty minutes – or better yet, join them, the fresh air will do you good too! – then come back in for five or ten minutes to warm up and head right back out. Go ahead and leave the gear on and your sanity may actually remain intact.

    Activity for Desperate Parents

    20140128-001806.jpg

    Now, for that moment when you really need to go inside, I created – ahem – a printable. It’s a poem called The Snowman which I’ve formatted as a booklet for the kiddos to illustrate. It requires the ability to do double-sided printing but otherwise needs absolutely no preparation ahead of time. It is appropriate for preschoolers and young grade-schoolers (my kids are 5 and 7 and enjoyed it; the 2-year-old took a yogurt bath and decorated my kitchen with cinnamon rather than participate).

    Get it while it’s hot (hahahahahaaa):

    The Snowman: Click here to download!

    Additional Activity for the Exceptionally Motivated or Desperate

    Again, this needs no preparation ahead of time. Grab some kind of dish with sides from the kitchen – a cookie sheet with a lip, casserole dish, pie plate, that sort of thing – and bring it outside to put some snow in. Make a miniature snowman. (If you live around here you might need to let the snow warm up a little for it to pack.) Then watch it melt, just like the snowman in the book (hopefully it won’t traumatize your little artistes!). A lesson in solid and liquid states.

    UPDATE! What’s a snow day without a video?

    Many thanks to Sammy for this suggestion. Head on over there if you love to escape through adoption stories. 🙂

    See? You covered nature, literature, and science today. Win!

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    More on helping kids thrive in:
    Ten Reasons for Your Child to Walk to School
    The Courage of Children
    The Capability of Children
    Car Time to School Keeps Kids from Concentrating

    Something for Everybody (Wednesday’s Words)

    Something for Everybody - Jacobs

    I ran across this quote in an article about allowing our kids to inform our observations about our places. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. When I was five, I walked to school every day by myself. There was one busy street I needed to cross, but I have to think it wasn’t as busy as the streets in our town are now.

    Yesterday as I was walking CJ in to school, she asked, “When can I walk to school by myself?” She craves that independence, that ability to do something by herself. And though I fully support her in this – we’ve explored before how essential this is to a child’s developing abilities, how it affects her cognitive development, how other cultures actively encourage this independence – the traffic on our local streets runs fast. The streets are wide and difficult to cross. There are no crossing guards in the morning (and not enough in the afternoon). We’ve made a city for the able-bodied, but there’s no place here for my little girl and her burgeoning sense of independence.

    Jane Jacobs takes this one step further and encourages us to consider a city that is actually created BY everybody. I don’t know exactly what this looks like, but how much healthier would our places be if this were something we strived for? Maybe I’ll ask the girls today. What does a city made for you look like?

    What Cartoon Are You Living in?

    The Jetsons’ city, built around the flying car.

    The way we get around shapes the world we live in – and vice versa.

    George Jetson is ejected from his cozy bed in the morning right onto a conveyor belt that draws him through his whole morning routine (and with my toddler getting up for the day most mornings at 5:30, WHAT I WOULDN’T GIVE for that contraption!). He dials up a push-button breakfast, then is delivered to his flying car for a grueling two-hour work day.

    We’ll ignore for now the fact that George would surely not have maintained his svelte figure if he’d never had to move a muscle all day long, thanks to the conveyor belts that rendered functional feet obsolete.

    The Jetsons’ Saarinen-inspired community – can we call it a community? – is suspended impossibly in mid-air, perched atop narrow pillars that inexplicably never seem to sway. Although the family lives in an apartment, the show portrays the ultimate suburban dream – lots of space, yet everything is easily accessible. A futuristic world built around flying cars looks appropriately weird to our eyes.

    (Go ahead, take 56 seconds to relive your childhood and watch the intro.)

    It’s worth noting that as much as the way we get around shapes the world we live in, the converse is also true: the world we live in shapes the way we get around. Taking a walk would involve a long, treacherous fall for a Jetson – the flying car was it for them even more than our grounded vehicles are for us.

    postcard - radiator springs

    The movie Cars is similarly unbelievable. In this case, rather than being set in the far future the movie is peopled entirely by, well cars.

    The little burg of Radiator Springs has seen better days. The interstate passed them by and the poor cars of Radiator Springs languish, desperate for a visitor to bring business in to town.

    Lightning McQueen, the little racecar who could, growls around town with the locals. A tire shop, a drive-in themed motel, racing the roads outside of town. Much of the action takes place in streets or parking lots, a logical public space for cars.

    Radiator Springs isn't immune to sprawl.
    Radiator Springs isn’t immune to sprawl.

    Radiator Springs could be any of our towns, its main street found anywhere in North America. Wouldn’t you think that a city designed for a movie in which cars are the main characters would look a little strange? I mean, it’s built for CARS. Not people. Our cities are built for people – right? But a town built as a habitat for cars looks completely familiar and comfortable to us… because our cities are built – or have been retrofitted – for cars.

    The shape of our community shapes our sense of community

    The interesting thing about these cartoons is the relative presence and absence of public space. In the Jetsons, there really isn’t much public space – it’s hard to build a park mid-air. Interestingly enough, we see technology – like video calls – taking the place of that in-person interaction.

    In Cars, on the other hand, almost all of the action takes place in the public realm. The streets of this little town function like the public plaza of a medieval city, where everyone gathers by intention and runs into each other through the course of their day. Cars don’t fit in houses very well, after all.

    Neither of these communities is built around the individual person. That works well for the cars, because they ARE the individual people in their story. I suspect that the world of the Jetsons would have been somewhat less rosy in real life.

    A couple other cartoons that are interesting for seeing how characters are portrayed getting around are Curious George (since monkeys don’t drive)…

    And Richard Scarry’s Busytown, where apparently all animals drive everywhere and all the time:

    So what do you think? What cartoon do YOU live in? What would your kids say? Feel free to leave a comment, or e-mail me at tulip.lane@outlook.com.

    We’re Not Even Trying

    The housing inspector was going to be at our house at 9:00 a.m. sharp today, and my husband was gone for an early meeting. That meant that I had to make sure all three girls were ready for their day and out the door at 7:40 a.m. Sticking to the timetable was crucial.

    In the swirl of

    WHERE ARE YOUR SHOES???
    and
    HOW IS YOUR HAIR NOT COMBED YET??

    I decided that it would make best sense to drive the three blocks to school today so I could do my other two drop-offs directly from there. For five minutes I sat in the driveway, pulling forward and back as walkers passed down the sidewalk, waiting for traffic to clear. Once we were finally on our way, we passed a dad walking his pink-fleeced little girl to school. For five more minutes I worked my minivan through the traffic snarl outside the school to get to the elementary school drop-off line. As I clicked open the door, the dad and his little girl walked up to the kindergarten classroom.

    For crying out loud, WE’RE NOT EVEN TRYING HERE. Walking this journey is obviously more efficient than driving, but some days it’s scary as hell. All those cars I was tangled in are in a HURRY, and trying to walk through an intersection with no crosswalk and no crossing guard and no anything at all but raw courage and a teeny flame of anger that we are so freaking uncivilized takes a lot of energy and a certain amount of disregard for one’s own mortality. And half the reason everyone’s in a car to begin with is that most of us don’t really want to contemplate death first thing on a Thursday morning, before we’ve even finished our morning coffee.

    I’m tired of pretending that this is working for us.

    I watched the video below first thing this morning. It’s an almost surreal foil to my maddening morning drop-off experience and I just can’t shake the contrast; it’s been on constant replay in my head all morning.

    It brings you to the bike route that passes beneath the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where you can take in Gothic architecture and modern art and street performers playing Bach on your way to school. Take a look at all the different types of people – especially families – on all the different bikes passing through. And imagine – imagine! – if there were anywhere in America where you could have this kind of experience during your morning commute.

    (If you don’t have a lot of time, consider clicking to the middle of the video – it’ll give you a good sense of what it’s about. You can read the original post by Mark Wagenbuur of Bicycle Dutch here.)

    The Netherlands hasn’t always been a beautiful place to get around by bike. In the 1970s, they were every bit as auto-centric as we are now. They decided that it wasn’t in their national interests to continue down that path and made a change.

    We can, too.

    But we have to try.

    So today I’m feeling all frustrated and ragey and like it is all futile, all of it, whatever it is. And so what I’m looking for from you is just this – your wisdom. What do YOU do when you feel like the mountain that stands before you is just too big?