Category Archives: Walkability

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.

You’ve Earned a Break, Friend. It’s for Democracy.

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The day was long enough to warrant a walk that was even longer. After a day or three alone in a house with sweetly intense small people, my home had indeed begun to feel like a “vortex of isolation.”* You’ve had those too, I know.

Fourteen blocks along shifty, snowy sidewalks, my feet are skittish at their inability to find a firm spot to land. I grump over hip-high snowbanks, then feel simultaneously guilty and grateful – guilty for my gripey discontent, grateful that our town’s sidewalk plow has allowed me any path at all through this deep midwinter night.

Although the shop windows are dark, the sidewalks downtown are busy: a neon rainbow of runners, dogs bouncing and whining their wish to make friends, other women who have fled their homes to walk away the day.

Is there something inherently welcoming in a coffee shop, or is it just that this place has become my sanctuary of evening escape? It’s a relief to take in the range of people at the tables around me. Some stare seriously at the white pages in front of them. There is a woman who leans in to a quiet conversation, tilts her head and laughs in an easy, familiar way. A brown-haired girl moves her hand uncertainly along her necklace and purses her lips as her companion explains something to her. These nameless people aren’t my tribe, but their presence is comforting.

I stand at the counter, decided in my choice of jasmine tea and pretending that a whole milk mocha piled high with whipped cream isn’t even an option. As the barista walks up, I sigh. And what I mean is that I SIGH, an another-polar-vortex-is-moving-in sigh, a watch-out-we’re-deflating-a-hot-air-balloon sigh. “Oops. That wasn’t supposed to come out!” I said. She laughs. “Oh, I know that sigh! My seven-year-old stayed home sick from school and fought with his brother the whole day. I was so glad to get to come to work tonight!” We make small talk about the fine art of surviving one’s blessings as she rings up my order.

This lighthearted conversation was exactly what I needed. It’s something we all need, as it turns out. Although we desperately need deep and dependable friendships, we also need these passing connections to help us feel like we’re part of something bigger than our own skin. If you’ve ever said, “ugh, I just need to get out!” (and you have said that, right?) you already know this somewhere in your bones.

Urban sociologist Ray Oldenberg argues that a “third place – a place that’s not home, and not work, but a neutral place where all are welcome – is more than just a place to relax: It’s a cornerstone of thriving democracy.

Again and again we hear about how polarized our political climate has become and how we’re migrating further to the ends of the ideological spectrum by the stand-alone opinions of talking heads. Interacting with real people – our neighbors, especially – has a moderating effect on us. We enjoy going out because we’re human, but in the process we reinforce the foundation of civil society.

I’m not thinking about protecting democracy on this night, though. I lean back in my chair allow myself the space to feel grateful for, well, for this SPACE and for the people who fill it. They’re not the ones I’ll call when my kids are sick or when the very thought of moderating one more sibling dispute is enough to send me off the rails, but they are my neighbors. And tonight, being surrounded by their anonymous selves is just what I need.

As you go out and about your week, will you consider meeting a friend in some third space? Of course you have cabin fever, and let’s face it, the way this winter has gone you have most certainly earned a break. But it’s bigger than that. It’s for democracy!

If you decide you’re willing to serve your country in this way, leave a comment or shoot me an email at tulip.lane@outlook.com. I’d love to hear about it.

*This phrase from Charles Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design, which I highly, highly recommend. (That’s an affiliate link, so I’ll get a small cut of your purchase if you click through that link. Thanks!)

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?

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?

A Place for Everything (Wednesday’s Words)

Place for Everything - Franklin

Our recent move has me feeling this little proverb pretty acutely. Since we’re planning to move again in a few months, we’ve limited ourselves to unpacking our frequently-used stuff. That has mostly worked, but a few times a week I find myself working myself into a frenzy trying to figure out where I stashed that seldom-used credit card or fuzzy wool socks.

This morning I saw mention on Facebook of another person running killed by a person driving. And it got me thinking about how this proverb, which we usually apply to order in our homes, is also applicable to order in our towns. Not knowing where things are creates chaos in my personal life; not having a place for all of our people in all their different ways of getting around creates chaos in a community.

When there are no sidewalks, no crosswalks, no bike lanes, everyone is jumbled up together like a junk drawer the size of your stock pot. Chaos is always aggravating. Sometimes, it’s fatal.

Lord, have mercy.

What Happened on the Way to School: What YOU Thought

Friends, I can’t thank you enough for your feedback on that post about how I was nearly hit near CJ’s school. I love that we can have this conversation as a community, and hope that those of you who prefer not to comment publicly will feel free to email me at tulip(dot)lane(at)outlook(dot)com.

Now, what you said. I pulled these both from the comments section and my personal Facebook page.

First of all, it’s clear that this type of experience is NOT unique to me. One of my thoughts in the middle of this experience was about why all this weird stuff always happened to ME. What am I doing wrong? Why doesn’t this happen to anybody else? Well. Let’s see what you said:

In the most intensive year of my life as a pedestrian (Chicago, 2011-2012) I was actually hit by a car once while running (minor thing, thank goodness) and had a car clip the front of [my son’s] stroller once. Yes. When you walk more, there’s more chance to experience this kind of crazy.

I’ll have to tell you about the time I was walking my kids to school and hit the trunk of a car with my hand while in the crosswalk because they didn’t give us the right-of-way…

I too have done something like that! Also, one of my friends said her normally calm husband finally walked out to the front of their house one day and yelled at the drivers going too fast to “SLOW DOWN” because there were kids around! Sometimes we just HAVE to speak up!

My takeaway is that when we get out of our cars, we frequently experience the public realm as a a hostile place. We don’t typically seek out confrontation, but when we travel by foot or on bike it seems to become unavoidable. That’s clearly a problem.

I think the fact that the driver had been confronted and punched in the face before is a huge red flag! She obviously drives in an aggressive manner and either isn’t aware or doesn’t care to change. I think you were right to confront her.

I think you did the right thing because when no one calls someone out for improper behavior, it is as if we are encouraging said behavior to continue…

I believe that pedestrians and bicyclists, by extension feel vulnerable and exposed. I applaud you for trying to strike up a dialogue. We need to do that more often and not feel like we were in the wrong even when it’s not our fault. We are quick to blame cyclists and walkers for pushing the boundaries when we do it often in our cars and don’t seem to notice that. (Emphasis mine.)

I thought it was interesting that everyone who commented thought that confronting her was an appropriate response, because I really questioned myself on this point. After I read that last comment above, I figured out why: In my gut, I felt like I was on the wrong because I had been crossing the street. This floors me. I, of all people, have so thoroughly internalized the message our surroundings give that I feel like I’m breaking a rule by crossing the freaking road? What the heck?

The question that remains is the most important one, though – was this conversation effective? And this is where I think Shelly absolutely nailed it:

…learning the genuine art of non-violent communication with these aggressive people is helpful, and can also teach others how to handle their unruliness and regain some humanity.

I don’t think our conversation was completely successful. It led to surface reconciliation, but I’m not convinced that she thought she had done anything wrong or processed that her actions had put me in danger. In fact, I think she may have still felt wronged by me because I acted like I didn’t think she was going to stop. (Gah. That still frustrates me, a week later.) The communication aspect is another post entirely, but I do think it’s key to the conversation. There’s a solid summary of the technique here.

I’m going to end with something Michael said – a reminder and challenge to both myself and all of you.

The more we walk and ride our bikes, the more considerate we will be around other pedestrians and cyclist. Keep up the dialogue.

A Crazy Thing Happened on the Way Home from School Today

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Two weeks into living in town, and I am LOVING my ability to get places on foot. We’ll talk about how awesome it’s been in coming weeks. But I had a crazy, crazy experience today that I just had to share.

I’d just dropped CJ off from school and was crossing the street right next to her school. It’s a crazy corner – it doesn’t have the fastest traffic of our walk commute, but people swing around the corner like it’s just a curve in the road. As I crossed, a very big, black SUV started swinging around the corner – and it didn’t look like she was going to stop. So I put up my hand – no, not my middle finger, my HAND – in a “Holy cow, STOP!” kind of way.

And she honked at me.

You have got to be kidding. (That’s what the guy walking behind me said.) So I walked over to talk to her. And here is where you say, “Meika, seriously. What the blippity were you thinking?” We’ll get back to that.

She hit the gas and accelerated past me, FAST. Total road rage; completely out-of-control.

Throwing up my hands, I started walking home but stopped after a few steps. Thirty seconds earlier, I had crossed that street with my six-year-old. She was dropping her child off at the same school. We do this every day, twice. How can I just let this go? What about everybody else who crosses this street, what about the KIDS who cross here by themselves every day? I decided to see if I could get a picture of her license plate so I could report her for reckless driving. Or something. I don’t know.

And that is when I got to talk to her.

I wasn’t planning to approach her; she pulled up to me. She was stopping, she said! Why did I hold up my hand like she wasn’t going to? She honked to let me know that she saw me! (Ahem.) I told her that honking sounds aggressive, always, that the way she swerved past me was incredibly dangerous, and that if she hit me with her beast I’d be dead. She told me that she’d had a lady punch her in the face before in traffic and was afraid that I was going to do that to her. In the end, we both apologized and treated it as a miscommunication.

So you remember the other day how we talked about our cars making us all into a bunch of Neanderthals?

[When we get in our cars], millennia of linguistic development and body language melt away, replaced with a blaring horn. No wonder we don’t like each other anymore.

We’re like a bunch of cavemen, grunting at each other in the dark.

Which brings us back to the “what were you thinking?” question, which is also what I asked myself on the way home as I was wondering why this kind of thing doesn’t ever seem to happen to anyone else. I came up with a few things, and here’s where I’d like your thoughts, too.

First of all, most of us don’t walk very many places; I’m walking much more now than I was just a few weeks ago. This may not be as unusual as I think for people who frequently walk.

Second, although I don’t really think deeply about it in the moment, I categorize this as bullying and feel as if I have a moral obligation to stand up to it for the preservation of our civil society. Seriously. It’s a hundred million little things like this that create our culture and set its tone. This isn’t how we’re supposed to treat each other. SO STOP IT.

Third, I have an underdeveloped sense of self-preservation and should probably be prepared to get punched in the nose someday.

So what do you think? What are some appropriate responses for a pedestrian who encounters a threatening driver? And what can we do as drivers to make sure that this is never us?