Tag Archives: traffic

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.

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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?

Tulip Time Traffic – What If?

The first Saturday afternoon of Tulip Time, I went for a walk downtown along with about 14,000 of my closest friends.

Here’s what 8th Street looked like from the crosswalk:

(These pictures all need to be cropped, but I don’t know how to do that from my phone yet. So scroll through that sky…at least it’s finally blue!)

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Street view:

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And in the other direction:

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And the sidewalks looked like this:

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And this:

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I just ran across this article that describes a Dutch “woonerf” (pronounced VONE-erf) again today. A woonerf is a very small shared street that is intended for people, bicycles, and occasionally cars traveling at walking speed only. It looks like this:

This is what a woonerf looks like.

8th Street is a little bit like a woonerf during busy times, with speeds for all practical purposes limited to walking speed. (The same thing happened during the ice-sculpting competition this winter.) Of course, that begs the question: If it’s too busy for people in cars to be able to move faster than walking speed, then why are we choosing an option that has one or two people (in a car) taking the space of twenty people (on foot)? It’s polluting, it doesn’t allow emergency vehicles to get through, AND it’s inefficient.

There’s no great conspiracy afoot, I’m sure, but the problem is that in spite of our Dutch roots… well, we’re still pretty American. And it doesn’t really occur to us Americans to just up and close roads to cars. Most of the time that doesn’t even make sense; there are plenty of failed pedestrian malls dotting our nation that attest to that (and in the case of Muskegon, an almost completely razed downtown). But I think it’s fair to say that Tulip Time traffic is Too Much of a Good Thing. And we haven’t even talked about what it’s like after the parades, or the woman in a wheelchair I saw attempting to traverse four-lane River Street by the library, or any of the pedestrian near-misses I’m sure many of us witnessed. WHY are we requiring our guests to play Frogger with traffic?

So… what if we could turn that around? What if Tulip Time didn’t have to be traffic hell?

What if we prioritized travel by bike and on foot during the festival? What if we encouraged people to bring their bikes and park their cars well out of town? What if we created even temporary bike lanes for them? What if 8th Street were only open to non-motorized traffic and a shuttle… And what if we expanded that to include a network of downtown streets that would easily and safely let people get to their destinations sans automobile? What if we funded a shuttle that would run between all the major Tulip Time venues and would come every five minutes? What if we sat down on May 12 (the day after Tulip Time ends this year) and made a 20-year plan to cut Tulip Time traffic in half by 2033? It would be a 180-degree shift from where we are now – but that’s okay! The world is changing, and this is a completely do-able endeavor.

Crazy talk, I know, but let’s talk crazy for a while. What do you think? Since I’ve yet to meet the neighbor whose favorite part of Tulip Time is the traffic, let’s assume that traffic reduction is a worthy goal. What would you suggest to make that happen? Feel free to either comment below or over on our Facebook page. Can’t wait to hear what you have to say!

Try something new for Green Commute Week – bike, bus, or feet – and win a prize! More details HERE!

The Need for Speed

As you read this, I’m on my way to the Transportation Bonanza in Lansing. I’ll be attempting updates on Facebook and Twitter throughout – see my contact info at the end of the post!

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We passed two speed traps on the expressway last week, on our way to drop the girls off with their aunt and uncle for the weekend (yayyyy!). And it got me thinking: I see speed traps all the time on the expressway, but very, very rarely in town. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a speed trap in a residential neighborhood (with the notable exception of East Grand Rapids, the only place I’ve ever been pulled over).

And yet… It’s on highways, where drivers don’t face pedestrians, cyclists, turning traffic, or trees that we see speed traps. Really, the only major hazards are deer and other vehicles (and tanks, if you’re in Russia). High speeds are dangerous, but how much does the risk increase between 75 and 85 mph, or even 90? I couldn’t find good data on this – it seems to be up for debate. After all, the road is designed for it.

But we know that there is a dramatic safety difference in going from 20 mph to 40 mph, especially for people trying to live around the cars (i.e., pedestrians and cyclists). So why don’t we see serious speed enforcement on our small residential roadways – the areas where ten miles per hour makes the biggest difference? Is our need for speed just too strong?

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One Too Many Close Calls: Women and Bicycles

“I just had one too many close calls.”

That was what Rachel said. We were standing in a little circle, she and Bernie and I, chatting about what bikes we rode, and the big White Pine Trail ride she took last year, and all the kinds of things you tend to chat about when you find out that the people around you share your special brand of crazy.

And at some point in the conversation, she said this. How after bike commuting all through the warm season, day after day after day, she tapered down to nearly nothing by the end of the summer. The guy who waved her in front of him… then hit her rear wheel, knocked her down, and raced off. The woman who nearly hit her, braked, and then nearly hit the son who was following her.

One too many close calls.

I get it. I DID it. I rode through 110F heat (not recommended), and on windy, blustery days. I felt like I was getting away with something, leaving the girls with the sitter and riding away ALL BY MYSELF for a half-an-hour break before work.

But the day that the woman in the gray sedan cut me off pulling into the Secretary of State, when I braked and swerved and barely missed being hit… Well, I drove to work the next day. And the day after that. I had a nine-month-old at home! I don’t remember when I rode in after that, but it was much frequently than I had before.

One too many close calls.

I linked to an article over on our Facebook page a week or so ago that addresses this specifically. On a population basis, women are substantially more sensitive to the safety of the bicycling environment than men are. The presence of dedicated bicycle infrastructure – bike lanes and paths – also make a bigger difference to the numbers of women who choose to ride than the number of men who do.

An excerpt from the article:

The big question, of course, was what kept more women from biking. Men and women gave several of the same reasons for not riding, … but the biggest disparity was a safety concern regarding nearby car traffic. While 43 percent of women cited that concern as a reason they didn’t ride, only 28 percent of men said the same.

We’re just not into close calls.

As spring approaches, I’ve been eagerly anticipating getting my bike on the road again. I’ve been brainstorming ways to get more than one girl on the bike that I have now – can I rig something up on my rear rack for the preschooler? What will it feel like to carry two on this bike? Can we make it work? I’m excited to get out there, get moving, to feel the wind and the sun and listen to the spring peepers and smell the thawing earth. Like this woman in Traverse City, I’m eager to trade in the gasoline and make almonds and dark chocolate my fuel of choice.

But will I? Or will traffic make me too nervous, or actually present itself as too dangerous? If someone cuts me off with kids on the bike, will I just hang it up and start trolling the internets for houses and jobs in Portland? (We don’t really ALL have to live in Portland, do we?)

I won’t know until I try. I’ve heard mixed reviews on the forums, with many parents saying that they feel drivers give them much more space when they’re traveling with their children – and many leaning out their windows to tell them that what they’re doing is a bad idea. We don’t change the status quo by following the status quo.

But I’m like Rachel. I’m not into close calls. So… stay tuned?

Around the web on this topic:
Infrastructure to Blame for the Cycling Gender Gap

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Kids Don’t Walk to School because Traffic Is Crazy

Last Thursday,we talked about how active transportation helps kids concentrate better in school, and how in spite of this most new schools are built in places where walking to school is made difficult. This week, we’re going to shift gears to discuss why kids who go to school in their own neighborhoods aren’t walking to school anymore.

Now, if you either have kids or know kids, consider pausing here for a second to find your own thoughts on this. Snag a sticky note or the back of a receipt, or just make a mental note.

This isn’t in my font package. Yet. Graphic designers – want to get cracking on this? I’m hoping to get a prize for “first use of the superellipsis in real life.”

Okay, got it? Because I think we already know where our trouble spots are, and it will be interesting to see if the things you came up with match what I’ve been finding.

Let’s look first at the real research, then see how well it corresponds to our own experience.  A study published in the Journal of School Health indicates several reasons:

According to their survey of 314 school and district leaders of elementary and middle schools, the two most commonly raised issues were concerns about the safety of crossing streets (54%) and the availability of sidewalks (54%).

Additional factors included distance to school (46%), traffic volume (42%), parental attitudes (27%), traffic speed (27%), neighborhood condition (24%), and student attitudes (10%).

In another study, a researcher from the University of Michigan found that safety concerns such as traffic speed, traffic volume, crime, and the weather were all significant factors. This study has a couple of interesting twists, though – kids are also more likely to walk to school if their routes are more green, and parents are more likely to let them walk when there is a barrier of trees between the sidewalk and auto lanes. So design makes a difference.

Now, let’s address the Big Ugly. I found it really interesting that neither of those studies mentioned “stranger danger,” which seems to be one of the first things that comes up in any Google search you may do on kids walking to school. I did a survey of some online forums – you know, the ones with the anonymous judgy mamas – when I was beginning this article and honestly thought that I’d be writing something completely different here. On these sites, the presence “weirdos lurking and kidnappers and child molesters” is the truly insurmountable obstacle for some of the commenters. This isn’t really surprising when we consider that media reports in general focus pretty heavily on a fear of strangers, and I think there are other social factors at play here, as well.

For me, this is one of those niggling little worries that surfaces only when one of my children decides that it’s a good idea to hide underneath a stack of chairs at church for more than half-an-hour, or when I’ve walked three times around the house without seeing even a flash of blonde hair behind a tree. Statistically, though, I know that I would have to leave them unattended in the front yard for roughly 750,000 years before abduction actually became a likely outcome, so I will myself not to worry about it. Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids addresses these concerns really thoroughly, if you’re interested.

Reality is, thankfully, so very much more encouraging than that.  I did a quick survey of  my Facebook friends on whether their kids walked to school or not, and their responses were just great.

Out of twelve responses, four had children who walked to school.  Barriers cited by both the walking and not-walking families included it being too far (3), poor infrastructure/traffic (5), and convenience (2).  But the comments! This was the best part for me; I found these really interesting.

I think fresh air and a brisk walk is always a good way to start the day.

Yes. Every day. It’s why we bought in the neighborhood we live in! From 3rd grade on.

Yes, we walk. After living so far away from school and having to get on the bus at 6:45 each morning, I decided that I when I have a family I want to live in a town where we could walk wherever we wanted.

That’s why we bought the house we did. However, in winter I give rides in the a.m. (too dark).

I’m including these quotes because I think they reflect our experience, but our voices don’t seem to be resonating. Many of us want our children to walk to school. The way that we’ve laid out our cities is part of why we can’t do that. There is so much more to say on this, but I am well out of time for today.

So, was it what you thought? When we talked at the beginning of this article about why kids don’t walk to school anymore, how accurate were your predictions? And do you encourage your kids to walk to school? Why or why not?

This is part two in an anticipated three-part series. Part One, on how getting to school in an active way helps kids concentrate, is here. Stop in next Thursday for part three!