More Urban Family Values

Carla Saulter may be my favorite writer. A few months ago I cataloged some of her work on raising kids car-free in the city, and in the six months since I last commented she has written many more stories for Grist. Here are three of my favorites.

‘Mom, can we get the kind of car that we keep at our house?’

In this article, Saulter discusses a conversation she had with her daughter about why they don’t own a car. As car-free kids grow up, they start to notice that most of their friends’ families own cars. There are many reasons they might be interested in owning a car: cars convey social status; they are often “the travel choice of least resistance;” having to walk in the rain or other unpleasant conditions while their friends are chauffeured in sedans; what for many is a life milestone, getting a driver’s license and a car; or even industry propaganda.

Saulter explains that she listed a number of factors that influence them not to own a car, including health, pollution, traffic and noise. During a later discussion with her husband, they also came up with reasons like that they didn’t need a car, or that they enjoy using transit and having time to pay attention to their family, read or do other things that aren’t possible while driving.

Saulter is very concerned about telling her children the truth about her decision, but in a way “that doesn’t scare them, or alienate them from their peers, or cause them to question the choices of everyone else they know.” While these are admirable goals, I think a lot of the truth about living a car-free lifestyle is because the things that car dependence have done to our cities can be scary. Living car free will alienate you from some peers. For example, Mormons, generally, are not a terribly urban people, and Holly and I are virtually the only people in our ward who live in our transit-friendly neighborhood and choose not to live with a car, which does ostracize us a bit. As far as questioning others, it is important to teach children to be tactful, but at the same time it is important that they know that living car-free isn’t a decision you came to on a whim, it’s something that you do because you think it is right, and that they should be proud of the positive impact that such a decision has on their own lives, the neighborhood, and the world at large.

Seven ways to live in a small space with kids and not go crazy

Holly and I have been on a bit of a small space kick (we recently watched every available episode on Hulu of Small Space, Big Style), and this was a perfect article for us as we begin to think about having kids in the city. First, she established that “small” for her means 500-1,000 square feet, and that there are a lot of variables, including storage, outdoor space, configuration, number of residents, and urban amenities, that can affect how livable a certain place is. However, these seven techniques are very general and can be applied almost everywhere.

Make “stuff” earn its keep – Think long and hard before you load up on baby junk. Saulter’s rule of thumb is “wait until you have a demonstrated need for an item before you acquire it.”

Think vertical – Shelves and other vertical storage are your friends. Check out how this guy uses his whole wall, as well as other secret spaces, to take care of all his storage needs. Also take advantage of things you can hang on a wall such as pots and pans, or things like magnetic knife racks that you can get at Ikea.

Choose multipurpose, foldable furniture – Almost all furniture can have a storage element to it. Things like futons and hide-a-beds can turn living rooms into instant guest rooms. Foldable tables and chairs can be brought out when needed and stored efficiently when not.

Downsize appliances – Most standard appliances (water heaters, refrigerators, washers and dryers, dishwashers, etc.) are not designed for small urban spaces, but more compact models are often available. There are even combination appliances, such as a combination washer and dryer, that could save even more space.

Digitze it – Instead of saving physical mementos, take more pictures or scans and make digital scrapbooks. Rip CDs onto your computer and get rid of the cases (I save the liner notes because I like having the artwork), or buy from iTunes or Amazon, which is often cheaper. Be sure to back up your files regularly on an external hard drive.

Stash stuff with your neighbors – Sharing with your neighbors can save space and money. Saulter shares an example: “If you’re finished with your baby swing but anticipate needing it in the future, you can pass it on to a co-op member with a tiny one, who will then pass it on to you when (if) you need it again.”

The world is your backyard — go play in it! – Part of the process of suburbanization has been the privatization of functions that were once public. Living small often requires making these functions public again. Use parks instead of a back yard, the library instead of a book room, and people watching instead of TV watching. Public amenities are what makes cities great, and their lack is what makes suburbs boring. Take advantage of this.

The sane person’s guide to bringing kids on public transit

Saulter is the first to admit that there are challenges involved in taking kids on transit. The required extras, particularly strollers, are hard to handle. Other passengers don’t always behave the way they should around children. ON the other hand, children don’t always behave themselves, either. But car-free parents aren’t going away, and there are little things that transit agencies, parents, and other people can do to make the experience better.

What agencies can do

Publish and publicize child-related policies – Make sure requirements are posted on websites and in vehicles and use easy to understand language.

Emphasize Safety – Most parents are unaware that buses are much safer than cars (the #1 cause of death for children). Transit agencies should emphasize their record and include tips on safe transit ridership.

Provide accessible vehicles – Most transit agencies are moving toward low-floor vehicles. These are easier for both children, the elderly and the disabled to board, and actually cut down on boarding time, making for faster transit trips.

Provide better driver training – While SEPTA has more capable drivers (I dare you to try and drive a bus with about two inches to spare on either side down 4th Street), UTA drivers are much more personable. Drivers have to know that there’s more to their job than steering the bus. Also, simple things like not driving until people are seated make transit riding more pleasant.

What parents can do

Set yourself up for success – Pack light. Use a carrier, pack or wrap instead of a stroller or, if you must, a lightweight, foldable stroller. If your kids can walk, let them. They will quickly develop the necessary stamina.

Set your children up for success – Make sure that your child is content and won’t bother other riders. Bring water, snacks or games, and pay attention to them.

Be prepared – Know your route and any connections you need to make ahead of time. While mobile apps are available, it might be hard to handle them and the children at the same time.

What everyone else can do

Relax and offer to help. Be patient with people who are trying their hardest to be patient with their kids. If all else fails, put in your headphones.

These three columns are all full of wonderful advice for the urban parent. My days as a parent may still be ahead of me, but I think that, thanks to Saulter, I will be better prepared than I would be otherwise. I hope to hear more of her wonderful advice at a later date.


Carla Saulter’s Urban Family Values

I came across Carla Saulter’s first article on Grist way back in November.  Since then, I’ve been real busy, but taking all that time has given Carla enough time to write a lot more really great articles, which I have just gotten caught up on this week.  I felt that the best way for me to address Carla’s articles was to do one big long post instead of a number of short ones, so here is my assessment of four articles from Saulter’s Urban Family Values column.  This column is updated bi-weekly, so keep checking it out.

Why public transportation is good for kids

In her first post, Saulter explains that her family, with two small kids, doesn’t own a car, and does so on purpose.  When she and her husband first found themselves expecting, their friends informed them that they would have to get a car.  They did not follow that advice, and while Saulter has found that there are challenges to living without a car with children, it isn’t because transit is necessarily bad for children, but because most American cities have been designed or redesigned for cars.  She argues that there are a number of reasons that living car-free is good for children’s health and well-being.  First of all, car culture discourages exercise.  “[T]he auto-centric built environment in many communities makes walking and cycling unpleasant, impractical, and quite often, dangerous,” she says.  At the same time, cars add to air pollution, not only outdoors but also inside the cooped up interior of the car.  Car crashes also cause more deaths among American children than anything else.  Buses, on the other hand, are the safest form of road travel.

While cars are in many ways dangerous for kids, transit has many positive aspects.  Transit almost always requires some walking, and those who use transit are more likely to meet the CDC’s daily exercise requirements.  Taking transit frees parents from the requirements of driving and allows them to actually concentrate on and interact with their children.  For many kids, the mere experience of riding transit can be like a game.  Transit kids also gain the skills necessary for transit ridership (packing, trip planning, stop recognition, schedule reading) well before their car-dependent peers are able to drive, making them more responsible and more independent.  They also learn how to interact with strangers appropriately, unlike kids who spend their time in cars with only family members.

Moving to the suburbs for your kids?  Think again

Saulter points out the irony that many want a better world for our children, when many of the things we do to keep them “safe” in the here and now are damaging their future.  While many parents think large, green lawns in the suburbs are good for their kids, the car-dependent, resource-intensive lifestyle of the suburbs is bad for kids (as illustrated in the last article) and bad for the planet.  Instead, Saulter’s version of “family friendly” is characterized as “dense, diverse, and transit-rich.”  Denser neighborhoods include smaller homes, which require fewer resources to heat and cool, as well as less land.  They also limit the amount of things we buy, due to limited space, which also limits our waste.  Neighbors share more, whether it be public parks, third places like cafes, public facilities like libraries, or large-scale entertainment such as movie theaters replacing staying at home and watching TV.  Infrastructure can also be delivered more efficiently in denser areas.

Denser areas also allow for more transportation options, making transit, walking and cycling viable alternatives to car transportation.  Dense neighborhoods also provide many of the benefits listed under public transit in the last article, including learning how to work with strangers, sensory stimulation, and independent problem solving.  Cities also have more cultural amenities and encourage fitness and community.

Driving a car doesn’t mean being in control

Car-dependent people often ask car-free people how they can get to places in a hurry, when transit isn’t a timely option.  While transit is almost always timely for me personally, and while the options of cabs, car sharing and ambulances provide many other options, Saulter argues, “what they’re really asking is, how do I deal with the lack of control associated with not having a car?”  The thing is, cars don’t always provide the most freedom and convenience.  For instance, I can get to City Hall faster via transit than I can in a car, without having to worry about traffic.  Also, the weather, particularly in winter, can effectively disable cars, while trains and subways keep running.  In the suburbs, when you’re snowed in, you don’t have any options, while a foot of snow at my house in Philadelphia doesn’t keep me from walking the one block to 7-11 to get milk.

Car drivers also lack financial freedom: if you’re dependent on your car, then you’re stuck with buying gas no matter how expensive it is.  Meanwhile, Holly and I discussed over Christmas break how we never pay attention to gas prices anymore because it doesn’t cost anything to walk.  Holly and I also could walk to three hospitals in less time than my parents in the suburbs could drive to one.  Even if one of us were injured, ambulances or even cabs could get us there in no time.  In Saulter’s words, “My family doesn’t have a car, but what we do have is access, and that makes me feel far more in control than a car ever could.”

Want a safe place to raise kids?  Look to the cities

The reason many parents choose to live in the suburbs is because of crime and other safety concerns.  The truth is, cities are much more safe than they are made to appear.  Saulter looks to Lenore Skenazy, the woman who let her nine-year-old son ride the New York subway alone, wrote about it in The New York Sun, and was later labeled in many news sources as “the worst mom in America.”  In response, she wrote a book called Free Range Kids and started a blog, both of which discuss how parents need to get over their entrenched fears and look at the facts.  Despite news coverage of the worst aspects of cities, as well as TV shows that lead people to believe that people are dying left and right in major cities, the truth of the matter is that the chances of a child being abducted and killed are one in 1.5 million.

In reality, a child has a much higher chance of dying of a car crash in the suburbs than being murdered in the city.  The most dangerous areas overall in the nine metro areas covered in a University of Virginia study were the outer suburbs.  Children are much more likely to be killed in car crashes than to be murdered by a stranger (which is actually less likely than them being murdered by someone they know), and the car-dependent suburbs make them more dangerous than the city with its strangers.  In fact, all crime, including assaults and other violent crime, are at record lows across the country.  And while some crimes, especially gang-related, are higher in cities, there are also many aspects that make cities safer, such as many more people with many more eyes on the street.  One important thing is to teach kids basic street smarts.  One important thing is that they shouldn’t go anywhere with people they don’t know, but they should be taught to talk to strangers so that they can ask them for help.

Carla Saulter’s articles, so far, are full of wonderful advice for urban families and address some of the incorrect ideas held about where it is right for one to raise a family.  I hope that her writing changes some minds, and I look forward to following her work.

A Week of Biking Joyously

This article was posted on Planetizen by Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Placemaking, which I have just started reading and am very much enjoying so far.  In the article, Walljasper describes a recent trip to the Netherlands and what he learned about biking there.  The Dutch do have a few advantages relative to the US when it comes to biking (flat land and a long tradition of doing so), but for the most part people there own cars like we do, they just don’t choose to use them whenever they go out.  The Dutch also have a habit of combining transit trips with bike trips, something that many American systems (Philadelphia’s in particular) are not very well suited to.

One thing that they found that set the Netherlands apart by a long shot was that 95% of kids ages 10-12 ride their bike to school, compared to only 15% in the US.  Dutch kids have bike safety classes, almost like driver’s ed, from a young age.  And at age 11, the kids can take a biking safety course and get a certificate of completion, like a sort of non-binding driver’s license that gets hung on the wall by proud parents.  Not only do the classes help the kids become better bikers, it also helps them be more aware of cyclists even if they choose to drive in the future.

Another issue is safety.  60% of Americans said that they would be more willing to bike if they felt safer doing so.  In the Hague, city officials have worked to make separate, colored bike paths, and where that isn’t possible, create “bike boulevards” where bikes have priority over motorized traffic.  But people aren’t just worried about their safety while riding; they want to make sure that their bike can be safely parked and locked when they get to their destination.  And not only that, but many residences don’t have a safe place to park the bike, and many cyclists feel obligated to take their bikes indoors for their safety.  Officials in the Hague are also working on secure bike parking in residences and commercial locations, some of them attended by staff like at a car parking garage.  Bike racks and sheds are becoming available in some high-density neighborhoods, sometimes using one car parking space to fit ten bikes.

A great example of a bike-centric development in the Netherlands is Amsterdam’s Java Island.

The development is bike, pedestrian, transit and even boat friendly, and still has room for cars, but they are relegated to a very few roads and underground parking garages while other modes have free reign of the parks, bridges and docks all around the island without having to deal with cars.  The Dutch call this type of development “Auto Luw,” which translates to “car light” or “car sparse.”  These developments are now the official policy of the city of Amsterdam.

I will finish this post with a most hopeful video from filmmaker Michael W. Bauch.  He and his family exchanged houses with a family in Amsterdam, and when they came back to the States, they couldn’t give up the bikes.  Enjoy.

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