Report on NPR about car-free families

The Falkowski’s “Bike Dozer” comfortably carries three. From

I heard this story on NPR this morning and had to share it. It comes from NPR and Newsworks’ Elizabeth Fielder, and follows families in Philadelphia that are living without a car, even with two kids. They are getting around by safer and more eco-friendly forms of transportation: transit, bike, and on foot. Steven Falkowski modified his bicycle to be able to carry his two children, and Nate Hommel takes the bus with his daughter.

Up until a few months ago this was me and Holly. I broke down and got a car because my two-hour-one-way transit commutes to Wilmington were making it such that I was getting home at 7:00 and had maybe two hours before Lars had to go to bed. We considered moving to Wilmington, but since the Mormon church there isn’t transit accessible we would have had to buy a car anyway. We try and use the car just for commuting (or for picking up larger items like our Christmas tree), and within the city we still mostly walk and take transit. I like that I now get home before 5:00 most days and can spend more time with my family, but if I were ever to find myself not working in Wilmington, the car would be gone. For me personally, driving is stressful, with the constant risk of causing serious injury to myself or strangers, let alone the significant costs of repairs, gas, etc., and the fact that it’s near impossible to find parking on the street after 6:00. I’d just as soon take the bus and be able to spend time focusing on my kid rather than on not crashing into things.


Eight Qualities of Pedestrian- and Transit-Oriented Design


Walkable Portland, ME. From

This post is a rather lengthy excerpt from Pedestrian- and Transit-Oriented Design, a new book from Reid Ewing and Keith Bartholomew, professors at the University of Utah. Although long for an article, it is a great summary of some particularly important characteristics of urban design. While quoting from design greats Kevin Lynch, Jane Jacobs, Allan Jacobs, Jan Gehl and Andres Duany, Ewing and Bartholomew focus on eight important topics:

  1. Imageability
  2. Enclosure
  3. Human Scale
  4. Transparency
  5. Complexity
  6. Coherence
  7. Legibility
  8. Linkage

With descriptive language and a few great supporting images, this is a good article to show to your parents when you’re trying to explain to them what an urban designer does.

10 Techniques for Making Cities More Walkable – Design – The Atlantic Cities


Kaid Benfield, one of my favorites, recently posted this list of walkability ideas from Jeff Speck’s recent book, Walkable City. This list includes:

  1. Put cars in their place. Streets are public spaces for people, not conveyors for cars.
  2. Mix the uses. In particular create more affordable housing in growing neighborhoods prone to gentrification.
  3. Get the parking right. Consolidate it and make people pay for it.
  4. Let transit work. Plan transit in tandem with urban investment, make housing dense enough to support it, and make it an enjoyable experience (I’m looking at you, SEPTA).
  5. Protect the pedestrian. Cars go slower, and thus pedestrians are safer, when drivers are afraid of crashing into things. Speck, and some others, encourage getting rid of signage and road striping all together and forcing drivers to concentrate.
  6. Welcome bikes. Cycling allows people to have another choice beyond the car.
  7. Shape the spaces. Create outdoor rooms and a sense of enclosure.
  8. Plant trees. Trees improve auto safety, naturally cool cities, and contribute to stormwater retention.
  9. Make friendly and unique [building] faces. Interesting architecture will keep people entertained and encourage them to walk.
  10. Pick your winners. Focus initially on downtowns and transit corridors.

Benfield also has a few critiques for Speck. He criticizes the “cars suck” idea that he and many designers (I will admit, often myself included) have a habit of exhibiting. He also criticizes Speck’s dismissal of green space as important to the city, although Benfield does agree that it is important to make sure green spaces contribute to the urban nature of a place rather than making it feel more suburban or rural. He also agrees with John Norquist’s statement that there is good and bad congestion, and that small cities such as Pittsburgh shouldn’t try congestion pricing because it will give people just another reason to stay out of the city.

What developers and investors really think about transit « Price Tags

TOD in Denver. From

This post from Price Tags details what leaders in the field think about the future of transit and transit-oriented development. Long story short, they love it, and see it as the future of development. But John Cigna points out that “governments don’t have the money to build new light-rail lines and stations.” But, as the author points out, there never seems to be a limit for new road projects. “If urban regions really want to spur growth, they’d be laying rail,” they said. The author also quotes Christopher Leinberger, saying that rail is much, much more important than buses. I’ve talked before about the tech-sexiness of rail, and authorities such as William Lind say essentially that transit authorities shouldn’t even worry about buses.

Adding Wildlife ‘Passengers’ to the Urban Commute : TreeHugger

Adapting transit to serve animals. From

This post comes from Jennifer Hattam, and covers the work of a Dutch landscape architecture firm in improving urban conditions for animals. The firm, Openfabric, proposes ways that transit facilities, particularly bus stops, could be used as habitat features for birds, “beneficial” insects, and bats.

Now I will say that having some access to nature is a benefit, but I don’t know how much people want these animals in cities. For one, birds seem to be doing fine. I’ve seen everything in Philadelphia from your standard sparrows and pigeons to a falcon in Washington Square and a hawk eating a rat in a tree on Penn Campus. (The one in the video is an entirely different hawk in Philadelphia, decimating a pigeon)

I’m actually all about attracting beneficial insects, though. I recently saw a TED talk on urban bee keeping and it really made sense to me, and butterflies and dragonflies are cool, too. I just hope there’s a way to encourage them without encouraging mosquitoes and roaches.

Bats are where I think there would be a problem. Yes, they’re important for keeping insect populations in check and can work as pollinators, but to make this completely unscientific, they are creepy and people don’t like them. I don’t think people would like knowing that a family of bats is roosting above their bus stop.

I also appreciate how Hattam’s article addresses the issues of all the new poop that would come from increased bird and bat populations. I think it is an interesting idea about turning poop into energy, but good luck getting birds and bats to poop in designated areas and not on pedestrian’s heads.

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.

William Lind makes a conservative case for public transit (just not buses)

I’ve commented before on some of the opinions of William Lind, mostly regarding New Urbanism.  For those who are unfamiliar, Lind argues the conservative side of supporting New Urbanism and transit.  In this interview with Sarah Goodyear of Grist, he outlines why conservatives should support public transit initiatives.  He argues that supporting transit makes us less reliant on foreign oil sources, and thus is better for national security.  He also says that most conservatives are wrong in thinking that transit systems are subsidized while highways are not.  Not only are highway subsidized, but don’t cover their own costs as well as transit systems, especially rail.  He says that conservatives are more likely to ride rail than they are to ride buses.  Rail transit also has proven to boost property values in the vicinity.  He says that getting kids a transit pass rather than getting them their own car would save families a lot of money.

While most people who read this argument are fine with it, it’s when Lind brings up race that he can loose some people.  He argues that the reason a lot of people don’t ride the bus is because, statistically, buses have a lot of young black males, and young black males are much more likely to commit violent crimes.  One thing he advocates that is related to this is having first- and second-class transit.  This has existed in other parts of the world, and consists of there being one car on a train or different buses on the same route that costs more than another, but the more expensive one is cleaner, has more leg room, or has some other sort of amenity.  Lind argues that this would quell the fears of those worried about who they may have to sit next to on transit.

It’s hard, morally, to agree with Lind on some points.  I would like to think that we could overcome our fear of people of different races and not have to resort to elitism to get people to ride transit.  But Lind’s ideas do speak to some people, and it would be interesting to see what would happen if some of his ideas were implemented.

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