The firstborn is three-and-a-half, so I am now used to hearing “why?” about 1,000 times a day, and semi-tolerant of the other why questions he’s asked me a hundred times before and is asking again. “Why do we brush our teeth after we eat?” Again?!
Often they are silly, non-thinking why questions that don’t require an answer, but some of them stop me and make me carefully choose my words, because I know they will be thrown back at me — sooner rather than later.
One of those questions goes like this: “Mama, why do I wear a helmet and you don’t?”
Yes, I am one of those parents — I used to cluck my tongue at them and now I am one of them. My how things change! Let’s just say I’m pro-choice. Say and think what you like, that is my choice, and I think all adults should have it to make.
And so I make do, answer questions, get the kids on the bike, get on the bike, and carry on. What’s important to me here is that we’re getting on a bike (or a stroller) and choosing to actively go to our destination. And we can do so because we feel safe.
Now comes the difficult part: my kids are no where near the age where they will be traveling to school by themselves, yet. So why, on a warm summer day without a school in sight, does this question make me think about, concern myself with, worry my un-helmeted brain over things like safe routes to schools?
In part, though, it’s because that’s where my working background is and where I feel comfortable fighting the good fight. If kids can get to school safely (by themselves or in an on-foot or on-bike group), then clearly society is doing something right and we all have less to worry about. Getting to school safely also encompasses so many things that I embrace for myself and my family in The.Bicycle.Life — moving slowly, breathing fresh air, experiencing the weather, living locally, stopping to chat with friends and neighbors, knowing one’s neighbors.
Mostly, though, it’s an extension of my own comfort in bicycling on the streets, combined with the firstborn’s questions which increasingly force me to look at things from his point of view. Getting our neighborhoods to a place where kids can safely ride or walk by themselves takes so much more that my own comfort with it — it takes infrastructure, education, policy, money, willingness: groups of people who are able to usher kids to school with a walking school bus; organizations with the money and schools with the desire to teach kids to ride a bike as part of their school curriculum; creative, engaged parents with time and/or flexible schedules; educating the community on the elements of urban design and where barriers to active transportation exist; policy changes at the national, state, and local level.
These things, even in a city like Portland, can sometimes be difficult struggles. So many things change for people when they become parents and become responsible/protective of their little people. Suddenly, driving seems logically like the safer option, even though it is actually neither safer nor healthier. Yet we have an obesity epidemic on our hands, deep concerns about attention deficiency in our kids, and far, far too many traffic accidents because even our safe streets aren’t safe enough.
When I was in elementary school, I used to bike more than two miles to and from school. Even further up and over an enormous hill to the mall and back. And, who knows, maybe my parents were terrified — the first time? — but they never let on. I never was, because it was a freedom that I never even had to think about and didn’t have to be created for me. So much has been said about how this freedom has been lost for kids today, but it doesn’t have to be. We are lucky that there are people out there fighting to get safe routes to schools put in place, so that we don’t have to think about it, we can just — be there to support them, watch them go, and let our kids do it on their own.