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.


Southern California creates historic regional transportation plan


Graduation is nearing here at the University of Pennsylvania, and many students (myself included) are looking for work. After learning of some job openings with some really great firms in Los Angeles, I asked a friend if she would be willing to work there. “Oh, no,” she answered, “I could never live in LA, I need to live in a place where I don’t need a car.”

For a lot of Northeasterners, the ability to live a car-free life is what makes a place truly urban. Los Angeles and its suburbs, for most of the modern era, have been the antithesis of that lifestyle, built around freeways and far-flung suburban developments. But things are changing in LA, and a car-free lifestyle is much more in reach than it has been in the past.

As with the rest of the country, people in Southern California are beginning to demand alternatives to the car and the single family home. This became evident last November, when a survey of 758 registered voters, conducted by the American Lung Association, Move LA, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, showed that people support expanded transit alternatives, walkable communities, and even smaller homes. This survey had a large effect on the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) as they prepared their 2012 Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS).

The elected officials of SCAG unanimously adopted this plan on April 4th. As outlined by Amanda Eaken, the highlights of the plan include:

  • Increases funding for biking and walking by over 350% from $1.8 to $6.7 billion;
  • Spends $246 billion—nearly half the plan’s total revenue– on public transportation;
  • Reduces congestion 24% per capita despite adding 4 million residents;
  • Brings 12 key transit expansion projects to Los Angeles in the next 10 years under Mayor Villaraigosa’s 30-10 plan;
  • Creates 60% more housing near transit than is currently available;
  • Creates 4.2 million jobs in the region, 87% of all jobs will be ½ mile from transit;
  • Achieves a 24 % reduction in pollution-caused respiratory problems, resulting in $1.5 billion per year in health care savings’ and;
  • Saves over 400 square miles of open space–more than a third the size of Yosemite–from development by shifting to a more walkable land use pattern for the region.

SCAG employs a bottom-up approach to the plan, even allowing subregions to create their own alternative plans as long as they accomplish the same goals. The plan reflects the goals of those organizations that sponsored the original survey – it improves public health, creates transportation alternatives, and will preserve natural resources by reducing oil dependence and preserving natural areas that might have otherwise been developed.

Despite the democratic nature of and overwhelming support for the plan, some detractors have popped up. One notable objection came from Wendell Cox, whose article, California Declares War on Suburbia, ran in the Wall Street Journal on April 7th. Cox, who has no training in transportation (according to his website, he “attended the University of Southern California and earned a bachelor’s degreee [sic] in Government from California State University Los Angeles and a Master of Business Administration from Pepperdine University”) and has made a career as a hack and a lobbyist for conservative think tanks and the auto industry, declares that “California has declared war on the most popular housing choice, the single family, detached home—all in the name of saving the planet.” He attacks concentrating development near transit and claims that it would have virtually no effect on car congestion, “because additional households in the future will continue to use their cars for most trips,” partially because transit does not currently reach the places people want to go to the way cars do. He blames California’s high housing costs on land use regulation and argues that greenhouse gas goals could be reached by other means without adjusting development patterns. As someone who is planning on starting a family soon, I was particularly disturbed by his comment, “Los Angeles has shown that a disproportionate share of migrating households are young. This is at least in part because it is better to raise children with backyards than on condominium balconies.”

Fortunately, many of his most off the mark comments were rebuked in the recent New Republic article, Low-Density Suburbs Are Not Free-Market Capitalism, by Jonathan Rothwell. While Cox is partially right that government intervention leads to higher housing prices, he has it backwards – rather than forcing high density on people, most municipalities require unnecessarily large lots, in some cases almost half an acre, which essentially prohibits the creation of affordable, smaller houses and apartments. Rothwell doesn’t even mention the higher-level government interventions, such as the interstate highway system and federal mortgage loan programs, which also are responsible for the suburbs. The high cost of housing in California is simple supply and demand; there is an extremely high demand, and municipalities are constraining the supply by not allowing higher density development.

Rothwell clarifies that the efforts of organizations like SCAG are less government heavy-handedness and more a responsible effort to address the negative externalities of development. By concentrating population around transit in high density, mixed use developments, they reduce congestion by allowing for walking and biking, making transit a more viable alternative, and allowing for shorter car trips. Many of these organizations have no land use authority and member governments are free to not comply, as well as the developers who would build the new housing, since it would be entirely market-driven.

Cox’s argument that greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced through other means such as greater fuel efficiency and converting to natural gas power is true, but it is no reason to abandon the option of reducing emissions by discouraging auto traffic and encouraging higher density development. The issue of climate change should be attacked from all angles. Multifamily buildings are actually more energy efficient, because having fewer exposed walls makes heating and cooling a room easier.

Some young families certainly move out of cities because they prefer a yard, but it is flat out wrong and ignorant to assume it is the only reason, or that it is necessarily better to raise a child in the suburbs than the city. Especially in Los Angeles, many leave because high housing prices jacked up by large lot zoning force them to cheap land on the outskirts of the city. In some cases, especially in older cities like Philadelphia, it is because they can’t find the right kind of housing stock in their price range: some friends of ours who will soon be having a child couldn’t find a place with another bedroom that they liked, and will be heading out to the suburbs.

The comment about “condominium balconies” seems to show a real misunderstanding of how urban parenting works. Urban parents don’t deny their children place to play, they just share them with their neighbors: they’re called parks. There are all sorts of tips for urban parenting, such as those shared by Carla Saulter at Grist or Lenore Skenazy at Free Range Kids. Parenting in the city can be a real joy, as I learned from a discussion I recently had with Ken Greenberg, architect, urban designer, professor at Harvard and author of Walking Home: The Life Lessons of a City Builder, among others. He said that there were certain things that needed to exist in a city for it to be truly family-friendly:

  • A range of housing units of different sizes, so that as families grow from a couple to a couple with a child to multiple children and back to a couple again, they can move within the same neighborhood
  • Attractive, well-designed play spaces, particularly those that can be observed from within a residence
  • Convenient daycare
  • Good schools

Disinvestment in urban schools is a big problem for urban families in the United States, and possibly the greatest reason young families leave the city. However, cities across Europe (Greenberg cited examples in Scandinavia and the Netherlands specifically) invest much more in their urban schools, and thus are much more kid- and family-friendly. While there are challenges to having an urban family, the amenities, including museums, public parks and arts facilities, can be a real boon for families in the city.

SCAG’s new plan will be a great thing for Southern California. It will create a place where people can live without a car, be healthier, and spend less on housing, all while saving the planet. Potentially, these could be great environments even for families, and the dense cities of Southern California could retain the residents they currently lose to the suburbs.

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.

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