Recently, while on a neighborhood walk with my 2-year-old son, a woman in a red truck gave me the finger. I suppose she had her reasons.
My son and I had been playing on a boulder several feet from the road. Our game went like this: he would climb to the top of the rock, hold my hands, and then jump to the sidewalk. But just as the red truck approached, my son let go of me and bolted for the street.
In that moment, time slowed. I reached out to grab him. The truck swerved slowly away from us. I pulled my son back to the sidewalk before he set foot on the actual road. It was close-but-not-close, a moment that could have ended badly if neither the driver nor I had been paying attention. But we were, both of us, and so I was surprised when the driver turned her head, looked me in the eye, and flipped me off.
Only two days later, on a similar walk, my son stopped to play in a puddle at the end of a neighbor’s driveway. School had just let out, and so there were dozens of children scattered throughout the neighborhood. A silver SUV blasted through and, as he passed us the driver honked on his horn aggressively, as if there were a law against puddle jumping.
Together, these incidents conveyed a clear message: children aren’t welcome on my neighborhood roads.
Perhaps this should have been obvious to me, but this was not the case when I was a child. After school and on weekends I rode my bike wherever I pleased. I rode on sidewalks and jumped off curbs. I zigzagged through the road. This does not mean I wasn’t cautious. I looked and listened for cars. When they approached, I got out of their way. I was mindful of them and they were mindful of me.
I wasn’t alone. The boys at the end of my block played street hockey every day after school. They set goal nets on either side of the road and whenever a car approached its driver would stop and wait for the game to clear. This was a common sight of my childhood, a collaboration between preteen boys and motorists. It’s possible that on occasion an impatient driver might have leaned on the horn or rolled down the window to holler, but I don’t remember this. What I remember is that children and adults peaceably shared the roads.
But today there is little sharing—at least not in my community. I live in Washington state, and our state’s department of health sends me letters about child development every time one of my sons has a birthday. When my older son turned 6 this year, the letter addressed road safety. “Children this age should not cross streets or bicycle on the street without an adult,” it said. The letter goes on to suggest that my 6-year-old should only bike on designated trails in parks.
In our current car-centered culture, I’m not yet ready to let my 6-year-old son ride on the road unattended. But I worry about the suggestion that I confine his bicycling to city parks. To me, this sends the message that roads are for cars and cars only, and that bikes are for recreation, not transportation. While it’s true that bikes are fun, I want my sons to understand that they are also an efficient means to travel from point A to point B.
As Carleton Reid points out in his book Roads Were Not Built For Cars, our public roadways were designed for everyone: pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists alike. Over time, those of us without the protection of steel and speed have largely ceded our right to take up space, and motorists have become increasingly belligerent and self-righteous any time they must slow down or change course to accommodate a protest, a cyclist, or a child exploring the world beyond his front yard.
As a parent who lives in a neighborhood where only some of the streets have sidewalks, I claim my children’s right to the roads. I claim my younger son’s right to jump in puddles, and my older son’s right to practice safe cycling, to train to be a future wanderer and bike commuter. I propose a contract between motorists and parents of young children: I promise to be there, to pull my two-year-old safely to the side as cars approach, and I promise to guide my young cyclist to the right side of the road, and teach him to stop and look at every corner.
From the motorists, I simply ask that you expect to find us there, to drive as if we might be around the next corner and, when it turns out that we are, slow down, wave politely, and give us a little space.
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