Raising Kids Would Be So Much Better Without Cars

“What would happen if communities were safe enough for kids to travel on their own?”

by Erin Sagen
Originally Published: 

Two years ago, in the U.S. alone, an estimated 7,485 pedestrians were struck and killed by drivers, and nearly 140,000 were sent to the emergency room the year before. In early September, my 3-year-old and I almost became such statistics.

Carrying her tiny, tired body across the street, and with both arms full, I kept my eye on the car at the light, an older black compact with heavily tinted windows. We had the right of way, but instead of yielding to us before turning left, the driver slammed on the gas and in seconds nearly ran us over, triggering enough adrenaline in me to jump out of the way. They, a 3,000-pound accelerating force, must’ve missed us, a not-quite-200-pound ambling target, by only a couple feet. It was a scene so jarring that an onlooker stopped to offer himself as a witness. The experience wasn’t exactly an outlier in my own life, though. As a pedestrian, I’ve had violent brushes with cars many, many times before.

As Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says, we’re facing a crisis on our roadways. The speeding-related pedestrian death rate of children younger than 15 has more than doubled since 2018, from 5.8% to 11.9%. Pedestrian deaths from other scenarios, like driveway collisions involving SUVs, are also on the rise.

Sprawl comes at a cost, and for decades parents have been paying the price.

Parents naturally fear so-called accidents like car crashes more than any other safety risk to their kids, with 9 out of 10 of them believing that too many people drive recklessly and endanger families on the road. But how does that fear get transformed into action or something beyond the grim sort of acceptance we practice every day? Being responsible, waiting for my turn to cross the street in the middle of the day, didn’t protect me and my child from a run-in with 3,000 pounds of lethal steel. What protected us that day, in that fragile moment where distress could’ve turned into devastation, was my vigilance.

Sprawl comes at a cost, and for decades parents have been paying the price. The cost is literal, yes, but it's also figurative, or maybe just less visible. The lost time with friends who live just a little out of the way, the daily stress of wrangling your kids to take them anywhere, the economic vulnerability of owning and maintaining a car if you’re already struggling with food and housing. If you think I’m exaggerating the profound impact of cars on our daily lives, take this into account: In states that have raised the age of children in car seats, the chance of parents having a third child decreases. Car seats aren’t the only factor in family planning, obviously — child care and cost of living are also fun concerns! — but as The New York Times reported, “cars are just another part of the increased burden of having babies.”

It makes you wonder: What would happen if communities were safe enough for kids to travel on their own? “Parents would be freed of their own mental burden and be able to invest in their own growth and connection,” says Darby Saxbe, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California and co-director of the Center for the Changing Family. A kid in the ’80s, Saxbe remembers being outside all day and playing with her neighbors until it turned dark. She grew up roaming her Midwest suburb and connecting with her own budding self-confidence, she says, but childhood independence like hers is now much harder to come by.

Today, nearly 1 in 5 kids plays outside only once a week or less, and kids spend 35% less time playing freely outside than their parents did. Incredibly, this has taken place in just one generation. “We’re not talking about our grandparents or our great-grandparents,” Saxbe says, “but us.”

“It’s hard for us to imagine having a full life without having to drive.”

There are several reasons cited for this shift. Increased use of screens, overworked parents, ever-competitive academics, and “stranger danger,” that misguided ’80s panic that still lingers so many years later, all play a role. But, again, the biggest reason, and the one we’ve probably internalized the most, is cars. After all, despite the rise of deaths by firearms among youth, kids ages 17 and under are still more likely to be hit and killed by a car than to die by any other means. We talk a lot about parental burnout, but what we hardly talk about is how parental burnout is often a symptom of sprawl.

Parents in the U.S. are the most burned out. We’re also the most car-dependent. It’s a problem that we can’t even see, says Anna Zivarts, program director of the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington. “Our communities are built around cars,” she says. “It’s hard for us to imagine having a full life without having to drive.”

Zivarts couldn’t drive if she wanted to. She has low vision, as does her 6-year-old son, so getting around by car isn’t an option. That’s why in 2005, she and her partner decided to move from San Francisco to New York City, where they could more easily walk, bike, and ride public transportation for their daily trips. She says that in New York, she was allowed to be “like everyone else, because the majority of people don’t drive.” It was an empowering experience for someone who grew up where simply crossing the street to grab the mail was a dicey endeavor. In 2018 they moved again, this time to Seattle to be near their families.

As a disabled person who relies on biking and whose job is to advocate for safe streets, Zivarts isn’t hopeful she can stay in Seattle much longer. She’s too frustrated with the city and how it’s responded to curbing traffic violence, which has been increasing in recent years, and too concerned for her kid, who has an impairment “he will have for a whole lifetime.”

“Just for his survival,” Zivarts wonders, “should we move to another city?”

When it comes to mobility, adults with disabilities have a lot in common with kids in general. They both depend on others to take them places, and if they can’t, then they likely don’t go out at all. A survey by carpooling service HopSkipDrive found that nearly 40% of parents spend two to four hours per week driving their kids around, while 19% spend five to nine hours a week. What’s more disconcerting, however, is that 30% said that driving their children sometimes puts their jobs at risk, while 70% don’t know how their kid would get home if they weren’t picking them up by car. As if parenting wasn’t stressful enough. (A headline I came across that I cannot get out of my head: “Morning madness: Parents spend, in total, 96 hours coaxing kids into the car each year!”)

“We’ve created terrible conditions for kids to walk,” says Kelcie Ralph, associate professor in urban planning at Rutgers University. “I’m sure screens are part of the story. But we’ve created an inhospitable place.”

It’s not a fun or healthy way to raise a human being, but it can feel necessary in order to keep them alive.

Since the 1970s, child traffic deaths have been declining slowly and steadily. But for decades — as far back as the 1940s, some scholars estimate — time spent outside by children has also been declining and just as steadily. It makes sense: Before cars began to take over in the 1920s, city streets were considered the right of pedestrians, children at play, and others. But that changed when, after deaths skyrocketed and sparked public outcry along with effective anti-car activism, the automobile industry doubled down and aggressively lobbied the government to target pedestrians, not drivers. To this day, car crashes are almost always blamed on the pedestrian or bicyclist, even when it’s a child. Their campaign worked.

A century later, Ralph sums up what she sees in the research: “Fewer children are dying as pedestrians because of the absence of children on our streets.”

If you’re a parent, you personally know what she’s talking about. And you likely have friends with kids who know, too. You’re anxious to let your kid go outside by themselves, even to the bus stop and especially if they’re really young. You don’t want to be a helicopter parent, but the closer they are to traffic, the more nervous and controlling you find yourself becoming. It’s not a fun or healthy way to raise a human being, but it can feel necessary in order to keep them alive.

“If parents could drive their kid up to the front door of the classroom, they would,” says Sam Balto, a physical education teacher in Portland, Oregon, and parent to two young kids. You may know him from TikTok as Coach Balto, the GoPro-wearing biking enthusiast who leads dozens of kids to school on rides, known as a “bike bus.”

Despite inspiring a joke on Saturday Night Live and guesting on The Kelly Clarkson Show, Balto isn’t shy getting real about the darker side of biking; in fact, while there’s joy in the experience, he says, there are also unnecessary perils we don’t talk about enough. “Children and cars are in direct competition,” he says. “We put responsibility on parents. But it’s really on our leaders.”

Before the affluent and mostly white school he’s at now, Balto taught at an underserved school in Boston. He remembers one Hispanic student who couldn’t take the bus because he lived too close to campus but also couldn’t walk because the road was too dangerous. The only way to get to school safely, as his mom saw it, was to pay for him to take an Uber every morning when she was already gone to work. Balto says the mother was never reimbursed by either the school or the district. “You don’t have to look very hard to see the inequities,” he says.

Compared to white Americans, Black Americans suffer more than twice as many traffic deaths walking and nearly twice as many driving or riding in a car. Unsurprisingly, researchers say structural racism within the U.S. transportation system is to blame. For communities of color, for example, there has been a well-documented lack of public investment in safe walking and biking infrastructure, especially along high-speed highways, which were historically paved through Black and brown neighborhoods and tend to harm health by causing more air and noise pollution. Black and Hispanic Americans also suffer from more chronic diseases, like diabetes, which can often be improved through increased physical activity. But, given the dangers, where are those families supposed to go to improve their health in the first place?

Once we stop pretending everything's OK, we can take back our lives — or at least the lives of our kids.

“A lot of environments aren’t built to promote exercise and well-being,” says Imelda Reyes, a pediatric nurse practitioner and associate dean of advanced education at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She largely treats Hispanic children diagnosed with obesity and works with their parents to help them meet their goals. “It’s bigger than a family just making ‘better choices,’” she says. “It does have to be a systemic approach.”

That systemic approach, however it unfolds, will need to happen quickly, because sprawl is getting worse, and climate change is right behind it.

It’s easy to notice the ways the system fails, or maybe refuses, to protect its most vulnerable, and not just with cars. But what if, instead of adapting to the harm of traffic violence, we refused to accept it as inevitable? We have to remember that, in the charts documenting the victims of traffic violence over the decades, there is always a place at the beginning, clear to the left, where the number was zero. If we fight hard enough for our streets, we could get that line down to zero again. Once we stop pretending everything's OK, we can take back our lives — or at least the lives of our kids.

Erin Sagen is a freelance journalist based in Seattle who covers parenting, health, and culture. Her work has appeared at The Washington Post, Oprah Daily, Slate, Parents, and more.

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