Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Watch Where You Walk

Like my parents and their parents before them, I take any chance I get to point out to my children how easy their childhood is compared to how mine was. For example, my kids don't have to share the only bathroom in the house with their entire family. They don't have to drink powdered milk. They don't have a bunch of older siblings demanding they fetch them bottles of Coke from the refrigerator. However, my kids do endure one hardship I didn't have to experience, even though I grew up on the gritty streets of south Minneapolis and they're being raised in the luxury of the suburbs: they take their lives in their hands every day on their way to school.

They don't like pedestrians where we live. Or cyclists. Really. They've done everything in their power to encourage people to drive everywhere. And by “they,” I mean people in the middle of the twentieth century who fell out of love with the city and in love with the automobile, and decided that walking was no longer a suitable form of transportation. Amenities that might normally be provided for walking, like, say, sidewalks, were deemed unnecessary and therefore abandoned in suburban planning. Which may have been fine back in 1930, when Highway 36 was a dirt road.

Our neighbor, one of our city's founding fathers, loves to recount the days when he would cross-country ski from his house to HarMar Mall. My daughter is excited to follow suit, but what she doesn't understand is that when Bob skied to HarMar, all that stood between him and the mall were fields and a dirt road. Now, the throng of cars on County Road B, each driver clutching coffee in one hand and a smartphone in the other, severely discourages skiing.  And don't even get me started on nearby Snelling Avenue.  It's unsafe to cross Snelling in a Hummer, much less on skis.

Of course, our suburb is not unusual in that it discourages travel on foot, but our situation is particularly frustrating because we live in a prime location for walking errands. We live a quarter of a mile from a major shopping mall. We live three blocks from my children's school. (Well, about three. It's hard to tell out here exactly what constitutes a block.) Restaurants, banks, churches, parks, at least three Starbucks; you name it, it's within shouting distance of our house. In fact, if we wanted to purchase the aforementioned Hummer (and we had a spare 50K to do so), we could just walk the half mile to the Hummer dealership and buy one.  And yet, when people see our family walking or biking around town, they point and stare as if we're riding horses along the street. Recently, a neighbor stopped me on our way to school and said, “I know you're one of those health freaks, but would you guys like a ride?” By “health freak,” I assumed he meant the fact that we were biking to school instead of driving. He couldn't have been referring to what I ate for breakfast, which happened to be cookies and Diet Coke. Since when does biking three blocks to school make a person a health freak? Are you hearing this, Michelle Obama?  

I'm determined to encourage my kids to transcend their pro-auto environs and live an active life.  I will admit, though, when my son first suggested he and his sister bike to school, I balked at the idea because of the heavy traffic we'd encounter on the way. With encouragement from their father, who bikes to work year-round, I eventually decided it was worth the risk. Besides, I figured if anyone would applaud my efforts to teach my children to be active, it would be the school administrators.

Boy, was I wrong.  We ran into the principal on that first day of school, and, unable to find a bike rack, I innocently asked her where we could lock up the bikes. You'd have thought by the tongue lashing I received that I asked her where we could put the bombs we were carrying.  I, the consummate rule follower, had never been reprimanded by a school principal, and I figured that since I was in my 30s, I was now safe from the possibility of that indignity. Not so. Apparently, like the rest of suburbia, the principal is also pro-vehicle, because it's against school policy for kids to ride their bikes to school. After she finished her tirade about "safety," I wanted to respond with my own tirade about "childhood obesity" and "cutbacks to phy ed" and "that unpleasant smell in the lunchroom," but I simply responded "Yes, ma'am," and sheepishly walked away. 

One of the suggestions the principal made as she humiliated me in front of several schoolchildren is that my kids should ride the nice, safe school bus that is provided for them.  And it's true, there is a school bus for the kids in our neighborhood, most of whom could throw a rock from their yard and hit the school that they're being bussed to.  My kids don't want to ride it. And can you blame them?  On the way home the bus zig zags across the city, only to arrive at our house, a mere 3 blocks from the school, 40 minutes later.  By the time the school bus arrives in our neighborhood, my kids are already on Level 19 of Super Mario Bros.

Even though it might seem like we're fighting a losing battle against the car, we're not giving up.  And I have seen some encouraging signs that maybe things are changing in our 'burb. This past summer the city's parks and recreation department mailed fliers encouraging residents to visit local parks, and to get there creatively: “We encourage you to find an active way to 'Discover Your Parks' – walk, bike, or skate to the park!”  And we did. We couldn't find a spot to park our bikes, but we did.