Friday, September 5, 2014

Gettings Kids to Bicycle to School

bike train to Hart Elementary school in Austin
New bike racks at Hart Elementary School in Austin
(photo courtesy of the City of Austin)
Back in 1969 (what my kids now refer to as the “olden days”), walking and bicycling to school was part of everyday life. Nearly half of all students traveled to school on foot or by bike. Today, that’s no longer the case, with only 13% of children walking or bicycling to school. Meanwhile, the percentage of children arriving at school by private automobile has increased from 12% to 44% (the rate of school bus ridership has stayed almost the same).

Austin is home to a number of innovative programs to encourage kids to bicycle to school. Last month, the City of Austin launched a major bicycle/walk-to-school initiative at Hart Elementary School, which serves a high proportion of low-income students with limited opportunities to be active. Along with the installation of a 1.3-mile cycle track connecting nearby apartment complexes to the school, the City secured 300 bikes to donate to children who commit to cycling to school. As of this week, more than 80 kids were cycling to school regularly!

bike train to Hart Elementary school in Austin
The Bike Train at Hart Elementary School in Austin
(photo courtesy of the City of Austin)
As part of the program, the City has set up bike trains and walking school buses with adult monitors to pick the students up from their apartment complexes and supervise their commute to school. (A bike train is an organized group of students who cycle together along a pre-arranged route to school under the close supervision of adults.  A walking school bus is the pedestrian version of a bike train.) When the students arrive on campus, they swipe a special card so their parents can know they arrived safely.

In addition to the City’s program at Hart Elementary, at least five other elementary schools in Austin low-income neighborhoods have recently started walking school bus programs. Meanwhile, parents and PTA organizations at a number of local schools have started their own bike trains. The City of Austin’s Child Safety program provides support to parents who want to set up their own bike trains, by providing maps for customized biking routes and reflective arm bands for participants.

Boltage program at Doss Elementary School
(photo courtesy of AISD)
Several area schools, including Doss Elementary and Martin Middle Schools, have adopted high-tech approaches to get kids on bikes. One of these programs, Boltage, uses a solar-powered reader that records each child’s bike trip to school. The records are then used to reward students who commute to school regularly by bike.

While Austin has made great progress recently in encouraging kids to cycle and bike to school, our community has a long ways to go if we want to reclaim the days when one out of every two kids bicycled or walked to school. By helping kids walk and bicycle to school, we can make a dent in child obesity rates here in Austin, where 38% of children in grades 3 to 8 are overweight or obese.  Increasing cycling and walk-to-school rates also reduces traffic congestion. In some communities, as much as 30% of vehicle traffic in the morning rush hour is from children being driven to school.
Safety remains the biggest barrier to getting more kids on bikes. We should all be advocating at City Hall for more local funding to create safer routes to schools, including sidewalks, cycle tracks, and neighborhood traffic calming. I love seeing what other cities are doing in this regards. Portland and Seattle, for example, are both building a network of neighborhood greenways that give priority to cyclists and pedestrians. By 2015, 80% of Portland residents will live within half a mile of a neighborhood greenway.

At a neighborhood and school level, setting up a bike train or walking school bus can go a long way in overcoming parents’ concerns about safety. In Portland, bike trains are now a predominant feature of kids’ commute to school, supported by a robust cycling culture and even a website with information on bike trains in operation around the city. In Seattle, the school district is working to set up a bike train or walking school bus at every elementary school in the district.

Austin is lucky to already have lots of success stories to build from to help our children bike and walk to school. Working together as a community to address the remaining barriers, I see no reason why we cannot reach the same goal that Seattle recently adopted—to get 50% of children walking and biking to school again.

(Look for a longer version of this blog post in the November issue of Austin Fit). 
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Monday, August 25, 2014

Sending Our Children Off to School

It's back to school time today in Austin. We just sent our oldest son off to middle school. Sigh. Here is a shout out to all the parents who are sending their children off to elementary school/middle school/high school/college for the first time. And, if you are looking to shed more tears, here is a link to one of my favorite poems about sending kids off into the world, by Sharon Olds, The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb.  If you can, listen to the version at the link read by Garrison Keillor (I am unable to get the audio link to work this morning).
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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Traveling to Boston: What Makes Boston a Great Place for Families with Children

My youngest son and I spent a week exploring Boston this summer.  We fell in love with Boston's open spaces, pedestrian orientation, and cultural amenities. This post is about some of our favorite places in Boston and why we found Boston to be such a great place for families with children. Next up, a post about why Boston is still losing families with children to the suburbs.

Our favorite family-friendly amenities in Boston:

1. Boston's extensive network of high quality parks. Boston has parks for everyone, big and small, with 97% of the population living within a ten-minute walk of a public park (compared to 43% in Austin), and 3.5 playgrounds per 10,000 residents (vs 1.3 in Austin). We visited a different park everyday. One of our favorite parks, or rather series of parks, was the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a mile-and-a-half ribbon of new parks that were built on top of a major highway after it was relocated underground. The parks were filled with family-friendly amenities, from water features to carousels and wide lawns.
Map of Boston's public parks
from the Trust for Public Land
ParkScore index website
The Canal Fountain in the North End Park of Boston
Part of the Rose Kennedy Greenway
The Armenian Heritage Park in Boston
Part of the Rose Kennedy Greenway

alley in Boston's North End
An alley in Boston's North End
2. Pedestrian-orientation. Boston is one of the most pedestrian-friendly U.S. cities we have visited as family, with its wide sidewalks, well-striped crosswalks, and walking access to a diverse array of urban amenities. Indeed, Boston ranks third on the Walk Score index of walkable cities. Whenever we arrived at a mid-street crosswalk, the cars would actually stop to allow us to cross! (This is a novelty in Austin, where you place your life at risk if you cross a mid-street crosswalk.). While my son would have protested, I could have easily spent the whole week just walking around the city.

3. Public squares and alleys. I was equally impressed with Boston's rich array of lively public open spaces beyond its parks, including the city's numerous public squares, pedestrian-friendly alleys, and historic walking trails. The city government is embarking on a new 2015-2021 Open Space Plan, which will identify opportunities for further enhancing the city's public space inventory.

public square in Boston's North End
Public square in Boston's North End

Park and public gathering space in Central Boston

public art in Boston, the Alchemist
Jaume Plensa's "The Alchemist"
MIT Campus
4. Cultural Amenities:

Boston is teeming with cultural amenities with its public art and historic architecture, outdoor concerts, and museums galore, all within walking distance or an easy ride on public transit. In a week, we could not come even close to visiting all of the museums on our wish list.  My son's favorites: Boston Children's Museum and Museum of Science (where, to my chagrin, one of the most popular interactive exhibits was a machine that you could make fart). My favorites: Old State House, Boston Freedom Trail, and the MIT Museum (in Cambridge across the river). We never made it to the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Fire Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Isabella Gardner Museum, the USS Constitution Museum, and many of the other museums in Boston.
Boston Children's Museum
Boston Children's Museum

Boston Children's Museum indoor climbing sculpture
Indoor climbing sculpture
Boston Children's Museum
Boston Science Museum
The toot machine

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Plaza Saltillo: Lost Opportunity for Austin's Families with Children

After 20 years of on-and-off-again planning efforts, Cap Metro has finally selected a developer for the prime 11-acre tract of public land, the Saltillo Tract.  The closely watched 5-3 vote by the Cap Metro board was extremely disappointing, with the selection of a development plan by Endeavor that fails to include affordable housing for families with children and largely ignores the cultural and historical context of the tract. 

The 11-acre Saltillo Tract is bordered by Plaza Saltillo, which was intended to be the hub for a Hispanic cultural and commercial district called Ole Mexico. Those plans for the area now seem permanently out of reach, with the tract sitting in the heart of a rapidly gentrifying area, where low-income African-American and Hispanic families are quickly being replaced with higher income and primarily Anglo households, and local businesses face dramatically escalating property values. The demographic trends are contributing to large drops in enrollment at AISD schools in the area

Neighborhood leaders supported the Saltillo Tract development proposal by the other project finalist, Saltillo Collaborative, which would have generated 170 units of affordable housing developed by leading providers of affordable housing for children in Austin, Foundation Communities and Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation (GNDC). The bulk of the affordable units would have been multi-bedroom apartments accessible for families with children, supported by other child-friendly amenities. GNDC, which has a long history of working in the community, maintains a long list of low-income families with children waiting to access affordable housing in the neighborhood. Many of the families on the waiting list  are Hispanic families who grew up the neighborhood but were priced out and now want to return. 

The City of Austin's Families with Children Task Force, and most recently the City of Austin/Travis County/AISD workgroup on Schools and Families (both of which I served on), identified the need for more affordable, family-friendly housing in our urban core and near transit as a critical need in our community. The communities surrounding the Saltillo development have also long identified affordable housing for families as a high priority. And a recent survey by the University of Texas's Community and Regional Planning Program found that the majority of low-income households with children who commute more than 10 miles to work in Austin want to live close to their jobs in the urban core. 

Cap Metro's selection of the Endeavor team to redevelop the Saltillo Tract follows the unfortunate lead set by the City for the recent redevelopment of other important tracts of public land, including the Green Water and Seaholm sites downtown, none of which will include affordable units for families with children. Today, the Austin City Council has an opportunity to chart a new course when it considers the redevelopment of a city-owned parcel at 411 Chicon, the one remaining sizable tract of publicly-owned land in Central East Austin that is ripe for redevelopment.

Back in 2003, Cap Metro literature stated: "The overriding goal for the Saltillo District Redevelopment Project is to construct an exemplary, compact community."  By no means should the selection of the Endeavor project--a project that leaves out affordable housing for children on such a large tract of publicly-owned land in Central East Austin--be considered exemplary. 

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Monday, May 26, 2014

When to Allow Your Children to Navigate Austin's Streets Alone on a Bike?

cycling on South Lamar with a child
Cycling with my son down South Lamar: Not for the faint of heart!

As my sons approach their teens, they are wanting something I had as a kid: the ability to explore their neighborhood on bikes without their parents hovering over them.

A typical arterial street in our neighborhood.
Lots of parked cars, leaving no room for two cars to pass each other,
let alone two cars and a cyclist.
But our inner-city neighborhood streets today are not like the quiet streets in the suburbs where I grew up. Today, our streets are crowded with parked cars and traffic while lacking basic pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. Our kids have to regularly navigate weaving in and out of parked cars while distracted drivers speed by them. When there are sidewalks (which are rare), the kids must confront huge cracks, uneven pavement, and missing curb cuts.  It's one thing to navigate these hazards as a 40-year-old with many years of experience cycling, and another thing when you are 9.

Our neighborhood is by no means alone in this regards in Austin.  Throughout the city, parents must regularly confront this question: At what point is it safe enough to let your child ride his bike or scooter without an adult nearby?
One of our rare neighborhood sidewalks.
Notice the lack of curb cuts.

Six years ago, Lenore Skenazy wrote a controversial article about how she let her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway home alone. This sparked a national conversation about parents becoming too obsessed with theirs kids' safety, stripping kids of the independence that they need to grow into healthy, confident adults. More recently, an article by Hanna Rosin criticized parents' pre-occupation with safety and cites evidence that links the loss of children's ability to engage in independent, risk-taking discovery  to increases in "depression, narcissism, and a decline in empathy."

Both of these articles, however, ignore the hazards we observe everyday as we travel through our neighborhoods: absent-minded drivers who text, ignore crosswalks, and regularly speed through our neighborhood streets. Rosin asserts that the world is not a more dangerous place than it was when we were growing up, but she bases her argument solely on crime stats and child abduction rates, not on traffic safety. Meanwhile, pedestrian fatalities have been on the rise. A pedestrian is injured every 8 minutes in a traffic crash in the United States, and 19% of these injuries are to kids 15 and younger. Pedestrian injuries are the second leading cause of accidental death among children 5 to 15. 

I wonder if I would feel more comfortable letting my kids ride a New York City subway alone than, say, riding their bikes or walking to their local library. I might. According to a report released last week by Smart Growth America, the Austin metro area is the 24th most dangerous region for pedestrians (and probably not any better for cyclists); New York City is 48th (out of 51 metro areas). To get to our neighborhood library, my kids have to navigate several hazards, including crossing a very busy and dangerous intersection on South Lamar where I regularly see cars turning left that fail to yield to oncoming cars, let alone pedestrians and cyclists. (Here's a link to a prior post about our cycling adventures together on South Lamar).

All this being said, I think that ultimately the decision about whether to let your child ride his or her bike alone is a very personal one. It depends on the conditions in the neighborhood, as well as the child's cognitive abilities and experience riding with adults and learning good cycling safety judgment. What also helps: a leap of faith, a kiss on the cheek, and maybe a prayer or two. 

The cast from the broken arm!
Taking all these things into account, last month we finally decided our kids were old enough to go off alone on their scooters to buy snow cones on the edge of the neighborhood.  The outcome? Did our kids survive? Yes. Although my oldest son's scooter hit a big piece of broken pavement in the sidewalk, causing him to fall and break his arm. I kid you not.

Will we let our children ride alone again? Yes, although next time I will remind them to look out for the cracks in the sidewalk.
Here's the uneven pavement that was the source of the fall and broken arm.
This is very typical of the state of neighborhood sidewalks in Austin.
Despite several calls to the City of Austin, this sidewalk has still not been repaired.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Assessing Austin's Community Character Part II

I have received some flack for my recent post on Assessing Austin's Community Character, where I presented what I love about my neighborhood: access to yards for children; our neighborhood school and park; affordable, family-friendly restaurants; access to parks and athletic facilities; the eclectic, artistic, and diverse character; nature; and -- gasp -- cul-de-sacs!  One commenter wrote that I was "clinging to some ideal of bungalows with huge yards," while another wrote that I was asking for "suburban amenities."

What some pro-densification readers have probably taken the most offense at was my reference to yards and cul-de-sacs.  But, actually, these concepts of safe, kid-friendly, outdoor play spaces are not antithetical to living in a dense urban area. 

One of my main purposes in creating this blog has been to call out examples from around the world where cities are successfully providing opportunities for families to live in denser housing with the amenities that these commenters have characterized as "suburban."

family-friendly courtyard housing in Zurich
Courtyard housing in Zurich
For example, let's take yards. I have written several blog posts about housing designs from around the world, such as row houses and courtyard housing, that provide denser urban housing AND access to yards for children. For example, here is a picture from a post I wrote in 2012 about courtyard housing in Zurich. My sister-in-law used to live in this particular housing development, which provided a huge shared yard where kids (and adults) could safely play.  In Los Angeles, these complexes are called garden courts. 

Vancouver, which has one of the densest downtowns in North America, requires that 25% of units be designed and sold/rented to families with children. As a result, throughout downtown Vancouver you can find housing towers surrounded by wrap-around, three-story townhouse units with access to secure playground yards for children. (Through my service on the Downtown Commission, I recently advocated for Austin to adopt a first-step, scaled-down version of this policy for downtown by giving density bonuses to developers who include small outdoor play areas for children. The Commission unanimously voted for the policy, which the Austin City Council approved on first reading last week. City staff is currently opposed to the proposal).

Vancouver housing for families with children
In the same vein as Vancouver, Portland, Oregon's highly-dense Pearl District has a goal for 25% of the housing units to be family-friendly. In 2011, I visited one apartment complex there that has followed the courtyard concept, as well as other housing complexes that are directly adjacent to kid-friendly parks. 

Portland Pearl District and housing for families with children
The Pearl District in Portland, Oregon
As for safe streets where kids can throw a ball or ride their bikes, while admittedly cul-de-sacs are not ideal for a denser urban core, there are many models of streets in dense cities that facilitate kids' ability to play. The woonerfs in Denmark and Sweden are probably the most well-known model. In London, these are known as home zones and are being retrofitted throughout the city. In the U.S., these have been referred to as "shared streets" or "living streets." Here is a picture of a wonderful shared street my family visited in San Sebastian, Spain in 2012. 
shared streets for children to play
Shared Street in San Sebastian, Spain
What worries me about the negative responses I have received to my previous post is that they may represent a more widely-shared expectation in our city: that we can only have a denser urban core if we sacrifice the things that many of us love most about our communities--such as yards, trees, and safe streets. My hope for CodeNext is that our city policymakers recognize that these family-friendly amenities are not only complementary but actually critical to creating a city that is robust, healthy, and sustainable for all types of households.
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Friday, January 24, 2014

Assessing Austin's Community Character

Austin's CodeNEXT team (the team that is leading an overhaul of the City of Austin's land use code) is currently conducting an assessment of our city's community character. The team wants to know what the Austin public values about our neighborhoods, favorite places, and opportunities for improvement, with a focus on the built environment.

There is a final city workshop tomorrow where Austinites can offer their input on the community character assessment, and then later this month the City will be rolling out a "do-it-yourself" Neighborhood Community Character kit.

I hope that lots of Austin's families are weighing in on this assessment. What about our neighborhoods' unique character supports families' ability to raise children, and what makes it hard to raise children?  What do we like and not like about our homes, our streets, our public spaces, and our businesses?

Here is my (partial) list of things I love about my community's character, with a focus on the things in my neighborhood that contribute to my family's happiness and well-being. What does your list look like? 

1. Yards: I love my neighborhood's backyards and front yards. With the focus on densifying Austin's urban core, what often gets lost is the importance of providing safe places for kids to engage in free play outdoors. Outdoor play is a critical part of a child's development and a parent's sanity. In a household with two rambunctious boys, I don't know how we could have survived raising kids so far without being able to send our kids outdoors to run around and play--while also being able to keep a close eye on them when cooking dinner, working at home, etc.  In fact, the only reason I have been able to write this blog post today (since school was cancelled) is because I could send my kids and their friends into the yard to play.

2. Neighborhood school and park. When we first bought our house, before we had children, we did not realize at the time what a blessing it is to live within walking distance of an outstanding neighborhood school that was next to a park. Now that we have school-age kids, we are thankful everyday for living so close to such a community treasure that we can walk and bike to each day. Beyond the educational benefits, both our neighborhood school and park have fostered tons of new friendships with our neighbors, a greater sense of neighborhood identity, and community stewardship. 

3. Affordable, family-friendly restaurants. When my kids were younger, it was important for us to be able to go to restaurants with outdoor play areas for children. Now that my kids are older, a family-friendly restaurant is one that serves affordable, healthy, and kid-friendly food within walking or cycling distance of our home. 

4. Access to parks and athletic facilities.  I love the fact that my neighborhood is close to great parks as well as athletic facilities where our kids can play baseball, soccer, tennis, and more.

5. Eclectic, artistic and diverse character. I love living in a neighborhood where my 80-year-old neighbor can grow a field of corn in his front yard, where there are art cars parked in the driveways, and where multiple generations live on a street. I cherish the fact that our neighborhood includes affordable housing, including public housing for families and MHMR housing for persons with mental disabilities. And I appreciate all the artwork in the neighborhood, including the hand-knitted artwork on the stop sign pole, the mural in the alley, and other artwork gems that pop up in nooks and crannies throughout the hood.

6. Cul-de-sacs. While cul-de-sacs are generally shunned in urban planning circles, I love my neighborhood's cul-de-sacs.  Our cul-de-sacs offer the safest places for kids to play in the streets, learn to ride their bike, shoot hoops, roller skate, and more. Studies have found that cul-de-sacs result in a substantial increase in play activity compared to an open grid street pattern, and the Atlantic Cities recently ran this great article on how cul-de-sacs increase social interaction among neighbors. Here's to the cul-de-sac!

7. Back to nature. I love going to sleep at night to the sound of an owl hooting in my back yard, and then waking up on in the morning to the sound of a woodpecker. I love the canopy of trees that line our streets, the butterflies that appear in our flower beds, and the lizards that appear on our front porch.

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