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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