Tuesday, February 21, 2017

How I Teach my Kids to Cross the Street

The Ramona books by Beverly Cleary are some of my daughter's favorites, mainly (I suspect) because they chronicle the same struggles she faces in her life right now: starting school, sharing a room, grouchy parents.

Since the first books in the series were written in the late 1960s, I'm always struck by the subtle differences between social norms then and now. Ramona, for instance, walks to school. By herself. In kindergarten. I'm pretty sure if I let my daughter do that I'd be considered crazy, if not criminal.

But I've got big dreams of someday sending these short people off on the epic four-block walk to school without the slew of grown-ups you see in the background, and that means I spend a lot of time talking to them about how to walk safely. Here's what I tell them about crossing the street:

1. Be predictable
Kids are already at a disadvantage because they're small, and thus less visible. If they're going to be seen by drivers, they should put themselves in places where those drivers are already going to look. That means no darting out between cars, crossing mid-block, or running a red light. It means crossing in the crosswalk, ideally at an intersection with stop signs or signals. I fully believe that there are times and places where crossing rules should be broken, but I don't trust my kids to be able to make those types of judgment calls yet.

2. Use the Three-Second Rule
I see so many kids treating the crosswalk signal like it's a checkered flag in a drag race, launching into the street the second the light turns green. Every time it happens, I cringe. Drivers run those lights All. The. Time.

Knowing this, I've stolen a rule my friend created for her kids: count to three before crossing. It won't save my kids from drivers who blatantly run lights, but it keeps them out of the path of drivers to try to sneak through the intersection just as the light changes.

3. Look, Listen, and Go
That's the mantra for my kids when they cross the street, and they're probably already sick of hearing me say it. Every time we walk I remind them that it doesn't matter what I (or anyone else) says, at the end of the day it's their responsibility to look and listen for cars before they cross.

4. Trust No One
This one can be hard, because kids are used to being told what to do. But when it comes to crossing, I teach my kids that they need to be the ones to decide what's safe. That means making eye contact with drivers before crossing, not just assuming they will stop when they're supposed to.

It also means refusing to cross when a driver stops for them in the middle of the road. Rarely do I feel called to yell in blog posts, but will everyone PLEASE STOP DOING THIS. You've just created a super dangerous situation for my kids by pressuring them to cross the street while blocking their view of the roadway and blocking other drivers' views of my kids. I tell my kids to just wave those drivers on, and wait until they can cross safely on their own.

Don't let all these rules give you the wrong impression: I absolutely think kids should be allowed to walk places on their own, and I have no intention of holding my kids' hands every morning until they leave for college. Ramona was so proud the first time that she walked to school on her own, and I want my kids to have that same feeling too. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Road Funding as an Awkward Dinner Party

Strong Towns, one of my favorite wonky planning blogs, recently posted this story explaining how Road Funding as a Prisoner's Dilemma. I expanded on what they wrote a bit to focus on how road funding is particularly problematic for people who walk and bike. Here goes:

We've all had that moment at the end of a night out to dinner with friends when the last drink has been guzzled and it's time to split the bill. Many a sitcom episode has hinged over whether the bill should be split evenly between all parties, or painstakingly calculated on a who-had-which-entree basis.

It turns out that the way we think about paying the dinner bill is remarkably similar to how we think about paying for roads.

Imagine that you're out to dinner with three other friends. It's a small table, so you can all see what the other person orders. When the bill comes, it's easy enough to split things up in a way that makes it "fair" for everyone. If Friend A had an extra glass of wine, she knows her friends will notice if she doesn't chip in a few more dollars. If Friend B forgets to add in the tax, it will be obvious to everyone. Because of this, no one at the table is tempted to have more than they want or can afford to pay for.

Now imagine that you're out to dinner with a large group of friends and acquaintances, including a few people you've never met before. Since the table is huge, you can't really see what the people at the other end are ordering, but you can tell right away that it's going to be too complicated to figure out individual checks. You resign yourself to splitting the bill evenly 23 ways, regardless of your personal menu choices. Because of this, you order a few extra drinks so that you're sure you get your money's worth. You wake up the next morning with a nasty hangover, and a lingering sense of injustice. Even though you didn't really want that fifth beer, drinking it was the only way you could think of to get your fair share.

We fund roadways as if we're all sitting at a really big dinner table. A large part of roadway funding comes from things like sales taxes, property taxes, or development fees. None of these have a direct relationship to driving, so they don't have a strong influence on our travel choices--just as what I eat for dinner at the big table doesn't have a direct relationship to my bill.

The problem is that my steak dinner isn't free, and neither is the one that the person at the other end of the table ate. Driving does impose real costs on our communities, in the form of congestion, pollution, and poor traffic safety. But since no one is held directly accountable for these costs, we have an incentive to drive more than we should. I eat more than I really want to at the big group dinner, because the alternative is paying the price of a bottle of wine when all I had to drink was water. And that's not just bad for me--since everyone at the table does the same thing, we all end up overeating and spending more on dinner than we wanted to.

So who's the pedestrian in all of this? The pedestrian is the vegetarian at the table. She's the person who is always going to end up overpaying for dinner, because her salad is never going to cost as much as her neighbor's roast chicken. As vulnerable road users, pedestrians bear a disproportionate burden of the costs of driving. But they pay the same bill as everyone else in the form of sales taxes, income taxes, and property taxes.

This bothers me at the policy table almost as much as it bothers me at the dinner table (can you tell I'm the vegetarian?). Transportation planners have long touted direct fees as the best way to ensure drivers pay the true cost of their travel choices. California is finally getting serious about implementing the idea. Hopefully our decisionmakers will get on board. Otherwise, we're all in for a serious hangover.