Open Letter to Joe Soucheray from a Saint Paul Minivan Mom

bill toyota sienna

A Toyota Sienna. Note: not the author’s minivan.

The following is in response to a column that appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press last week.

Dear Joe,

You called me out. I have three children (ages 1, 3, and 5), I drive a mini-van (red 2010 Toyota Sienna) and I’d love to make the call on bike lanes. But you probably don’t want me to.

Here’s why I say YES to bike lanes: I am a distracted driver.

It’s not like I’m texting, heck, I don’t even have a cell phone. My eyes are on the road, but I’m answering “when will we be there,” trying to calm sibling disputes, and deciphering “I have to go” from “I HAVE TO GO.” Generally, I’m mothering while directing 4,000 pounds of vehicle down the road. I get nervous driving near bikers. Vans are wide, how do I give them enough space, and not veer into oncoming traffic? When there’s a bike lane I can more easily predict what a cyclist is going to do. And I have more space to do what I need to do.

Entering and exiting a vehicle with three kids in tow is hard, no matter what. Sure, if I park far away and across the street from my destination, it takes a little more puzzling out. But bike lanes enhance safety, even if they might make parking a little tougher.

Generally, mothers are kind of into the whole safety thing. Try three kids in five point harness car seats… it’s not easy! But we all know I’d be crazy to chuck the kids in the backseat willy-nilly. I love them after all. I’m completely willing to be inconvenienced for safety, even if it’s for the sake of some other mom’s 22-year-old kid.

I also like to bike with my kids. We don’t go on long rides. It’s pretty seasonal, and I rarely do it solo. But we can make it to church, t-ball, and the library. And it makes my kids ridiculously happy.

bill bruce vento

The Bruce Vento Trail. Note: not the author’s kid.

Biking is fun. It’s good for families! We’re lucky to live near the Bruce Vento trail where riding is pretty stress free and we can use that path for transportation, not just recreation.

When we need to take streets I mostly take to the sidewalks. It’s not a great solution. I’ve had lots of close calls with unpredictable pedestrians (i.e. kids playing hopscotch), cars have trouble seeing me when they’re exiting driveways and alleyways, and I have a lot of difficulty getting visibility before I’m in an intersection. Once all my kids are on their own two wheels they will quickly outgrow sidewalk riding.

But I’m also not comfortable with them “taking the lane.” Bikes aren’t pedestrians, and they aren’t cars either. They need their own lane (better yet a protected lane), to keep families safe.

Kids grow up, and when my kids turn 16 I hope they’ll get their driver’s license. I think it’s an important skill to have in our car-centric city. But parent-provided vehicles aren’t in the cards for our family. Biking is a really sensible way for teenagers to get around. It’s cheap, it’s good exercise, and it broadens the range of places and people they can access. Bike lanes make it easier to behave properly as a cyclist. There’s less guesswork. And when my kids turn into teenagers with teenage brains, I’d much rather give them keys to their bike lock knowing there’s a system in our city that makes it simple for them, and for drivers, to know where they belong.

My husband rides to work on his bicycle year-round. I used to make him email me immediately upon arrival at work so I could stop worrying (until his commute home). It still kind of freaks me out knowing the route he must take.

But budget-wise, being a one vehicle family is prudent for us. And I’m really grateful to have the van during the day for getting to classes and the pediatrician. My husband is nearly a decade past your “22-year-old”, and he’s not biking for kicks or to make a statement (though no one’s regretting the exercise benefit). I worry about the drivers who need to move over for him and don’t want to. Adding bike lanes isn’t pandering to a certain demographic, it’s about getting people safely home to the families who need them.

Joe, we’re totally in agreement that family life is thriving in St. Paul. But you’re wrong about bike lanes. Bike lanes will make family life in St. Paul even better.

About Elizabeth Saathoff

Elizabeth Saathoff was born and raised in Minneapolis, left to study geography in Chicago and returned to the Twin Cities as a homeschooling mom. She enjoys the urban landscape at toddler pace on the Eastside of St. Paul.