We’re all doomed.
As a Gen-X American, I grew up with entertainment and popular culture that reverberated with the notion that no crisis, or monster attack, or alien invasion, or government conspiracy is a match for Kids on Bikes, a belief recently reintroduced by TV shows paying homage to the stories of my youth, featuring nerdy kids, not unlike I was, on bikes. The nostalgia alone is bittersweet, because when I ride my bike around the Twin Cities metro, I don’t see many Kids on Bikes anywhere. If restated as a syllogism, “we’re all doomed” is therefore a rather incontrovertible statement. This is particularly troubling given the preeminent place both Minneapolis and St. Paul hold on lists of bike-friendly cities, so perhaps the idea of what constitutes a bike-friendly community needs to be revisited.
I grew up as a Kid on a Bike in a car-dependent suburb on the edge of Wichita, KS – a town that doesn’t even register on various “bike-friendly” listicles – and my friends and I rode our bikes everywhere, all the time. The comic book shop was roughly three miles away, and most friends lived within a mile or two; my most distant friend lived about five miles away as the car drives, but our journey was shorter, and involved Kids on Bikes-type shortcuts and, now that I look back on it, possibly trespassing. I was making those treks routinely when I was my oldest daughter’s age, but in St. Paul (Bicycling Magazine’s #18 ranked bike-friendly city) I don’t feel safe letting my daughter ride two and a half miles to her school.
As of today, December 10th, 2020 is now the highest-mileage year on my activity tracker feed since I began recording, a testament not only to the time available to me to ride my bike during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also to the overall bike-friendliness of the Twin Cities. My previous high-mileage year occurred while living in Leavenworth, KS, which by any metric is not a “bicycle-friendly” place. Yet in both communities I was able to log nearly 3,000 miles on the road, and the most significant qualitative difference between the two was that in Leavenworth, my kids could ride their bikes freely around the low-traffic, cul-de-sac-riddled suburban neighborhood where we lived. It was largely impossible to get to destinations like dining or shopping by bike, but if bike-friendliness is defined as the ability to ride with low probabilities of getting injured or killed by a driver, then the remote car-dependency of the suburban street kept vehicle traffic low and concentrated at commute time, which provided space for the kids to play. The empty county roads with the wide shoulders never went anywhere, but they went far, which provided many pleasant miles for me.
So, is St. Paul therefore less bicycle-friendly than Leavenworth? By any standard of measuring bike-friendliness, no, but are those measures accurate? Is St. Paul less bicycle friendly than Wichita, KS, a city with roughly the same population, but riddled with stroads and parking lots? I wouldn’t particularly want to live in Wichita as an adult cyclist, but the experience of my youth is a part of why, as an adult, I want to live in a bike-friendly town: I want my kids to have every cycling opportunity I had and more. Did the decision to move to a bike-friendly city rob my kids of the freedom I enjoyed as a child? And what is a bike-friendly city, anyway?
For the purpose of selecting bicycle-friendly communities for discussion, I chose to look at both the glossy ad-copy of Bicycling Magazine and the supposedly more rigorous People for Bikes rankings. “Supposedly,” because People for Bikes gives Enid, Oklahoma, top numbers, even though not a single local resident answered their surveys. Having experienced cycling misery there, I asked them how they arrived at such an absurd conclusion, and they stated that Google Maps was their primary data source.
According to Bicycling, the top 11 cities (as of 2018) in the US for cycling are:
1) Seattle, WA
2) San Francisco, CA
3) Fort Collins, CO
4) Minneapolis, MN
5) Portland, OR
6) Chicago, IL
7) Eugene, OR
8) Madison, WI
9) New York City, NY
10) Cambridge, MA
11) Washington, D.C.
People for Bikes gives a composite score based on four metrics. Sorted for “ridership,” their top 10 (as of December 2019) are:
1) New York City, NY
2) Portland, OR
3) Cambridge, MA
4) Crested Butte, CO
5) Washington, D.C.
6) San Francisco, CA
7) Stanford, CA
8) Boulder, CO
9) Somerville, MA
10) Seattle, WA
Sorted for “overall,” which includes a dubious metric for progress or acceleration of the building of bike infrastructure, the People for Bikes top 10 reads:
1) Boulder, CO
2) Fort Collins, CO
3) Eugene, OR
4) Manhattan, New York City, NY
5) Portland, OR
6) Lawrence, KS
7) Arlington, VA
8) Brooklyn, New York City, NY
9) Minneapolis, MN
10) Madison, WI
So, there is a reasonable degree of overlap between the two sources, which suggests some form of consensus regarding bike-friendliness.
Except for Lawrence, KS (where my heart will always be), prior to moving to St. Paul I had never actually lived in a town that cracked any bike-friendly list, so I moved here with the idealistic notion that living in such a place would provide the kind of cycling environment I wanted for my children, one that was even better than puttering around our little suburban corner.
I was wrong.
I have since visited nearly all the bike-friendly cities listed above, some extensively, and rode a bike in many of them, and I don’t see any more Kids on Bikes ready to save the world in any of those places, either. In fact, what is really striking is that the cities that have been anointed by consensus as “bike-friendly” also happen to be the U.S. cities with the lowest population of children as a percentage of their population. The U.S. as a whole is approximately 25% children 18 or younger. Of the supposed bike-friendliest cities, San Francisco and Cambridge lead the way in childlessness at 13.5% and 12% children, respectively, followed by Seattle (15%), Madison (a college town – 17%), Portland, Eugene, and D.C. (18%), Minneapolis (20%), Chicago and New York City (21%), and Fort Collins (another college town – 22%). St. Paul, #18 on Bicycling’s list, and way down the People for Bikes list, beats the national average by a fraction of a wheel at 26%.
There simply aren’t many kids in bike-friendly cities, a correlation which itself raises several questions: A lack of children, of course, could account for the lack of Kids on Bikes, but if these cities are as bike friendly for kids as for childless young adults, wouldn’t more parents like me want to live in a place where their kids can theoretically ride bikes? Are bike-friendly cities perhaps not kid-friendly cities? Why does that strong negative correlation exist? Can a city be considered bike-friendly if it is not incubating the cyclists of tomorrow?
The number of Kids on Bikes has declined across the nation, in both city and suburb, by 19% since 2007. In 1969, 48% of children age 5-14 rode their bike to school, while in 2009 only 13% did. The reasons for the decline are various, among which are overall distance, crime, and weather, but the number one reason is all around you: cars, those moebius strips of causality and necessity spiraling endlessly on themselves. There are more cars and drivers now than there were in my childhood, and those cars are larger and deadlier, and their drivers put in more miles going to increasingly spread-out commitments and destinations on time. More driving has also conditioned both parents and children to be averse to weather, which is increasingly noted as a cycling deterrent. The car gave us the suburbs – the place we go to escape other people’s cars while being ever-more-dependent on our own – and in turn we have built our cities to accommodate sprawling car dependency, which makes it less likely that kids – or anyone – will ride a bike unless they move even further out to be away from the cars they depend on. And so, caught in this loop, I can’t help but also look at real estate in far-flung suburbs with county roads and rails-to-trails and isolated little streets, even though I know how bad it is for our built environment, and how it fuels the cycle of car dependency. I can’t help it because in the time it will take to make our cities better for kids, my kids will be grown up and have kids of their own, and that’s assuming a best-case scenario where we immediately begin to dedicate ourselves to restructuring our society.
Within the city of St. Paul, as in most bike-friendly cities, the impressive network of bike lanes requires a driver’s level of proficiency with and understanding of car traffic to (relatively) safely use and navigate. Bike lanes are simply not suitable for most children; the place where they can safely navigate the city with acceptably low risk from drivers is the sidewalk. However, gaps in sidewalk coverage and wide and numerous parking lot and driveway crossings make even the sidewalks risky. At some point on a sidewalk journey in the city, children will have to brave intersections, many of which are governed by a toothless “every intersection is a crosswalk” policy in a place where 43% of drivers don’t even stop at marked crosswalks or yield appropriately at signals. Additionally, my pre-teen daughter has related to me that she’s tired of “mean old people” yelling at her to ride in the street. (I know that municipal planning can’t fix a culture of mean old people, but mean old people can be a bigger deterrent to children than risks they don’t really understand. Neighborhoods with more kids might have a local culture more indulgent of Kids on Bikes on sidewalks, therefore encouraging more Kids on Bikes.) If kids can safely reach the local trail network, that is another option available to them. But while it is lovely, extensive, and expansive, St. Paul’s trail network provides the same kind of experience that county highways in KS did for me: pleasant, low-volume miles that go nowhere in particular except just “around.”
Kids, however, aren’t particularly interested in scenic, empty miles; they want to go to friends’ homes to do things. In St. Paul, as in many brainy, liberal cities, the byzantine and balkanized school system has resulted in a situation where all my daughter’s friends are scattered across the metro well outside of reasonable cycling distances for her, and one of the primary reasons cited for the fact that kids don’t ride bikes is the barrier of distance to anywhere they want to go. Unlike my own childhood where every kid in my little suburb went to the same school and boarded the same bus, my daughter’s nearest friend lives four and a half miles away – eight and a half miles by the only reasonably safe cycling route. The school-age child’s environment in the city is maintained and selected by high-achieving liberal helicopter parents who drive their kids to an atomized and geographically widespread network of schools, friends’ homes, and highly structured activities only truly accessible within both distance and schedule constraints by car. Trapped in this cycle, we participate in the problem as we must, and drive our progeny around too. The freedom of my youth was in some ways an illusion, crafted by the proximity of everywhere I wanted to go; as an adult I can safely range further afield to a greater variety of places, on better routes, in St. Paul than I would be able to from my childhood home in Wichita, but to my childhood self, it was still freedom on my bike. In St. Paul, my kids are growing up knowing that their passport to the places they want to go is a car.
The adult bike-friendly city is possibly giving my kids more time viewing the world through a car-window than they would have in the cheery little suburb where my sister is raising her children. That suburb has minimal sidewalks, no bike infrastructure, and no transit; it is 100% car-dependent, and it isn’t anywhere close to any “bicycle-friendly” list. However, when I visit, I occasionally see Kids on Bikes – not in the numbers I grew up with, but orders of magnitude more than I see in the Twin Cities, or other “bike-friendly” cities. They don’t ride many places – just to their friends’ houses, maybe school for those who have good sidewalks – but they do ride. My sister’s suburban kids are the cyclists that my kids struggle to be, and I wonder if, in a strange way, that makes those car-dependent suburbs both more and less bike-friendly than our location in St. Paul. If the numbers are any indication, bike-friendly cities have been partially abandoned by parents who have come to similar conclusions. The world is saved by Kids on Bikes, not by Kids on Bikes Hovered Over by Parents on Bikes Telling Them Exactly What to Do and Yelling at Drivers to Keep the Kids Alive. That’s a terrible movie!
There are no answers here, or policy proposals. Only questions, and a daily paradox. In the meantime, while I ponder these questions, I’ll drive my kids and their bikes out to places where they can have, for a brief, supervised moment, a facsimile of the kind of free-range cycling I had in my own childhood. It is the paradox of a world built for cars.
Afterword: Most of this essay was written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and if there has been a positive trend during 2020, it has been the number of people riding bikes because the myriad, structured, and exclusively car-accessible activities and commitments in cities across this country were closed down. In essence, kids everywhere, including my own, were given a summer not unlike the ones I had as a kid on the fringes of a Kansas town, a summer that my oldest daughter described as the best summer she had ever had. If nothing else, this too makes me wonder if my kids would be better off, both as children and as cyclists, if they could grow up in a simpler and potentially more isolated area, even if it is 100% car-dependent. This of course would mean doing a little bit to make our country even more car-dependent, and it is the awful choice that cannot be avoided in our car-dependent culture.