Being Carfree Means Being More Visible

Americans spend an average of 15 hours a week in a car, at least according to this Arbitron study. That’s like two hours a day! Here at Carfree with Kids, we don’t spend any average time in a car — time in a car for us is always weird and usually involves crying children. But cars are private space. Yes, you can see into most cars, but being in a car you are insulated from the outside world. In contrast, we do all of our transportation in public — walking, biking, or taking transit.

This actually impacts our parenting. Whether it’s on a train, bus, or bike, our children are being transported in public. That means that the tired baby who screams on the way home from the Children’s Museum is screaming in public. The preschooler who has trouble sitting still is squirming and singing too loudly in public. The toddler who doesn’t want to stop playing at the park is thrashing about in a stroller or on a bike in public (on a disastrous ride home from spy pond a couple weeks ago I really wanted a sign that said “they cry in car seats all the time people”). Parents who transport their children in cars have to deal with just as much challenging behavior, but they often do it in the privacy of their own car, where they can be insulated from the harsh judgment of people who would certainly never let their kids behave like that. That won’t stop the screaming, but in a car you can at least tell yourself that your kids aren’t driving other people crazy, just you.

Those anti-kid people who think children and their parents should all be shipped to the moon absolutely hate us, I’m sure. But while there are lots of obvious drawbacks to parenting through transitions in public, there are some benefits as well. First, you get to interact with so many different kinds of people. I’d like right now to say a huge “Thank you!” to all the bus and train riders who have ever stopped to wave at, play peek-a-boo with, or chat with my kids. We get a chance to see new people at every stop, and sometimes that leads to interesting conversations, like the time our daughter, around 2.5 at the time, saw a pink-haired young woman heading to an anime convention in Boston and told Nathan, in a loud stage whisper, “Some grownups have different hair!” which generated a lot of smiles and led to a very sweet interaction between the two of them. You get to answer questions about people hauling furniture, dogs, and suitcases, people who have noticeable physical differences, people who speak different languages, and people who are behaving badly. Generally, you get to help your children to respond appropriately to the unexpected.

You also get a chance to practice manners and good behavior in a variety of different situations. Can your child be quiet during a morning commute? Handle sitting next to people she doesn’t know? Stand up on the train while still remaining calm? All of these situations come with social pressure to behave well, which can be both good and bad. But they certainly do allow the whole family to practice appropriate behavior in a public setting. We’re currently working with our four-year-old on sitting with some level of propriety in a skirt, and I don’t think we would be doing it if we weren’t riding trains regularly. ¬†We tend to get compliments on our kids’ sociability and manners, and some of this comes from the skills they learn in our many public interactions.

The other place where we feel very visible is when we ride our bike. Our beautiful Xtracycle gets a lot of attention, and both Nathan and I have noticed that when we ride it, even if the kids aren’t with us, we feel pressure to be good biking citizens, and in particular to obey traffic laws. This has more to do with having an easily identifiable bike than with being carfree, but it still seems to fit here. If I run a red light, I know that the people behind me can easily look me up (our blog url is on the license plate), and that helps me resist the temptation.

[Photo credit]

About Angela

Angela is an associate professor of mathematics and enjoys writing, reading, and talking to people about her bike. She's the proud mother of two cute kids, H and R.
This entry was posted in Child-related issues, Our Xtracycle, Problems and issues, Public transportation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Being Carfree Means Being More Visible

  1. Annie says:

    We are car lite and I have been thinking lately about how this impacts my parenting and my own struggle with shyness.I think it has been a very good thing for my family to interact with the world more.It has stripped away my protective shell and forced me to deal with what is in front of me, a screaming,flailing child (as you point out-IN PUBLIC ;) . It is not the disapproving strangers that matter but my relationship with this little person. I just discovered your blog a day or two ago, but I have been enjoying it very much.

  2. Vanessa says:

    This is so true. When I started biking with the kids- often my biggest worry was dealing with parenting issues. Like if I took them someplace that they would likely melt down in and how I would handle it. With a car I can strap them in and turn up the music. But I can also throw a tantrum myself :-(

    On the bike ( or bus) I have to be the grown up and be creative. They will try to beat each other up in the box and I have to figure out how to stop it. I’ve had young hipsters shout and clap ” Go mom Go” as I pushed the bike downthe sidewalk while my daughter screamed and yelled and tried to drag the bike to a stop. That kind of community kept me from freaking out on her.

  3. dr2chase says:

    I assume you’ve figured out that other parents aren’t that bothered by your crying kids — we’re all so relieved that it’s not ours.

    And I’m not so sure that being identifiable makes that big a difference — cars all have license plates, and their drivers are pretty careless about the law. Teaching a kid to drive makes this all very, very clear — if you did what you saw other people do in cars, you would never, ever pass your driver’s test.

  4. None of this ever occured to me, possibly because we’ve always been car free so doing thesde things in public is normal.
    I guess that’s a reminder that even in Germany we really are living differently: many thanks.

  5. Dorea says:

    dr2chase — I ride both on a highly identifiable bike (our Xtra) and on a completely unidentifiable trashed road bike. For me, at least, being identifiable DOES make a different. In general, I am a very law abiding cyclist, but if I’m on my “boring” bike, I’m a little more likely to cut corners (sometimes going through a dreadfully long light on the walk-only signal, or at a “T” intersection where I know I can slip through with absolutely no safety risk). It don’t do it often in any case, but I’ve definitely noticed that I quickly stop short when I’m tempted if I’m on the Xtra, both because it’s obvious I ride with children (even if they aren’t with me), and because I know I’m identifiable and also being watched (because our bike does turn heads). Maybe that’s not a universal, but I bet there are at least a few other folks out there riding highly identifiable kid and/or cargo set-ups who are just a skootch more law-abiding than when riding a run-of-the-mill bike.

  6. Katie says:

    Amen to all of this!! It took a long breaking-in period– and some super-supportive comments from our blog community– for me to realize that all babies cry in cars sometimes, and so expecting my baby never to cry on the bike was an unrealistic parenting goal.

  7. sara says:

    This is a great topic. Thanks for posting. Parenting in general is humbling. Parenting in public is another layer of complicated. My family lived on a boarding school campus in a dorm for four years and while there were huge benefits being in this community, the constant public parenting did take a toll.

    While I’m certainly not proud of it, I have been in a car with one of my children acting horribly and I’ve used that private space and acted horribly in return. Yesterday, we had an exhausted nearly five-year-old throw himself down right before it was time to hop on bikes to ride home. We couldn’t just bundle him up and wrestle him into a carseat and shut the door. We had to wait him out a bit, be patient, crack some jokes, show some love before we could safely head home with him (If only I had a shot of him before we took off splayed in protest across the top of the snapdeck. Yes, we got him to sit up and hold on to the stoker bars but it took some supreme effort). Yet the positive interactions with our community, the people with whom we talk, the things we notice and discuss together, etc. make life out on bikes really, really worth it.

  8. Lorie says:

    Hi, Thanks for this thought-provoking post! I’m a divorced mom and car-free with a 9-year-old and a 12-year-old, so I’m at a different phase in all of this. My 12-year-old has a Charlie Card and gets to school, sports, etc. on the MBTA bus quite independently. So just think, while those with cars are still haggling privately with their pre-teens and teen-agers as they drive them everywhere, our children are gaining all kinds of skills in making their way around town using public transit. My son is learning to navigate the system, interact with strangers, and be resourceful, responsible, and trustworthy in a way that chauffered children do not.

  9. i’m somewhere in the middle of all this. i’m an ardent cyclist: i bike my kids to school most days and i bike to work just about every day, rain or shine. however, we do own a car, and in fact we just bought a new one that can seat six (but it is the smallest, and most fuel-efficient, 6-seater you can buy in the US). we use it to shuttle kids and their friends, for trips out of the city, and to get places that simply aren’t practically accessed by public transport, by foot or by bike. thus, you could probably call us “car-lite”. but i do agree that kids need to be taught to interact with their community and also become responsible for their behavior under the watchful eye of the public. i wouldn’t give up urban living because i do subscribe to self-mobility, but i also wouldn’t give up a car, because it does fulfill a very real need for us. i feel no guilt for that.

  10. Bus Chick says:

    You guys always think of the greatest topics to discuss. I love your blog!

    It’s funny–our kids have their share of meltdowns at home (well, at least our almost-three-year old does), but for some odd reason, they almost never act up when we’re out and about. They sometimes get cranky on walks, but on PT (knock wood) they’re quiet and compliant. It will be a sad day when this lucky streak ends…

    That said, I do get the point. I spend a lot of energy making sure I “set my kids up for success” (bring snacks, water, and books; help the baby fall asleep in the baby pack, et cetera) on transit rides precisely because we are traveling in public. I don’t think I would put as much effort into staving off tantrums if we were traveling in a car.

    Also, getting around in public means you’re more recognizable than others in your neighborhood. The other day I was chatting with a retired gentleman at the bus stop, and one of his friends approached us. I introduced myself to the friend, who responded, “Yes, I know you. You have two kids, and your husband’s from Detroit.” Even though we’d never officially met, he had met my husband walking around the neighborhood and been seeing us out and about for months. He even said he’d been looking out for us.

    Just when I think I’ve discovered all of the benefits of being without a car…

  11. Karen says:

    This is a great article and I wish more would adjust to this way of life

  12. Pingback: Parenting in Public: Hats | Mamas and Milk

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