Until last spring, every Friday afternoon I feared the beep of my cell phone. By 4 p.m. my husband would text me the question, “What are we doing this weekend?” It was a loaded question. He hoped for an answer that was a choice of a couple’s dinner at a restaurant, lounging over drinks, or strolling around somewhere in town.
Instead, I answered with the list of our children’s activities that we had to drive them to Friday night, Saturday, and possibly Sunday also — not even together, but with separate destinations.
Every week, I felt my husband’s disappointment. Like countless other middle-class, middle-aged parents, I spend every day of the week driving my children to or from school, or from school to an activity.
And this although, (1) we thought we lived in a central location, in SouthPark, (2) transportation includes bicycles as much as possible, (3) my school-age children take the school bus, (4) I use signup-genius for shared carpools, and (5) I limit activities.
We did not plan for our day-to-day lives to be this way. What went wrong? As typical middle-class parents, we want our children to succeed. And we know they are privileged, but success apparently means going to the best school and participating in the best after-school activities. We are told that to get into college, our kids need to be all-rounded over-active geniuses.
So, we, middle-class, middle-aged parents striving to raise middle-class citizens, get sucked into this machinery of shipping our kids in enclosed vehicles from one end of town to the other, sometimes multiple times a day, believing we are offering them a better future.
One spring afternoon, however, my back tension eased-up and I caught myself smiling when my children hopped off the bus – on a rare activity-free weekday night — and they asked, “Can we ride our bikes to Ben & Jerry’s with our friend? We will be back for dinner and do homework after that.”
Right then, I realized this is how I envision my children’s lives: with time to discover their part of town independently, alone with friends to discuss in person whatever teenagers discuss, with a small feel for adventure. I think that should prepare them just fine for college, new people and life. After long days at school, they need also time to roam.
If I had it my way, my part of town — SouthPark — will become part urban playground for all, where parents can safely let their children loose – by bike or by hopping on a future circulating minibus. Where children become cognitive of the opportunities within their immediate surroundings. Where maybe they will endure embarrassment by bumping into their parents. Where hopefully they will meet strangers. Where also as they grow older and bolder, they break out of the cluster of hand-fed opportunities and ride their bikes across town to those “clusters of lesser opportunity” and discover a different dynamic and bountiful diversity right in their own city.
I answered my children’s request with a hearty “Yes!” and I also decided to change a few things. I signed up my children and myself for a Cycling Savvy class run by Pamela Murray, founder of Charlotte Spokes People. With that class, we gained the confidence to be able to navigate most streets of Charlotte by bicycle, and learned to be responsible and respectful traffic participants.
I now encourage my children to go to as many places as possible by bicycle and ask friends to join them. I try to run most errands in my area of town and by bike. Of course we couldn’t eliminate all after-school activities, but the plan is to try to pick ones that they can get to independently, possibly by bike!
Most streets in SouthPark are in quiet neighborhoods with beautiful tree canopy, so they are extremely safe and pleasant for cycling. Also, my experience as a recreational cyclist on these streets is that motorists are polite and patient with cyclists.
This fall, my oldest daughter is also riding her bicycle across SouthPark to high school. She will thus join high-volume commuter traffic as a cyclist. Bicycle commuters need to have solid skills, as well an awareness that motorists will forget in their commuter stress (1) that cyclists are entitled to the entire lane just as much as cars are, (2) that cyclists are in fact no inconvenience, and (3) that cyclists are just as eager to get to work or school…. maybe arriving there a little more sweaty and oxygenated.
My daughter is now part of the trickle of commuter cyclists through SouthPark who remind us that the streets are primarily to move humans — and not only cars. My son can’t wait to join her next year and make that trickle grow. Hopefully soon that trickle will grow exponentially to make human bodies and faces — and not cars — the focal point of the SouthPark streetscape.
Photo: Marty Price