OK, the title “Deer Dears” might seem a bit obscure. It refers to children walking and bicycling in urban areas.
I chose the title because I’m recalling a Bicycling Magazine opinion piece which my friend, long time Philadelphia bicycling advocate John Dowlin, wrote some thirty years ago. The title was “Cyclists as Urban Deer”.
Dowlin’s premise was that cyclists in urban areas, like deer in rural areas, are vulnerable, and deserve special attention and caution. He went on to make the point that the presence of cyclists is a measure of the health of the urban transportation system.
I wrote a response to Dowlin’s article, and it was published too. I suggested that cyclists do better to be smart like the fox. To put it in the simplest possible way: deer stampede out of the woods; foxes look before they cross the road.
The analogy still holds, I think, and it is more compelling now given the current widespread campaign for the construction of bicycle sidepaths which reduce foxy cyclists to deer, appearing from concealment behind parked cars and crowds of pedestrians — and, which also keep newbie cyclists in a state of arrested development, expecting everyone except themselves to look out for their safety.
Certainly, on the other hand, children aren’t ready yet to look out for themselves. We must, then, ask a few questions:
- To what degree is it actually possible to protect children from traffic hazards?
- Do we actually protect them from traffic hazards, or only create an illusion of safety?
- To what extent do other hazards — that a child might get lost, or ride off the top of a flight of stairs, or become a victim of crime — commonly bullying, bicycle theft — limit the child’s travel options? (Stranger abduction is the bugaboo, I know, though it is rare.)
- What sacrifices in safety and efficiency of travel for other road users — including cyclists and pedestrians — are we willing to make so children can travel independently?
My own opinion is that these issues can generally be resolved to a satisfactory degree for child cyclists on quiet residential streets and on paths that cross roads infrequently, but not on urban arterials or on paths built alongside them.
Now, in answer to a common rejoinder: I’m entirely sympathetic with the point made these days about children’s not walking or bicycling as much as the older generation — my generation — did. I recall my own suburban childhood, in which I walked to school, or I walked a mile to and from the nearest school bus stop. But I’m not going to be nostalgic about that, either. I was bullied at a couple of bus stops, day after day, and at only one of them did I manage to stop the bullying, when accumulated rage overcame caution and I punched the bully in the mouth.
I rode my bicycle in my quiet suburban neighborhood, starting at age 7, but my parents didn’t allow me full freedom to travel on my own, either on foot or by bicycle, until my teen years — appropriately so. I have done the same for my own son.
I’ll put out another thought about stranger abduction, while I’m at it: the grand emphasis in much design of bicycle facilities these days is on perceived safety, often in opposition to actual safety. Now, if we similarly tried to design our cities to create the perception of safety from stranger abduction, what would they look like?
To sum up: the utopian dream expressed by, for example, former Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa, that young children should be able to travel independently everywhere in an urban area, remains just that, a utopian dream, and let’s acknowledge that. Young children are dear to us, and they are too much like deer, too little like the fox, to set out on their own everywhere in cities.