Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Throughout most suburban communities in the United States, the driver’s license is considered the prime symbol of freedom, which is understandable. It’s often too time-consuming, unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous to get to places in the suburbs when relying on walking, biking, and public transportation. Consequently, until suburban children attain their driver’s licenses, they are forced to depend on parents’ rides for all transportation needs outside of school. This has widespread negative consequences, from forcing parents into becoming chauffeurs to diminishing kids’ sense of independence.
Alternative Forms of Transportation Offer Young Children Health, Safety, and Development benefits
Unfortunately, young children who live in the suburbs aren’t able to enjoy alternative transit modes. For younger children who would have to be accompanied by an adult, a walk, bike ride, or transit ride is a far more valuable experience than a car ride. For starters, if a parent takes a child in their car, they will be forced to concentrate on driving while their child, usually in the back seat, stares at their phone.
Meanwhile, parents can talk to their children face-to-face the entire time on a walk or transit ride. A walk or transit ride also presents the opportunity to meet new people, see new things, and better experience the outside world, leading to better social awareness. Additionally, transit is also safer. For example, a 2014 study reveals that transit buses have 60 times fewer passenger fatalities per mile than cars do.
Walking, biking, and taking transit are also healthier than driving. According to a Danish study from 2012, walking or biking to school increases concentration and school performance. It also reduces the likelihood of being overweight. Another study shows that frequent public transit riders are three times more likely to meet CDC guidelines for health than their counterparts who drive instead.
Access to Transit Modes Provides Teens With Transportation Independence
For teens, access to walking, biking, and public transportation options has another considerable benefit: independence, which saves time and money, while still giving the numerous health and safety benefits also afforded to younger children.
In many cases, when teens depend on their parents’ rides, their parents are forced to spend much time driving to and picking up from place to place. This means that a walk, bike, or transit trip, while usually longer by itself, often results in a lower overall time spent by parents and children when considered together.
Biking, walking, and taking transit also saves money. Walking and biking are practically free (barring the cost of a bike, which is low compared to a car) and transit fares are usually inexpensive, especially for teens, who often benefit from reduced or free fares on buses and trains. This is compared to the costs associated with fueling and maintaining a car, which can be much higher. For example, the costs of owning a bike are estimated at around $200 a year, while that of owning a car averages at $8,470 a year.
By not depending on their parents for transportation, older children and teenagers can also develop independence. Teenagers may be hesitant to ask their parents for rides and choose to stay home instead, or parents may be busy and unable to transport their children whenever they need to go somewhere. If teenagers can use alternatives, they’ll be able to take care of their transportation needs without involving their parents.
Living somewhere where cars aren’t necessary also allows children to become self-reliant progressively, rather than at once. In car-dependent suburbs, teens may not be able to travel alone until they obtain their driver’s licenses. In walkable, bikeable suburbs with transit, children are able to ease into their transportation independence, starting with being allowed to walk alone on their street, to a nearby shop, bike to a friend’s house farther away, and finally take a bus or train.
Easing into transportation independence is important because it can prevent teenagers from being reckless when they acquire their driver’s license. For example, a 2014 study shows that teenagers who cycle regularly before learning to drive are safer drivers, with better awareness of other road users.
Different Suburbs and their Car-Dependence
While moving to a city is one solution for providing children with a variety of car alternatives, it’s not a decision everyone can or is willing to make. Countless individuals believe suburbs are the ideal place to raise children. With cheaper housing, bigger yards, and generally better school districts, it’s no surprise that people are opting to move out of cities when they have children.
Travel patterns in teenagers by age and mode of transportation in a Canadian city (Toronto). Canada has comparable development and suburbanization patterns to the United States. ( Image from this study )
Travel patterns in teenagers by age and mode of transportation in a Canadian Suburb near Toronto ( Image from this study )
At the same time, moving out of cities doesn’t have to mean living in a sprawling, car-dependent place where teenagers can’t enjoy freedom. Suburbs vary-widely in their levels of car-dependence, ranging from nice places where it is relatively easy to live without a car to places where it’s almost impossible to leave your property without a car.
There are three main types of suburbs. Like most of Arlington and Bethesda in the DC-area, closer-in suburbs generally have multiple housing types, a gridded or interconnected street pattern, and relatively small lots for single-family homes. There are sidewalks practically everywhere and good public transportation throughout. They are almost an extension of the cities they border, but with a bit more space. These usually make great places to raise children, though their desirability can drive up housing costs to levels unattainable to many.
The second type of suburb is what I’m going to call car-focused, but not car-dependent. In the DC area this would include communities like Reston, Vienna, Fairfax, and Gaithersburg, among others. These suburbs generally have larger lots, wide avenues that promote car use, and denser areas that are generally supported by car traffic, with important commercial sites like Reston Town Center and Tysons Corner needing large parking garages to attract visitors.
In these suburbs it’s generally possible and relatively safe to get around by walking, biking or public transit, as sidewalks and trails are still common and well-connected. However, it may be time-consuming because destinations are farther away from each other, and a bit unpleasant because of the wide roads that need to be crossed. Public transit is still acceptable, with relatively frequent routes geared towards both commuters and those wishing to go to other destinations within the suburbs. Unfortunately, these routes can often be quite roundabout compared to many urban routes, as they attempt to serve as many people as possible without too many routes, and deviate from the most direct route to do this. These are still decent suburbs to raise children in, as they will still be able to bike and take transit to destinations, though walking can be quite time-consuming.
The third type of suburb is car-dependent sprawl. In the DC-area, this includes communities like South Riding, Burtonsville, Haymarket, and Great Falls. These are communities where it’s nearly impossible to get anywhere without a car. Sidewalks are, for the most part, a discontinuous mess and usually only stretch within individual communities, if they exist at all. Bike trails and multi-use paths are few and far between. Four and six-lane roads cut between communities, often without any way to safely cross them, making safely walking and biking practically impossible. Public transit, if it exists, caters almost exclusively to commuters, and often doesn’t even operate on Sundays. Though they may sometimes tout sound school systems or low crime rates, these suburbs practically imprison children and teens until they can drive a car.
Road Network in a part of Arlington, Virginia. Roads are interconnected and bike infrastructure(shown in purple) and sidewalks(not shown, but still there) are found throughout. (Image from OpenStreetMap)
Road Network in a part of Reston, Virginia. Roads are wider and less interconnected, but there are still a lot of sidewalks, as well as mixed-used paths and other bike infrastructure(shown in purple). (Image from OpenStreetMap)
Road Network in part of Haymarket, Virginia. There is very little connection between communities and few sidewalks and other paths. (Image from OpenStreetMap)
Use of Variety of Transit Modes Encouraged
There are ways suburbs can reduce car dependency and encourage transit ridership, walking, and biking for children and teens. For example, car-dependent sprawling suburbs can build more sidewalks, trails, and connections between residential roads, and improve their transit to become less car-dependent. Jurisdictions can also provide free transit passes to kids and teens to improve their ridership, something that multiple DC-Area jurisdictions, including Fairfax and Montgomery counties, already do.
Finally, it’s important to note that easy biking, walking and transit access are not the only factors that need to be addressed. In many cases, parents bar their children, even as they get older, from walking or biking alone and taking transit, citing misconceptions about safety and security. For example, in a 2005 study a teen from Miami said this regarding her parents and transit safety, “My mom agrees with public transportation for me to get from point A to B but she’s afraid because of so many things that have happened. Last month two people got snatched from a bus stop and raped and dropped back at the bus stop. Crazy things are going on. Cars run off the road hit people standing at the bus stop. Drunk drivers are not paying attention to the road. I don’t think they do it on purpose, but a lot of bus stops are on the corner, close to traffic. Anything can happen, night or day. People snatching people’s kids as far as walking to the bus stop, you can get kidnapped, raped. She is very paranoid and I am sure other parents are too.”
This paranoia, although common in parents according to that same study, has little basis, as cases of crime in public transportation, walking, and biking are very rare, and as a whole, those transportation options are both safe and secure.
Another obstacle is prejudices from teens themselves, as a spokesperson for a transit agency in West Palm Beach, Florida said, “Public transit is not perceived as ‘cool’ among teenagers, so it’s hard to market to that demographic [teens], it’s hard to make transit more appealing than cars”.
Better PR campaigns could help convince parents that walking, biking, and taking public transit is safe. PR campaigns for kids and teens could also draw on the importance of curbing carbon emissions and helping the environment to improve teens’ opinions on biking, walking, and riding public transit, since those transportation options all result in fewer carbon emissions than driving. Finally, it’s also important to note that because of the pandemic, public transit is seen as an undesirable transportation option by most people at the time being. However, biking and walking remain more popular than ever.