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This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

"But You Don't Have Kids..."

I was talking to a mid-level Providence official about the need to reform the city's transportation priorities away from car use, and he interjected that the reforms I was proposing would be fine for people like me who are "young, carefree, and without children" but that that comprised only a narrow segment of the population.

We're lucky in this stage of history to enjoy such a great degree of control over our reproductive choices. This is especially true for women, of course, but it's also true for men. Lots of people my age don't want to have children yet, or even at all. The freedom to make such choices is obviously good.

Personally, though, I would like to be a parent by this point in my life. Rachel and I talk about it at least a couple times a week. We both feel that way, but we look at our finances in this economy and don't feel that we can afford to. And when I say that we can't afford it, I don't mean that we've saving up for the fancy preschool we want our perfect trust fund baby to attend, or trying to get the right footing in our power careers. I mean that we question whether we would be able to afford basic nutrition and healthcare for a baby in anything approaching a consistent way.

I get irritated by the implication that not having children makes my opinion less valid, not because I don't agree that parenthood is difficult or know that it carries lots of challenges I don't yet face, but because the implication is also that I'm a selfish person, with a narrow life, and somehow not a full adult yet. I must not have children because I'm a selfish Millennial or Hipster (it turns out that the economic trend of being poor and riding a bicycle may not be as rare is we are told).

Of course, the official knew something I didn't know. Before 1950, there were no children. Everyone was born fully grown with male pattern baldness and interesting moustaches They wore trousers made of scratchy wool and rode velocipedes and trolley-trams and never had to pick anyone up from school or buy groceries or do anything stressful. It was a Victorian Paradise. And then cars came, and people suddenly had someplace to conceive, and so children came onto the scene.

I find the social implications of this worldview pretty off-putting as someone who would like to have a kid but can't afford to. The cost of the car-oriented project I was discussing with the official was $45 Million**. To put that in perspective, the renovation of Nathan Bishop Middle School, where I did Americorps service, was $35 Million. From the descriptions I've gotten from people who used to work in that building before it was updated, it was a bombshell. Now it's state-of-the-art (a lot of other middle schools in Providence I've been in, like Gilbert Stuart or Roger Williams, are not). The official felt that, as a person without children, clearly I opposed this $45 Million dollars of spending on a parking garage out of "carefree" youth and childlessness, not because I'm planning a better city for my future kids.

Creating a Providence that's good for kids doesn't just entail not wasting all our school funding on pork parking projects. It also means keeping kids safe when they're not in school. Traffic engineer and parent Chuck Marohn writes that 7,000 children die each year from car crashes, while only 100 die from kidnapping. He recounts a similar experience to mine with a city councilperson:

I had a city council member last week say that people did not want walkable neighborhoods because they were afraid of child abductions, that people prefer the "safety" of their cars. Sad to say, but I think he is right, despite being completely ignorant of the facts. In a single year, the U.S. has around 7,000 children die in auto accidents (many, many more injured severely) but only around 100 children kidnapped. *
We love our cars but, like all one-way relationships, our obsession has made us completely irrational.
I feel like we have a value in the United States which says that cars are the way we do things, and then we try to adjust everything we do to that preconceived position. While someday I expect that I may find it useful to get a drivers' license and use a car occasionally, I actually plan on carrying out my parenting duties mostly without a car. That's the way my great-grandparents did it. It's halfway how my grandparents did (they were each single-car households). And now car use is declining again. The ironically named Baby Boom generation is really a blip on the radar screen, even within modern times.

We've grown up with a baseline reality that says that cars are the tool that people use when they have more responsibility than themselves. So we understand that students might not drive, or perhaps some old people. We even make the allowances for the poor people, who we figure are marginal and don't matter. But we need to expand our vision beyond this. When someone expresses their desire that we start treating cars and not children as marginal, they're not being utopian. It's the other way around.

Let's make an economy where people can't afford to have cars, but they can afford to have kids.


*I did a little fact-checking on this because it sounded so absurd at first. While overall, there are many more abductions by family and acquaintances than this figure suggests, almost none are fatal. The Amber Alert website that Marohn cites counts 115 "stereotypical" kidnappings by strangers, of which 100 ended in death. While I think the way that Strong Towns stated this fact was kind of awkward, the main point they were making is accurate: your kid is in much less danger walking down the street amid a sea of strangers, unattended, than if s/he is in your car safely buckled in.

One could cite the much larger figures for non-fatal abductions, but then one would have to revert to a car-related statistic that includes all of the near-misses, fender benders, and injuries (some severe) that happen in crashes. To put this in perspective, a New York Daily News article from December 2013 points out that while only about two hundred people died as pedestrians in New York last year, that almost 10,000 were injured--this doesn't include the people who were injured inside cars. Applying this nationwide could obviously get dizzying.

**I'm questioning this $45 Million figure, so I want to give background on how I came to it. In an email conversation with a Rhode Island General Assembly member, the member said that the garage was a $45 Million budget item on the governors budget for the year. I did not directly check the budget, but instead did a quick calculation of whether $45 Million was plausible as the cost of a parking garage. It is. At $50,000 a parking spot, $45 Million would build 900 spots, which is a large parking garage, but within plausible range. Using Google Maps, I looked at the original parking lot next to Garrahy, which has six rows of about twenty spots in each row. With this footprint, the garage would be about seven to eight floors. 

The reason I'm questioning the figure is that the original Projo article on the garage by Paul Grimaldi says that there are 188 spots planned. This would probably be something like two floors based on the footprint of the current lot. 188 spots at $50,000 a space would cost close $9.4 Million, still nothing to sneeze at. But that would mean the total figure would be only 20% of the $45 Million I was told by the state rep. 

As I look into the total size and cost of the garage, I'll update readers. Either number is entirely too much money to be spending on parking. 


  1. One of your better posts in a while; so-called support for families is an often offered reason to support auto-centric development. Young professionals, they say, have an easy time with walkable development. But families need the convenience of a car, so we should support them by developing car-based cities.

    And really, it's understandable that people think this way. It's easy to fall into this thinking if you take a static perspective with respect to cities. Today, people need a car to navigate most cities. So they use one. So we should help them to do it! Of course, a dynamic approach to cities would indicate that cities need be car-centric only to the extent that we allow them to be through planning. If we start to develop walkable spaces, the need for cars would decline, which would also decrease the need to plan car-based spaces.

    Thus, that Providence official's reasoning is a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, with perfidious feedback loops. The same feedback loops that built our cities the way they look now! Maybe it's about time we used those feedback loops to our advantage.

    Also, to the accuracy of the official's point, I'm not even sure that young people without children are really such a 'narrow segment' of the Providence population. Combine the westside hipsters with the Brown/RISD students and the small number of downtown professionals and you have a substantial subset of the population. Not a majority, to be sure, but not one that can be easily written out of policy.

  2. I'm tired of all these stereotypes like "only people who are too poor to own a car ride public transit" and "your Not a full adult until you get your drivers license". It aggravates me how judgmental people are. Why should people judge me if I don't want a license or if I don't want to drive a car. The way RIPTA is structured, it's no wonder why car owners would rather drive.

  3. Wow, thanks to you both for commenting! I checked the comments section the other day, and it was a bunch of spam bots selling auto parts. I'm really glad to see that this started a good conversation.

  4. People without kids find it much easier to schedule meetings with their government officials and address concerns. Just because you don't have kids doesn't mean there aren't people who do, and who have precisely the same concerns as you. (e.g. yours truly.)

  5. Great post! And thanks for the link to my PeopleForBikes post about the importance of biking to workers at all income levels, especially lower ones.

    Here's a point I wish I could spread more broadly about the growth in low-car lifestyles among the youngish: it's an open question whether we (I'm 32, happily car-free and plan to have kids in a few years) will tend to continue these behaviors throughout our lives. Some of us will and others won't, of course; obviously people move in and out of different transportation demographics throughout their lives.

    But even if young people don't remain as car-lite as they are right now, the "those kids will grow up and get over it" argument doesn't mean that the next generational cohort will be any different. If what's changing in our economy and culture is that from now on 30 percent of 20somethings won't own cars, up from 20 percent or whatever, then it's important for today's 20somethings to represent the interests of tomorrow's 20somethings, regardless of what they personally expect to do in a few years. And to the extent that 20somethings (especially lower-income 20somethings) don't participate in the political process, it's important for advocates and policymakers to keep their interests in mind.

  6. Well said. I hope more of this logic seeps into the consciousness of U.S. city planning. There is nothing special about cars and our built environments are just reflections of our communal will to live a certain way. My vote is for safe, healthy, patterns that involve more bikes and fewer cars.

  7. Thanks Michael Anderson!

    "If what's changing in our economy and culture is that from now on 30 percent of 20somethings won't own cars, up from 20 percent or whatever, then it's important for today's 20somethings to represent the interests of tomorrow's 20somethings, regardless of what they personally expect to do in a few years. And to the extent that 20somethings (especially lower-income 20somethings) don't participate in the political process, it's important for advocates and policymakers to keep their interests in mind."

    This reminds me of something else said in the meeting by this official. The bike share program which is hopefully starting in the next six to nine months was being discussed, and the presenter had said that Brown and RISD students had formed their own groups to push their own early-adoption of bike share because they were dissatisfied with the wait. The official said, "Well, of course, they'll be gone by then. [eye roll]".

    Personally, I think six to nine months is fine to wait if the bike share program actually happens, but I thought his attitude--"of course, they'll be gone"--ignored the fact that they'd be replaced by others like them.

    So good point!