Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Politics of Bicycles

I was going to write about bicycles and Finland, because after the differences in weather, plants, the quality of light and the space the one thing that I really noticed when I arrived there were bicycles.

Everyone seems to bike, from toddlers to the frail elderly, and the biking is utility biking. People bike to go to school, to work or to run their errands. There are special bicycles for those who have trouble with the basic one. Children ride bikes, the smallest ones with adults, the older ones in groups or in twos or alone. Bike lanes make bicycling safer, though it really feels odd to come across a traffic jam consisting of mostly bikes!

Cars exist, of course, and they are quite plentiful. What differs is the number of bicycles and people riding them.

I said "I was going to write" about all this, but a story Atrios posted made me widen the focus of this post. Specifically, he discussed this piece of news:
And now, we have the case of Teresa Tryon of Tennessee, threatened with criminal charges for letting her child ride a bike to school.
Bike Walk Tennessee highlighted the case on its blog, saying it was “crazy” to threaten a mother with arrest for doing more or less what all parents should be doing: encouraging active lifestyles for our kids.
“On August 25th, my 10-year[-old] daughter arrived home via police officer,” Tryon said. “The officer informed me that in his ‘judgment’ it was unsafe for my daughter to ride her bike to school.”
Bike Walk Tennessee says Tryon’s daughter’s route to school was reasonably safe, and Tryon herself said Monday that she “passed a total of eight cars in the four times” she was on that road that day. Observers say it is an un-striped, residential street. Police say it’s one of the busiest streets in town, connecting public housing units and subdivisions to the downtown area.
Nonetheless, when Tryon complained to the police, she was reportedly told that until the officer can speak with Child Protective Services, “if I allow my daughter to ride/walk to school I will be breaking the law and treated accordingly.” She asked what law she would be breaking, and was told the answer was “child neglect.” The officer acknowledged Tryon’s daughter wasn’t breaking any laws.
The story I link to doesn't tell us if Tryon is a single parent or whether it's her being the mother that makes her responsible here. Neither do we learn much anything else about her situation. For instance, she may not have a car or she may have a job which makes it impossible for her to walk her daughter to school, assuming that alternative was accepted by the police.

I can't quite figure out from the story I link to how safe the route is, but it's pretty shocking that parts of it don't have sidewalks. The conclusions of the article are, however, a no-brainer:
Clarke makes the case that the situation points to the need for greater investment in safe routes to school for kids

Of course. The politics of bicycles are more complicated than that. There's the environmental aspect and the health aspect, both supporting greater use of bicycles. Then there's the drown-the-government-in-a-bathtub aspect of people not willing to pay for the required infrastructure changes and the cultural value put on cars as a sign of freedom, convenience and driving really hard and perhaps untrained.

The latter often join with the thinking that it's the parents (read: mothers) who are responsible for getting the children safely to school, nobody else. So if the streets are dangerous, it's not the streets that must be changed, nope. It's the parents (read: mothers) who must change.

And there are bad parents, naturally, just as there are bad people of all stripes. Still, we could make the job of parenting (which includes slowly letting your child learn more and more independence) much easier if we did not insist that the world out there is a jungle and that nothing can be done about that aspect of the problem.

It's not my intention to paint some sort of an unflattering contrast between Finland and the US. Anecdotes should not be taken as that sort data, in any case, and the two anecdotes I picked are probably not comparable in other relevant characteristics.

Still, I hope to point out that the societal arrangements do matter. If biking is made safe and easy, then many more people will ride bikes. That, in turn, makes the streets safer for children, too. They can ride their bikes on a special bike lane to school, and while they do that they are in the middle of many other bikers doing the exact same thing.