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When A Kid Owns the Road

November 5, 2013

Today, this is my street.

Fourth Avenue is one of Brooklyn’s most dangerous streets for pedestrians, and despite a slew of recent safety improvements it still largely functions as a highway, funneling drivers back and forth between Bay Ridge and downtown Brooklyn.  It is, to say the least, not a particularly inviting place for walking, biking, or just plain being.

It also happens to be where my family lives.  So perhaps that’s one reason why Marathon Sunday is one of my favorite days in New York City all year.  On the first Sunday of November, this busy and unpleasant thoroughfare becomes the focal point of the community, if not the world.  Crowds line each side of the boulevard, bands perform music on every other street corner, vendors roam the sidewalks hawking cotton candy, and cheers echo off of the growing number of glass condos towering over the avenue.

But hours before the race begins, Fourth Avenue, for those who are awake to experience it, becomes one of Brooklyn’s quietest streets.  Motorists are instructed to move their cars by 10 PM the night before, and any vehicles not relocated by then are towed by the NYPD under the cover of darkness.  Street sweepers come through in the middle of the night to rid the road surface of any detritus that could twist a runner’s ankle.  All car traffic, including cross traffic, is banned well in advance of the race’s start.  When the sun rises, you can almost hear the sound of the traffic lights continuing to change at every intersection from inside your apartment.

This past Sunday the end of Daylight Saving Time meant that my daughter was up at 5:30 AM.  But it also meant that I had the opportunity to let my daughter do something I’d never otherwise let her do in a million years: bike on Fourth Avenue.

“Come on, Papa! Let’s go!”

My daughter, who was just two days away from turning four when I shot these pictures, recently switched from a balance bike to her first pedal bike and loves any chance she can get to ride.  For the past month that’s meant a lot of trips to a local playground a few blocks away, an easy walk for a grownup but a somewhat challenging bike ride for a little kid who has to contend with Park Slope’s rather uneven sidewalks.  So I don’t think she’s ever experienced pavement as smooth as this since she’s been on anything with wheels, including her stroller.

The thrill of the open road.

Like many city parents, I’ve come to realize that it’s rare for me to be more than twenty to thirty feet away from my child. From our 900-square-foot apartment to crowded sidewalks on the walk to school, there just aren’t that many opportunities for her to roam free.  Sure, there’s Prospect Park, but trips to the top of the Slope tend to require a tad more advance planning than just waking up and stepping outside our front door.

Now you see her…

So when my daughter started pedaling, I just let her go…

To the tower!

…and go…

Hey, wait! Come back!

…and go.

It was an interesting feeling, even if it lasted for just a moment, and made me think about how much freedom and independence is taken away from children everywhere, not only in cities, due to the constant threat of fast-moving automobile traffic.  Imagine how much more fun our kids might have on the way to school or while running an errand with mom or dad if we prioritized the safe movement of children over motor-vehicle travel Level of Service and the free storage of private cars?

As I mentioned above, even the side streets along Fourth Ave are more or less closed down, since no traffic is allowed to cross the marathon route.  This makes Marathon Sunday different from even Summer Streets, where people on bikes and on foot have to stop at major cross streets to allow for buses and drivers to get across Manhattan.

Taking advantage of this kind of tamed street, my daughter, with me running behind her, rode up Baltic Street toward Fifth Avenue.  This is a trip we make every day, but we’d normally be on the sidewalk to the right in the picture below.  She so far has mostly ridden loops in the playground, I can only imagine how a full block of open road ahead of her must have looked.

Taking the lane.

Fifth Avenue, of course, was still open to moving traffic, but since Baltic runs toward it from Fourth, I didn’t have to worry about a driver turning onto this side street like a car exiting a highway, as is often the case.

We took a quick break at Gorilla Coffee, grabbing a latte for me and a chocolate croissant for her, and then headed back home via Baltic.  My daughter, as the child of a dedicated livable streets advocate who frequently transports her on the back of his bike, knows a thing or two about the rules, but she didn’t bat an eye about going the “wrong” way on this one-way street.

Just another New York City cyclist.

For the entire length of Baltic, the only thing I had to look out for was a motorist pulling out of a parking spot, which is rare even in the middle of the day in “No Park Slope.”  It was a far cry from the constant vigilance parents must feel when they bike with their children — or even walk with them in a crosswalk — and was about as relaxing as riding on a quiet street in Amsterdam.

Contra-flow.

When we got back to Fourth Avenue my daughter took a few more spins up and down the street, not quite wanting to go back inside to warm up for a bit before the race began.

Doing this with my daughter felt like we were sharing some sort of secret about Brooklyn.  And her constant exclamations — “Whee! Look how fast I’m going!” — were a delight to hear.  So watching my daughter enjoy herself like this, all I could do was wonder in amazement.  Why does it take a marathon for us to make a street for people?  Why aren’t we doing this in every neighborhood every weekend?  It wouldn’t have to be the entire length of Fourth Avenue from the bridge to the Barclays Center, but if we closed short stretches of streets on a regular basis for more than just summer fairs and left them wide open and clear of cars, how many parents would let their kids just roam?  And how many kids would get to experience the same independence, empowerment, and just plain fun that my daughter did for a brief moment this past Sunday morning?

So happy birthday to my daughter, who turns four today. She is, without a doubt, my inspiration for all that I do and my favorite livable streets advocate.

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29 Comments
  1. Albert permalink
    November 5, 2013 3:21 pm

    I Love Those Photos!

    And the story that goes with them.

  2. November 5, 2013 3:37 pm

    This might be the best thing I’ve read all year.

  3. November 5, 2013 8:57 pm

    Those who want children to be this free all the time should support the Campaign for Childhood Freedom. See:

    http://childhoodfreedom.com/

  4. Tsol permalink
    November 5, 2013 11:45 pm

    Why don’t you take your poor daughter out of the city to grow up like a normal child and not
    a caged animal? Or would the burbs or a small town not be hip of enough for you?

    • Eric McClure permalink
      November 6, 2013 9:28 am

      Wow, what a sad, miserable person you must be, Tsol.

    • wkgreen permalink
      November 6, 2013 10:46 am

      Hmmm… a burb or a small town. You mean one of those sterile uninviting places where everyone looks the same, and where, if you don’t have to drive 5 or 10 miles to the nearest elementary school or for a quart of milk you have to cross an 8 lane deathway with no sidewalk that cuts your subdivision off from the rest of the world so you’d better drive anyway? Are we in the big city really the “caged” ones?

      That is indeed a sad and miserable kind of normal if you ask me.

    • Alex permalink
      November 7, 2013 11:39 am

      Indeed a sad comment that demonstrates a narrow and poorly formed understanding of what it means to live in a city. While a cul-du-sac may allow kids to roam a bit in front of their suburban homes, that’s pretty much the extent of their reach in most cases. Beyond that, a car is required to go most anywhere. You must get in your car and battle traffic to go anywhere, because it is inconvenient and unsafe to do it any other way.

      As our children grow, they will have many more options than a suburban child for exploring the world around them. They can walk to school, to friends’ homes, and to the park. When they get a bit older, but still too young to drive, they can take the bus or train to branch out even farther. They aren’t reliant on us to drive them everywhere. To me, being able to walk and travel without operating a dangerous machine is far more “normal” than not.

      Suburban living has no appeal to me. I do not wish for myself or my family to be utterly dependent on a car to do every little thing in life. To me and Doug and many of us in cities, THAT is what being a caged animal is like.

      • November 7, 2013 11:40 am

        Thanks, Alex. I’d add that my daughter has only just turned 4. I don’t know many parents, suburban or urban, who let their 3-year-olds out of their sight for too long.

  5. November 6, 2013 9:47 am

    Tsol, thanks for the comment. I read ‘em all.

    I’m happy to point you to this part of my post:

    “…made me think about how much freedom and independence is taken away from children everywhere, not only in cities, due to the constant threat of fast-moving automobile traffic.”

    I grew up in the suburbs. Considering how dependent I was on my parents and their cars to get to school, friends’ homes, the movies, and everywhere else I’d say it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other.

    Also, what is a “normal child”?

  6. Will permalink
    November 6, 2013 10:15 am

    I’ll chime in, as a child (and adult) of suburban living. In the places I’ve lived, even ordinary walking as transportation is impossible, given “the constant threat of fast-moving automobile traffice.” The cars and trucks move faster and are more heedless than in cities, because the roads are designed to require as little attention as possible to non-motorized transport.

  7. November 6, 2013 10:47 am

    And in the country – where we live – it’s probably even worse now, with all the cars and such; not like it used to be

  8. Jen permalink
    November 6, 2013 10:58 am

    With all due respect, I think you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too. There are benefits to living in a city…and unfortunately, there are downsides. That’s why so many people move to the suburbs once they have children. If not, well then you may have to settle for free-roaming bike rides in Prospect Park and not on the street outside your apartment.

    • November 6, 2013 11:29 am

      Thanks for your comment, Jen. It’s obviously not as simple as I may have presented it in this post and the choices between city and suburb are not quite the same as a choice between a child being trapped and being free.

      I generally find the city to be an entirely liberating place in which to raise my kids. My daughter and I walk to her school, a daily ritual that’s fun and relaxing for us both. We have four great playgrounds within walking distance of our apartment, and arranging a “playdate” is generally as simple as knocking on a neighbor’s door or texting a friend and asking them to meet us in a few minutes. My commute to work is so short and reliable that I have loads of time to play with my kids at home each night. That’s a kind of freedom I wouldn’t trade for the world.

      My suburban friends, have big homes and outdoor spaces that occasionally make me envious, but they are subject to the vagaries of traffic not only to and from work, but to and from school, soccer practice, and even to the grocery store. When I need a gallon of milk, I can go downstairs to the corner bodega and be back home in five minutes. Like you said, there are benefits and downsides.

      I’m not suggesting that the street in front of my house be closed to cars all the time. But certainly the balance of when and how often streets are closed can be tipped just slightly to include more than street fairs, the occasional block party, and, of course, the marathon.

      And, from my many travels to livable cities across the world, I think it’s possible to build streets that give parents and children all kids of freedom while still allowing space for people who need to drive and park their cars. Again, it’s not either/or. Too many of even our so-called “quiet” side streets are still dangerous places for people of all ages. They need not be.

      IMG_0674

  9. Shannon permalink
    November 6, 2013 11:42 am

    This post reminds me of why I bike. I started as a kid with fantastic, supportive parents (like you!) who encouraged my brothers and me to take the lane and ride free. I was lucky to live in Nebraska where it was easier to have the roads to myself regularly; you are so right that those few stolen moments on an empty New York street are pure joy. I treasure them when they arrive unexpectedly on my daily commute between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

    Your story brought back a lot of great childhood memories… thank you for sharing!

  10. November 7, 2013 4:34 am

    This is so awesome. My husband sent me a link this morning to your story and I love it. We’re US expats living in the Netherlands and riding bikes is our trade in from the minivan days (twins-3 oldest 4). Our oldest just started riding without training wheels- and he is in pure heaven riding down the (fantastic) bike paths here. I love your photos. Ride on :)

    • November 7, 2013 9:34 am

      Thank you! Part of my daughter’s love of biking was nurtured by a trip to Amsterdam last year and long trips in the bakfiets. We’re hoping to return this summer!

  11. mguralni permalink
    November 7, 2013 10:26 am

    Very moving, Doug.

  12. summer permalink
    November 7, 2013 10:37 am

    Wow, your daughter’s biking skills are so impressive! Seems like starting them young with the balance bike method is more effective than learning with training wheels (that’s how I learned and didn’t get comfortable on a bike til I was eight!).

    • November 7, 2013 11:09 am

      Balance bikes are the way to go! G was on one as soon as she could sit on the seat with her feet on the ground. Made walking to school so much easier.

      They should make balance bikes for older kids and grownups who never learned how to ride a bike. Training wheels are fine, but they don’t teach you the real thing you need to learn in order to ride, which is obviously how to balance!

      • November 9, 2013 9:23 pm

        Our adult bike education classes use balance bikes — regular bikes with pedals removed. Only once the students get comfortable with the balance do the pedals go on. DC’s WABA is doing an awesome reaching communities of people who never had the chance to learn.

        On the other note, I live in the DC Suburbs and have no trouble finding many places to ride. It’s not perfect, but neither are the DC streets that I’ve ridden. You’re right that it’s not either/or.

        What a cutie — my 17 year old son rides his bike to school every day, even though he has a driver’s license, because living 2 miles away means you walk or ride in our household or get up 20 minutes earlier to catch the bus.

  13. November 8, 2013 12:44 pm

    That’s a beautiful story, Doug. Thank you.

  14. November 11, 2013 9:03 am

    This is awesome! What a fun day.

    Interestingly enough, I started reading your blog as a cyclist in downtown Chicago, and now live off Fourth Avenue in Gowanus. I certainly bike less here in Brooklyn than I do in Chicago, or D.C., the city I lived at in between. Thanks for consistently being an advocate for urban bikers.

    • November 11, 2013 9:55 am

      Thanks!

      And welcome to the neighborhood! Please feel free to drop me a line anytime. Always happy to show you around.

  15. Tim permalink
    November 11, 2013 10:14 am

    I love road closures

  16. November 12, 2013 9:12 am

    This ties right to this piece I just read, which includes traffic fears as part of a larger issue. http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2013/11/city-no-children/7541/

  17. November 12, 2013 5:54 pm

    This made me so happy! Thank you for sharing such a beautiful memory. I’m glad that your daughter had fun on her bike. I really treasure “Marathon Day” in SF too. It’s a glimpse of paradise.

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