When A Kid Owns the Road
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.
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.
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.
So when my daughter started pedaling, I just let her 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.
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.
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.
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.