When my good friend’s son was 9 months old, we tried taking him on the Metro bus for the first time.
As the bus pulled up to the stop, she hoisted her barefoot 25-lb son in one arm, balancing her purse and his diaper bag over her shoulders, and started to break the stroller down.
I tried to be helpful, but even with four hands, we were a juggling act, trying not to keep the bus delayed and definitely breaking a mild sweat. But we made it on. In our seats, the shuffling game began again, trying to adjust all of our bags, her son, and also move his stroller out of the aisle.
I took a deep breath. This was one instant in one day and everyone was fine. My friend had left her car at home to try to avoid paying for parking. But I thought about what moms with small children who don’t have cars have to do in the Los Angeles Region to get around and might not have their bestie or partner there to help out.
There are about 1.2 million children under the age of 10 living in Los Angeles County. And all of them have parents, grandparents, caregivers, and guardians who have to get them somewhere. To school, to the store, to a friend’s place, to the doctor. When this has to happen without a car, what does this look like?
Maria Almeida: Mother of Four in South LA
Maria Almeida lives in the South Park neighborhood of South LA with her four children, Giovani (age 12), Adamaris (age 8), Fernando (age 6), and Chuy (age 4). In the morning, she has to get all of them to their four different schools and daycare centers the way she does everything—by bike. Walking was taking too long and juggling four kids’ schedules as well as her own English classes required a more efficient system. She decided to try biking. The first time she rode with her kids by bike, she strapped some chairs on her bike frame with strips of cloth. But it allowed her to transport her kids to where they needed to be, faster.
As a young girl growing up in Tepecoacuilco, Mexico, Maria rode her bike everywhere. Now, living in Los Angeles, she saw that her children were not getting enough exercise. They were mostly sitting around after eating and, where they live, there aren’t many spaces to play or be active. As a mother, Maria says, she needs to get her kids to school, doctor’s appointments, friends’ houses, and grocery shopping. But she also feels it is her obligation to teach them to be healthy and active.
Maria’s three oldest children have ridden bikes from when they were young and even ride on the major streets near their schools and home, like Main Street, San Pedro Street, and Central Avenue. Riding in the City of Los Angeles has its challenges. She teaches her children to be safe riders, make eye contact with drivers, but also that people on bicycles have rights. Mostly, she says, when she and her children ride in bicycle lanes and on streets where cars travel slower, the road feels safer for everyone.
Lenore French: Single Mother of Son Derek in Culver City
In 2008, the Great Recession hit the country hard. People of all backgrounds lost their economic stability and Lenore French was one of them. She and her 12-year-old son Derek were about to be evicted and she needed to figure out ways to cut costs to support her family. She wanted to stay close to where he was already going to school, so she found a place in Culver City, near the Mar Vista border. Then she did what people in Los Angeles don’t do. She sold her car.
After buying an old bike on Craigslist, she set out to work each day by bike and bus. When she got more confident at riding, she would bike the entire way. Every day after work, she’d bike to her local grocery store to pick-up food for dinner. As a single parent, not only did she need to figure out the meal plan every night, she also had to make sure she got home safely to take care of her son.
During rush hour, she said, “I didn’t feel comfortable riding on the major streets. So I rode on the sidewalks, even though with cracks and disrepair, it was still difficult and unsafe.” But when it comes to their children, parents do things they never thought they would.
Looking back, Lenore says, there was a silver lining. At the time, it seemed like a disaster: starting a career over mid-life, completely upending her daily routine, and giving up the lifeline of a car. But she started to really see the improvements to her health and her contribution to improving the environment. And by cultivating a car-free culture for her son, she found that it opened their lives to getting to know their neighbors. Walking on the sidewalks to the bus, riding her bicycle around – this allowed her to say hi to her neighbors, make eye contact, have daily interactions – and provide opportunities to connect with other mothers who would become the village in which she raised him.
Her experiences also led her to start a non-profit organization, Green Communications Initiative (GCI), which is devoted to inspiring responsible consumption for a sustainable future. She used her experiences walking around her neighborhood to create events in her community, like the Mar Vista ArtWalk. With a diminished reliance on an automobile, Lenore had to “stay local” for services and amenities. She wants to be a part of the solution of providing more local services and amenities to support—and encourage—her neighbors to walk, bike, and take transit too.
Meanwhile, her son is attending university on the East Coast and has yet — and has no desire— to get his driver’s license.
How Policy can Support People
Parents across the Los Angeles region are taking care of their children every day, as well as their own aging parents, and getting them to where they need to go. They are hustling. Investing in Place works to highlight the voices who don’t have access to traditional channels of power, who don’t have time to attend Metro meetings and provide public input – but whose transportation needs are no different than those who do. They need to take care of their families – and ensure their children have the opportunity to thrive. As the Los Angeles Region considers how to invest in our transportation network over the next generation, this is a tremendous opportunity to us consider the children that our mothers are taking care of and what they need.
It’s no secret, Investing in Place is a huge fan of Safe Routes to School programs. Those efforts – sprinkled across Los Angeles County are working to ensure youth and families can walk, ride their bike, go Metro – to ensure their are options for families without access to a car for the trip to school – or families looking for a alternative than driving every day to and from school. And we need to see more of them, in every city, in every neighborhood. Transportation conversations are frequently focused on the impacts of car traffic – and national studies cite as much as 15% of morning congestion is caused by private car drop off at schools. Through community and school partnerships with local government and public agencies, both infrastructure improvements and educational efforts can support a whole generation of youth to be physically active, independent, and have their travel needs planned for and prioritized – not to mention fill our neighborhood sidewalks and streets with community members traveling at a slow pace to say hi, to see be eyes on the street, to create the quality of life of communities worthy for all and as Metro likes to say – ease traffic.
And in places like the City of Los Angeles, it’s promising to see the Great Streets Initiative focus on activating public space and creating safer, multi-modal streets for communities across the city. Many cities have streets like this already — and have been on their own placemaking, creating neighborhood hubs for years. It’s exciting to see public agencies like the Great Streets Initiative in the City of LA augmenting and building off those community hubs with support and improved public – community based partnerships and public resources.
Rather than streets that allow cars to travel as fast as possible on freeways, the vision of Great Streets is that they can be safer for mothers and youth riding bikes. Rather than big box stores in strip malls, there is the idea that Great Streets can support local businesses that provide community amenities close to where people live, such as healthy foods, clothing stores, pharmacies, and hair salons — and invest in local business owners and local wealth. And, Great Streets efforts seen in the City of LA, host arts and culture, such as murals, community gatherings, and festivals to activate the street and reflect the character of the local neighborhood. This encompasses the idea of complete communities, something Lenore’s GCI efforts are trying to achieve. It’s always inspiring when public policies celebrate and compliment local neighborhood leaders and visions.
Making all neighborhoods in Los Angeles County into ones with Safe Routes to School and Great Streets — successful partnerships between elected officials, school districts, small business, local community members — and the transportation infrastructure to reflect these partnerships will not happen overnight. But we’ll get there by dedicating our resources and leadership towards the goal of reimagining and designing our streets for all people and aligning our public resources, such as the potential November 2016 Transportation Sales Tax measure to support these goals.
More and more of the youth in the Los Angeles region, as Lenore says, have a different relationship with public transportation and many are disenchanted with driving. For example, we should ensure the aging population can age in their own homes. And when they stop driving, they will need other options. Safe Routes to School and Great Streets efforts serve all road users on the street, and cultivate our streets and sidewalks as a place, not just a roadway. They are, after all, one of the most valuable public spaces we share.
Investing in Place supports a shift in how we recognize the critical importance of access and transportation options for all, thank you to all of our fearless mothers — like Lenore and Maria — who do so much. And to all the Moms navigating the streets, sidewalks, buses, and trains with their families, strollers, book bags filled with homework and lunches and gear for afterschool activities. Let’s work to ensure our public policy keep their days full of safe, ensure they have affordable and efficient transportation options.
Somedays I wonder, what would our transportation policies and investments look like if the Metro board was comprised of moms, grandmoms, and youth. While that may be a far-fetched vision, addressing their needs doesn’t have to be. After all, who doesn’t want to live in a neighborhood where the local kids are thriving, happy, safe and have the ability to grow into being able to find their own way to learning and adventures.
Thanks to all our awesome Moms out there and their hustle. It takes a village.
And special thanks to Maria, Lenore and Trust South LA for sharing these stories.