When “growing up” = getting behind the wheel

This morning, NPR ran a story about a teenager’s first time driving herself to school. A reporter followed Rebecca Rivers, a high school junior in Canton, NY, from the breakfast table to the parking lot of her high school. (It wasn’t my idea of riveting journalism, but then again, I recently wrote a post about all the parks I visited on the bus this summer. To each her own.) The point of the piece was to focus on an important “rite of passage” in the life of an American child.

During the interview, Rebecca talks about why the milestone of driving solo is so important for her.

When you’re driving a car, you’re totally in control—I mean except for the other drivers. You’re in control, and you get to decide which roads you drive on and which route you take home and where you stop, and there’s something incredibly wonderful about that.

While I can certainly relate to her feelings of exhilaration—I experienced those same feelings when I learned to drive (well) over two decades ago—I would argue that they have very little to do with controlling a vehicle and very much to do with experiencing a first taste of independence.

Much of the reason we associate cars with freedom and control (despite the fact that they have actually stripped us of control of our communities) is because we have created a culture in which they are required for mobility. Kids can’t wait to drive because they want to go somewhere without an adult.

Would this first solo drive have meant so much–Would it even have happened?–if Rebecca had grown up with a bicycle and safe, dedicated paths to ride on? Or if there was a frequent, reliable, free (!) transit system in her town? Or if she had been given the freedom to get around without her parents before she was old enough to drive? Or if there were more constraints on when, where, and how fast cars could travel?

We’ll never know. What we do know is that very few kids in this country grow up with dedicated bicycle infrastructure or frequent, reliable transit–or, for that matter, the freedom to take advantage of the options that are available. Instead, they are shuttled to every destination in the back seat of the family car.

As we continue to indoctrinate our children into an archaic, inefficient, dangerous, and irresponsible transportation system, we are dooming them to a future of poor health, frustration, isolation, and unprecedented environmental catastrophe.

We can and must do better.

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