Streets for people

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Scotland and spent several days in Edinburgh, the second largest city and capital of the country.

It’s a beautiful, ancient city with a lot of culture and history, including castles, museums and fancy hotels. We stayed, however, in the Leith district, a lower income, working class neighborhood, known to be a bit less safe, near the docks and what used to be the port. Leith was the setting for the 1980s movie Trainspotting, about drug users in a tough Scottish slum. Since then the area has been improved considerably by the city, and thanks to an influx of hardworking immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean who have created a vibrant hub of food and culture. There are also still many working class older Scottish families living in the crowded streets of Leith in apartments and row houses. By all accounts it’s a lower income neighborhood.

We arrived in Edinburgh in the evening, and made our way to our rented Leith flat. The old narrow streets, designed for horse and buggies, not cars, seemed crowded with traffic, vehicular, pedestrian and buses alike. I didn’t think much of it until I woke the next morning and went for a walk to explore the neighborhood, and find some coffee.

It was a cool drizzly morning, common in Scotland. Yet what I saw unfold before me was a glorious waking of the city, in a demonstration of humans taking precedent over cars and roads. Doors flung open on nearly every flat, apartment building and house and children and parents emerged in comfortable walking shoes, public school uniforms, and work clothes to start their days with a brisk walk or ride to their schools and workplaces. Rich and poor, young and old, took to the streets on their daily ritual which could take them walking several blocks to a bus if they commuted further to work or directly to a school. Six-year-olds hopped on bikes and scooters accompanied by older siblings and friends, along with many adults, making their way on the ample sidewalks and across safe crosswalks every several hundred yards. Cars had less space on the two-laned roads because of the sidewalks, but no one seemed to mind. They happily walked, ran, skated, and rode to school, up to a couple of miles from their homes.

Although this neighborhood may have seemed a bit dicey by night, during the day the place was alive with pedestrians. Sure there were cars and buses on the road, but there were so many people and bikes that it didn’t feel unsafe at all. The streets had been redesigned, even in this working class neighborhood, to accommodate people.

Clear markings, ample sidewalks, safety crossers at each school ushered the active, now very awake children to the playgrounds of their schools where they continued with a morning recess to clear their minds and get ready to focus and learn. I couldn’t help but think of the contrast to kids I see getting out of school buses and cars every morning in the Valley, still half asleep zombies stumbling into the school buildings, not having taken more than a few steps from their bed to car or bus, to classroom.

On the streets of Leith I witnessed moms, and so many dads, with babies in strollers, accompanying their preschoolers, tiny little tykes, on wooden, pedal-free bicycles designed to get toddlers ready to ride a two-wheeler. I followed behind a pack of preschool parents and their children, who gave the kids very detailed lessons and instructions about where to cross, how to look for cars, and other safety tips. This was a daily lesson that was getting them ready to journey to school on their own by first or second grade.

There were moms and dads of all shapes and sizes, some overweight, others not, but still able to hop on a bicycle and ride with their kids to school. I eavesdropped on the conversations of a group of 11 and 12 years as they crossed a street bouncing happily on their journey to school. It was a lively way to wake up and seemed like the perfect dose of exercise to start the day. It started to rain and everyone was undaunted. They pulled rain coats out of backpacks and threw them over their heads, without complaint, and continued on. It reminded me a bit of my own journeys to school as a child. Always on foot or by bike, my friends and I made our way through orange groves, up steep, dusty hills and across busy Southern California traffic, to school each morning. These are the times I remember most about my childhood, much more than anything that happened in the classroom. It kept me physically active, gave me a sense of independence, built my social skills, cycling skills and was an adventure every day.

I understand there are places that are less safe but in those cases we as parents can make the journey with our kids when they are young, instead of throwing them in a car or bus. Weather is a common complaint (excuse?) in the Valley (too hot?) but really I think we have grown a bit soft when you consider places like Scotland (and much of the world) where families walk to work and school in icy, snowy, and often subfreezing weather.

What can we do as parents and schools to create this opportunity for our kids (and us) to walk and bike to school and work? It’s pretty tough in our area because of the way we have planned (or not planned) our cities and suburbs, and because of the culture of highways and roadways and the people who make decisions about how they are built. But it is possible if we work together. Here are some things we can all do to start the conversation:

1. Schools and cities can work with organizations and funding sources like the National Center for Safe Routes to School to create safe routes, and receive funding for programs and staff to make this happen, school by school, district by district.

2. Parents can attend PTA, School Board meetings and just talk with the principal at their child’s school and let their voices be heard about policies that affect their kids in terms of transport to school (and recess, etc.). Buses are great, but not if they prevent kids who live a block from school walking or riding. There are some schools that don’t even allow kids to ride or walk to and from school. These policies need to be revised to encourage healthier living.

3. Get involved in a human school bus. Gather your neighbor kids and parents together and pick one day a week where you walk or bike with the group of kids to school. Even if you don’t have young kids of your own, you could volunteer to help a friend or relative’s children walk or bike to school, even just one day a week to help create this culture.

4. Attend events like CycloBia (open streets) and the upcoming “PARKing Day” in Brownsville on September 16th

5. Get involved in our local movements to create complete streets. Talk with your city and county elected officials and the MPO’s and CCRMA representatives (they make decisions about roads in our area—see links below)* about the value of sidewalks, more crosswalks, protected bike lanes and trails. Get involved because it is your tax dollars that are spent on streets and roads and they belong to you!

Being able to move about on the streets that we all own and pay for should really be a human right.

There are safe ways to promote this from a young age. We shouldn’t be held captive in our cars and homes. People are able to walk and ride on their streets in places with many more safety concerns, harsher weather and worse traffic problems than the Valley. If we value the experiences and health of our children, we (schools and citizens) should focus on what makes a quality childhood, not just for the wealthy but for everyone in our community, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!).

Let elected officials and leaders know what you think about how our roads should be built and shared:

Cameron County Regional Mobility:

Brownsville Metropolitan Planning Organization:

Harlingen/San Benito Metropolitan Planning Organization:

Cameron County Commissioners: