Setting Kids Up For Mobility Success

Designing Better Places to Build Confidence and Independence from a Young Age

There’s a lot of debate about how different generations teach their children to navigate the world on their own. This is true both figuratively and literally. This article concerns the literal task of getting around your home town or city whether it be by foot, bike, bus, or car – what urbanists refer to as “mobility.” I am by no means anti-car. I’m anti-car-dependency. I like being able to choose from a variety of mobility options based on the needs and desires of the day. I do think that learning how to drive (and being able to drive confidently and safely) is an important skill – one which I’ve made sure my daughter has. But knowing how to drive is not the same as full “mobility literacy”, and it’s the latter that I have always considered the more important one to teach my children.

I was born in the mid ‘80s and graduated high school in the 2000s, so I consider myself a millennial. In just a few weeks, my oldest daughter, firmly in the Gen-Z camp, will be graduating high school and preparing to head off to college on the other side of the country. Naturally, this has gotten me thinking about the differences in how we both learned to navigate our physical environments and whether I’ve set her up for success in terms of mobility – spoiler, in terms of the latter question, I believe the answer is yes.

I grew up a few miles outside of a small town which was too small for public transportation. I could ride my bike on the back roads into town on weekends or during summers, tool around all day long, and bike back home late in the day. All of this was without a phone or even a specific place anyone could call to check up on me. Maybe from time to time, I would enter a friend’s house and use their land line to call my house and check in, but that would have been a rarity.

My daughter grew up in Austin, so there were some obvious differences in how she learned to get around. But there were also a few similarities in terms of scaffolding her own mobility independence. When she was a child, I would give her my phone with google maps open while we walked around downtown. I would put a pin at our destination and leave it to her to guide us along the way.

When she was in middle school, we started letting her cross the street on her own to walk down to the corner store for Friday snacks. As she got deeper into middle school, we started letting her take the Cap Metro bus from about a quarter-mile from her school campus to another stop about a quarter-to-half-a-mile from the campus my wife teaches at. In her final year of middle school, we allowed her to start taking the Cap Metro bus system from her school campus all the way home, and that trip required a transfer. Her first time making the transfer, she got on the second bus going in the opposite direction, but she quickly realized the mistake, got off at the next stop, crossed the street, and grabbed the next bus going in the correct direction. In those early days, we monitored her every movement with her phone’s GPS, and we stayed in constant contact with her, yes. But she was physically on her own. As time went by, there was enough trust and comfort to only check the GPS dot periodically.

In high school, as family schedules dictated, if she needed to go to my wife’s campus (now several miles separated), my daughter used a combination of bike-share and Cap Metro bus.

I’ve shared in a different article our journey from urban core to suburbs, so I won’t retread that ground here. But I bring it up to say that my daughter does now have a driver’s license and a modest starter car. When I talk with friends and family about her going off to college in the fall, the conversation tends to go something like this:

“Is she taking her car?”

“No, but there’s a great bus system where she’s going to school.”

“Oh, that will be a great way for her to learn to navigate on her own with public transportation.”

I agree with the sentiment that going to college in a place with a great bus system can be a great learning opportunity. For less experienced kids, it’s completely true. For my own kid, the learning has already happened. I’m thrilled that she’ll be in a place where she will have plenty of mobility options, all of which she already has the skills to utilize.


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