Ethical child transport from the New York Times & me
I know many of us transport our kids by bike through much of the year; many of my closest mama friends (and I) have done such shocking things as bike-while-heavily pregnant, tote a small baby around, put our children between our handlebars in a baby seat, or expose our young offspring to rain, wind and even, rarely, sun (ha) through miles of commuting. Many of you can remember a dozen or a hundred times you've heard another citizen of this city opine on your transportation choices. My favorite (or something) is when a woman yelled at me, "get those babies baptized!" (I had.) I've also had any number of angry men and women shouting about how "that's not safe!" I've been reminded loudly how I forgot to put a helmet back on a youngster after a stop (we stopped and put the helmet back on right away, me shaking from the vitriole of the FYI); I've been asked who's going to take care of the kids when I DIE FROM NOT WEARING A HELMET (I had a hat on, and forgot my helmet, and by the time I remembered it we were too far away from home).
After one of these exchanges I often spend the next 10 or 15 minutes of my ride composing a undeliverable response to those who question my parental responsibility, exposing the kids to the elements and the possibility of death-by-vehicle. My thesis usually looks like this: I believe not only in the superiority of this method of transportation -- which emits zero pounds of carbon per mile and has no regular monthly cost nor incremental cost, saving me thousands each year, and has an infinitesimal chance of seriously injuring any other humans than those aboard by its use -- but I believe in the power and imperative of living one's values. If I am so worried about the health of the planet that I toss and turn many nights, wondering if my grandchildren's Portland will be overrun by refugees from an unlivable California, I can hardly put them into a single-family vehicle (that I can't afford anyway) for the 13-and-some miles of daily commute.
There's a lot more, involving my own vivid fear I'll run into a pedestrian or another car every time I get behind a wheel, and the nausea that I seem to always suffer after driving. But last night, I was thrilled to see on another mama's Facebook stream a link to an official ethical scholar's general agreement with my thesis. The questioner, a Portland, Maine bicyclist with children aged four and one, wondered, "Is it O.K. to take the kids by bike when our admittedly safer, albeit not risk-free, car is available?"
Randy Cohen's answer had its usual twists and turns of humor and extreme examples. ("Different parents tolerate different levels of risk for their children. Some allow their kids to go rock climbing while on fire; others forbid them to leave the house unless they’re swaddled in Bubble Wrap.") But here's the important bit: "There is no universal and immutable scale for your ethical obligation here. But there is a better way to describe your duty: seek prudent, not utopian, transportation... If you forswear bikes and travel with them only by car, you teach them to do likewise, promoting the sedentary lifestyle that contributes to obesity and other health problems, and you express acceptance of the environmental damage cars inflict even on nondrivers — two disheartening lessons."
I thought it an excellent answer and with his usual non-judgmental acceptance of most of our parental choices. Don't text while driving or biking; don't do either under the influence; wear helmets. If you really believe in biking, work in your community to support better infrastructure for the safety of pedestrians and cyclists.
Now I have a bigger question, though: how do you communicate this to someone shouting at you on the street? I've been composing a PSA video on the topic for some time; independent filmmakers are encouraged to contact me immediately. In the interim, perhaps my usual; a sigh and a deflating of the shoulders; is the best response.