Children and mass transit

As a new father who uses public transportation almost exclusively, two recent items re: public transportation and children caught my eye. First, a Rockville, MD “Principal Calls CPS After Mom Lets Daughter, 10, Ride City Bus to School” [h/t Adam Holland]

It had been brought to her attention, the principal said, by some “concerned parents,” that my daughter had been riding the city bus to and from school. I said, yes, we had just moved outside of the neighborhood, and felt that this was the most convenient way for our 5th grader to get there and back. The principal asked was I not concerned for her safety? “Safety from what?” I inquired. “Kidnapping,” she said reluctantly. I said that I would not bore her by talking statistics that, being in the business of taking care of young children, she surely knew better than I did….

It was raining hard the next day so I offered to drive L. [my daughter] to the bus stop. I thought she’d want to wait in the car with me, but she said, “It’s okay mom, you go work. I want to say hi to my friends.” “Your friends?” “Well, they are not my kid friends. They are just, you know, my people friends.” There was the Chinese lady, the lady with the baby who cried a lot (but it’s not his fault, he can’t help it), and the grandma who always got on at the next stop. In a few short weeks, my daughter had surrounded herself with a community of people who recognized her, who were happy to see her, and who surely would step in if someone tried to hurt her.

My son is only five months old–years away from travelling solo. But I can attest that a community springs up around him whenever I take him on a bus or train. Our fellow riders are generally friendly when he is happy and understanding when he is not.  Either way, they definitely notice him, and I have little doubt that they would step in if something were wrong.

Moreover, even at his young age, my son seems to enjoy making friends through these public interactions, often going out of his way to stare at someone seated nearby until he catches their eye and can start smiling and babbling at them. As Carla Saulter explains in a second post, “Why Public Transportation Is Good for Kids“:

It’s become part of the collective American belief system that cars are the preferred (if not the only acceptable) mode of transportation for our children. Cars are now viewed as an essential tool of good middle-class parenting — both as a means of keeping our children safe from the evils of the outside world and of providing convenient access to the myriad destinations to which we are required to deliver them….

As they grow up riding buses and trains, kids master the skills required to get around. They start small, like my daughter, who recently began carrying her own bag (a pink backpack with a train, per her request) and move on to stop recognition, schedule reading, and trip planning. Long before their peers are old enough to drive, junior transit riders have the skills to ride solo. The confidence that comes from these abilities will help them when they face problems mom and dad can’t help with.

And speaking of facing things … Kids who spend most of their time in controlled spaces — from home to car to school/mall/lesson/play date — have very limited contact with the people they share the world with. Kids who ride transit, on the other hand, have plenty of opportunity to interact with their fellow humans. They learn to accept differences, interact politely with strangers, and set and respect boundaries.

Riding mass transit can be inconvenient, and it certainly isn’t a parenting panacea. However, it can also be a safe, wonderful option for exposing children to other people and the wider world.

I think my son and I will be riding the bus for years to come.

Tying subways to the concentric rings of the Chicago School

Joel recently noted an academic study that suggests subway systems converge on a similar form. Whet Moser of Chicago argues that understanding subway patterns requires considering how cities grow and the concentric rings model of the Chicago School of urban sociology.

This is where I get skeptical that subways converging towards a “common mathematical space may hint at universal principles of human self-organization.” The subway systems the authors study were built within a relatively narrow band: 1863 (London) to 1995 (Shanghai). But they’re all also very old cities. Shanghai has a dense central business district, dating back to its long history as a port town; Moscow’s rings radiate out from the Kremlin and Red Square, following old fortifications; Beijing grew out from a model of urbanism that way predates Burgess and Park:

Many researchers reached consensus on urban morphology of the Old Beijing from physical composition. It is agreed that the Old Beijing was laid out exactly according to the concept of the Chinese utopia capital city in the book Kao Gong Ji, Notes on Works, written more than 2,000 years ago. The ideal city form is ‘a walled square city of nine by nine li (4.5 kilometers) with nine north/south main streets and east/west main avenues, three gates on each side, the ancestral temple on the left and an altar on the right of the palace, municipal administration buildings in front of the palace and a marketplace behind it’ (Fu, 1998; Liu, 1986).

So: who cares? If it’s just a neat little mathematical model, what’s its relevance? It’s relevant when the model becomes prescriptive, as the authors of “World Subway Networks” write:

In the case of Beijing, Seoul and Shanghai, it seems that their relative ‘youth’ is why they have not yet reached their long time limit.

Translation: since the subways were started after 1971, they haven’t fully converged on that ideal “core and branch” shape and ratio…

In short, Beijing is stuck in Park and Burgess’s concentric zones, and wants to move towards Harris and Ullman’s multiple-nuclei model. At the very least, it’s neat to see these comparatively dated theories of urbanization at the forefront of 21st century development. But the Beijing subway system may be following a multiple-nuclei model…

In other words, urban sociologists started to figure out that the concentric rings model doesn’t seem to fit all cities (though it still seems to overlay nicely on Chicago, it doesn’t fit other places like Beijing or newer Sunbelt cities in the United States). First came the multiple nuclei model in the 1940s and then a whole new paradigm, the political economy approach, started to emerge in the 1960s. The political economy prescriptive relies less on prescriptive models and instead focus on a different mechanism: whereas the Chicago School emphasizes competition for land and cities growing as people seek out cheaper land, the political economy model focuses on the profit motives of developers, politicians, and business leaders.

So if we looked at subway growth and locations in the political economy perspective, we could examine why lines and stops were built in certain places. Using two other forms of mass transportation as examples, we know that a good number of railroad and streetcar owners in the mid to late 1800s built lines to their new real estate developments. In other words, these lines were not built to service existing residents but rather to spur new development. I bet you could find some scholars who would argue that subways may sometimes be built to wealthier neighborhoods rather than poorer neighborhoods because there is more money to be made in these connections.

100 year old Wilmette L station illustrates suburban exclusion

A celebration today for a 100 year old L station in Wilmette illustrates some of the issues between cities and suburbs:

The station [today serving more than 315,000 people per year] originally came as an unwelcome overnight surprise. After coming to loggerheads with village officials, a crew secretly worked “under cover of darkness” to create a small depot at Fourth Street and Linden Avenue.

According to a story in the Chicago Tribune on April 3, 1912: “During the night the Northwestern Elevated company invaded the suburb with a large force of men. At dawn the evidence of their work was plainly visible.”

Back then, the people of Wilmette enjoyed their lakefront, and their seclusion.

“Exclusive residents opposed the entrance of a new line largely because they believe trainloads of picnic parties will be dumped there in summer,” the Tribune story said.

Some things haven’t changed. During a recent Wilmette Park District discussion regarding a fence to limit access to the south beach at Gillson Park, resident Fred Fitzsimmons referred to nonresidents picnicking lakeside as “freeloaders.”

The period one hundred years ago was an interesting period for relationships between cities and suburbs. Prior to 1900, many cities annexed adjacent suburbs. These suburbs were generally agreeable to this as they needed the infrastructure that cities could provide (sewers, water, fire protection, etc.) and the status of being part of the growing city was exciting. But around 1900, things changed. More suburbs rejected annexation. Building their own infrastructure became cheaper. Being part of the big city, seen more and more as big, dirty, and home to many new residents, was no longer a draw. It was at this point that the size of many cities in the Northeast and Midwest drastically slowed.

Thus, a new L stop was seen as a threat in Wilmette, a means by which the city could still come to the suburbs. Back then, just as today, part of the reason for moving to Wilmette was to get away from the city and its residents, not to have encounter them through public transportation. It is intriguing that the Chicago Tribune ties these old concerns to current concerns in Wilmette. In this sense, the suburban mindset promoting exclusivity has not changed much in a century. (At the same time, I assume many in the Wilmette area see the L stop as a nice amenity since it means they don’t have to drive into Chicago.)

Another thought: could this also illustrate why suburbanites might be opposed to public transportation? There could be more than just the idea that cars are considered more convenient; public transportation could be associated with different kinds of people. If you can afford it in the United States, you generally pay (outside of a few denser cities) to avoid having to ride public transportation.

Mass transit in an age of self-driving cars

Wired’s article about the nearing technical feasibility of self-driving cars makes several intriguing observations about the (possible) future of personal transportation:

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Quick Review: ASA 2011 Las Vegas

The 2011 American Sociological Association meetings are still going on in Las Vegas. While I was only out there for the first half of the meetings, here are a few thoughts on the annual convention:

1. Las Vegas presents a series of contradictions and this irony should not be lost on sociologists.

1a. When you fly in and out, you really see how the city rises right out of the desert.

1b. I stayed a little bit off of The Strip and this daily walk was interesting in that the landscape several blocks away was really empty, desert lots and more rundown facilities. The airport backs right up to the south end of The Strip.

1c. The opening plenary session on Friday night included discussions of different sociological traditions including feminism and Marxism. The reception afterwards included a greeting from a Las Vegas girl in a feathery costume and a Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. impersonator providing entertainment. Can one easily go from discussing inequality and oppression to enjoying the fruits of capitalistic success? The answer appeared to be yes.

2. Some of the main themes I heard at the sessions I attended: an interest in explaining the Tea Party; some nervousness (?) about the reelection prospects of President Obama; explanations that Democrats won the recent recall elections in Wisconsin (despite media reports to the contrary).

3. The conference is being held at Caesar’s Palace, just a gargantuan facility. The main conference hall must have been at least 1,500 feet long. Two downsides to the conference setting: a lack of nearby coffee shops (the closest one had ridiculous lines on both Saturday and Sunday mornings) and it was difficult to walk to other nearby attractions. One thing I noticed: while typical ASA meetings tend to tie up the facilities in one or perhaps even two big city hotels, we were just a drop in the bucket of Caesar’s Palace.

4. The Strip has to be one of the most fascinating streetscapes in the world. The combination of heat, casinos, people drinking while walking, families, the homeless, and more is a sight to behold. Of course, it is more interesting because it is all inauthentic: this isn’t a neighborhood where people live but it is an endless stream of visitors.

5. I know the country is experiencing economic difficulties but I don’t think you could tell this by simply looking at The Strip. There were plenty of people of all ages and backgrounds walking around and spending money. If you wanted to find a place to study consumption and/or tourism, this would be it.

6. One thing I just cannot understand: why is there not public transportation from the airport to The Strip? While there is a monorail that runs behind the hotels on the northern end of The Strip, one has to take a shuttle or a taxi from the airport. I don’t know if these private firms have a lot of political clout but it seems like the city would want to help people get from the airport to The Strip as quickly and cheaply as possible.

7. People say the heat is a “dry heat” – I do think it makes a difference. While it was roughly 103 degrees during the days I was there and it was still 94 degrees at 10 PM one night when I was out walking, I definitely felt the humidity in Chicago on Sunday night.