Do you remember when neighborhood streets were not just for cars, but for people too? Do your childhood memories include hide-and-seek, kickball and kick-the-can? Did you learn how to ride your bike right down the middle of your street, not in some park or empty parking lot? You do? Then if you live in the United States, you must be close to my age. I’m 50.
Forty years ago Americans were just as much in love with their cars as they are today. But they were also in love with their neighborhoods. They didn’t just commute through them, they lived in them. There had to be 30 kids on my block, and summer’s seemed to be one long continuous kick-ball game. We set up in the middle of the street outside the Heffner’s house. Kids outside laughing and playing. As it should be.
When a car came down the street. It approached, waiting for the mob of youthful energy to clear out, and then slowly passed by. The driver usually smiled and waved.
One day an incredible thing happened. Bruce was about ready to deliver the kickball at a crucial moment in the game, when there was a strange mechanical sound. We looked up and Mr. Cook’s garage door magically opened. All by itself! We stood there in amazement as Mr. Cook’s car appeared around the corner, and drove right into the garage. There was another mechanical sound, and the garage door closed.
THAT was cool.
Mr. Cook (he worked at the bank) was the first one in the neighborhood to get a automatic garage door opener.
The next day at the exact same time (we were waiting) the magic happened again.
As a kid, Mr. Cook’s magic door was the greatest thing since spongy loaves of Wonder Bread. But as an adult, I now see that it was the beginning of the end.
We didn’t see Mr. Cook much anymore. You see, before his cool gadget, Mr. Cook had to get out of his car to open up his garage door himself. Sometimes he’d watch our game for a few minutes. Sometimes he’d talk with us. I remember him saying, “You all argue a lot more than you play kickball.” He was right.
Americans were already spending more time in their cars, but the automatic garage door opener allowed neighbors to actually never physically spend time in their neighborhood.
Of course, there were other factors, (jobs further away, two-three-and-four car families, the shopping mall). They all played a part in the demise of the livable neighborhood.
The sign to the left in the photo above is from my street on Beacon Hill in Seattle. It is one block away from Kimball Elementary School. ONE block. That’s the school zone. Why? Well, in my opinion, it is because there is the assumption that kids don’t walk to school anymore. They need to be safe in that one block where their parents park or drop them off.
Unfortunately that assumption is right. Come fifteen minutes to school time, our street becomes a mess of speeding mini-vans and SUV’s with parents, rushing to get their kids to “the school zone”.
Traffic doesn’t kill a neighborhood. But speeding traffic does.
Mr. Cook never sped down our street at 35mph. Not even close. If he and others had done so, our parents wouldn’t have let us play kickball … or kick-the-can. Many of us wouldn’t have learned to ride a bike.
I recently spoke to a crowd of 200 adults. Most of them my age or older. When I asked them to raise their hands if they had walked or biked to school, almost every hand went up.
A couple of years ago I spoke at a junior college and asked the same question. One hand went up. We are quickly losing our collective memory that neighborhoods are safe places to live and play.
It’s time that we reoccupy our neighborhoods. Forget useless, pathetic one-block “school zones.” We need neighborhood zones. Places where cars are allowed, but slowed to a speed that is, well, neighborly. 2omph.
“It can’t be done!”, I hear the cries. Well. It already has been done. Portland’s Greenways program aims to reduce traffic speeds to 20mph. New York City is getting its first 20mph zoned neighborhood in the Bronx. In England they cut it to 20 too! I won’t even bother to list the gobs of examples from the Netherlands and Denmark.
In Seattle, we don’t have to be leaders in this (unfortunately, we usually aren’t). We just have to follow the great examples already in process.
There is a problem. We can’t legally do this in Seattle right now. The Bicycle Alliance of Washington introduced a bill (HB 1217)l earlier this year that would make it easier for local jurisdictions in Washington to set lower speed limits in residential and business districts. It died in committee.
Do you prefer the modified traffic sign on the right of the photo? Let your representatives know that you are in favor lower speed limits in neighborhoods. Do you want to reoccupy your neighborhood? Then get involved in these groups who are fighting to allow you to do so.
Bicycle Alliance of Washington
Cascade Bicycle Club
Seattle Neighborhood Greenways
(Kudos to StreetFilms and the Seattle Bike Blog for great bike coverage)