Double Feature on Carfree Families

Gabrielle Hermann on living Carfree with kids

Living carfree with small children can sometimes be a daunting task, much more so than for someone living without kids. By concentrating on carfree families with small children, cities get a critical and realistic look at where their infrastructure and policies are lacking or inadequate. In this article, Gabrielle Hermann argues that a focus on carfree families are a great, but somewhat neglected, opportunity for sustainable transport activists.

When Germans ask me why I prefer living in Germany to the USA, I always give them a carfree pitch: it is much easier to raise kids in Germany without a car and this has a direct impact on my quality of life. People tend to look baffled until I explain how the overly car-dependent infrastructure common in the USA results in an inability to get practically anywhere without a car.

It would not be surprising to learn that it is small things that prevent most families from living without a car. Perhaps the car-sharing station is one block too far when carrying baggage, the car seat and a baby; or there is no place on the bus for a baby carriage, or one parent does not feel safe riding a bike loaded with children around the city. Often, pedestrian environments are not designed with children in mind. Crossing streets in Germany with two young children is very frustrating since crossing times are way too short for little legs.

Most inner-city families I know struggle with the lack of access to green space. Moving out to the suburbs is a great temptation, and car-dependence is seen as an acceptable price to pay. Fortunately, there seems to be a counter-trend in many cities, where families are moving back to the city from the suburbs. They want to experience the vibrancy and diversity that a city can offer. Perhaps many parents are tired of being a slave to their children’s need to being driven everywhere.

Living without a car brings many (un)expected health benefits. The carfree and car-lite families I know have children who from a very early age are accustomed to walking and biking several kilometers a day and taking public transport for longer trips. For them, having to walk does not induce the immediate whining that I see in a lot of children. Instilling these behaviors at an early age is the best way to change unhealthy cultural habits.

Children who take public transport on a daily basis learn valuable social lessons. When so many people share a small space, many interesting social interactions take place, some of them pleasant and some unpleasant. In either case, children are sensitized to others and must learn to be considerate. Through numerous train rides across Germany, my children have become comfortable with many different types of people.

Supporting and encouraging carfree-ness for families is of course not easy. In the Western world living carfree with children takes commitment. There is a big temptation to just “throw the kids in the car” when going somewhere. When you’re an overworked parent, it is hard to imagine the added stress of having to figure out a bus schedule, or worry about your kids running or biking into a busy street. Driving a car can give parents a false sense of control and safety, especially when the outside world is seen as unsafe for children.

A main antidote to such “convenience” is, of course, making driving more difficult and alternative modes more attractive. This is nothing new. However, it cannot be emphasized enough how important a safe pedestrian-friendly environment is for enticing families out of their cars. Families with small children need sidewalks large enough to accommodate baby carriages, separated bicycle lanes, and safe streets (preferably pedestrianized) to go to the park, teach their kids how to ride a bike, etc. Density is probably the single-most important factor when it comes to carfree families. When the nearest grocery store is more than 1 kilometer away, a carfree trip to the grocery store can become daunting. By concentrating on car-free families with small children, cities get a critical and realistic look at where their infrastructure and policies are lacking or inadequate.

European cities are trying to become more child-friendly to counter the decline of European populations. Some policy-makers mistakenly think that family-friendly cities mean offering families two free parking permits. The assumption is that families need access to cars, when in reality, what they need is a safe and accessible environment in which to raise their children. Cities often think they have to compete with the suburbs by offering families what they had in the suburbs – car-friendly infrastructure. Of course, cities cannot compete with suburbs on their terms because, with more space, suburbs will always “out-car” the city. Cities must embrace what makes them attractive: the possibility to live carfree.

Gabrielle Hermann lives in Southern Germany with her 3-year old-son and 1.5-year-old daughter. She is expecting her third child in March. She is Program Director for ITDP-Europe, based in Hamburg.

Conversation with Karin Sandqvist on Carfree Living

Karin Sandqvist recently retired after working as a researcher in Psychology at the University of Stockholm. She has done a lot of research on carfree families and has, among other things, written the book “The Appeal of Automobiles – human desires and the proliferation of cars”. In this interview we talk to her about the myth that families need to own a car and the reality for families living carfree.

Most people think that families must own cars, because of the fact that most families own cars. But that is a myth, says Karin Sandqvist, while speaking to a group of mostly younger anti-car activists at a workshop organised by Friends of the Earth Sweden.

Her mission is to promote everyday life without a car; the way her family lived during her childhood in Stockholm in the forties and fifties. Karin was never a car-lover but did not give motorism a lot of thought until she as a part of her studies to become a psychologist moved to the United States in the early seventies.

“I did a study in a school and interviewed parents about why they did not turn up for parents meeting and they told me that they did not have the necessary means of transport. Meaning that they did not own a car.”

This came as a shock to Karin, a society where cars are essential to do basic stuff in everyday life. Karin describes the three stages of motorism which she has identified. First comes the romantic stage were cars are a luxury for the few and problems like traffic jams have not shown their ugly faces yet. Second is the transitional stage where a majority of people have access to a car but it is still possible to live your life without it. This is the stage where most parts of Europe are right now. Finally you might end up in a totally car dominated society, where people who do not have cars are marginalised. The United States were the first place to enter this stage in the sixties.

Back to the car and family myth. Ten percent of the children living in Stockholm are growing up in carfree families and they are doing just fine or if they are not it is not the absence of a car that is the problem. Karin knows because she has, as a part of her research, interviewed children both in families with and without cars. However many children have experience of both. A common pattern is children who live with their carfree mothers during the week, but stay with their car-owning fathers every second weekend.

“Those children know that life works without a car and when you ask them you find that they are more negative to motorism.“

Another part of the myth is that children need to go by car to do activities after school. In her interviews Karin found that children in carfree families do the same amount, and the same type, of activities as children in car-owning families. The only difference was that the children in carfree families never travelled extremely far to their activities, which might mean that their choices where slightly more limited.

“However if teenagers really want to do an activity they will make sure that they get there without a car.”

She thinks that children in carfree families become more independent and that getting used to public transport also makes children more socially skilled.

“When parents drive a car their children will hear them yelling and complaining about people surrounding them in other cars and on the streets, but when you go on the metro or on the bus you learn to show respect to your fellow commuters.”

However even if it is possible to be a car-free family, there is a lot that can be done to improve their situation. Karin points out that many family oriented leisure facilities like theme parks assume that all their visitors come by car. She would also like to see food delivery for heavy commodities like milk and potatoes.

“Then you could easily walk or bike to get the lighter stuff in your local food store.”

She makes comparisons with her childhood in a society adapted for everyday life without cars. In the fifties you would get help with your heavy luggage when you went by train and if you wanted to move furniture you could call a porter.

“Those services do not exist any more, they disappeared at the same time as cars became more common.”

Even if life can be harder for a carfree family today than sixty years ago. Karin ends her lecture with optimism by showing us a graph with a steady slope; fewer and fewer 24 year-old’s in Sweden gets their drivers license. This trend will quite likely lead to a future increase in carfree families.

Kajsa Lindqvist is an environmental engineer, journalist and activist, currently working for Friends of the Earth Sweden

More publications from Karin Sandqvist:

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