As my sons approach their teens, they want something I had as a kid: the freedom to explore their neighborhood on bikes without their parents hovering nearby. Throughout Austin, parents must regularly confront this question: When is it OK to let your kids ride their bikes alone?
My family’s inner-city neighborhood streets today are not like the quiet streets in the suburbs where I grew up. Aside from a wonderful cycle track that connects to our school, our streets are crowded with parked cars and traffic while lacking basic pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. Our kids must regularly navigate weaving in and out of parked cars while distracted drivers speed by them. When there are sidewalks (which are rare), the kids must confront huge cracks, uneven pavement, and missing curb cuts. Our neighborhood is by no means alone in this regard.
A recent article in the Atlantic by Hanna Rosin—which is making the email rounds in parent circles—criticizes parents' pre-occupation with safety and stripping kids of the independence that they need to grow into healthy, confident adults. Rosin cites evidence that links the loss of children's ability to engage in independent, risk-taking discovery to increases in "depression, narcissism, and a decline in empathy."
The article, however, ignores the hazards we observe every day as we travel through our neighborhoods: absent-minded drivers who text, ignore crosswalks, and regularly speed through neighborhood streets. It's one thing to navigate these hazards as a 40-year-old with many years of experience cycling, and another thing as a 9-year-old. Rosin asserts that the world is not a more dangerous place than it was when we were growing up, but she bases her argument solely on crime stats and child abduction rates, not on traffic safety.
Meanwhile, pedestrian and cycling fatalities have been on the rise in Austin. According to a report released last week by Smart Growth America, the Austin metro area is the 24th most dangerous region in the country for pedestrians (and not any safer for cyclists). To get to our neighborhood library, my kids have to navigate several hazards, including crossing a very busy and dangerous intersection on South Lamar where I regularly see cars turning left that fail to yield to oncoming cars, let alone pedestrians and cyclists.
All this being said, I think that ultimately the decision about whether to let your child ride his or her bike alone is a very personal one. It depends on the conditions in the neighborhood, as well as the child's cognitive abilities, experience riding with adults, and learning good cycling safety judgment. It’s also a good idea to set clear geographic boundaries of where they can ride and what streets are off-limits. What also helps: a leap of faith, a kiss on the cheek, and maybe a prayer or two.
Taking all these things into account, last month we finally decided our kids were old enough to go off alone on their bikes and scooters to buy snow cones on the edge of the neighborhood. Did our kids survive? Yes, although my oldest son's scooter hit a big piece of broken pavement in the sidewalk, causing him to fall and break his arm.
Will we let our children ride alone again? Yes, although next time I will remind them to look out for the cracks in the sidewalk.
Many family-friendly improvements to Austin’s cycling infrastructure are coming our way. The City of Austin Public Works Department is finalizing its Urban Trails Master Plan and updates to its Bicycle Master Plan, which provide for a citywide system of connected off-road trails and bikeways. For more information, go to austintexas.gov/urbantrails. The next addition to this system will be the Southern Walnut Creek Trail project, a 7.3-mile trail in East Austin that is opening later this summer.
Dick Nichols Trail: This is the first bike trail we let our kids ride alone with their friends; it’s a shady and paved 1-mile loop that wraps around the park.
Johnson Creek Greenbelt: A 1.5-mile paved trail that leads from the Austin High tennis court parking lot off Lady Bird Lake up to the newly remodeled West Enfield Park and Neighborhood Pool.
Duncan Park/9th Street Trails: While not a bike trail, this park is a mecca for dirt bikers of all ages. Younger kids tend to congregate here earlier in the day, followed by hard-core BMX bikers in the later hours.
Shoal Creek Trail: We enjoy riding this trail from Lady Bird Lake to the splash pad in Pease Park, or you can take the trail all the way up to its terminus near 35th Street.
Slaughter Creek Trail: Located in Circle C Ranch, this is one of the first places we took our kids for mountain biking. It remains one of our favorite trails for kids 8 and up. We walk our bikes through some of the more technical spots.
The Veloway: A 3.1-mile paved loop that is Austin’s first trail exclusively for bicycles and rollerblading. Note that cyclists use this for training, and slower traffic must keep to the right; closed to foot traffic.
A list of hike and bike trails maintained by the city can be found at austintexas.gov/page/trail-directory.