The heights of irony: protecting our children in a "ClusterF**k Nation"

There was recently an interesting article on anti-urban media bias from Greater Greater Washington, a blog focusing on urbanism in Washington DC. Dissecting the Washington Post coverage of Fairfax County Virginia's proposed incorporation as a city, the blog emphasizes how the article's authors repeatedly use codewords for city such as "blight" and "crime". Furthermore, they revealed their biases in an illustration of the difference between a city and a county through an explanation
"which juxtaposes suburbs ‘where Washington goes to walk the dog and water the lawn’ with something ‘many have tried to avoid: high-rise offices, blight, crime and housing that's more likely to have a balcony than a back yard.’"
While this is an egregious and perhaps malicious example of anti-urbanism in reporting, many other examples can stem from overly sensational reporting or from the natural biases caused by a set lifestyle. For example, since reporters presumably represent an average cross-section of the american population, it is not unreasonable to assume that few reporters walk or bike to work. Thus, the act of driving colors their view of the world and that coloration inevitably seeps into their writing.

There are, however, some stories that are so ridiculous as to overwhelm whatever personal urban or anti-urban bias a reporter might have. The events of May 15th in Saratoga Springs, New York are one such event. Andrew J. Bernstein reports the events occurring on National Bike to Work Day:
Janette Kaddo Marino and her son, Adam, 12, wanted to participate in the commuting event, so the two set off to Maple Avenue Middle School on bicycles May 15. The two pedaled the 7 miles from their east side home, riding along a path that extends north from North Broadway straight onto school property.

After they arrived, mother and son were approached first by school security and then school administrators, who informed Marino that students are not permitted to ride their bikes to school.

“Unbeknownst to us there is a policy,” she said, “but it wasn’t in any of the brochures given to us.”

School officials took her son’s bike and stored it in the boiler room. They told her she would have to return with a car to retrieve the bike later in the day.

I will ignore the possible legal ramifications of illegal seizure of private property and examine the school environment. Maple Avenue Middle School, like the vast majority of educational facilities in the country, is built on the periphery of Saratoga Springs. While this location presumably made consolidation easier and facilitated a larger athletic complex, it put it out of easy reach for the majority of students.

Maple Avenue Middle School in relation to Saratoga Springs.
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Maple Avenue Middle School aerial.

The school was built in 1992 on busy US Route 9 (Maple Avenue--bucolic in name only) to facilitate bussing students not only from the city, but from the suburban developments ringing the former resort town. Two years after the school was built the school district issued Transportation policy No. 741 forbidding students to ride or walk to the school.

The school was designed to accommodate 1,800 students (in a middle school-- that averages to around six hundred students per grade!) divided into four sub-sections, each named for one of the Saratoga Springs Lakes. The school, from the aerial is all but indistinguishable from a minimum security prison and the urban design reinforces the idea of containment. There is no clear path to the entrance and the school sits nearly a hundred feet back from the road behind parking lots. Route 9 is atypical of high-traffic rural routes, despite being an undivided two way road, it does have ample shoulder room at least a lane wide. This is immaterial however, the route Mrs. Marino and her son took was on a quiet neighboring street that dead-ends into the school property.

The principal, one Stuart Byrne, explained that the prohibition on self-transportation to school is, of course, designed to protect students:
“I would be a nervous wreck every day if kids were riding to school,” he said. “Traffic isn’t bumper to bumper, but it’s non-stop. He said the district’s policy does not allow students to ride or walk to schools outside of the city’s urban core.

While traffic is one concern, Byrne said he also worries about children traveling unsupervised through the community. He noted that students are under school supervision until they are dropped off by the bus or picked up at the end of the day.

“If you look at the North Broadway route that the parent used that day: (Even if) there were going to be some exceptions or monitoring (to allow riding to school), you’re still going into a substantially wooded area,” he said. “I don’t know how you say to the community at large that is a safe area.”

In one statement the principal has raised every parental boogeyman from traffic accidents and abduction to fear of the wild to substantiate the need for continuous monitoring and control.

Of course, the public health implications of policies that prohibit walking and riding are not considered. According to Dr. Richard Jackson, one third of children born in the past year will contract Type II Diabetes if current trends continue. The Centers for Disease Control just reported that the rate of clinical obesity in adults in the United States has hit an all-time high: 26.1 %. Type II Diabetes causes an average of a 15 year reduction in life span and considerable related health problems. Today diabetes costs the US medical system $218 billion dollars annually. If Jackson's prognostication holds true that cost will rise by one hundred and fifty times by 2059 to $32,700,000,000,000. Can our nation afford that cost?

There is a solution. Jackson points out that walking more than 10,000 steps a day (roughly 4 miles) helps diabetics control blood glucose levels and prevents the onset of Type II diabetes.

This brings us back to upstate New York and Maple Avenue Middle School. While nearly 60% of students walked to school in 1973, now only 13% do. Undoubtedly, while many children can no longer walk or bike to school due to ill-conceived sprawling and car-oriented communities and the growing trend of school consolidation, it is also worth asking whether misguided policies shaped by our overly-litigious society and over protective attitudes prevent another segment of the school-age population from living a more healthy way of life.

Mrs. Marino has not given up. She has biked with her son several times and, as of 9 June was petitioning the school district to join the Safe Routes to School Program.

The ironies to this story are many. To begin with, the photograph above shows that, despite Transportation policy No. 741, there is clearly a crosswalk in front of the school that appears to connect to a well used path. Whether a cross-walk on a two lane country road without a traffic light or a stop sign is an invitation to frogger is an open question. Secondly, Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council notes that Saratoga Springs was commended only a week ago by Business Week for being an "anti-suburbia" where "you can walk to work and shopping".

In a greater irony Saratoga Springs is, of course, the chosen home of anti-sprawl post-peak oil zealot James Howard Kunstler. [As a side comment I have always wondered how he rationalizes living in a town of 28,500 with a tourist-based economy that will inevitably be disconnected from all markets and even workshop-based industry if the future is as dire as he predicts.] In any case, Kunstler has yet to acknowledge the story brewing in his own backyard.

2 reactions:

toby said...

And you only touched the surfaces of these ironies.
But sure glad you did!

Guest said...

In reference to your comments about "blight" and "crime," may I recommend an interesting article about a similar subject? It is titled "Political Power, Collective Memory and American Central Cities: The Discourses of the Conservative Elite's Counter-Memory of the City." It basically examines the idea that negative images of cities have been actively cultivated by political conservatives to create suburban areas of homogeneous middle and upper class voters that will support those very conservatives. It goes into several other effects of this, interesting read:
It is in the 2008 volume there

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