Over the summer, a family from my church, knowing I was “between spots” and looking for a new apartment, invited me to stay in one of their spare rooms in a big house not far from downtown. I had lived with young families twice before, so I wasn’t fazed at all when two grinning toddlers greeted me on move-in day or when I discovered that I would be sharing a bathroom with them.
The summer was a bustle of working during the day, preparing communal meals, storybook-reading, goofy games with the boys, and me learning a little bit of French (the entire family is fluent). Around all of this flowed an organic conversation between myself and Mary. We’d chat about recipes and meal plans, social updates, funny things her sons did, and our shared love of all things French. While I had visited France twice, Mary had lived there twice and it was from France that she and her family had moved to Waco two years ago for her husband’s work.
Moving to Waco from New York City was hard enough for me; I couldn’t possibly imagine moving here from France. From my own transition, I had plenty of observations about the difference between these two urban landscapes. But hearing about Mary’s journey and seeing the city from the perspective of a young mom gave me something new to think about. Specifically, it’s opened my eyes to the ways car-centric design of our cities complicates the extent to which moms can experience and participate in their cities.
When they emerged more than a century ago, automobiles at first coexisted alongside other modes of transit such as the bicycle, streetcar, and train. But due to a combination of industrial lobbying, public policy, and faulty business policies, cars slowly began to dominate the landscape, shoving out other transit options.
Today, the design of most American cities lack public transit, walkable neighborhoods with a mix of businesses and homes, or a connected bike network. Our cities have become more sprawled out forcing us to rely on a car to get around. According to a 2014 report by the Surface Transportation Policy Project titled, “High Mileage Moms,” by 1995, Americans were driving 88 percent farther than they did in 1969 to conduct errands and 137 percent further for social events and errands.
“Much of this errand running is conducted by women,” the authors write. “And it is taking place in areas where stores are widely scattered and are often far from housing subdivisions or office parks. Because of this, women are making more trips and covering more miles. The way we’ve built our communities is literally giving mothers the run-around.”
Mary reflected on this when I asked about her experience moving to Waco from Europe: “In Europe, I could walk to the bakery, a small grocery store for emergency needs, the library . . . the butcher, the post office, the doctor, and various friends.” But easy access to shops was only part of what made walkability feasible. Also essential was the fact that other people would be walking around her. “On any given day, I saw various people taking walks just for pleasure . . . [it] meant that I didn't feel conspicuous taking my children on pleasure walks or to walking to run an errand . . . I felt safer.”
The lack of walkable design and a walking culture is a direct consequence of American urban design diverging from the principle of proximity that characterized old cities to the principle of dispersal that came to dominate American urban design in the 1950s. Attractive because of its emphasis on individualism, space, and privacy, dispersal has ruled American cities for more than a century, forcing citizens to spend absurd amounts of money on cars and thousands of hours in them.
This makes participation in the city difficult for many population groups, but a significant portion of this forced increase in driving falls upon women, especially the mothers of school-aged children, leaving them with less disposable time, at higher risk of social isolation, and more anxious due to the dangers of driving.
By spreading homes, shops, and jobs farther and farther away from each other and requiring the use of a car, our cities essentially force families to spend much time (their most precious limited resource), in pursuit of a decent life.
For moms, this is costly. According to the High Mileage Moms report, mothers of school-aged children make two-thirds of all trips that involve conducting errands or shuttling family members around town. Altogether, it can easily add up to several hours per day.
It isn’t difficult to think about what moms could be doing with that time if more essential businesses were situated close to home. The saved time from walking could go into running a small business, participating in local civics, reading and exercising, or simply spending more time with their children. But not only does the lost time represent lost opportunities. It also represents a loss of freedom for families to design a life in line with their values.
Choosing to commute further for a school that’s better for your children or a dance studio that has a better program is one thing. Commuting for both activities because you have no choice is another. Many moms value saving time, caring for their environment, and building connections within their neighborhoods, but the design of their neighborhoods and cities makes it very difficult or impossible for them to live out these values.
Car-based design not only steals time and limits the free exercise of choice, but it requires moms to consistently face the high risk embodied in driving; every year, driving claims the lives of about 40,000 Americans. “Going on a car ride is easily the most dangerous thing my kids do,” my friend Carol Anne, a mother to three young children, told me. “And that is a mental hurdle to overcome with driving.”
To write this article, I spent some time browsing forums for stay-at-home moms, curious if there were any posts about driving. I was surprised to find several threads full of moms lamenting their paralyzing driving anxiety in various cities, the lack of alternatives, and their suffocating isolation. Many families cannot afford a second car and in this instance, it’s usually the mom who stays home. For moms in cities ill-designed to serve the walker, biker, or transit-rider, this means moms are essentially on lockdown at home until their husband or other caretaker arrives.
Car-based design puts an undue strain on these women, forcing them to choose between living in anxiety, navigating dangerous streets with children, broaching an uncomfortable conversation about “getting out more” with their husbands, or paying money each week for Lyft rides around town without their kids. One mom recently told me how the disappearing sidewalks in Waco force her to walk in the street with her child in a stroller.
For many of these moms, their lives begin to revolve around managing anxiety, escaping the house, and finding avenues for self-care. Is it really no surprise the prevalence of sweatshirts reading “mama needs some wine” and travel mugs sporting lines like, “you probably think I’m drinking coffee”?
Less social connection
One thing I’ve learned from living with families is that raising children is much easier when there’s constant access to unpaid help, whether that’s from other parents, neighbors or single friends. Access to this kind of help creates a deeply nourishing “village dynamic” for moms, similar to what exists in many indigenous cultures today. But in our average North American context, this dynamic is rare if not impossible to find.
In a survey of 11,000 moms conducted earlier this year, Motherly found that 56 percent of mothers reported not having access to non-family or unpaid help. Mothering, for them, is a highly individual affair that often leads to burnout. Many moms respond to this absence of support by building online support groups, running book clubs, launching podcasts, or hosting events for moms at their churches.
These efforts to make mothering less lonely are doubtless helpful, but my experiences of living with busy families have taught me that few things bring as much relief to moms as simply being surrounded by a social fabric of consistent, reliable, spontaneous help. Yet building and sustaining these kinds of supportive fabrics in cities dominated by sprawl is extremely difficult.
Beyond confinement to home and car
When they entered the American landscape, automobiles were promoted as symbols of freedom, independence, and economic mobility. In the years since, it has become clear that organizing our cities around cars at the expense of other modes of transit has come at great cost to individuals and society as a whole. Not only has it made cities more dangerous and less social, but it has made it harder for countless mothers and children to lead full, relationally connected lives.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to stay this way. There are groups like the non-profit Strong Towns that advocate for safer, more dense, and walkable cities, among other efforts (full disclosure: I serve on the advisory board). One thing I’ve learned from my work is that it is possible to make our cities safer and more inclusive for everyone . . . including moms with their strollers full of sleepy-headed kiddos and go bags.