Why I’m trying to raise my daughter car-free in LA

The best way to make streets safer for kids—and everyone—is to get out of the car

When I was pregnant, I was so sick of people telling me this—even people I barely knew, who offered the information due to my Twitter handle, @awalkerinLA—that I wrote an essay outlining all the ways that I planned to raise my child without the help of a car, and promising to share my stories about car-free parenthood after the baby arrived.

Now my daughter is almost two. Her favorite way to describe things that she likes is “cool and different.” And I’m here to report back that trying to raise a toddler without a car in LA is cool … and different.

In some LA neighborhoods like Chinatown, up to a third of families don’t own a car.
Courtesy of Investing in Place

Maybe children are simply preconditioned to love mass transit, maybe she became attuned to the rhythms of the 704 while in the womb, or maybe my husband and I read her just the right amount of Richard Scarry—but whatever it was, my daughter prefers buses to every other way of getting around. (Trains are a close second.)

She took her first ride on the 2 bus down Sunset at eight weeks old. Her favorite toy is a miniature version of that bus. She actually sings “Wheels on the Bus” on the bus. When not riding buses, she draws buses with crayons or builds buses out of Legos.

When she was a year and a half I installed a seat on the back of my step-through bike, and now we ride the mile or so each way to her school every day. She likes it almost as much as the bus, except when I stop and she tells me to hurry up—it’s basically like having a tiny SoulCycle instructor behind me at all times.

We do have a car in our driveway, but most of the time, it stays right there. My daughter doesn’t assume the car is the default.

We do have a car in our driveway now, but most of the time, it stays right there. My daughter doesn’t assume the car is the default mode of transportation. Dad rides the train to work. Mom walks to her friend’s house. Every single day, starting on her third day of life, we have walked somewhere we need to go as part of our daily activities. She knows that if we are going to the playground, the farmers’ market, the library, the doctor, we’re walking. In our house, the car is the exception.

This isn’t possible everywhere in LA. My husband and I made a point of finding a home in a walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible community. Thanks to our location, there have been entire weeks when my daughter hasn’t been in any cars at all. That certainly wouldn’t be as easy if we lived at the end of a long canyon or in an exurban neighborhood.

But about half of all urban trips are six miles or less, and much of the city is theoretically accessible for walking, biking, and taking transit. Plus everyone in LA ends up walking somewhere at some point—the key is making the experience feel pleasant and safe.

Other parents tell me that they wish they could walk or ride the bus, but they don’t have time. I certainly get that. If anything, having a kid has most dramatically changed my car-free commuting habits when I’m by myself. Sometimes I don’t have time for a leisurely bus ride or a long train connection—sometimes I jump in a Lyft so I can get home fast.

34 percent of Los Angeles K-12 students walk to school, higher than the national average.
Photo by Medgar Parrish for LADOT

On the other hand, the time I spend with my daughter getting around LA without a car is a different kind of quality time—it’s specifically reserved for me to experience the city with her. A few extra minutes waiting for a bus isn’t an inconvenience, it’s a time to slow down, admire murals, and count pigeons. (Besides, she’ll let me know when I’ve walked too fast past something she wanted to see.)

In a car, no matter where we go, the experience never changes: I’m sitting in traffic, staring out one window, while she stares out another window in the backseat. It’s worth planning ahead and leaving a little early for those car-free moments.

But something else has happened as my daughter and I have traveled around the city together. I’ve started to see that simply getting out of the car with my kid cannot solve LA’s problems. We need to fix our car-centric way of life.

When you’re traveling with a tiny human, you begin to understand that LA is designed around two goals: 1) move cars fast and 2) help cars park. You begin to understand that you, a person with another miniature person, neither of whom is a car, are really not what the city had in mind. At all.

The time I spend with my daughter getting around LA without a car is a different kind of quality time—it’s specifically reserved for me to experience the city with her.

We almost always talk to other families when my daughter and I ride the bus, and I have learned firsthand how many people in this city are raising their kids car-free. But not by choice. It’s because these families spend so much on their rent that they can’t afford a car, and now must spend hours on the bus or train or sidewalks each day getting across the city to work and school and affordable child care.

Those connections are a problem. I can’t ride the shortest or easiest way to my daughter’s school, which is supposed to be a bike route, because no one treats it that way—the drivers coming off the 101 Freeway still drive like they’re on the 101. Instead, I wiggle along on side streets and take an extra hill. A few times, I’ve had to swerve onto the sidewalk to avoid giant tire-swallowing cracks in the street.

A mother stands by a bike with her daughter strapped into a seat on the back.A mother stands by a bike with her daughter strapped into a seat on the back.
Streetsblog LA’s Joe Linton writes about living car-free in LA with his wife Carrie Lincourt and daughter Maeve.
Photo by Joe Linton

Then there are the sidewalks, which make me want to attach a GPS-equipped camera to my stroller that can livestream how poorly maintained the pedestrian infrastructure is in my neighborhood. There are poles in the middle of sidewalks that force me to walk into busy streets. There are blocks and blocks without a single tree. There is so much trash that sometimes I have to stop and move the splintered pieces of a mauve 1980s bedroom set to get by.

The crosswalks—where they actually exist—are so long, and the crossing countdowns are so short, and the curbs are so high, I can barely make it across before the light changes. That’s just me, a somewhat able-bodied person pushing a stroller. For people using wheelchairs or walkers, the city is unnavigable.

But the most awful thing I’ve learned is that our dangerous streets are the number one cause of death for kids aged two to 14. This statistic haunts me every time I step off a curb.

If the people who planned and built our city were required to take their own babies around LA without the help of a car, we’d live in a very different place. The sidewalks and bike lanes and bus shelters might be designed so everyone would feel safe using them with a two-year-old. That is the kind of Los Angeles I want to live in—one that prioritizes the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Kids walk, bike, and scooter in LA.Kids walk, bike, and scooter in LA.
Better connections to parks and playgrounds are the key to keeping kids safe.
Courtesy of Joe Bray-Ali

It’s not just about kids, though. Making streets safer for children means making them safer for everyone. It means reducing the speed limit to 20 mph in busy areas, a rate of speed at which the chance of surviving a collision is 95 percent.

It means encouraging more healthy, active commutes that can save lives in a different way, and help the city save healthcare costs. It means more road diets, which have been scientifically proven to decrease fatalities without increasing vehicular congestion.

It means equipping each vehicle with every technological solution possible to prevent crashes. And it means making streets and sidewalks shady, smooth, and accessible to all.

Imagine a city where young kids can walk to school alone. There are no bike lanes because the street is now a bike freeway where cars aren’t allowed. The bus is so smart, clean, and safe, that there’s really no reason to own a car. Pollution is dramatically reduced because we’ve eliminated the deadly emissions seeping from our vehicles (which are the leading cause of climate change).

Our dangerous streets are the number one cause of death for kids aged two to 14. This statistic haunts me every time I step off a curb.

These aren’t my crazy urbanist fantasies, these are already real things that are happening in real cities all over the world that have decided that a 25-pound human is more important than a two-ton hunk of steel.

One way to start making all of this happen for LA is by voting for Measure M, the half-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot. Measure M is best known for the funding it would provide for more robust rail and bus systems, but it also includes money and plans for upgrades to bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

If it passes, $4 billion will go directly to walking and biking improvements over the next 50 years. And 17 percent of Measure M’s revenue is specifically dedicated to repairing local streets, like fixing potholes and painting crosswalks.

To see the exponential impact that Measure M could have on safe streets, consider that 2008’s similar Measure R generated funds for the city to hire two pedestrian coordinators, who wrote strategy documents that brought in an additional $22 million from state and federal funds.

This includes the Vision Zero initiative to eliminate traffic deaths, and the city’s Safe Routes to School plan, which prioritizes walking and biking projects around schools.

There’s a way to get even more money for safer streets. LA’s Mobility Plan 2035 recommends funneling up to 20 percent of Measure M’s local return funds—essentially the funds earmarked to go back to the City of LA—specifically to walking and biking. This still needs to be approved by the city council after Measure M is passed, so tell your councilmember that’s what you and your kids want.

Open streets festivals like CicLAvia help families feel comfortable on LA streets.
Photo by Elizabeth Daniels

In the meantime, the best way we can all make streets safer is to use them without a car. Parents driving their kids to school create up to a quarter of morning commute traffic in some parts of the city. This Wednesday, October 5, is Walk to School Day, a chance for all LA parents to spend a car-free morning with their kids.

CicLAvia is also a great time for a car-free outing, and the next one is Sunday, October 16, in Downtown. Maybe you’ll like it so much that you can make it a regular thing.

Here in LA, we have a remarkable opportunity to show our children what the future could be like every time we leave the house. But maybe they’re already smarter than we are when it comes to envisioning what our cities should be. Fewer millennials are getting their driver’s licenses than the generations before them. Maybe my daughter won’t ever want to learn how to drive.

A few evenings ago I walked with my daughter to the top of a hill in our neighborhood with sweeping views of LA. Since the last time we’d been there she had learned new words like “mountain” and “sunset,” so I was curious to hear her thoughts about what she saw. And here’s the first thing she said: “So many cars.”

My dream is that by the time she shows her daughter that same view, they won’t see any cars at all.

A toddler watches a bus in a sea of buildings in Koreatown, LA.A toddler watches a bus in a sea of buildings in Koreatown, LA.
A car-free future is the best legacy we can leave our children.
Photo by Alissa Walker

A version of this story was told at the storytelling event BUSted: True stories about getting around LA, told by folks who don’t drive.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler