Your great grandfather likely had much more freedom growing up than you did. I’m not referring to democracy — I’m referring to what his parents allowed him to do on his own.
If you go back about 100 years, people owned the streets, not cars. There was a kind of elegant chaos in the way people shared streets. There was no such thing as “jaywalking” (a term invented by motordom to shame pedestrians into not interfering with free flowing vehicle traffic), and the street was evenly shared by horses, cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit. Your great grandfather was likely allowed to walk to his friend’s house, to school, to a shop, to a park, and anywhere else he needed to go on his own, as the risk to him was substantially less compared to the 6,000 pound speeding metal boxes we have today.
If you go back to your parents generation, they probably were still allowed to get around on their own, but probably more limited. By the time they came around, cars already dominated our streets, and everything else was pushed aside. They likely still were allowed to go to and from school and friends houses in their neighborhood, but probably didn’t have as much freedom of movement as their parents.
When I was a kid, I was allowed to go two places on my own until age ~15: the public library and the mall. My parents didn’t like me crossing major streets on my own, and unfortunately the library was across Overland Ave, a 78' wide major artery in West LA. The Westside Pavilion (local mall) was a little better, but I still had to cross 4 streets, which was worrying with cars.
My kids are still little. But given my personal experience with traffic violence and what I spend most of my day doing — fighting to make the streets safer via Streets For All — and witnessing how unsafe our city is for people outside of cars, it’s hard to imagine them being allowed to walk or bike around our area safely by themselves.
Is road design and car centric planning the sole reason why our freedom is more limited than our ancestors? No. The world is a little different; crime and culture have changed. But if our streets were as safe as they are in Japan — where a recent TV show had 3 year olds run errands on their own — many more parents would let their kids run free(er).
Why does this matter?
Because having freedom and independence helps child development. When traveling in an ensconced vehicle, our kids don’t feel hotter if it’s hot outside, colder if it’s cold, they don’t feel the wind or the sun, and they don’t feel connected to their community. They are numbed by the car. By contrast, when walking or traveling on a bicycle, a child is taught early how to problem solve. They feel the elements and notice and feel more connected to their community. In the Netherlands, they call this raising “free range children” and it leads to Dutch kids being some of the happiest in the world.
My vision for Los Angeles is to give kids the same freedom to roam that their great great grandparents had. Not only is it best for them physically and mentally, but it also frees parents up from being a shuttle service. All we have to do is have the courage to change our streets.