Jeff Bunting is an educator in Arlington, Va., with an interest in transportation and urban planning. He writes:
With the new school year soon to start, it’s a good time to consider how we are, or aren’t, teaching our students to think critically about their city. I teach high schoolers in Northern Virginia, and listening to them, I see how they’re primed to think about driving as “normal” and all other transportation choices as undesirable.
Many people don’t start to reflect on the choices that shape their environment until they begin to have options about where to live and work. I for my part didn’t become aware of urbanism until a few years after college. While many begin to think critically about their urban environments much sooner, a quarter century into life is far too late to begin the advocacy our city needs. In observing my high school students, I see that we need to do more to teach young people from the start about the forces that shape the communities they live in and to think critically about those forces.
My students’ unhealthy thinking is not their fault; they are, after all, kids. Instead, it is the direct result of what they learn from us adults. Namely, the way we adults talk about transportation has a huge influence on how our children think about transportation.
When they learn that I bike to work everyday their first reaction is disbelief followed soon by praise, despite my school being in a neighborhood where biking is a reasonable transportation option.
Also, my students still idealize getting their driver’s license. Indeed, the APS Go! survey reveals that while 23 percent of juniors and seniors currently drive alone to my school, 55 percent wish they could.
When I listen to how my students think about transportation and their city, I am reminded that the healthy future we all want for our city must be constantly retaught. We adults have ourselves to blame if we find our students parroting the ideas of thoughtless urban “design.” As with so many of our hopes, our best bet for a greater city is on our kids to get right what we’ve so often gotten wrong.