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Bicycle Infrastructure

Voice of Gen Z: We Need to Get Real About the Damage from Driving

Gen Z, at least in my part of Menlo Park, is obsessed with climate change.

We reduce our consumption by thrift shopping, buying Hydroflasks, and using Stasher bags. We combat greenhouse gases by going vegan and shopping at the local farmers market. We are devoted liberals who won’t settle for anything less than AOC’s Green New Deal. But for some reason, when it comes to transportation, caring for the environment goes out the window. We choose to ignore that driving a car contributes 1.7 billion tons of greenhouse gas every year just so we can drive to WholeFoods instead of bike. Gen Z is willing to wear someone’s used clothing and eat fake meat, but over our dead bodies would we be caught using public transit or riding our bikes. What makes biking and walking so abhorrent that we can ignore climate change to avoid it?

Above all else, biking and walking is avoided simply because it’s seen as “lame.” It’s not cool to roll up to your friend's house on your 2010 Trek, but it is acceptable to drive up in your 2010 Honda Accord or even have your parents drop you in the Honda Odyssey. It’s not normal to actively choose to bike or walk, and people pity you when you do. The language around it is, “Oh, you had to bike here? Did you not have the car? I’m sorry, that sucks.” We never wanted to do anything but drive, even before we got our licenses. We would just ask our parents to drive us. What’s most concerning is that a car is the norm, and other modes of transport are always looked down upon, even when they are just as accessible. Why?

Maybe it's because from a very young age we’ve been taught that riding your bike is “too dangerous.” I remember my friends parents’ preferred to load my heavy Electra Cruiser into their minivans and drive me home instead of letting me go alone.

Statistically, driving causes much more death than biking (40,000 car related deaths in 2018 compared to 871 bicycle ones), but in reality most parents would much prefer to chauffeur us around so they can avoid sending us out on the roads alone. Or if you do bike, parents insist that they bike with you. However, it’s not particularly great for your social status to be “dropped off” at school by your dad in his helmet and neon safety vest. Since just 2007, youth ridership has dropped a whopping 20 percent and I predict it will continue to do so until kids simply forget there’s any other way to get around besides driving. How can we feel encouraged to seek more sustainable transportation modes if we either associate it with danger or with embarrassment?

And it doesn’t seem that this trend will reverse itself anytime soon because we’ve latched on to a new way of getting around the environmental harms due to driving. In our minds, the solution to climate change in regards to transportation is electric vehicles. Driving a Prius or a Tesla feels like a more effective, tangible solution. Worse, some of us think that Ubering is another better solution, as if since we’re not the ones driving it’s not our problem. Biking and walking never cross our minds as alternatives, because it’s abhorrence overrides any benefits it has. We like electric vehicles because it preserves the convenience of driving while removing any guilty conscience about the pollution created.

So, the generation handed the responsibility of solving climate change won’t regard multimodal transportation as an answer. And it definitely doesn’t help that our parents, the generation that shoved this responsibility into our hands, won’t bike anywhere themselves. They don’t trust our streets, so my generation doesn't care about our streets.

But, for the sake of our planet and our future, we must.

Emily Olson is a senior at Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park. She's part of the Menlo Park Youth Advisory Council and an intern at the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.

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