Getting behind the wheel is still a big deal for many teens. Image by Mr. Leeds licensed under Creative Commons.

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.

I teach Emerson and Thoreau, who suggest that children, because they still have “the spirit of infancy,” are able to think creatively, free of the “ruts of tradition and conformity.” yet a lot of my students tend to assume that driving is the only and the best way to get around. Maybe it’s because that is the tradition they’ve been taught in their homes, in popular culture, and even in their schools.

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. Three main roads have painted bike lanes, at least in the vicinity of the school. Three county buses, which students can ride for $1, run near the school at least every half hour, one with a stop at the school’s door, the other two dropping students a 12-minute walk away. The furthest that students without nearby frequent public transportation could possibly live from my school and still be in the school zone is 3 miles, a bike ride that Google estimates would take about 21 minutes. While my school doesn’t have covered bike storage, the bike parking is ample and prominent at the front of the school.

Still, this is not enough. A recent APSGo! survey of transportation trends at my school asked parents to pick the three main reasons their child doesn’t walk or bike to school. From the seven possible answers, the three most chosen were “too far/takes too long,” “heavy, bulky items to carry,” and “concerns about traffic safety.” I’ll know we’ve made progress when high schoolers and their parents feel comfortable, and normal, choosing transportation other than cars.

Also, my students still idealize getting their driver’s license. Indeed, the same APS Go! survey reveals that while 23% of juniors and seniors currently drive alone to my school, 55% wish they could. While the 23% who drive alone is slightly under the national percentage of teens who have driver's licenses, which itself is down nearly 50% since the 1980s, there is still something missing from my students’ education when more, not fewer, wish they could drive alone to school.

This year’s senior prank was a teachable moment about the impact that cars have on our communities, especially when it comes to parking. Seniors blocked access to the student parking lot and used the space to have a picnic. For a few hours they had become “tactical urbanists” who created a public square out of a parking lot.

Sadly, they missed the point of their unintentional advocacy. One student explained that the prank “forced the juniors to drive way down the road to park, and a bunch of them were late to class.”

My students’ idea that driving is the only acceptable form of transportation often comes from the adults around them. One morning I approached a colleague without him noticing I was there as he told a student who was waiting for me, “Mr. Bunting might be late. He takes public transportation.”

The implied message was that driving is somehow more reliable than the bus, despite their using the same roadways and the bus having been late only once—and that during a snowstorm—during the year-and-a-half I rode it. I regret that I didn’t take the opportunity to call out the microaggression against our city.

And the negative messaging comes from the very top: At a recent school board meeting the superintendent of my district had to be prompted by a board member to even comment about the safety of the 26% of students in my district who walk to school. What’s more, in making his well-intentioned comments, the superintendent veered towards victim blaming as he told walkers and bikers to watch out for cars.

Things could be different, and it could start in the classroom. The College Board’s AP Human Geography class has a curriculum that specifically requires teaching about “cities and urban land use.” But this class is offered at only a small minority of schools and is only taken by a minority of students at those schools.

However, Virginia requires that all students take a personal finance class, and the Standards of Learning for the course specify that students contrast the costs of leasing a vehicle with the costs of buying one. We could also mandate that students contrast the costs of driving a vehicle with the benefits of walking, biking, or taking transit, to give them a fuller picture.

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.