21 Feb 2014
Your ‘Step Up’ moments: No.9: Joyce Almaguer-Reisdorf
While getting my Master’s degree I studied our planet’s rising greenhouse gas levels, including their implications to the health of our natural resources and climate. After graduating I worked for a nonprofit for a while, gave birth to twins, and then suffered a major health setback. For years I was up to my eyes in diapers, wooden blocks, and restaurant take-away boxes. After a while I began to feel better. I began to do some of the things I used to do, like ride my bike and walk. I read books and journal articles. And then I pretty much freaked out.
It was now several years after getting my Master’s, and I realized that with respect to our greenhouse gas levels, AGW, and everything those problems entailed, we – my city, my country, my planet – weren’t much better off than we had been at the turn of the century. In many ways, in fact, we were much worse off. And as much as we tried to find an equivalent substitute, nothing we had yet found was as energy dense and easily portable as oil.
We needed to prepare for upcoming changes to our natural resources and agricultural systems. We needed resilient built environments and smart transportation infrastructure. For the sake of the health of our bodies, communities, and economies, we needed to make changes at every level. But what was taking so long?
Smart People (whoever and wherever they are) were working on our problems but there just was so much to do. I wondered what kind of future my children would inherit. Whatever it was going to be, I wanted to work to make it better. But what would I – a homeschooling parent of twins, with a wonky brain, who regularly burns dinner – realistically be able to do?
I consulted our modern-day Oracle: Google.
Google pointed me toward the Transition Network. From there, I found something called Transition US. And from there, I found something called Transition Houston. Houston? That’s where I live! I checked out the group’s web page. Local food? Reskilling? Alternative energy? I’d found my people!
I began going to meetings and with the core team’s encouragement helped launch the Transportation Action Group (TAG). Our local transportation infrastructure was a major interest for my family and I. In our neighborhood we could observe first hand the advantages of denser neighborhoods and all the disadvantages of heavy auto traffic through those same spaces. We could experience the pleasures of walking and cycling to errands, and the difficulties of doing so in a city designed primarily for the automobile.
We decided to start the TAG off with a series of activities focused on the bicycle. Bikes are an appropriate technology for transportation here. Much of Houston is too spread out for walking, and public transportation doesn’t reach everywhere we need to go. A lot of people here own bicycles (even if they never really use them), so the TAG held events so we learned how to fix our bikes up, and how to ride them safely. Two representatives from the bus system came and showed us how to use the on-bus bike carriers so we could use buses with our bikes for long journeys. We learned a lot, and had a good time.
But we needed to do more. Children, like my twins, remind us to live in the present moment. But they also remind us to heed the future. What do they need to thrive in the world they’re going to inherit? We want them to feel the embrace of community and friends. And we want them to feel capable and flexible and unafraid of change – even when it comes to transportation. We decided that Houston’s children needed to learn how to ride bikes, too, and see them as normative.
Unfortunately few adults cycle in this city, though many have bikes hanging in their garages. Our marshy soil and rainy climate ensure that streets and sidewalks often buckle, crack, and pit, making them difficult to travel upon. Traffic can be intimidating, especially for those who haven’t learned how to navigate their bikes from within the traffic lanes. Cars whiz by – residential neighborhood speeds default at 30mph (48 km/h) and on many residential streets, like mine, cars travel even faster.
It’s no wonder that many families are afraid to go out on bikes – or even on foot – with their children. But the problem is this: If families don’t feel safe going out on foot or by bike, then how would the children learn to confidently travel to school, the grocery, or the post office in anything other than a car? If families don’t go out, would they ever demand safe cycling facilities? And if they didn’t demand those facilities, would the city and state ever build them? We as a city cannot learn to be resilient with our transportation options if we can’t even fathom the possibilities.
So we decided to step up with two citywide bike events for families in two years. The events included dozens of volunteers, with dozens more participants from across the city. The second event was much larger than the first – we noted the enthusiasm of entire families at the first event, and wanted to offer further support and opportunities to learn. “Let her do it!” my daughter, then eight years old, wrote to my husband on a chalkboard after he doubted the wisdom of the second event. “IT IS GOOD.”
The second event was September 2013, a year after the first. Now, in February 2014, Houston hasn’t magically grown a network of greenways, bike boulevards, and protected bike lanes. Its streets and sidewalks are still often broken and difficult to use. Cars still go too fast. Sometimes they pass too close. Cyclists are injured too frequently, often with little punishment to the driver. Sometimes the cyclist dies.
But we remember the smiles at those bike events. We remember the families and volunteers eager to try something new, because they knew it was good. We remember the support, and the collective vision of a safer, healthier, more resilient way. We remember showing our city that Transition Houston was about positive change, and joy. “We’re doing this next year, right?” participants asked as we packed up to go home.
We were happy. And hopeful.