Every year when I teach environmental science, one of the first topics we cover is called tragedy of the commons. The concept, first written about by William Forster Lloyd in 1833, observed that the British use of a common field for the community to graze their sheep on could result in the destruction of the field if individuals prioritized their own self interest and put out as many sheep as possible. If each person grazed the maximum number of sheep, the "common," as the field was known, would be destroyed by overgrazing.
Now, the tragedy of the commons is used to describe the systems that result in the collapse of fish populations, pollution of air and water, unsustainable farming practices, the increasing size of cars and SUVs for passenger safety, and many other scenarios where shared resources are abused by a few people for their own benefit.
I posit that the safety of our streets, particularly during school dropoff and pickup times, is a tragedy of the commons. People who drive cars into a high density of walking and biking children are degrading the safety of others for the sake of protecting their own children and reducing their commute time.
Funnily enough, it turns out that there aren't any examples of overgrazing tragedies actually happening on British commons. Tight knit communities undermine the expectations of economists that we will all just work in individual self interest. We can choose to enhance our bonds with each other by making sacrifices for the common goal of safety for our children. We can choose to take the time to teach our children to bike and walk to school safely, and by doing so, actually make it safer for all children to walk and bike.
I know that not everyone has the luxury of time in the morning, and different life situations flare up. So here are some ways we can all improve our school communities as we do our best:
• Consider picking one day a week (or more) to walk or bike your young children to school or have your older student walk, bike or bus to school. Pick a day where you are least stressed and can support students as they learn a new routine. If everyone who drove their kids to school took alternative methods of transportation just one day a week, there would be 20% fewer cars around the schools.
• Connect with neighbors. Kids can walk and bike independently to school much younger if there is a group. Parents can trade off walking the group of younger kids so that it doesn't have to be a challenge every morning.
• If you have to drive, park two blocks away to drop off your student or to walk them in. This reduces traffic density at the most critical point where young pedestrians and cyclists are the most dense.
I've heard parents say, "Car drop off saves me so much time!" To which I reply, it only seems that way now. All parents will save so much more time if all students can safely make their way to school on their own, and we get to stay home for that extra cup of tea before heading to work.
Silja Paymer is a teacher and a parent in Mountain View