If the complainers of the world are to be believed, strollers taking up precious space on urban sidewalks are a recent phenomenon, which only appeared in the last decade or so. In 2005, the New York Times conflated a rise in stroller prices with a rise in stroller sizes*, and along with that, failures of parent etiquette:
“Pricey, supersize baby strollers like the Bugaboo and the Silver Cross — nicknamed Hummers — have been derided as symbols of yuppie extravagance. (They cost upward of about $700.) But some critics now say that size is not the only problem. What’s worse, they say, is the way some parents use them to bulldoze their way through public places.”
Let’s set aside the claims of rudeness and extravagance, since we assume that your average parent is a kind and considerate person, and as we’ve said many times before, a Bugaboo stroller is a terrific investment (and even more so if you consider resale value). Instead, let’s cut to the center of the argument: are parents taking up too much space in the city, and is this a strictly modern thing?
The NYT article is correct in noting that from the late 1960s up to the rise of the luxury stroller, you would have seen quite a few more umbrella strollers: after Owen Finlay Maclaren designed the first collapsible buggy in 1965, lightweight strollers became extremely common. However, umbrella strollers have never been a solution for all parents and all kids: since few have seats that recline fully, most are ill-suited for infants. The modern Maclaren stroller and other umbrella strollers are about grab-and-go convenience for mass transit, grocery stores, travel, and malls, not all-day walking.
Furthermore, the Maclaren buggy wasn’t the first mass-produced stroller: before the Maclaren came the perambulator, or “pram.” You don’t see these elegant one-piece rolling bassinets very often, so The Guardian was rather rude when the British royals brought out an heirloom pram for the christening of Princess Charlotte, describing it as a “thunderous warship on wheels.”
Compare the antique pram with a modern stroller, though, and you can easily see why they went out of style: they take up a huge amount of real estate, they don’t fold, and they’re not really best for use after a child can sit up. A modern luxury stroller with a bassinet will give you the same lie-flat functionality for your newborn and a similar look, and it’s smaller, lighter, and can fold (usually in two pieces, sometimes in one); plus, when your child can sit up, you can just pop a toddler seat on the frame, and get a few more years of use out of your stroller. Prams were the true equivalent of the stroller SUV.
And the bellyachers of their era treated prams accordingly. I was very amused by this vintage newspaper report, circa 1940, dug up by Lucy Grace, a collector of antique prams (and not just because of the cute limerick):
“The problem of perambulators in congested streets has occupied the attention of the authorities in York for some time.
In York which is famous for hams
They are troubled with tight traffic jams
And the cause of the fuss is
Not cycles, not buses,
Not yet even trams – but prams.
I must say that I feel the York authorities are a little hard on the mothers. Most mothers must go shopping, even in wartime, and quite a number must take the baby – especially in days when that useful nursemaid, Daddy, is probably serving his country… Cannot York provide something similar within reach of the shops instead of hauling mothers before the magistrates and fining them for obstruction?”
It seems that even back in England during World War II, there were gigantic strollers getting in the way in city streets. Who knew?
Long story short: I’m inclined to agree with Rebecca Odes from Babble that those who complain about the size of strollers are simply unwilling to regard the differing needs of babies and kids as being important. As Odes writes,
“…hating on strollers is, in my eyes, not all that different than hating on wheelchairs. Strollers are assistive technology for people who can’t move at the pace of adult life. Kids can’t get around as fast as you. But they still have to get around. Deal with it.”
More on strollers and sidewalks:
*They’re wrong: Silver Cross prams, which have always been both massive and expensive, date back to 1877, and the Bugaboo Frog, the Bugaboo model cited in this article, weighed a very reasonable 19 pounds.