The growing popularity of cars in North America over the past 50 years has created suburbs and towns that require many people to drive every day. As a result, children are often travelling by car instead of walking, bicycling or using another form of transportation. This reliance on cars can have a major impact on children’s health and development and on the types of neighbourhoods in which they live.
How car use affects children
Car use affects children's health, development and safety in a number of ways.
- Children who are less physically active have an increased risk of health problems, including being overweight.
- Children who see life mainly “through the car windshield” are less connected with the environment around them.
- Heavy traffic reduces children's ability to travel independently. Safety concerns may mean that they cannot walk or bicycle around their neighbourhood or go to nearby parks, schools and stores.
- Traffic limits children's ability to play in the front yard or the street, which in turn limits how long they play and the richness of that play.
Urban planners, local government, real estate developers and public transit authorities, among others, all influence how neighbourhoods develop and what type of transport is available. But despite the involvement of many groups in creating communities, there are still ways for parents to get children moving differently to and from school and make communities safer.
How parents can create child-friendly journeys
Encourage active transportation
- Active transportation means making a journey on foot or by bicycle instead of by car or bus. Next time you make a trip, consider if walking or bicycling could get you and your child to your destination instead.
- Involve your child in decisions about how to get around. Given the choice, many children would prefer walking, bicycling or in-line skating to taking the car to get where they want to go.
- Be a role model. Use active transportation for your own journeys whenever you can.
- Walk and bicycle with your child. Help them find the best routes to where they want to go and teach them how to get around safely.
- If your child must use public transit, start teaching them how to use it at a young age.
- Take part in car-free days. Encourage your neighbours and co-workers to take part as well.
- Start a “walking school bus” to get your child and your neighbours' children to school. A physically active school commute can be a fun social time for kids.
- Get involved in making your child's school safer for children who walk there. Try to get the school to give priority to pedestrians instead of cars and reduce engine idling and traffic congestion at drop-off points.
- Find out if your child's school has safe and secure storage for bicycles. If not, encourage the school to provide it.
Advocate for a “child-friendly community”
Sometimes, certain conditions need to be in place for active transportation to be a realistic option. This is where the concept of a “child-friendly community” arises.
In his Bill of Rights for Kids, Colorado architect Harry Teague advocates for child-friendly communities that:
- are safe and accessible
- are built to an appropriate scale
- integrate nature, work and the needs of different ages and sexes into the surroundings
- show elements of tradition.
The following sample questions can help you decide if your own neighbourhood is a healthy, friendly place for your family.
- Is there a lot of traffic? What is the speed limit?
- Are there sidewalks on at least one side of every street?
- Are there bike paths or bike lanes?
- Are there narrow streets to slow down drivers and help pedestrians and cyclists cross?
- On busier streets, are there many crosswalks and traffic lights?
- Are there "eyes on the street" - neighbours and workers who will keep an eye out for trouble and be able to give help if needed? Do homes have front porches and windows facing the street?
- Is there enough street lighting?
- Is the neighbourhood close enough to where children need and want to go - schools, parks, playgrounds, recreational facilities, stores, libraries, friends and family - for them to walk or bicycle there?
- Is it cut off by a major road or highway?
- Is it near public transit that goes somewhere useful or will kids have to take a number of buses?
- Are there places to park a bicycle when shopping or going to the library?
- Do other people walk or bicycle?
- Do other kids live nearby?
- How easy is it for kids in the neighbourhood to play together in a casual, unstructured way?
- Can you and your family get to know neighbours and local shopkeepers?
- Does the community have a mix of features such as schools, parks, recreational facilities, places of worship, stores, a library, doctor, dentist or opportunities for after-school or summer jobs?
- Do people of different ages and backgrounds live in the area?
- Have natural areas in the neighbourhood been preserved?
- If your housing needs change, are different types of housing – large and small houses or apartments – available in the neighbourhood?
- Are there monuments, landmarks or natural areas that can anchor kids to their community?
- What are the plans to develop the area in the future?
If your neighbourhood falls short in some areas, you might decide to share your findings with neighbours and bring your requests as a group to your local government representative.
Why child-friendly communities matter
A neighbourhood that is good for kids is good for the whole family and the whole community. Specifically, child-friendly communities give children the best opportunity to make active transportation a reality for their regular journeys.
- Heavy car use can make children less active, less connected from the environment and less independent.
- Active transportation reduces reliance on cars by travelling on foot or by bike for some journeys instead.
- Parents can encourage active transportation by taking part in car-free days, helping a child find the best walking and cycling routes nearby and getting involved in making a child’s school safer for those who walk or cycle there.
- Child-friendly communities can make active transportation more realistic because they are safe and accessible and integrate nature, local amenities and the needs of different age groups.