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Home > Health > Article

Children and Cars

Parents' worst fears are often misplaced. The automobile remains the leading hazard to children.
by J.H. Crawford

In Venice, small children wander safely in the street
In Venice, small children wander safely in the street


"If you design an environment for children, it will work for everyone."

Larry Beasley
Director of central-area planning
Vancouver, B.C.

I call Mr. Beasley's pronouncement the "good for kids yardstick." If we had measured cars against this yardstick before adopting them as the default method of transportation in our urban areas, we would have decided that it was a bad idea. In rural areas, there are no real alternatives (although most of the problems with cars are also problems in rural areas).

In cities, however, cars are an unnecessary evil. Let us first look at the problems, and then consider a cure. We'll begin by looking first at some appalling numbers:

  • The automobile is the leading cause of death among US children: a suburban child is more likely to be killed by a car than an inner city child is to be killed by a firearm.
  • In a recent year, some 5,157 pedestrians were killed on America's streets, including 837 children.
  • In a recent year, car crashes were the ninth most common cause of death among all Americans. How many in your circle of acquaintance have died in a car wreck? How many children have lost a parent to a crash?
  • Traffic claims appalling numbers of children: some 300,000 die every year in road crashes around the world.

    Relative US spending on highway safety per fatality.
    This graph is as accurate as the limited precision allows -
    it is not distorted for effect.

  • The recent media feeding frenzy over the danger posed by airbags to children is typical of misplaced emphasis on safety: during a recent four-year period in the USA, 37 children were killed by airbags, but 4525 were killed as pedestrians. Such is also the case with the perceived danger of abduction (one of the reasons many parents give for driving their kids to school). According to the FBI, "at most" 200 children are abducted by strangers each year, so this danger less than one-fifth that posed by cars to child pedestrians; the greater danger is receiving much less media attention.
  • Intensive car use has made the streets dangerous for children walking or biking:

    Transportation ModeFatality Rate per billion miles traveled
    Transit Bus0.1
    Air Carrier0.2
    Walking (high estimate miles)147.0
    Walking (low estimate miles)316.2

    No wonder so many parents drive their kids to school (thereby aggravating the problem). And notice how much safer public transport is than driving.

  • Cars cause heavy-metal pollution. Lead is released in huge quantities because it is added to gasoline as an octane booster; leaded fuels are still used in many areas of the world. Even tiny amounts of lead inhibit the mental development of children. While the use of lead in motor fuels has ended in the USA, the compounds that replaced it (such as MTBE) may be just as harmful.
  • Research by the World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that emissions from car exhausts are responsible for more deaths than road accidents themselves. The WHO study reviewed data from Austria, France, and Switzerland and found that exposure to pollution caused an estimated 21,000 deaths a year in these three countries alone. Car emissions cause 300,000 extra cases of bronchitis in children.
  • Millions of the worlds' children are exposed to air pollution levels that are two to eight times higher than allowed by World Health Organization standards. In developing nations, more than 80% of deaths related to respiratory diseases occur among children under the age of five; air pollution contributes to many of these deaths.
  • While newer cars are cleaner per vehicle-mile traveled, total US highway emissions during the period 1960-1995 have increased 73% for NOx and 1% for CO. Volatile organic compounds (VOC) did actually fall, by 41%. The increase in vehicle miles traveled is negating improvements in emissions control.
  • Every parents nightmare: a child stricken by cancer. It now appears that growing up near a transportation corridor with more than 20,000 daily vehicles causes a six-fold increase in the cancer risk for children. It may be this, and not power lines at all, that is causing "cancer clusters."
  • Kids think the streets are dangerous. It's not kidnappers they're afraid of. It's cars. Two out of every five children between 7 and 9 years old think the street where they live is dangerous to play in. Almost one third say they have trouble with cars that drive too fast.
That's the statistical picture. What about the social aspects of urban car usage? The automobile has isolated the young, the elderly, and anyone who does not drive. Most suburban children grow up with a very narrow experience of the world and remain dependent on their parents for mobility until they reach driving age. This delays the development of their independence and self-reliance. It also delays their entrance into their community:
A healthy community is one where children can play outdoors on their own, and where they have the freedom to move around their neighbourhoods without fear. Children learn right from wrong by interacting with others: friends and neighbours as well as family and teachers. Keeping children off the streets can only hinder their moral and social development. It stops them mixing socially with their neighbours and learning the importance of respect for others, and leads to them having less sense of responsibility for their actions. As for abductions by strangers, while they are tragic events, it is important to remember that they are very rare (which is why they get so much media attention). Home zones will reduce the risk of abduction, because there will be more people out and about in the street and more contact between residents. Family, friends and neighbours will all be keeping a watchful eye out.

(Quote courtesy the Children's Play Council)

As the awareness of the dangers posed to children by cars has increased, parents have limited their children's freedom to move around on their own. The following table shows the dramatic decline in independent mobility of British children in recent years (the picture in the USA is probably similar, although the decline may have occurred longer ago):

Loss of Childhood Mobility in Britain19711990
Children allowed to cross the road on their own75%50%
Children allowed to take public transportation on their own50%14%
Children allowed to bicycle without adult supervision67%25%
7-8 year olds traveling to school on their own80%9%

Parents have thus been saddled with the chore of chauffeuring their kids almost everywhere they go. This is probably the most common shared time that American kids have with their parents, and because driving a car is usually distracting and often irritating, it doesn't count as quality time.

As parents are spending more and more time stuck in traffic on the way to and from work, they have less and less time to spend with their children, and when the do finally stagger through the door after a grueling commute, they've given the best of their energies simply to getting home; the kids only get what's left over, so there's less quality time spent with kids.

Before leaving this subject, let's briefly summarize the other disadvantages (most of which directly or indirectly harm kids):

  • Blighted areas made for cars (less beauty in our kids' lives)
  • Fewer people on the street (damage to the social fabric)
  • Public subsidy of drivers (less money for schools)
  • Energy subsidies (again, less money for schools, healthcare, etc.)
  • Wars to protect oil supplies (sending our boys to die in the desert)
  • Air, water & land pollution (what kind of world are we leaving our kids?)
  • Global warming (ditto)

A Solution

Many of you will be saying to yourselves at this point, "Yes, we know about these problems, but there's really no serious alternative to the car, is there? I don't want to spend my life waiting for the bus."

It's true that if you live in an American city designed mainly for cars, public transportation is inconvenient, slow, and often uncomfortable. It's a lousy substitute for a car. And everybody knows that. I won't pretend that fixing the mess will be quick, cheap, or easy. But it's a task worth undertaking, because the solution would improve our lives in many respects and promote a way of life that is much more sustainable than our auto-dependency.

I believe that the solution lies in completely carfree cities. The New Urbanists have proposed moderating the impacts of cars on our lives, and most of their suggestions are certainly improvements on the status quo. I believe, however, that the greatest gains in quality of life would come from designing our cities entirely around public transit, bicycling, and walking, with all cars parking in large garages at the edge of the city.

Fortunately, we don't have to depend entirely on our imagination to know what life in carfree cities would be like. We have some existing examples, the best of which is Venice. I have developed a so-called "reference design" for a carfree city of a million. The design is somewhat abstract, but it is based to a great extent on the model of Venice. Let's take a walking tour through existing carfree cities that look much like what I have in mind.

Venice during rush hour
Venice during rush hour

Venice is known by Italians as "Il Serenissima," the serene one. Venice is tranquil and yet vibrant and exciting. There is little noise, and the sounds often melodious - the chiming of church bells, the cooing of pigeons. People don't have to yell over the roar of passing cars, so sidewalk cafes are a delightful place to pass some time and watch the people go by. Most transport is on foot, with ferryboats providing for the longer distances.

Venice is the least stressful urban environment I have ever seen. You never have to look over your shoulder - nothing is bearing down on you. There aren't even any bicycles (and couldn't really be - the bridges all have steps, which pretty well precludes any wheeled traffic. Heavy transport all moves by water, so it never conflicts with people on the street. This idea of "grade separation" is adopted in the proposed design for a carfree city, because it is the only way to provide really safe, pleasant streets.

A main street in Siena, Italy
A main street in Siena, Italy

Siena, like Venice, is a fairly typical medieval city, characterized by irregular narrow streets, frequent small and large squares, and inviting public spaces. Many still consider these medieval cities to be the most livable ever built. Excepting those destroyed by war, most of them still exist, and they are still found at the core of many European cities. These areas are prized possessions of the cities lucky enough to have them, and they are carefully preserved.

They are usually the most heavily used parts of the city, and quite a few of them have few or no cars, partly a result of the very narrow streets. They are universally characterized by "mixed uses," which simply means that employment, residences, and shopping are mixed within a given area, unlike modern American practice, which has been to separate different kinds of uses into different districts, with the result that people have to drive the kids to school, drive to the supermarket, and drive to work. In mixed-use development, many of these functions are within easy walking distance. Mixed uses also make for lively neighborhoods with lots of people on the streets, which in turn makes for safe neighborhoods - streets full of pedestrians are nearly free of crime (except occasionally non-violent crime such as pick-pocketing).

The evening promenade, Parma, Italy
The evening promenade, Parma, Italy

When the form of the city is right, and no cars intrude, safe, pleasant spaces are created for pedestrians to wander or to stop and chat with friends and neighbors. It is precisely the absence of this function in modern American cities and suburbs that has given rise to the popularity of the New Urbanism - people miss these spaces and want them back. It's very difficult to achieve this without moving out the cars, because the cars take up so much space and intrude so much with their noise, stink, and ever-present danger.

In environments like this, casual social contact is facilitated. While these environments may seem similar to modern American shopping malls, there is a critical difference - malls are commercial enterprises, and you're not really welcome to just hang out - you're expected to buy. It's why teenagers are often subjected to stringent rules in malls, banning them from what is often the only place they have to socialize after school. With real streets, such as the one above, it's ok to just hang out and chat with friends.

Four-story buildings at Washington Square Park in New York City
Four-story buildings at Washington Square Park in New York City

In mixed-use medieval areas, most buildings are small and just a few stories high. These smaller buildings are highly popular in European cities as well as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. These are actually quite flexible. Indeed, most of them have known many different uses since they were first built. While it's not always quite so simple to adapt them to a new purpose as bulldozing a cornfield, tilting up some steel megalith, and surrounding it with acres of asphalt parking lot, the result is more permanent and infinitely more satisfying.

Interior courtyard, the Begijnhof, Amsterdam
Interior courtyard, the Begijnhof, Amsterdam

One of the big advantages of moving cars out of cities is that there is suddenly a lot more room for other uses, because wide streets and vast parking lots are no longer needed. Cars take up a truly amazing amount of space in cities, sometimes up to 70% of an area. The interiors of the blocks can and should be large and green, providing a rest and recreation for those living in the surrounding buildings.

In fact, almost every block ought to have this kind of green space to provide light and fresh air to the adjacent buildings. Only certain special-use buildings, such as theaters, don't really need this amenity, and even those buildings can still benefit from it. With small buildings and courtyards, windows can be open (instead of being sealed, as with many modern office buildings), so air conditioning is less necessary and fresh air more plentiful. Without cars, there's very little noise to disturb those working inside.

The center of Freiburg, Germany
The carfree center of Freiburg, Germany

Enough for now. Those of you who are interested in the details of how all of this can be achieved may wish to visit Carfree.com or read the book, Carfree Cities. (There's also a discussion Forum.) Suffice it to say that carfree cities can be built with excellent, cheap, sustainable transport that rivals or even exceeds the convenience of the private car. The technical means are simple and well established: streetcars and subways are all that is needed to move passengers. Freight would be moved by a combination of standard sea containers (already used for much of our freight) and small, low impact vehicles like freight bikes and battery-powered delivery carts. None of this is rocket science - we could have done any of it a century ago.

The only real question is whether we have the will to build better cities, without cars, for our children and grandchildren. It's a worthy undertaking.


J.H. Crawford is the author of
Carfree Cities and the editor of
Carfree.com, where the newsletter
Carfree Times is published quarterly.

Carfree Cities

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