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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
"If you design an environment for children, it will work for everyone."
Director of central-area planning
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:
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.
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 Britain||1971||1990|
|Children allowed to cross the road on their own||75%||50%|
|Children allowed to take public transportation on their own||50%||14%|
|Children allowed to bicycle without adult supervision||67%||25%|
|7-8 year olds traveling to school on their own||80%||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)
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 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
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
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
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
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
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 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
or read the book,
(There's also a discussion
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.
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Images and text copyright © 1996, 2008 J.Crawford
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