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A new study suggests vehicular travel affects children's ability to navigate their neighborhood and connect to their community.

Traffic and kids don’t mix. That’s something people intuitively understand. Automobile collisions disproportionately kill kids, for starters. Heavy traffic also prevents them from playing on their neighborhood streets. And communities with limited opportunities for walking and playing outside have been shown to have higher rates of childhood obesity, which can lead to serious health complications in later life.

It turns out vehicular traffic does something else, too, more subtle but equally pernicious: It changes the way children see and experience the world by diminishing their connection to community and neighbors. A generation ago, urbanist researcher Donald Appleyard showed how heavy traffic in cities erodes human connections in neighborhoods, contributing to feelings of dissatisfaction and loneliness. Now his son, Bruce Appleyard, has been looking into how constantly being in and around cars affects children’s perception and understanding of their home territory.

Appleyard worked with children in two suburban communities. One had light traffic and infrastructure that allowed children to walk and bike on their own. One had heavy traffic and children traveled almost exclusively by car. Using a technique called cognitive mapping, Appleyard asked groups of nine- and 10-year-old kids to draw maps of their neighborhoods, showing destinations such as school and friends’ houses, and marking places they liked or disliked. The results were revealing:

In the Heavy [traffic exposure] neighborhood, the children frequently expressed feelings of dislike and danger and were unable to represent any detail of the surrounding environment. Newell Avenue, the main road in front of the school, is a tree-lined street and yet few of the trees were drawn; instead, red (danger, cars) and orange (dislike) dominated. Participants from the Light [traffic exposure] neighborhood, on the other hand, showed a much richer sense of their environment, drawing more of the streets, houses, trees, and other objects, and including fewer signs of danger, or dislike and fewer cars. The children also drew many more places in the street where they liked to play and areas that they just simply liked: they noted playing in 43 percent more locations in their streets relative to the children in the heavy-traffic-exposure neighborhood.

In sum, as exposure to auto traffic volumes and speed decreases, a child’s sense of threat goes down, and his/her ability to establish a richer connection and appreciation for the community rises.

I spoke with Appleyard about his findings, and he highlighted a paradox of the modern car-dependent community. The United States has made gains in traffic safety over the last generation, but we have done so in part by removing pedestrians from the streetscape. He cites a poll that shows 71 percent of parents surveyed had walked or biked to school when they were kids, but only 18 percent of their children do so.

“We’ve seen a dramatic decrease in fatalities,” Appleyard says. “But we’ve also seen abandonment of the streets. Parents see too much traffic. What is the rational thing for a parent to do? Your choice is to drive them. It’s a multiplier effect – parents are driving because there’s more traffic, and then there’s more traffic.”

Children who had a “windshield perspective” from being driven everywhere weren’t able to accurately draw how the streets in their community connected, whereas children who walked or biked to get around produced detailed and highly accurate maps of their neighborhood street network.

Appleyard followed up with the children in the heavy-traffic neighborhood after improvements were made to pedestrian and bike infrastructure. Not only were they able to draw more detailed maps, they were happier with their environment:

Before the improvements were made in the heavy-traffic-exposure neighborhood, many children drew expressions of dislike and danger associated with automobiles and were unable to represent any detail of the surrounding environment -- possibly feeling overwhelmed by the threats posed by the automobiles. After the improvements alleviated the exposure to these threats, there were indeed fewer expressions of danger and dislike, indicating a greater sense of comfort and well-being.  

As Appleyard points out, the Safe Routes to Schools program is one framework for improving children’s access to safer streets. He is also trying to get his message out to leaders in the developing world, and recently presented his findings in India. “We’re past the tipping point here in the U.S.,” he says. “But there, they are moving from a human-transport culture to an auto-transport culture.” And maybe, he's hoping, it’s not too late for humans to be taken into account.

Photo credit: Dmitry Morgan/Shutterstock

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