Research published last month suggests that if Auckland parents aren’t letting their children walk and cycle unaccompanied, they’ve got good reason to be protective. According to the research, Auckland parents allow their children to be ‘independently mobile’ if the environment is safe for their children, and they have a good handle on whether it is.
Auckland Transport will need to get tough with locals resisting safety measures, because
Safety from traffic is a key priority for parents.
The Auckland study was undertaken by researchers from the disciplines of Nursing, Human Potential, Engineering, Social and Health Outcomes, Environment, and Population and Global Health, from five universities.
Key findings were:
(1) parents identified a need for safer traffic environments for their child’s independent mobility;
(2) no significant differences were observed between objective neighbourhood built environment measures and parents’ reported neighbourhood needs; and
(3) parental licence for their child’s independent mobility was positively associated with parent perceptions that dedicated and safer places to bike were needed in their neighbourhood and negatively associated with residing in an area with a higher ratio of cycle path to road lengths.
I checked about this last finding: that parents were less likely to allow their children to travel independently in places with more cyclepaths – even though they wanted more dedicated cycling infrastructure.
It wasn’t a typo. And it’s quite revealing.
Not many streets in Auckland have cycle lanes, and they tend to be where traffic volumes are high. Typically, such places don’t have enough pedestrian crossings or wide enough footpaths, and drivers often park in the realm intended for safe walking. This research shows that in the 8 neighbourhoods and 19 schools studied, any cycling infrastructure hasn’t convinced parents this is enough to let their children travel independently. Painted lines or stop-start unconnected cycleways do little to overcome lack of basic walking safety.
As one of the research team replied to me:
Yes these findings in #3 might seem a little counterintuitive but we know cycling rates in NZ children are really low – so it’s highly likely that the licence for independent mobility variable mostly reflects licence to walk (and maybe scooter) independently rather than cycle. So increasing cycle lanes isn’t going to impact a *currently* predominantly walking population – but that’s not to say that will remain constant.
The research recorded parents’ concerns.
Specifically, parents consistently noted a need for the following:
- Slower and safer drivers…
- Less traffic…
- More traffic-calming infrastructure…
- Lower speed limits…
- Signage such as “kids around”…
- Safer places to cross…
- Safer places to cycle…
- Safer places to walk…
Good planning could achieve this, and much, much more. And children wouldn’t be the only ones to benefit.
The report gives some insight into the different levels of safety awareness in different groups of adults:
A growing body of evidence has shown that adult perceptions do not always align with objective measures of the neighbourhood environment.
This means that we shouldn’t expect adults (eg those whose children have already grown) to have much awareness of children’s safety needs.
Compared with older children, a higher traffic safety threshold may be required for younger children in order for parents to perceive their environment as being safe.
So we need to ask the parents of younger children, “What safety improvements would make things safe for younger children?”
Conversely, parents of younger children were half as likely to report a need for safer and designated cycling infrastructure
And we need to ask the parents of older children, “What safety improvements would make things safe for older children?”
If children cycle in their neighbourhood, parents may notice the lack of cycle lanes available for their children,
We need to ask the parents who do let their children travel independently, “What difficulties do your children face?”
while in comparison parents who grant low mobility licence may not identify the need for more cycling lanes.
But the parents who do not let their children travel independently should be asked, “What improvements would mean you would let them?” They are not the people to ask “what do you think about converting this [car parking or car lane or road space] to a cycle lane?” – that decision has already been made for the city.
I wouldn’t have thought it takes much to think about what children need, if we just remember what was fun. Places to go and hang out. Easy-to-cross roads. Alternative routes through alleyways so you can race each other or circuit in opposite directions and guess where you’re going to pass. Not having to look out for cars much. Enough space to do something a bit silly and fall, without ending up under a truck. Interesting things en route to school. Trees to climb.
But then I’m a parent. I suspect too many people have settled into adulthood thinking the needs of children have matured along with them, or that city environments can’t be safe anyway – which couldn’t be further from the truth. Many cities are becoming children-friendly places, even with much higher densities of population than we have.
An Auckland Transport survey shows:
Yet that’s not showing on the ground, is it? Simple improvements for safety, like safer speeds, cycle lanes, and better crossing facilities, get hit by resistance. We seem to be hearing most from that ‘very unsupportive’ minority.
Look what’s at stake for the children. The study says:
Physical activity levels are low globally, including in New Zealand, where a third of children and youth are insufficiently active for health…
Children’s independent mobility can provide important opportunities for children’s physical activity accumulation…
Physical activity is fundamental to optimal growth, development, and health in children. It is recommended that children and youth aged 5–17 years should participate in at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity (MVPA) daily to gain important benefits for their musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, neuromuscular, metabolic, and mental health and development.
But the importance of independent mobility extends well beyond the physical:
Independent mobility also plays an unparalleled role in contributing to children’s development of social, cognitive, and spatial processing skills and enhanced environmental awareness. Children who travel and play freely in their neighbourhood socialise more frequently with their peers and adults and develop a sense of belonging to their community which is important for developing social skills and a sense of identity. Cognitive and psychological development is promoted through spatial awareness and processing, learning about risk and its management, and engagement with the natural and physical environment.
In short, while some children will find other avenues for physical activity (and some won’t) this isn’t enough anyway. Without independent mobility, our children’s development is being stunted.
Is this widespread? In New Zealand, we know that:
- the average time children spent in active travel modes decreased from 130 minutes per week to 72 minutes per week in the two decades prior to 2011,
- only 10% of children’s travel time is spent in active travel modes, and
- The Ministry of Transport’s Household Travel Survey shows that cycling to school has particularly taken a hammering:
So what do we do? Continue along as we are doing:
- Consult with a wider community that is largely ill-informed about children’s needs?
- Turn a blind eye to how cars parked on verges and footpaths have stolen children’s safe walking routes and play spaces?
- Plan as if traffic flow and parking is more important than healthy development for our children?
- Make requesting simple pedestrian infrastructure, like a crossing or a footpath, an unsatisfying rite of initiation into safety advocacy?
- Install cycling infrastructure – where locals allow – to suit confident cyclists, while ignoring the main safety issues?
- Carve away at footpaths and verges to provide more traffic lanes?
- Ignore the need to reduce traffic volumes?
- “Promote” walking and cycling without improving safety (and load more guilt onto parents)?
Have a look at these children’s faces as they’re told to shoulder the responsibility because we’ve failed to keep them safe.
We can serve them better. At the level of both government and councils, the high-level plans for improving safety, for modeshift to active modes, and for healthier streets are in place.
We need to adjust our consultation practices to ask the right questions of the right people – and any protocol or legislation tying us to a divisive and untargeted consultation process needs to be overhauled.
Children are our treasures, not barriers to traffic flow. Their needs must take centre stage in our decision-making. Luckily, planning for the children brings clarity to murky adult politics.