Walk and Bike to School: Know Your Way Around *and* Be Happy
A new study illuminates why pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets are so important, not just for the health and environmental impact of neighborhood residents but also for kids' fear and sense of overall well-being. As the post in The Atlantic points out, "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."
But the new study by Bruce Appleyard, a Portland-based urban planner and designer (and son of an urbanist who famously showed how heavy traffic in a neighborhood increases disconnection, disatisfaction and loneliness) talks about ground-level concerns, the ones I have a lot with my own kids: knowing their way around and being happy in the place where they live.
Bruce showed that kids in low-traffic, walkable neighborhoods remembered more features of their neighborhoods and remembered playing in more parts of their neighborhood than kids in high-traffic neighborhoods where they spent more time in cars. What's more, they simply liked their neighborhoods more and felt safer (according to the "cognitive mapping" techniques he used). He wrote, "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."
Later, he went back to the high-traffic neighborhood after it had undergone improvements in walkability and bike infrastructure. They knew more about their neighborhoods, and, he wrote, "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."
I've thought about trying this experiment on my own kids, having them draw maps of the neighborhood (without scientific rigor, given that I know next to nothing about cognitive mapping). I think it would be a great way to celebrate Walk and Bike to School month.