Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Urban sprawl no fun for kids

with 10 comments

Laura Stone in the Vancouver Sun on two reports from the Vanier Institute of the Family.  The Sun of course does not provide a link to either of the reports or the institute so I have saved you the Google search.

Neither, it seems to me, says anything very new or surprising.

“We have built cities that actively discourage walking and biking among children, certainly when we compare the experiences of today’s children and those of their parents,” writes Juan Torres, an urban planner and professor at the University of Montreal, in his study titled Children & Cities: Planning to Grow Together.

It also actively discourages walking and biking in the population as whole. We have known for a long time that this has had serious health effects – but I understand that Larry Frank is doing even more research on that. Obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease are all directly caused by lack of physical activity and are strongly correlated to suburbs. I took the picture below yesterday when I went for a walk to post a letter. This is not within one of the dendritic pattern subdivisions but on a main artery – No 4 Road.

No 4 Road sidewalk

No 4 Road sidewalk

There is a sidewalk on the other side of the road – but no crosswalk. You are expected to go back to Steveston Highway, cross at the lights and then retrace your steps. I, of course, jaywalk. Which is one reason why we worry about our children. Do as I say not as I do. Crossing the street is taking your life in your hands.

A second report, Caution! Kids at Play?, written by psychology student Belinda Boekhoven from Carleton University in Ottawa, finds that a decline in unstructured playtime and outdoor space in cities, also related to urbanization, can affect a child’s self-motivation and self-reliance.

The report is essentially a summary of lots of other studies. It does not, it seems to me, deal with why parents now feel they must supervise their children’s activities at every step – or have some responsible adult do it for  them. Partly it is the very realistic fear that children are at risk when walking and cycling of being struck by moving motor vehicles.

For the past 30 years unintentional injuries have been the leading cause of childhood mortality among children. The rate in Canada is among the highest in the developed world. …Motor vehicle injuries lead the list of injury deaths at all ages during childhood and adolescence.  source: A review of risk factors for child pedestrian injuries

What I heard at work when this issue was discussed was that while this factor is the statistically significant one, the one that is still high in parents’ minds is “stranger danger” or the “Michael Dunahee effect”. Child abductions by strangers are very rare events but they are also very prominent in media reports. It is a fear that is also successfully exploited by Hollywood. Taken together, the lack of safe pedestrian paths, the dispersed distribution of all facilities due to land use policies and the real and, possibly exaggerated,  fears of parents are the real threats to children.


A study published in the October 2009 ITE Journal reports on survey results in Hillsborough County, Florida among both parents and children on factors that prevent walking or biking to school. “Violence or crime” was reported as a factor by 42% of parents but only 5% of children.

The question is not so much what do we do about this – after all, as I said at the top, none of this is news and safe routes to school and walking school buses and all the rest have been around for years. The real question is what does it take for us to do something really effective about all of this and bring about real change. I can see why the seemingly remote possibilities of climate change disaster seem less pressing than the “need” to stimulate economic growth. But when it is our own children that are threatened, why is it that these problems continue and are not effectively addressed?


Thanks to regular reader and sometimes commenter Richard Campbell I am now aware of the blog of a mother who is trying to tackle this issue. Its called “Free Range Kids”. She was labelled “America’s worst Mom” because she allowed her 9 year old son to ride the subway on his own.

Incidentally if you want to know what a day in the life of a transportation planner doing pedestrian studies looks like, head on over to the Unemployment Roadshow.

October 2009 was “International Walk to School Month

Written by Stephen Rees

October 28, 2009 at 10:59 am

10 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I thought it was a bit of an odd article – because I wouldn’t necessarily think that children would be safe walking, biking or playing by themselves in a dense, urban environment, either.

    I suppose it’s just pointing out that nowhere is safe anymore, but seems to trash suburbia.

    Ron C.

    October 28, 2009 at 12:16 pm

  2. One child abducted in one city and the news is heard across the nation. The hundreds of children hurt or killed by automobiles (inside the car) in one day on the way to school across the nation, no one hears about it.

    W. K. Lis

    October 28, 2009 at 12:57 pm

  3. Some would argue that in an urban environment, there are always neutral parties watching, while in a suburban environment there is no one watching.

    Leo Petr

    October 28, 2009 at 1:16 pm

  4. The suburban environment was designed for cars – but one of the main features is the street pattern designed to deter through traffic. “Traffic” was thought of as entirely motorised – so it also deterred through walking and through cycling. Separation of land use means most residential streets are just houses – nothing else. So there is no street life. All this was documented by Jane Jacobs who coined the term “eyes on the street”.

    Stephen Rees

    October 28, 2009 at 1:44 pm

  5. Regarding the magically disappearing sidewalk, this is something you come across quite often here in Vancouver if you don’t use a car to get around. My partner and I are from Australia and we both find it extremely odd. Certainly something we had never come across in Australia. Just last weekend we were forced to walk on the wrong side of the Lougheed Highway in the bike lane at night because the sidewalk we were using ended without any signs or forewarning. When we first went to the Richmond Night Market, we crossed the road from the bus stop and started along a narrow footpath next to a McDonalds with a group of others, some of whom were obviously tourists. The sidewalk ended suddenly, forcing us to either turn back, attempt to cross the road close to a busy intersection, or continue awkwardly along a narrow, banked strip of grass between the road and the McDonalds drive through until we reached a poorly marked pedestrian crossing. Dare I say we weren’t all that impressed.

    Regarding the long-term health impacts of suburban living, as more research comes in it is starting to look more and more like cigarette smoking. Cool and marketable but deadly to your health and well-being.

    Chris S.

    October 28, 2009 at 2:27 pm

  6. It is just as bad in most of Vancouver. The traffic volumes and speeds on most residential streets in the grid prevent children (and many adults for that matter) from cycling on the streets. Street closures and other diversionary measures are required.

    A better street organization is the fused grid, which is essentially a grid for bikes and peds and cul-du-sacs for cars.

    It also paves over less land than the grid, which maximizes the amount of paved lane, especially when the lot sizes are small. For examples of this overpavement, check out East Clayton in Surrey, which was initially touted as a model “New Urbanist” community. They actually had to put concrete barriers on their new streets, presumably to stop speeding traffic and give children some place to play. Between the paved alleys and the large garages, there seemed only to be postage stamped sized spots of grass in the backyards and the front yards were no better.

    For a fun take on our irrational over-protective society, check out:


    October 28, 2009 at 2:42 pm

  7. Here’s an idea – at hazardous workplaces you often see signs that display the number of reported injuries and accidents and the number of days since the last accident. Why not put up signs on some busy intersections near schools and activity centers showing the number of days since a child was last killed or injured on BC’s roads and the number of incidents to date in the year. Maybe that would convince people to slow down and drive responsibly around children.

    Chris S.

    October 28, 2009 at 3:04 pm

  8. WRT my comment, children would typically ride their bikes to their friends houses in the same neighbourhood (i.e. same school catchment area), play ball hockey in the streets, run homemade go-carts in the streets – that sort of stuff. That’s generally safe to do in suburbs where the streets are not through streets and are designed to deter through traffic. Depending on the area within, say, Vancouver’s grid system – it might be tougher to do that in the City.

    Ron C.

    October 28, 2009 at 9:49 pm

  9. […] Citizens’ summits do not compensate for Vision’s abandoned promises [Georgia Straight] Urban sprawl no fun for kids [Stephen Rees's Blog] INTERNATIONAL Of farms, folks and fish [The Economist] […]

    re:place Magazine

    October 29, 2009 at 7:08 am

  10. My street — upon which I’ve grown up — has no sidewalks but is narrow enough that only the crazy doctor’s wife down the street dared to speed. It has blind corners in four places, and only 2-way stops at each end. Somehow I think it makes the kids here vigilant. It took decades, however, to get proper crosswalks and pedestrian lights in where kids walk to school and only now are there speedbumps. Most of the main streets here have sidewalks only on one side but they don’t generally cease randomly.

    Parents with two kids on bicycles took them down a hill so steep it took me until my twenties to attempt it (and still won’t, even though my brakes are awesome), where, in the intersection, the kids refused to stop for me to turn left, even with mom’s orders, leaving me in the middle of the 3-way. Then the mom told me her kids are just getting used to using their brakes. So what are you doing going down a hill like that?

    The woman behind the Unemployment Roadshow is my former colleague, so thanks for that link!

    Erika Rathje

    November 7, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: