The Biggest Danger to Kids? Bad Urban Design!

The free-range kids movement has been seeing a lot of press lately, both pro and con. Some say that giving kids freedom is great. Others suggest that not every freedom-giving parent shows great judgment and is foisting responsibility to other adults in complex situations – and while it takes a village, there are reasons the village may not be willing. Still others believe that kids must always be attended – as demonstrated by state laws, school policies on cycling/walking to school and countless other small regulations.

Various pieces of these perspectives probably come together to create the broadest truth. It’s important to realize different things work for different families.

Bill Lindeke recently wrote a piece for MinnPost on free range parenting in the city. In it is this truism:

For most urban parents, it’s not “stranger danger” that worries them; it’s cars. Some streets are simply too busy, or too dangerous, for kids to be able to move on their own through the city.

The greatest risks

Let’s be honest: Our urbanist failures are a greater risk to our children than any form of stranger danger. Here are some hard facts:

  • Child kidnapping: In 1999 — the most recent year for which I can find coherent statistics – the number of children kidnapped in stereotypical “stranger danger” situations totaled 115, of a population of over 50 million US children. Most kids on milk boxes are the victims of parental abductions. Hell, kids are more likely to be killed by a parent than kidnapped by a stranger, per 3 decades of FBI data.
  • Child pedestrian deaths: In 1999, 449 children under age 13 were killed in pedestrian or bicycle deaths, per the IIHS. In 2013, that number was 207, of a total population of 52,723,720 children in that age group.
  • Child motor vehicle deaths: In 2013, 2,136 children under age 15 died in automobile crashes. Per the NHTSA, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children of every age from 2 to 14 years old, killing 6 children every day.

Meanwhile, we build unwalkable schools – we’ve featured several on, including in Alexandria and Mankato. Here’s an example in Blaine, bordered on on one side by a large housing development with sidewalks and bike lanes, and on two sides with 4 to 6 lane stroads featuring 55+ speed limits and no crosswalks.

Even when schools are somewhat walkable, communities oppose building sidewalks, because “kids aren’t walking to school anyway.”

This is probably a contributor to why only 13% of children walk or bike to school. The car line is a way of life at many schools, in which traffic begets traffic:

Why are we building this way?

Why are we building communities that are unsafe for our children? This goes beyond free range vs. helicopter parenting debates. Our infrastructure forces decisions by some parents – and are unhealthy for our children besides!

A sense of place and belonging is critical to children. This is so broadly accepted that even Sesame Street, the classic children’s educational series, is revamping a number of classic sets for its new season. Its producers want to anchor the characters in real homes so that kids get a better sense of community and what it means to live in a place. But in the real world, we’re limiting our children’s communities by believing in false dangers while building very real ones.

Let’s be honest about danger. A 5% increase in walkability for a neighborhood was associated with a per capita 32.1% increase in time spent in physically active travel, a 0.23-point reduction in body mass index, 6.5% fewer vehicle miles traveled, 5.6% fewer grams of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emitted, and 5.5% fewer grams of volatile organic compounds (VOC) emitted.

Our built environment — buildings, streets, parks, and other man-made physical surroundings — affect our choices for physical activity and range. Our choices of where to live can be influenced by school academic quality, proximity of family and employment and other factors — not all of which can be controlled as variables at the individual level.

Let’s step back from free range debates. Let’s get the basics right and build communities that can have freedom. Right now, our urbanist failures are caging us all in.

About Julie Kosbab

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005, and is no longer lonely in that calling. A past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association, she has 2 children and a garage full of bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations, or read her (seldom updated) blog at Ride Boldly!