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!

12 thoughts on “The Biggest Danger to Kids? Bad Urban Design!

  1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    “But in the real world, we’re limiting our children’s communities by believing in false dangers while building very real ones.” Well said (and great post).

    Another element is the impact that a community that is safe for bicycling and walking has on house prices. And retail success? With some communities building good walking and bicycling infrastructure and others not, what will happen to the house values in each over the next 10 or 20 years? Do people prefer to live in a neighborhood with more people walking and bicycling or with more cars driving 45 mph down their street? There could be winners and losers and it’s up to today’s leaders, city councils, and county commissions to determine which they’re in.

    1. Julie Kosbab Post author

      Some of the neighborhoods who are building the infrastructure are still islands, or they also oppose density. (I’m looking square at Blaine’s THE LAKES development here. You can get around nicely IN the development, but they squarely oppose even some nice senior condos, and there is an invisible wall around it for “range.”)

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        Islands says it well. We live in a neighborhood island of about 200 houses surrounded by Ramsey county roads. People will ride around the neighborhood but most are afraid to get on the Ramsey county roads. From our house to the local school is about 3/5 mile of fairly safe neighborhood streets and 1/5 mile of Ramsey county road and it’s that 1/5 mile that keeps parents from letting their children ride to school (and that got them to argue for buses to pick them up).

        1. Julie Kosbab Post author

          Our Middle and Intermediate schools were the target of a Safe Routes grant.

          The neighbors who would have “lost” frontage to the sidewalks ended up getting it voted down, because “the kids aren’t walking to school and if they did they’d leave Cheeto bags on our lawns.”

          (Rough paraphrase.)

          1. Peter Bajurny

            I live on a route between the Lake St light rail station and South high, and I can confirm that there does seem to be a lot of trash on my lawn.

            Though I don’t know if I can attribute it to kids or the neighborhood or the patterns of wind and elevation. But either way I just pick up the trash off my lawn because we’re trying to have a society here. Something people would be well to remember when opposing things that don’t directly benefit them.

            1. Rosa


              IT’s a pain in the butt picking up trash and painting over graffiti, but it’s part of being a grownup just like dropping trash and doing graffiti is part of being a teenager. Part we hope they’ll grow out of, but not a tragic part like dying in a car crash.

              Last summer I got a nasty note taped to my bike when I locked it to a street sign near a friend’s house for a very grownup parent-volunteer meeting. Their neighbor considers the grass all the way to the curb “theirs” and leaves nastygrams for anyone who disturbs the grass. Now, which is more civilized – a perfect lawn or a polite human? I know which way I vote. Hopefully those South High kids grow up on the “we all live here” side.

  2. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Maybe corporate campuses get built on the fringe of cities, rather than its core, because we built expensive infrastructure out to very inexpensive land. Maybe that is the same reason we are building our education campuses out on the fringe.

    1. Julie Kosbab Post author

      I think we’ve always been crappy at siting schools.

      I was telling a fellow Streets-person about the elementary school near my mother’s work. My mom worked for a chemical manufacturing company, which I think you have to kinda agree everyone is happy to have in an industrial park somewhere on a fringe.

      Somehow, this suburb did two genius things:
      1. The school was RIGHT OVER THE FENCE from a giant tank of Tetrachloroethylene.
      2. The school and the fire station were both within the blast zone if the plant had caught fire.

      There’s a long-term tendency to stick schools on the land developers didn’t want, or weird set-asides.

  3. Stacy

    Your link to state laws regarding “free range parenting” shows that there are no laws in Minnesota regarding a minimum age for leaving children unattended at home or in a car.

    1. Julie Kosbab Post author

      Yep. It’s one thing we have in our favor, although that we have no laws doesn’t mean you can’t be reported or be subject to a CPS investigation.

      It just means it becomes MORE subjective.

  4. Monte Castleman

    I guess this particular school doesn’t seem sited that bad to me. Two sides are neighbhoorhoods with a decent amount of sidewalks and paths, typical

    *Parts of Radisson Road are close to the point that are too heavy for a 5-3 conversion, but currently not near the school. I wonder how much traffic on Radisson is accessing the neighborhoods vs trying to avoid congestion on MN 65.

    *Point taken about the public having no idea about risks. Would you rather send your kid to play at a house with a pool or with a firearm. What if you knew the risk of a drowning was 20 times greater than an accidental shooting? However I’m not sure people would make different decisions if they knew the risk of traffic, which is still low in both relative and absolute terms. They probably bought the house figuring they would just drive their kids everywhere, if they wanted a pedestrian friendly area instead of car friendly they would have bought someplace else. Furthermore, it seems this area strikes a good balance of proving trails in the neighborhood, there’s a lot more than my area in Bloomington, and this area moves cars better than my neighborhood too.

    * The lack of crosswalks is an issue, but County 14 is a Principal Arterial, so I’m sure it will be expanded to a wide suburban-style road at some point. Maybe they plan to add crosswalks and trails at that point. That looks like the intent based on the way they redid 14 and Radisson.

    * Perhaps the intent is for the school to serve areas north of 14 (although siting schools in such a way students cross it seems to be a bad idea). Would it have made the development unfeasible if the developer had to provider prime property in the center of the development? I don’t know.

    1. Julie Kosbab Post author

      It’s not always as easy as “buy in a place that’s pedestrian friendly.” People rarely buy a home based on a single factor, and the array of factors that comes into place may trump pedestrian friendly even if that’s a high priority.

      FWIW, here’s a map of the attendance border of that school. It’s basically at the furthest north piece of District 16, which covers Spring Lake Park, Blaine and a bit of Fridley. Kids north of 14 are in Centennial or Anoka-Hennepin (don’t commit me to which, because I ain’t sure). I think it was put there because they didn’t want to have buses from other neighborhoods going through the development to reach a school:

      Until last year, they prohibited riding a bike to school, and all children — even n that nearby development — are eligible for bussing.

      The development with the trails is almost a walled city within the city of Blaine. You cannot realistically LEAVE that neighborhood and maintain a level of coherence. The neighborhood is remote from the main business district. It is low-density housing. Blaine and the nearby suburbs are full of this kind of development, in which the development itself creates the “range” for most kids and people. You can’t actually bike anywhere SAVE the parks in the development, and one of those parks is very high traffic (so people drive to it, creating more traffic).

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