What are all these cars doing on my road?

I was sitting in my car at an uncontrolled intersection on a busy road, waiting, waiting, waiting for a gap in the traffic. Usually, the traffic lights at the next intersection along created gaps in the traffic, but on this occasion, hold-ups further down the street meant that I had sat through a couple of light cycles already. Eventually, I complained, “What are all these cars doing on my road?”

A weary voice came from the back seat. “Mum, that joke’s played.”

I felt quite deflated. And I have never used the joke again.

There is a huge amount of traffic on the road these days. I know, that’s an old fogey’s comment, and I’m not really all that old. But like most of us who are parents now, I recall walking and biking to school, from when I was just six years old. In my first year at school, I caught the bus, because the school really was too far away for walking.

And the volume of traffic explodes every year when children go back to school after the long summer break. Suddenly a 15 minute commute takes 30 minutes, seemingly all because children are being driven to school. Read the comments thread on Poneke’s Pajero post for a take on it. It all gets worse in Auckland in early March – traffic there is so congested that adding university students to the mix seemingly brings congested roads to a halt.

So what’s the solution to the traffic chaos? From the same NZ Herald article, children should walk to school.

The usual solution. But!

First up, there are safety issues with walking to school, overwhelmingly due to the huge volume of traffic on the road. While children might be safe enough on footpaths, provided they know how to look out for, and avoid, cars reversing out of driveways, crossing busy roads is a different matter. The problem is that drivers are simply not aware of pedestrians, in part because there are so few pedestrians on the roads (vicious circle, I know). For pedestrians, and cyclists, there’s real safety in numbers. It seems that the more of them there are about, the easier it is for drivers to be aware of them, and to adjust their driving behaviour accordingly.

Here’s the key findings from the leading research paper in this area.

Results: The likelihood that a given person walking or bicycling will be struck by a motorist varies inversely with the amount of walking or bicycling. This pattern is consistent across communities of varying size, from specific intersections to cities and countries, and across time periods.

Discussion: This result is unexpected. Since it is unlikely that the people walking and bicycling become more cautious if their numbers are larger, it indicates that the behavior of motorists controls the likelihood of collisions with people walking and bicycling. It appears that motorists adjust their behavior in the presence of people walking and bicycling. There is an urgent need for further exploration of the human factors controlling motorist behavior in the presence of people walking and bicycling.

Conclusion: A motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking and bicycling if more people walk or bicycle. Policies that increase the numbers of people walking and bicycling appear to be an effective route to improving the safety of people walking and bicycling.

P. L. Jacobsen, “Safety in numbers: more walkers and bicyclists, safer walking and bicycling” Injury Prevention, 2003 9 (3): 205-209. The whole paper is available as a PDF (140kb).

It’s a straight forward conclusion. Get more pedestrians and cyclists out there on the roads, and each one will be safer.

Here’s the thing. We need lots of pedestrians out there, not just one or two extra. The roads and pavements will be no safer for my darlings if they are the only extra pedestrians. There needs to be a flood of pedestrians, and until such a flood eventuates, I’m not going to put them at risk by sending them out to be guinea pigs. What this translates to in practice is that I walk to and from school with them. That’s a viable option for us, because we only have one person in our household who is in full-time (or near full-time) paid employment.

But that leads me to the second problem with the “children should walk to school” demand.

Why should it be children who get out their walking shoes?

The complaints about children being driven to school surface reliably at the end of the school holidays. The ‘children’ are the extra or marginal users of the roads, so they must be the ones who are at fault. Therefore, getting them off the road will ease up the congestion for the people that the roads belong to, the adults. And of course, getting children to walk to school will help to combat the alleged obesity epidemic, so the people urging kids to walk to school can give themselves a nice little pat on the back. It’s not that they want to keep the roads for themselves after all; it’s just that they are concerned for children’s health.

If it’s not the children who are at fault, it must surely be their parents. They are the ones who won’t take 20 minutes out of their mornings, or afternoons, to ensure that the children get to school safely, on foot. Never mind that many families need to have two income earners, just to pay the cost of housing and food. Two incomes means two jobs, and frantic mornings trying to get everyone cleaned, dressed, fed, lunches made and school bags packed, all while trying to ensure that both adults can get to work in reasonable order, and hopefully, on time. Twenty minutes may not sound like much time, but it is a huge chunk out of a busy morning. Yet somehow, the “children should walk to school” brigade think that parents can just dream this time up out of nowhere.

In this “children should walk to school” complaint, I hear undertones of refusing to acknowledge that children and parents are citizens too, just as entitled to use the common resources of a polity (society, political unit, political state) as any other citizen. I hear people who simply don’t want to take the realities of family life into consideration. I hear on-going, constant criticism of parents. And it’s all oriented at clearing out the roads for the important people, the grown-ups who are not responsible for children.

I have a much better solution available for congested roads. People caring for children should have first call on using cars, to enable them to get children to school, and to get themselves to work. People who don’t have childcare responsibilities should get up 20 or 30 minutes earlier in the morning, so that they can walk to work, or if necessary, use public transport. Sure, it will take some time out of their day, but they will be getting some exercise, either by walking, or at least by walking to the bus stop or the train station, and that will help combat the (alleged) obesity epidemic too. (See – it sounds bloody patronising when it’s applied to adults. How come we don’t hear it as patronising when we’re imposing costs on parents instead?) And as we all know, if we can get a substantial proportion of road users to use public transport, then the overall efficient use of the roads improve. It would be a win win win solution.

Next time you decide to complain about parents driving their children to school, have a think about whether the same complaints apply to you. Children should go to their local school? Grown-ups should find jobs near their homes, or homes near their jobs. Children should walk to school to get exercise? Grown-ups should walk to work to get exercise. Parents should get up earlier so they can walk their kids to school instead of driving them? Child-free adults should get up earlier so that they can walk to work instead of driving.

And if child-free adults are tempted to complain that they shouldn’t have to bear the costs of other people’s decisions to have children, they might just care to bear in mind that parents are doing them an enormous favour, rearing the workers and taxpayers and citizens who will support all of us in the future.


26 comments on “What are all these cars doing on my road?

  1. Stephen says:

    Damnit, I’m going to have to think about this.

    Well done, Deborah.

  2. malcolm says:

    Of course, relative obesity likely remains fairly static. So perhaps there isn’t such a problem after all?

  3. Paul says:

    This result is unexpected. Since it is unlikely that the people walking and bicycling become more cautious if their numbers are larger,

    Hmmm. From 9 years of frontline road policing I think that this discussion ignores the ‘mob of sheep’ effect where larger numbers of walkers and cyclists tend to suppress more extreem actions and therefore behave better and consequently more safely. The problem is not so much the likelyhood of an incident but the consequences of an incident for the cyclist or walker.

  4. Stephen Judd says:

    Having thought about it a bit, I want to pick a nit or two.

    I don’t want to free the road for a separate class important people. I want us to free it for each other. If you believe that we are all important road users, then if roads are safer, and less cluttered, we all win.

    I have no problem with imposing onerous pedestrianism on children, any more than I do with making them tidy their rooms or eat their broccoli.

    I come back to my comment on an earlier related post of yours: the school run is a tragedy of the commons. If I were to try to remedy it, I wouldn’t be hectoring people about their selfishness: I’d be looking at how to make the routes around schools safer for children, forcing employers to take account of the realities of employees’ family lives, and generally trying to reverse the balance of incentives.

    Re the time commitment for pedestrian children: if it is necessary for parents to accompany walking children, and I’m not convinced that it is in a lot of cases, then by all means let’s look at what factors make it necessary and see how we might reverse them.

  5. toms says:

    I don’t know about Australia, but I think in New Zealand the explosion in parents taking their kids to school dates back to the Teresa Cormack murder. In a more general sense, I think the rise in fear as a T.V. News staple has led to an internalisation of fear of stranger abduction. But you know what? Kirsa Jensen was murdered in 1983 – a quarter of a century ago – and Teresa Cormack was killed in 1987, some 21 years ago. These are EXTREMELY rare events, yet the constant re-traumatisation of society by the media reminding keeps the events fresh in people’s minds. Possibly, there is a wider cultural/anthropological issue around the declining birth rate. As brutal as it sounds, losing your only beloved child, the focus of every hope and dream, is going to be worse than losing a child if you have five, six, or seven children and people make risk assessments accordingly. If you have just one or two, losing them in a senseless road accident would destroy many parents, particularly as these days women delay childbirth until so late in life so simply having a replacement baby might be impossible if the women is already into her 40’s.

    I have actually thought about the “school run” problem and I have a dream about what I think should be done. Link it to the special relationship the old have with the young. The old are usually left to languish in retirement homes, a resource under utilised and neglected. I don’t know – why not build red observation boxes, equipped with a telephone, on key routes and trawl retirement villages for the new “lollipop men” (or women) who can be employed to man these boxes to watch routes to and from schools? Why not then clearly mark roads with cycle ways and put up signs warning motorists of the presence of these observation booths? It’s an extension of the walking bus idea, but with ADULTS to watch the children to assuage parental fears and to reclaim the footpath. And it would the critical mass you talk about.

    Oh and as for making kids walk/cycle to school – well, when I was at school sport was an opt out activity, to NOT play sport (effectively, rugby) you needed a note from your parents giving a jolly good reason why not. If you didn’t, then your name just appeared on the team lists. Result? Most teachers coached in the winter. Outcome? No obesity epidemic. I was shocked to talk to an old boy teacher from my old school and discover that whereas in the early 1980’s we had ten-eleven rugby teams, two soccer teams & a hockey team on a roll of 450 or so (all boys) today the school struggles to put out five rugby and one soccer team on a bigger roll, and its impossible to persuade any of the teachers to get off their (frankly lazy) arses and coach teams. Outcome? Rising obesity. Compulsion from those who know what is good for you is part of growing up (and teaching vocation, not just a job). Getting the little sods out and onto shanks pony and onto the football field is good for them.

  6. Stephen says:

    “teachers to get off their (frankly lazy) arses and coach teams.”

    I was with until that. NCEA and internal assessment have chewed up what little spare time secondary teachers have, dunno about primary. That’s just wilfully inflammatory and insulting.

  7. adamsmith1922 says:

    When I was 5 I started school. After the first 2
    days I walked there on my own. None of this being driven nonsense. Later I rode a bike. When I was at school sport was not optional. Nor was learning.

    Regarding driving to work, for years now I have either walked or taken public transport.

    However, if I had to drive anywhere for any reason I do not see why I as a non parent should have to inconvenience myself merely so that those who have chosen to breed, often in excessive numbers, can hog the roads in their gas guzzling 4WD Tanks, taking their appalling progeny to school, in vehicles which in many cases they cannot drive properly.

  8. Pete says:

    “parents are doing them an enormous favour, rearing the workers and taxpayers and citizens who will support all of us in the future.”

    The world is already overpopulated, therefore you’re doing no-one any favours.

  9. stef says:

    I have a solution to traffic and housing affordabilty problems.

    Move childless couples and single people into inner-city apartments.

  10. Stephen says:

    adamsmith: a solid 10 on my Bile-o-meter, old bean. “Apalling progeny” indeed.

    Personally I blame the progenitors.

  11. Pete says:

    >>Move childless couples and single people into inner-city apartments.

    How about moving breeders into soviet-style tenement blocks. Right next to schools.

    Didn’t think so 🙂

  12. toms says:

    BTW the “lazy arse” comment was from my fellow old boy and teacher, so since it was fraternal criticism I felt ok including it….

  13. Make Tea Not War says:

    The main problem is that work and school, for the most part all start at the same time. So that means certain times of the day experience extreme traffic congestion. But why couldn’t different age groups start school at different times? Or even why couldn’t there be some choice about school starting times for individual families? Yes, there would be a lot of logistical problems to work through- but it irks me the way school time is always viewed as set in stone and non negotiable and something that parents and even employers have to work around and children just have to fit in with even if for eg. they are not natural morning people. Why can’t schools change?

    I think this is actually a problem that needs to be addressed collectively but its being defined as an individual one- parents and children have to get more exercise, care more, try harder, or chill out about the risk of accidents and predators etc, etc, etc. It’s always easier to blame the individual but sometimes its institutions that actually need to change.

    Similiarly I think the school year which is based around agrarian needs and time frames should be revisited.

  14. stef says:

    Actually Pete,
    Despite my somewhat tongue in cheek comment, I was being serious. Auckland has terrible planning and sprawl which is putting way too much strain on infrastructure. And because of the low population density, public transport doesn’t work. The problem isn’t land supply, we have more land than we know what to do with. It is how we use the land

    So doing silly things like building schools when a new subdivison is built is probably a good idea.

  15. Moz says:

    Sorry, I can’t walk very far. That’s just the way it is. On the other hand, I can’t drive very far either… no car. The closest I come to driving to work is taking the train. Which I do relatively rarely, usually when I have a big or fragile package to carry.

    People who drive… in the spirit of forgiveness I just assume they’re too stupid to understand the consequences of their actions. The alternative, that they understand and don’t care, does not bear thinking about.

  16. Pete says:

    >>sprawl which is putting way too much strain on infrastructure

    Run school bus services like they do in that bastion of socialism – the USA. Send your kids to local schools. Don’t have kids in the first place – the planet is overpopulated as it is.

    So your part 😉

    >>People who drive…stupid…

    I drive. I walk. Depends where I’m going.

    And yes, I understand that the horseless carriage is here to stay.

  17. Paul says:

    “People who drive… in the spirit of forgiveness I just assume they’re too stupid to understand the consequences of their actions”.

    I am a builder. I have a Nissan van. It carries me, a large quantity of tools, and whatever product that I need on a daily basis to the houses that I build. Some of us don’t have the ability to live near to our work, working from home is not an option, and public transport would be lots of fun for all with 100 meters of 4 x 2 and a dozen sheets of gib…

    Any good ideas??

  18. Julie Fairey says:

    There’s some pretty rigorous research showing that primary teachers have high workloads – on average 50+ hours a week, even taking into account the school hols – and certainly my friends who are secondary teachers are far from being lazy arses. My recollection of sports coaching at secondary was that a lot of the junior teams were coached by senior students, and also many parents were involved, as well as staff.

    But I digress.

    Paul raises a good point above (and I have a cousin called Paul who is a builder, is there any chance we may be related??), and generally I tend to turn off my sneer when the 4WD or similar that I spot is clearly necessary for the work of the owner. But there are a lot of people out there driving big cars when a smaller car would more than do the job. Even a scooter – we have recently bought one so that we can have the convenience of two cars whilst owning one, now that the four wheeled vehicle has to stay with the person with the baby most of the time.

    Being an Aucklander all my life it seems to me that until we have a visionary council (in fact visionary councils across the region) who are prepared to bite the bullet and sort out a decent public transport system it is going to be a long time before there is a serious change to our car-loving culture. The changes made in recent years in Auckland City, and the new busway on the North Shore, are admirable beginnings, and I hope they continue.

    And on a very minor note, but one that is important to encouraging pedestrians/bikers/etc – we need to have decent footpaths. I don’t know what it’s like where anyone else lives, but now that I’m pushing a wheeled contrivance around on the pavement I’m noticing that it isn’t actually that easy to get around on, particularly when SOME people park their cars right up on them. Grrrr!

  19. poneke says:

    In the local rag this week, the community constable is quoted as saying that on average 50pc of Kiwi kids are driven to school each day, with up to 90pc in some areas, compared with 31pc in 1990.

    I can certainly believe it. I used to walk my own children to primary school…. the traffic was and is too dangerous to let them walk by themselves, but once the first hit intermediate, I had to start driving them as the distance became too far.

    It is one of the classic vicious circles. The traffic is too dangerous nowadays to let children walk to school, so we parents drive them, which makes the traffic even worse.

    When I started school, there was hardly any traffic at all. My parents didn’t even have a car. I walked everywhere.

  20. Donna says:

    unfortunately for you Deborah you now live in a country where the freight task is set to double by 2020. Which means more, bigGER TRUCKS. And more and more congestion on the roads generally speaking. I haven’t had a car for 4 years since I got here and most people are pretty incredulous that I manage to function in the 21st century without one (we live about 50 metres from the train station and a 4 minute stroll to the supermarket). Although I take my life into my own hands on a regular basis using taxis (apparently taxi drivers think that getting you there faster and thereby costing you less is more important than making sure you arrive alive). As for vulnerable road users, well I agree that if there are more cyclists on the road then people become accustomed to them – on the other hand I refuse to ride in peak hour traffic because I think it’s far too dangerous. And so I feel constantly conflicted in my personal versus professional life, which makes me feel a bit depressed, so I think I’ll go to bed….

  21. Donna says:

    I would like to caveat my above comments by saying that my regular taxi driver that I use (who is called Peter, and I thoroughly recommend him to anyone visiting Melbourne) is a very good (and road-rule abiding) driver and would like to exclude him from my comments, which relate solely to taxi drivers who work for Silvertop and or other big taxi companies that I sometimes have the misfortune to use out of desperation.

  22. Donna says:

    and also that I don’t have any children, so I can afford to be all ‘oh how small is my environmental footprint’ about things, except I bet when I do have a child we’ll buy a big f-off 4 wheel drive and blow smoke in everyones faces while we drive over their toes while they’re waiting to cross the road!!

  23. Deborah says:

    (and I have a cousin called Paul who is a builder, is there any chance we may be related??),

    Not unless you’re also my long-lost cousin, Julie – this Paul the builder is my brother.

  24. Julie Fairey says:

    Wow that would have been totally freaky!

    Alas, we are not related except within the sisterhood of feminism.


  25. I’m coming late to the comments, but this is a great post. That research is very interesting.

  26. moz says:

    Paul, you haven’t said anything new. It’s not about whether you can make up an excuse, it’s about whether you have tried to minimise the extent of the problem.

    I have a friend who’s a chippy and his approach is to buy one of those dirty great metal toolboxes that tradeys are so fond of and install (removable) bike wheels in the middle. About 75% of the time he leaves it on the job site and rides his bike to work. The rest of the time he bludges space in a mates ute for him and his tools. That works for him because he’s on the same site for a while. Obviously the other 10% of builders spend more time doing small jobs and need to go further more often.

    Which means that at least 1% of the drivers I see are being unfairly slighted by me. I feel for them.

    When I worked as a sparky I had similar problems, mostly because the boss owned the vans and insisted we used them, but at least I managed to get more shared van use going. That’s 18 years ago.

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