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.