Sunday, January 23, 2011

Where do the children play? PIA NO. 4

This fourth extract from the Special Edition (Volume 47:4) of the Australian Planner (1, 2, 3) is refreshingly different, asking some interesting questions about how we perceive and organize society. This paper focuses specifically on child transport issues – and they way that society thinks of children as revealed by our selection of  transport modes. The paper also points out that some of our (misguided?) attitudes may become self fulfilling prophecies.

The hope for oil crisis: children, oil vulnerability and (in)dependent mobility
Scott Sharpe & Paul Tranter. Pages 284-292

The abandonment of the streetscape as anything but a thoroughfare for motor vehicles has heightened the perception of the streets as unwelcoming for pedestrians. The exclusions that result for those who are unable to afford a car or who are incapable of driving one, means that the poor, the elderly and the young are all denied independent mobility and are positioned as vulnerable when they do take to the streets as pedestrians.

Australian planning professionals have long been aware of New Urbanism (NU), Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND), Walkable Cities (WC), Transit Oriented  Development (TOD) and … Child-Friendly Cities (CFC). … there is a dearth of consideration of children and child-friendly cities in research on oil vulnerability.

Ultimately, the mobility of children throughout cities is more than simply a transport issue, and the degree of child-friendliness of the city says much about the way that children are conceptualised in contemporary society. [Do we think of them as] vulnerable, incompetent, dependent and passive? Or …  are they valued as participating members of society capable of ever increasing amounts of independence and activity?

Children, through their role as car passengers, are major consumers of petroleum.  In Melbourne, trips to take children to school make up 21% of all trips in the morning peak.

The paper reminds us that management decisions to increase or improve “efficiency” in one aspect of society, when taken in isolation, can have unintended consequences in other areas of our lives. This can become particularly disruptive when big decisions (or as they are popularly called by our leaders “tough decisions”) are made by upper management/ministers – sometimes it seems without consultation and attention to  important details.

The creation of ‘super schools’ in many Australian cities has been designed with ‘economies of scale’ and ‘maximum consumer choice’ arguments in mind … more subjects, more specialised teachers and more sophisticated facilities to more students.

Yet, this development has given scant attention to the burden created by increased travel distances and the demise of local communities.

Is it that the “efficiency gains” of mega malls, mega shops, mega cinema complexes is at the level of the operator of the mega structure and lost by the increased energy and transport costs to society at large? Considering that:

In Sydney, the number of serve passenger trips grew at the rate of 2.8% per annum between 2001 and 2006, much faster than the growth in total driver trips (1.6%), which itself was much higher than the population growth (0.9%).

And by increasing the frequency with which people are required to use cars, the frequency of  interaction between cars and the remaining pedestrians increases – until a point is reached where there are no pedestrians.

The leading cause of death in Australian children aged 1-14 is external causes (36%) and the major component in this category is traffic accidents, which accounts for around 15% of the total mortality.

… a pedestrian hit by a car at 30 km/h has a less than 10% chance of dying, but this climbs to 50% at 44 km/h and 90% at 56 km/h. 

… travel time increases due to speed limit reductions … are shown to be negligible (around nine seconds per kilometre in one study).

The authors then suggest that the “need” to deliver children to school by car is as much a social statement than any “real” concern about safety. They also imply that this attitude may extend to some of the thinking behind the provision of “child spaces”.

Children’s mobility is now not determined by their age or physical ability as much as it is by the ability of their parents to provide car transport for them. The notion of a responsible and caring parent, the idea of what constitutes immediate risk, and the role that the media plays in creating an atmosphere of fear concerning children, all have a role in shifting the expectations of what children and adults expect in contemporary society.

[EDITED (May): See Added Section Below]

Do the urban spaces dedicated to children’s recreational activities serve to separate children from wider society? By this logic, parks and children’s playgrounds can be seen as indicators of child-unfriendly cities.

Hopefully the authors don’t intend to mean that parks (and supervision) should be removed entirely. The Indonesian city I am living in has very little public space other than the street. As far as I can see, when children have nowhere else to play the risk is that they adopt the law of the street!

In the authors view, schools are generally not well integrated into public transport systems.

Another strategy in encouraging active transportation modes - particularly the trip to school - is to have the school better integrated into a networked transport system. Schools could serve as bicycle ‘parking stations’ and bus nodes, creating a more welcoming image of public service space than schools currently convey (see Picture: security fence topped with barbed wire around school).

The authors feel that the industrial approach to society, i.e. striving for “efficiency” gains through task specialisation, produces a fragmented approach to life – an idea that perhaps permeates our current ways of thinking.  Perhaps in approaching all “problems” as something that must be divided into manageable chunks way may risk missing the bigger picture.

According to Robinson (2006), our current modern schooling system arose to meet the needs of industrialism. Schools still operate within a mechanistic model on the assumption that the industrial/consumerist society has a future.

Children travelling in the back seat of a car learn little about their own environment, and miss out on the opportunities for exercise that come with active transport to school. They also miss out on valuable opportunities for contact with other people, which provide important social learning experiences.

Research needs to be conducted into the time that would be gained in parental schedules if sociable forms of exercise were integrated into the routines of getting to and from school, rather than treated as extra-curricular activities to which children must be transported. The separation and compartmentalisation of land-uses is mirrored in the political process by the separation of ministerial portfolios and departments. What is eschewed in the current policy process is holism.


Kids keen to ditch wheels and walk to school

ABC, May 20th.

Parents and children are encouraged to lace up their trainers and leave the car in the garage for National Walk Safely to School Day, which aims to fight obesity and promote active living.

But Professor Boyd Swinburn, from Deakin University's School of Health and Social Development, says despite the fact most kids would much rather take the foot falcon to school, many parents are still opting to drive.

"[Our studies show] less than half of primary school children who live within 15 minutes of school actually walk to school," he said.

"When we asked the children how they'd prefer to get to school, 75 per cent of them say they'd prefer to get there by walking.

"When we asked the parents how they think the kids would prefer to get to school, more of them think they'd prefer to get dropped off by car."

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