CTF blog: Travel choices and children's well-being2019-02-13
Imagine if someone would tell you that your child’s wellbeing, quality of life, physical health, and school performance could increase if their car travels were replaced by independent travel. This is a rather daring statement but in fact, research from different countries and continents show that this is actually the case. Read new blog by PhD Jessica Westman.
Children’s daily travels enable them to engage with society, to fulfill their needs and wishes by moving from one place to another, and it allows them to enjoy the freedom of independently travel together with friends, all of which add to increased wellbeing and quality of life. So here is the key - independent travel, which is defined here as the freedom to cycle or walk in public spaces without adult supervision.
There are many emotional benefits associated with children’s independent travel such as increased happiness, excitement, and relaxation, whereas passive and motorized travels lead to children feeling rushed and tired. The emotional benefits and physical exercise related to independent travel also seem to affect school performance in a positive way; for example, it is easier to concentrate after a nice walk or bike ride. Additionally, when children independently move about in their neighborhood, not only do they get physical exercise, but they also broaden their social networks, their sense of community, and develop spatial skills, which affect different aspects of wellbeing and overall quality of life.
However, as we learn more about the positive effects of independent travel on wellbeing and life quality, children’s independent travel keep decreasing. Changes in lifestyle have increased the complexity of travel needs whereby the versatility of the private car is hard to beat and seems necessary to satisfy families’ complex travel needs. At the same time, across the world, we see urban areas growing in size to accommodate rising populations, which unfortunately increase the need for fast and flexible motorized travel. In regards to the school run, parents justify their car use by saying that it is the most convenient way of traveling and that they have concerns about traffic danger and feel the roads are too unsafe for children to travel independently (ironically not reflecting upon the fact that they themselves are contributing to other children’s road danger). It seems that in today’s hectic society, there is little place for children to explore their environment independently and parents often claim the mornings are too stressful and hectic to allow their children to travel independently – it is simply easier to “just take the car”.
Luckily, there are also some encouraging examples to share – of cities where the travel behavior of its citizens has completely changed. The beautiful city of Pontevedra in Spain, is one of those examples. The city has managed to reduce its car traffic by 97% since 1999. At this time, the citizens went to election and voted for a mayor who had promised to take actions to transform the streets and give the space back to the citizens. Today, the city is no longer a space for cars but is an environmentally friendly city that has developed into an international referent in regards of urban planning, quality of life, and sustainability. Its streets and squares, which earlier were crowded with cars, are now dynamic, safe, and welcoming spaces for children’s independent travel. A city should be a place for exploration, discovery, and learning, and that is what now makes Pontevedra ideal for the development of different competences and skills that stretches far beyond the classroom. It comes with no surprise that Pontevedra has become a popular destination for families with children.
If a government wishes to support healthy travel behavior and connected communities, it should encourage independent travel. This can be achieved by, for instance, developing safe and child-friendly roads, reducing vehicle speed, and also by addressing psychological barriers. Increasing independent travel may also be achieved by introducing certain initiatives, such as car-free zones around schools, increase parking fees, or subsidize public transportation fees. But most importantly, we all need to truly want to give up the car for other more sustainable travel modes. A goal that is too ambitious or too hard to reach in today’s society? The city of Pontevedra proves that is not.