Our Car-Centric Built Environment Is Killing Our Kids


Typical pedestrian overpass. Image credit adobo28

In an earlier post about a novel method of separating cars from bikes and pedestrians, a commenter explained why the car gets to go straight through while the pedestrians have to schlep up and down stairs:

"It's cheaper. It's also greener. Think of all the materials it would take to make a road pass over a walkway as opposed to a walkway over a road. Think of the gasoline required to move a couple thousand pounds of steel up an incline as opposed to a few extra calories burned walking up the stairs."

But a new study suggests it might be worth it.

It's All About Design

Dr. Andrew Howard of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children has released a report Keeping children safe: rethinking how we design our surroundings, (download pdf here) that when it comes to childrens' safety, it's all about design. Key points:

  • Injury is the leading cause of death among children in the industrialized world, and often involves failure to negotiate a built environment.
  • Safety should be considered when designing the built environment to substantially reduce injuries and fatalities.
  • Perceived lack of safety is a major barrier to the use of active modes of transportation such as walking or cycling.
  • A safer environment can lead to improved public health, physical activity levels and quality of life, and reduced pollution.

He describes the difference in overpass design between Canada and Sweden to the Ann-Marie Tobin in the Canadian Press:

So what can be learned from Sweden?

One example he cited is suburban arterial roadways that force the cars underground to roundabouts at intersections, allowing pedestrians to walk along their route at ground level.

"You don't build a bridge and make the sidewalk go up because people don't like to climb across a road and will skip across the road, and then you have to put up a fence to stop them," Howard explained in an interview.

"The cars go down to a traffic roundabout that is lower than grade, with ramps in, ramps out."

Not only are pedestrians safe, but it does away with the side-impact car crash, which Howard said is responsible for 40 per cent of the deaths and bad neurological injuries for Canadian children.

"It's an expensive intersection to build," he observed. "It's a luxury intersection, right? And here the way that our incentives are written ... we almost direct our tax dollars toward luxury cars rather than towards luxury intersections."

That is why we have exactly twice the death rate than Sweden, where we put our priorities. In North America, it is all about the car; the pedestrian can take their chances or climb the stairs, or as Dr. Howard notes, just get in the car and get a lift. He concludes in the study:

Our built environment influences our children's levels of activity, their physical health and their risk for injury. It influences levels of pollution and our very quality of life. The dual benefits of reducing injury and increasing physical activity by modifying the built environment must be considered and studied together to ensure both are achieved. Intelligent planning, particularly with consideration for urban design and traffic engineering to emphasize safe walking and cycling, has enormous potential to improve the health and safety of children now and across the lifespan.

Essentially, we are killing kids by putting cars ahead of people.

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