How Cars Destroy the Wilderness of Childhood

It’s the height of summer, the stretch of endless lazy days when —
at least in the American dreamworld — kids hunt for adventure in packs
through the shimmering heat. A time when they make their own fun. A
time of bicycles and improvised games and ice cream, of luxuriant
boredom and the discovery it makes possible.

Except that
all around the country, from rural communities to tree-lined suburbs to
city streets, parents are wary of letting their kids roam at all. Some
adults fear the prospect of stranger abduction, a risk that is actually
statistically tiny.

But many more keep their kids close by because of the threat posed by car traffic, which is is very real and virtually omnipresent. Today on the Streetsblog Network, member blog Sprawled Out, from Franklin, Wisconsin, talks about "The Lost Wilderness of Childhood," and the role of the automobile in its destruction:

25387704_16e7a0ea09_m.jpgReady for adventure. Photo from gregor_y via Flickr.

Another
sad victim of suburban non-planning is the ability of our children to
enjoy the freedom of wandering a "territory" of their own. Our children
now need to be escorted via car to pretty much every event in their
lives. Even the occasional decently sidewalked subdivision is enclosed
by wall-of-China collector roads that are impassible and limit safe
travel.

A few nights ago the local news featured the story of a child
hit by a car in a nearby suburb. A neighbor pointed out the road it
happened on: a typically winding, wide, pedal-to-the-metal subdivision
speedway. The kid made the mistake of riding his bike a few hundred yards from his house in the hostile environment we currently embrace.

There
was talk of an ice cream shop going into Andy’s on Rawson and 51st
(still planned, as far as I know). Sadly, it’s a horrible idea — who
would let their child travel there independently, crossing 51st or
Rawson? Yet, there it will likely stand, beckoning for — cars. We will
drive our children there, and they will have their ice cream under our
sheltering eyes.

John Michlig, Sprawled Out’s author, quotes from a beautiful article by Michael Chabon in The New York Review of Books
this
month called "The Wilderness of Childhood," in which the writer talks
about going for a bike ride with his daughter at the height of summer:

What
struck me at once on that lovely summer evening, as we wandered the
streets of our lovely residential neighborhood at that after-dinner
hour that had once represented the peak moment, the magic hour of my
own childhood, was that we didn’t encounter a single other child.

I’m
lucky to live on a block in New York where kids ride their scooters up
and down the sidewalk late into the night. They form their own tribes.
They’ve even convinced themselves that one of the houses is haunted.
It’s a small stretch of childhood wilderness, but one that suffices for
my seven-year-old — for now. The sad thing is how rare even this tiny
slice of freedom is.

What’s sadder still is how many
parents in cities — where living without a car is a relatively easy
choice to make — lament the situation, then strap the kids into their
carseats and turn the key in the ignition. And drive down streets where
other kids are trying to play.

Want to explore the possibility of creating more safety and freedom for kids? Take a look at the Safe Routes to Schools website. It’s a place to start, anyway.

More highlights from the network: Grieve-Smith on Transportation finds a demotorized haven (well, almost) on New York’s Governors Island; DC Bicycle Transportation Examiner says we can’t blame China for air pollution on the West Coast; and Bike Blog NYC has a link to a story about Kenyans who charge their cellphones while they pedal.

  • Bruce Appleyard, the son of Donald Appleyard of the famous San Francisco study showing that traffic volume directly affected the number of friends and acquaintances neighbors had on their block, explored the effect of the windshield perspective on children’s spatial development. He found that children who had been driven everywhere could create maps that showed individual connections of home to school, home to store, home to friend’s house, and so on, but they had no clue how to connect school to store to friend. Children who traveled by foot or bike were much more cognizant of the big picture and could draw maps connecting everything.

    “These examples show how neighborhood design can affect children’s sense of place. As parents are forced to chauffeur their children throughout their childhood, children can become cognitively disconnected from their community,” he said in the study.

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