In the 1970s, minor residential streets had little motor traffic and it was normal for children to play in the streets. However, the streets in Harrow and other UK towns and cities have become dominated by cars, and are increasingly hostile for people to walk, cycle or socialise. Over the past decade alone the amount of car traffic has increased by 60%.
The increase in traffic particularly on minor roads is a particular danger. The rate of killed or seriously injured pedestrians per distance driven is 17% higher on minor roads than major roads, and a driver is three times more likely to kill or seriously injure each cyclist that they encounter on a minor road, compared A roads (Aldred, 2019). Over three quarters of deaths due to injury among 10-18 year-olds are related to traffic incidents (RCPCH, 2014).
Children in the UK are now much more limited in their independence of movement than previous generations, and spend more time playing indoors. Lack of physical activity is a major health risk for the future – a fifth of year 6 children in Harrow are obese (Public Health England, 2018).
Yet outdoor play and freedom are crucial for children’s happiness, and are key reasons why children in the Netherlands are the happiest in Europe (UNICEF, 2020). Children in the Netherlands are able to travel independently quite long distances by bike, reducing the need for parents to spend time driving them around.
Reducing traffic dominance on our streets and making it safer for children to travel independently will have many benefits – happier, healthier children, more time for parents, less traffic and less pollution. Walking and cycling improvements are recommended in public health guidance (NICE, 2010; NICE, 2012) and are especially important as Harrow recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. Child-friendly streets will be safer for everyone, including older people and people with disabilities.
Car-free days and ‘play streets’ are popular in many boroughs in London. Harrow has introduced four ‘school streets‘ to protect children from pollution and traffic on the streets immediately outside schools, and many more are needed. Low traffic neighbourhoods reduce traffic in residential areas and create safe walking and cycling routes, enabling children to be more independent. Over time they encourage people to walk and cycle more, and drive less (Aldred 2020).
A network of cycle lanes, 20mph speed limits and better pedestrian crossings are also needed in order to enable children (and adults) to travel safely on foot or by bike. Other boroughs such as Waltham Forest have already started to see the benefits of such schemes, and Harrow can start to turn back the traffic tide by embracing, improving and extending the initial Streetspace schemes.
Child-friendly streets will be safer, pleasant and more accessible for everyone.