Strength Test #6: Can children safely walk and bike in your town?

This article is the third in a series on the Strong Towns Strength Test, a simple, ten question method to help determine your town's strength and resilience. This series offers step-by-step guides for giving your town the test along with ideas for actions you can take to help your town grow stronger.  We'll aim to publish one article in this series every week, written by a variety of Strong Towns' staff and members.

The question we're exploring today is #8 on the Strong Towns Strength Test

Is it safe for children to walk or bike to school and many of their other activities without adult supervision?

My wife and I recently spent the weekend in our old neighborhood in Chicago. As we walked the beautiful streets lined with trees and shops and bustling with people, we realized how much we’ve missed the freedom we enjoyed there. Going out to grab a bite to eat, catch a movie, or just enjoy a bit of street life was a trivial thing that could take as little as five minutes or occupy us for the entire day. The neighborhood’s balance of uses and narrow, naturally calm streets offered maximum flexibility; we could make of it exactly what we wanted at that moment—and so could our kids. We’ve moved on, but the neighborhood has never really left our hearts.

I'm going to rephrase the above question ever so slightly: Is it safe and feasible for children to walk or bike to school and many of their other activities without adult supervision? Here's the reason for my wording tweak: Our current neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin is pretty safe for walking and biking. There’s also an excellent bike path that provides safe, comfortable travel to many other neighborhoods, including a world-class university and downtown. In a year or two, I’ll feel comfortable with my oldest daughter exploring on her own. But we live in a sea of single family homes. Apart from a creek and the local park, what is there to explore? In theory she could safely get a lot of places, but her legs can only carry her so far.

The question we’re discussing today is an acknowledgment that a successful neighborhood is measured by how well it accommodates the weakest among us. If we can't build towns where our kids can safely play and run and grow up as independent people, then we have little hope of making our towns work for adults either. Moreover, towns where walking and biking are easy modes of transportation are towns where life is more affordable for everyone and city budgets are not bleeding money toward road maintenance (or school busing).

How to take the test

1. Make a list of the destinations and activities that you (presumably an adult) would feel safe walking or biking to. Ideally, don't just think about what you'd hypothetically feel safe walking/biking to, actually think about which locations you do walk or bike to. If you can’t satisfy your quotidian needs by walking and biking, chances are a child is even worse off. 

Source:  Elizabeth

Source: Elizabeth

2. Identify the nearest place to buy a popsicle (probably a convenience store or local market). This test is rather famous in urbanism circles and is an extremely useful heuristic. Walk to the popsicle spot and consider along the way, could a child safely travel this route alone? Better yet, have a child (yours or a friends) take this walk with you, letting them lead the way. Are you rushing forward to grab the child's hand at each intersection? Are you feeling nervous about the cars around you? Does the child seem at ease or fearful? Ask him or her!

3. Take a walk past the nearest school on a school morning. Are there kids on foot or bike heading to school? Are the roads clogged with parents dropping kids off in their cars? There’s a certain irony in the fact that we drive kids to school out of fear for the dangers posed by people driving who, among other things, are dropping their kids off at school.

Cultural idiosyncrasies aside, as you walk around, try to identify barriers to walking and biking. There may be some obvious candidates: a fast, wide arterial stroad, for example. But there may be more subtle impediments as well: a fence around the schoolyard that forces students to walk further than necessary; or perhaps a gap in sidewalks that forces pedestrians onto the roadway.

4. Make a map of sidewalks in your neighborhood. Consult Google Earth or literally walk the streets of your neighborhood to draw a rough map. Do sidewalks exist? Are they connected in a helpful network? In an urbanized area, there are extremely few cases where sidewalks should not be a prerequisite for walking. Until we do a better job of separating streets from roads, this will continue to be the case, so a lack of sidewalks is typically a bad sign. Other factors to look out for: are sidewalks separated from the roadway by anything? (Parked cars, trees.) A sidewalk immediately adjacent to high speed traffic isn’t even comfortable for adults and is certainly not appropriate for children.

If this is what a typical walk to school looks like for your neighborhood's children, you've got a problem.

If this is what a typical walk to school looks like for your neighborhood's children, you've got a problem.

Next steps

Your response to your findings will need to be determined by what you observe in your particular neighborhood. Here are some common problems and suggested strategies to address them:

1. Does your neighborhood suffer from a lack of destinations? This situation is common in most neighborhoods developed during the suburban experiment. Long term solutions like increasing the mix of land uses may require years of sustained advocacy. In the meantime, consider implementing temporary solutions. My city has developed multiple programs to bring temporary destinations into neighborhoods around the region on a rotating schedule. It’s a low cost way to bring a splash of urbanism to any location.

2. Do cars drive too fast through the neighborhood? This may or may not relate to the speed limits set by legislation. Even residential streets that are ostensibly “low speed” can be plagued by people who value their speedy trip over the safety and quality of life of those who live next to a well-known shortcut. A permanent redesign to narrow streets can address many issues, but it can be difficult to ask for change based on imagination alone. Why not demonstrate the power of traffic calming with a temporary installation? Cones, street art, and other low cost solutions are often just as effective at calming traffic and they allow residents, city staff, and elected officials to observe the benefits for themselves. Of course, don’t let the change end with the temporary stuff. A temporary installation is also an opportune time to gather support for permanent fixes. Keep up the pressure until your city fixes the problem permanently.

3. Is there a busy street that separates residents from each other and from destinations on the other side? Busy streets can be a thorny problem to solve. Their importance in the transportation network raises the stakes for politicians and staff who might otherwise be sympathetic to more dramatic changes. Sustained advocacy is always important, but you may have to adopt a bit of a “take what you can get” attitude. Are there changes the city could make that won’t significantly alter the current operations of the roadway? RRFBs and HAWK signals are band-aid solutions, but they can be a real improvement over existing conditions. Crossing islands are another possibility that can initially be done cheaply and eventually made permanent. Is the street going to be reconstructed soon? That is the best time to mobilize the neighborhood for a better design, since money is already going to be spent rebuilding the roadway.

Towns where children can take care of their own needs

I'll conclude by sharing some examples of towns that are getting it right.

Giddings Plaza in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. (Source:  Andrew Seaman )

Giddings Plaza in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. (Source: Andrew Seaman)

First, Lincoln Square, the Chicago neighborhood I described above, is an excellent example of a neighborhood where kids are empowered to manage their own transportation. The vast majority of its streets are narrow, with slow traffic and pedestrians shielded from the roadway by trees and parked cars. All streets have sidewalks. And a healthy mix of land uses ensures that residences are within a short walk of a host of opportunities, including schools, parks, after-school activities, and other destinations.

Lakewood, Ohio is a suburb of Cleveland that was featured on Strong Towns last year (see the above video). As the Strong Towns article explains:

Lakewood, OH is a "walking school district." The town has never, in its history, owned schoolbuses, so streets are designed to ensure that every child can walk or bike to school... Not only does this mean that children get healthy exercise each morning and afternoon, plus communal time with their peers and families who walk with them, the following video explains, "Lakewood City School District spokesperson Christine Gordillo estimates the policy saves them about one million dollars annually."

Children on a day care field trip in Hoboken, NJ. Source:  City of Hoboken

Children on a day care field trip in Hoboken, NJ. Source: City of Hoboken

Another town we've covered before on Strong Towns is Hoboken, NJ. Hoboken came in second place during last year's Strongest Town Contest in part, because of its highly walkable landscape. In his initial contest submission, Hoboken resident, Phil Jonat wrote: 

Hoboken is truly a pedestrian friendly town. Most streets are narrow one way streets with parallel parking on both sides. Regardless of stop signs, most drivers treat every intersection like a shared space. This has always made me feel comfortable, from a college student, to a car driver, to a biker, to today. I feel comfortable that my kids could thrive here, and I could grow old here.

I hope these ideas and examples offer a good starting place from which to explore the walk- and bike-friendliness of your neighborhood for young residents. Please let us know how your town scores in the comments.

(Top image source: woodleywonderworks)

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Spencer Gardner is a transportation planner based in Madison, WI. He spends his spare time chasing his children, riding bikes, doing hobbyist computer programming, and very occasionally writing about urban issues. You can read his thoughts about transportation at