Half a century ago, it was very common for children to disappear from their neighborhood and play with other children, often on bicycles. This included the school’s commute. In 1969, 48% of children aged 5 to 14 walked or cycled to school themselves. by 2009, this had dropped to 13%.
The result is a huge increase in children coming by car. Anyone with school-age children is probably familiar with long and chaotic car drop-off lines for schools all over Los Angeles. The same goes for playdates, activities, sporting events, etc. – usually children arrive and leave by car.
Students now often travel further from home to school than their parents did. But the dangers of walking and cycling to school have also increased with bigger cars and a built environment not adapted to the behemoths on the road.
The 1973 Honda Civic was 140 inches long and 59 inches high. Today that is a Honda Civic 168 centimeters long and 70 centimeters high. A 2015 Ford Mustang is 63% larger than its 1964 predecessor. A 2018 Mini Cooper is 61% larger than its 1950 counterpart. A 2013 Land Rover is 43% larger than a 1981 model. And a modern pickup truck or SUV is bigger than a World War II Sherman tank.
As cars get bigger, they squeeze space into existing roads, leaving even less space for pedestrians and cyclists. Where previously a child on a bicycle could fit comfortably between parked cars and moving cars, they are more likely to be trapped dangerously between them. Even just crossing the street has become more difficult due to the terrible blind spots for drivers of modern,huge SUVs.
Fatal collisions are more common in children while walking. If vehicles were lower and hit a child, the child was more likely to have climbed over the hood. In today’s cars – and especially SUVs – because they are so much bigger, there is a higher risk of a child being pulled underwater and killed. Between 1989 and 1998 there were 15 deaths in the US, of children age 14 and under from “front-over” accidents; between 2009 and 2018, that rose to 575 deaths.
While larger vehicles are a factor, the built environment – the way we use our street space – hasn’t changed much to accommodate other modes of transportation. In Los Angeles, our “Vision Zero” program failed, with 312 dead on the streets by 2022 – a two-decade record (we would be three years away from zero). Our city has implemented only 3% of its own city Mobility Plan 2035, calling for networks of safe corridors for people walking and cycling. Our city is full of bigger cars moving faster than ever, putting vulnerable road users, especially children, at greater risk.
When vehicle sizes change and the built environment remains the same, it is tragically understandable that our children are the “right to roamand are ridden by their parents in most places. Given the stats on vehicle size and fatalities, I don’t blame parents for being hesitant to let their kids walk or bike to activities in Los Angeles on their own.
So what do we do? First, our government must recognize the danger our unnecessarily large vehicles have created in our society, and especially the toll on our children’s freedom. California should tax large trucks and SUVs accordingly and regulate enough to change consumer behavior. Not you Actually need a 6,000 pound Chevy Suburban to get a loaf of bread at the store. Turning off cars is important, and downsizing the cars that stay on the road is also critical.
We need to start aggressively implementing our 2035 Mobility Plan. When considering measures such as adding a bike path, we need to measure changes to our streets by the number of lives they can save, not the number of minutes they can add to the commuting.
The safety benefits of changing our streets are worth it, and the changes would free parents from their child’s driver. Parents are more likely to let their children cycle and walk when traffic has calmed down, crosswalks have been raised, intersections have been secured and bike paths have been made safe.
We got it right in the past with smaller vehicles going slower, creating a city where kids had more freedom. Let’s get back to that and support the infrastructure changes needed to free our kids and ourselves from being driven everywhere.
Michael Schneider is the founder of Streets for All.