Curbing Traffic
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Curbing Traffic

The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives

Chris Bruntlett, Melissa Bruntlett

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eBook - ePub

Curbing Traffic

The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives

Chris Bruntlett, Melissa Bruntlett

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About This Book

In 2019, mobility experts Melissa and Chris Bruntlett began a new adventure in Delft in the Netherlands. They had packed up their family in Vancouver, BC, and moved to Delft to experience the biking city as residents rather than as visitors. A year earlier they had become unofficial ambassadors for Dutch cities with the publication of their first book Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality.In Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett chronicle their experience living in the Netherlands and the benefits that result from treating cars as visitors rather than owners of the road. They weave their personal story with research and interviews with experts and Delft locals to help readers share the experience of living in a city designed for people.In the planning field, little attention is given to the effects that a "low-car" city can have on the human experience at a psychological and sociological level. Studies are beginning to surface that indicate the impact that external factors—such as sound—can have on our stress and anxiety levels. Or how the systematic dismantling of freedom and autonomy for children and the elderly to travel through their cities is causing isolation and dependency.In Curbing Traffic, the Bruntletts explain why these investments in improving the built environment are about more than just getting from place to place more easily and comfortably. The insights will help decision makers and advocates to better understand and communicate the human impacts of low-car cities: lower anxiety and stress, increased independence, social autonomy, inclusion, and improved mental and physical wellbeing.The book is organized around the benefits that result from thoughtfully curbing traffic, resulting in a city that is: child-friendly, connected, trusting, feminist, quiet, therapeutic, accessible, prosperous, resilient, and age-friendly.Planners, public officials, and citizen activists should have a greater understanding of the consequences that building for cars has had on communities (of all sizes). Curbing Traffic provides relatable, emotional, and personal reasons why it matters and inspiration for exporting the low-car city.

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Island Press

Chapter 1

The Child-Friendly City

Our culture obsesses about the care of children. We declare their well-being the most important thing in the world. Yet we keep building places that steal their freedom and put them in danger. I often wonder, “What kind of place would we create if we really wanted to meet our stated ambition of caring for children?”
— Charles Montgomery
“If you’re going to live here, then you’re going to have to get used to riding a bike.” These words, uttered by an emergency room nurse at the Reinier de Graaf Hospital in Delft, might be the most vivid memory of our family’s first few months on Dutch soil. It was an evening in April 2019, barely seven weeks since we had crossed the Atlantic to start our new lives in the Netherlands. Our son Etienne, we would soon discover, had suffered a slight fracture in the humerus bone of his left arm, after tumbling from his bicycle on his way home from school that afternoon.
What the nurse didn’t know is that Etienne, at the tender age of 10, had already been cycling confidently for the better part of six years, riding in dozens of cities—and all kinds of conditions—across North America, Europe, and Australasia. The irony that it took moving to fietsparadijs (bicycle paradise) for one of our kids to have their first broken bone was not lost on us, and makes us chuckle to this day.
It makes perfect sense, though. Nearly two months of riding around Delft independently had created a sense of ease and complacency in Etienne, causing him to momentarily let his guard down; something his classmates likely experienced from time to time. Pedaling along a main thoroughfare—Voorhofdreef—on the segregated cycle track, which was 3 meters (10 feet) wide and many meters from the nearest automobile, he simply lost his concentration, took a spill, and experienced what the Dutch call an eenzijdig ongeluk (one-sided accident). Thankfully, due to the forgiving nature of the street design, no pedestrian, bicycle, or motor vehicle was involved, and he was lucky enough to walk away from the incident without any life-threatening or life-changing injuries.
While the nurse proceeded to wrap Etienne’s arm in a plaster cast, she quizzed us about our decision to relocate to Delft. Like countless others we had spoken to in those first few weeks, she couldn’t comprehend why anyone would choose to give up the expansive and stunning natural beauty of Canada for her tiny, monotonous, and cramped country. So, for seemingly the dozenth time since landing at Schiphol Airport, we explained that—at its core—this move was about our children. We wanted to offer them the same liberation and self-determination experienced by most Dutch children (without their even knowing it). This is something we had longed to be able to provide them in Canada, but the built environment did not support or facilitate their needs. What surprised us, however, was how quickly they adapted to—and even reveled in—their newly discovered autonomy in the Netherlands.
Etienne’s new elementary school was 3 kilometers (2 miles) south of our apartment; a 15-minute bike ride at his lackadaisical pace. After our accompanying him each way for a couple of weeks, one day he simply decided he could make it home without Mom or Dad, and never looked back. Now he regularly walks into the city center to raid the candy store, pedals to art class at the public library, and even makes the lengthy trip to the neighboring city of Rijswijk to visit his friend, riding the 7 kilometers (4 miles) unaccompanied. Even with his arm in a cast—and unable to cycle for five weeks—he quickly adapted, taking advantage of his OV-chipkaart (public transport pass) and the local tram network, which conveniently dropped him off within a short distance of most destinations in his little world.
At the same time, 13-year-old Coralie, dropped into her first year of high school, immediately set off without intervention to discover her own way of getting from A to B (and C and D). Notorious for being directionally challenged—as evidenced by one or two bus rides in the wrong direction in Vancouver—she was suddenly more confident in figuring out her routes, and even okay with getting lost once in a while.
Etienne’s first school commute in the Netherlands. During the morning rush hour, the cycle tracks on Voorhofdreef are bustling with parents and kids alike. (Modacity)
Much like we hoped and dreamed, our teenage daughter joined the hordes of adolescents walking and cycling around Delft, completely void of “annoying” parental supervision. Her confidence inspired us to continue letting go, culminating in her making the three-hour, 240-kilometer (150-mile) train trip north, by herself, to visit a friend in Groningen for the weekend. After proving her capabilities on the streets of Delft, she gave us confidence that she had the skills and knowledge to manage the journey on her own; and if something did go awry, we were just a quick phone call away.
For most people born and raised in this country, like the emergency room nurse, the degree of self-sufficiency among children is completely underappreciated. Like most fish have no clue they’re surrounded by water, the vast majority of Dutch people have little understanding of the remarkable ways their cities have been shaped to make them more secure, inclusive, and pleasant for all ages. As is so often the case, it takes an outsider to hold up a proverbial mirror, and share their experiences of joy and wonder, for locals to truly appreciate what they’ve accomplished.
The stark contrast from our Canadian experience left us wondering: besides the obvious factors—ample cycle tracks and traffic-calmed streets—what was facilitating such different attitudes and experiences? What exactly did it mean for the well-being of our children, and what were their peers elsewhere missing out on?

Raising the Backseat Generation

For as long as humans have been living in cities, and until only recently, streets were the main site where children grew up. With larger families the norm until the 1960s, kids were pushed outside, leaving mothers to manage their daily activities free from the bother of their offspring. With all of the neighborhood children outside playing together, the community took responsibility for their welfare. Neighbors kept a watchful eye on each other’s little ones, and shop owners on those mixed-purpose streets were familiar with their faces. By and large, however, there was a general understanding: children largely had the capacity to manage themselves.
Dr. Lia Karsten, associate professor of urban geography at the University of Amsterdam, defines this group as outdoor children—children who played outside every day, and ultimately claimed the streets for their own. In the decades to come, however, two new categories of childhood emerged. As fast-moving and parked cars along these neighborhood streets increased, the children’s play space was lost, and the kids were pushed elsewhere. “The public space of the street used to be a child space, but it has been transformed to an adult space,” Karsten explains. Inversely, the private home evolved from a place for adults into one belonging to children.
“Now that outdoor children have grown into a small minority, nowadays, geographical childhood can be classified mainly into two types: namely ‘indoor children’ and children of the ‘backseat generation,’” says Karsten. Indoor children rarely play outside, and when they do, it is for short periods of time. The act of play becomes much more of an indoor activity, frequently involving an electronic screen. They are typically lower-class kids living in car-dominated neighborhoods, without the means to fill their free time with programmed pursuits. These children and their parents report feelings of anxiousness related to the idea of being outside.
Dr. Karsten defines the Achterbankgeneratie (backseat generation) as those children who are escorted everywhere and “whose time-space behavior is characterized primarily by adult-organized activities.” They are largely middle- and upper-class kids who are chauffeured from home to school, from sports practice to the museum, and from the cinema to music lessons. But whether indoor or backseat, the cause is the same: lack of safety and space due to a rise in the number of cars.
“Children and cars are competitors,” Karsten states definitively, “because cars occupy the street and the space in front of the house. What we see is parents are more afraid because of the danger of motorized traffic. This danger is directly in front of the house, which should be one of the safest places for children.” An age group that was once thought of as resilient is now treated as vulnerable; in need of constant management and supervision. Within a few generations, their ability to wander their streets has quickly diminished and, for many, completely disappeared.
With the lack of places to play—and ultimately move—kids and their activities are now pushed toward specially designated “safe” spaces. Think of the neighborhood park or playground, after-school programs, play-gyms, and community centers, the only places children now enjoy physical activity and social interaction. While these locations provide safety and comfort for both parents and their offspring, they ultimately set kids apart from the rest of society, in a sense defining them as “the other.”
When this development is viewed from the perspective of the transport network, this means that the ability to roam independently is replaced with supervised movement, often from the backseat of the family automobile. These additional trips, in combination with traffic being allowed to race through their neighborhood streets, has turned the places that children often frequent into metaphorical “islands.”

The City as an Archipelago

“The city is an archipelago consisting of different places of which their own street is only one island in a chain,” explains Karsten. “They move—escorted—from one domain to another in their urban field, constructing their identities as modern young kids.” Growing up in an environment where they fail to grasp how they progress from island to island, these children become completely reliant on adults for their navigation and transportation needs. For both indoor children and the backseat generation, their agency is reduced to the reach of their parents’ eyesight.
This problematic concept of the city as an archipelago was later reinforced by Dr. Steven Fleming—an architect and the author of Cycle Space and Velotopia—who in 2017, began studying and mapping the consequences of street grids on walking and cycling rates in his hometown of Newcastle, Australia. When the effects of uncrossable arterial roads and rat running (the practice of using residential side streets or any other unintended shortcut) motorists were visualized on a map, Fleming concluded that most city dwellers were effectively living on islands.
“To a risk averse cyclist, a child for example, the city would feel like a hundred small islands with what might as well be oceans between them,” Fleming observed. “Arterial roads with limited safe crossing opportunities for people, and residential streets engineered to provide drivers with shortcuts leave most cyclists trapped on the street where they live. How can they access school, jobs, or shops?”
This perfectly captures our family’s own experiences in East Vanouver. Despite living in a neighborhood with some of the lowest rates of car usage and ownership, and the highest rates of active travel in the region, we found ourselves surrounded on all four sides by four- and six-lane arterial roads that each carried upward of 40,000 vehicles per day; a huge number of which were just passing through. To make matters worse, Commercial Drive—the vibrant high street where we did all of our local shopping, dining, and after-school activities—had the dual and conflicting function of serving as a four-lane arterial road that moved 20,000 cars per day. Not only did this negatively impact our health, happiness, and mobility, but it also limited the ability of our children to walk or cycle a few blocks to their school, the local community center, or a friend’s house without Mom or Dad by their side.
When mapping the impact of arterial roads in Newcastle, Australia, Dr. Fleming found most city dwellers were effectively living on islands. (Steven Fleming and Ben Thorp)
Furthermore, every single street design element prioritized passing cars over people who lived in our community. Faded, unraised, and poorly lit crosswalks made traversing the street a game of Russian roulette; the outcome resting in the hands of motorists racing from one red light to the next. Where driveways and alleyways intersected with sidewalks, the footpath completely disappeared, leaving pedestrians trespassing in “no man’s land.” Then there were the “beg buttons”—the devices used by pedestrians to request permission to cross the street—at controlled crossings, located mere inches from cars whizzing by at 80 km/h (50 mph). Considering how the deck was stacked, few could fault parents insisting on shuttling kids from place to place, instead of letting them use their own two feet.
According to Karsten, greater supervision of play and movement has an obvious influence on a child’s ability to exist independently. Even in the Netherlands, a great deal of supervised mobility occurs—albeit by bicycle—until the child is 9 or 10, creating a backseat generation of sorts. But she is quick to point out that there are some positive benefits to these trends. Increased parental participation in children’s lives equates to a stronger child–parent bond, where the child is viewed less as a burden and more as a contributing member of the family. But with declining levels of social cohesion, physical activity, and unstructured play in almost every neighborhood, it is difficult to argue that these benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

A Drop in Active and Independent Travel

The first, and most obvious, impact of the backseat generation is the reduction in the rates of physical activity—and overall health—of children. A staggering 93 percent of Canadian kids and 80 percent of American kids do not get the recommended hour of daily physical activity. One in three Canadian children are either overweight or obese, a vicious cycle that proves difficult to break as they enter adulthood. By 2040, almost three-quarters of Canadian adults will be overweight, significantly increasing their risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and costing the health care system over C$100 billion per year. Sadly, this generation of children could be the first in the history of Western civilization to live less healthful and shorter lives than their parents.
This generational drop in active and independent travel isn’t unique to Canada. In 1971, 86 percent of British primary school children were allowed to travel home from school on their own. In 2010, it was 25 percent. In 1969, 50 percent of American kids walked or cycled to school. By 2009, that had dropped to just 13 percent. The number of parents ferrying their kids to school in a minivan or SUV (ironically, because they fear there are too many cars on the street) also contributes to growing congestion rates. A 2008 report from the New Zealand Department of Transport estimated that up to a third of all automobiles on Auckland’s roads during morning rush hour were parents dropping their children off at school. Currently, about two-thirds of all Dutch children walk or bike to school, with 75 percent of secondary school students cycling to school. By enabling safe and active travel, Dutch cities prevent an estimated one million car journeys to school each morning.
Then there is the growing link between active travel and academic performance, corroborated by a 2012 study of 20,000 Danish children between the ages of 5 and 19. It concluded that kids who cycled or walked to school, rather than being bussed or driven, performed better on tasks that required concentration—such as solving puzzles...

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