Today is Playday, the annual play celebration. I am going to take a step back from the festivals, the Council fun days and the PR campaigning, important though they are. Instead, I want to explore one of the reasons why so many children are losing out on the opportunity to play outside in the first place: the car.
The car has been the biggest force behind the dramatic fall in childhood freedoms over the last 40 years or so, in the UK and many other rich nations. Take a look at the two graphs to the right. The first shows the growth in traffic in the UK over the last 60 years. In less than an average lifetime, car use has increased tenfold. Over a single generation – between 1970 and 1990 – it doubled.
The second graph shows, for pretty much the same 20 year period, the fall in children’s independent mobility (the best proxy measure we have for children’s outdoor play). This is the key chart from the classic One False Move [pdf link] study by Mayer Hillman and colleagues. It shows that the number of eight-year-olds walking to school unaccompanied fell from around 80% in 1971 to just 9% in 1990. To spell out the history lesson: this collapse happened way before MSN, Facebook and Bebo. It happened before Xboxes, PSPs and Nintendos. It started when kids’ TV was a choice between 2 channels, each offering a couple of hours of worthy programming before the grown-ups got home for the evening news.
The media tend to lay the blame for the decline of outdoor play firmly at the feet of anxious parents. Yet it is highly implausible that over a single generation, parents collectively became hugely more paranoid. I know of no evidence that parental anxiety rose dramatically in this period, if indeed if it has happened at all.
There is no other social trend dramatic enough to explain this change. Yes, more women were going into employment – but proportionally, the rise is not great. The same is true of other likely candidates, such as trends in family size or house size.
There are three main reasons why car growth has led to the shrinking of children’s horizons.
1) Traffic danger
It should be obvious that more traffic means more dangerous streets. With scores of child pedestrians dying every year, road danger is rightly at or near the top of every parent’s fears. The picture is a little more complicated – but only a little. True, road safety statistics show a dramatic fall in child pedestrian casualties in recent years. The likely explanation, offered by UNICEF amongst others, is not too hard to grasp. To put it bluntly, fewer children are being run over, because fewer children are out and about in their neighbourhoods.
2) Car dependence
Many more families are travelling by car, even for short journeys. According to Living Streets, the number of under-10s walking to school has fallen to its lowest ever level – 47% – despite the fact that the vast majority live less than 20 minutes’ walk away. Parents and children alike rarely get around their neighbourhoods on foot or by bike. In many middle-class suburban and rural areas, family life after school and at the weekends is dominated by the parental taxi service, as children are ferried from one educational, creative or sporting activity to the next. For many children, the only part of the neighbourhood they are familiar with is the five-yard trip from their front door to the passenger door of their cars. In one unpublished study by Dr Karen Malone, children in Australia – where suburban sprawl makes car ownership all but essential – were given digital cameras and asked to take photos that captured their daily lives. Fully half of the group included images of the insides of cars, like the one at the top of this post. It is no surprise that many children and parents, when they look beyond their homes, see a world that feels fearful – even if it is, by any objective measure, safe.
3) Car-centred town planning
Neighbourhoods, towns and whole cities have for decades been shaped by the assumption of universal car ownership – especially those built in the post-war era of suburbanisation. Even those that are not – Victorian suburbs like the one I live in – have been affected. Out-of-town supermarkets and malls have left local shops and high streets in long-term decline. Schools, hospitals and public services have been ‘rationalised’ – in other words, made bigger, with correspondingly bigger catchments that in turn generate more traffic. This trend for economies of scale in public services is visible even in my own specialism, the humble playground. A number of local authorities have removed many of their smaller, neighbourhood play spaces. The honeypot destination facilities that get all the investment, the makeovers and political profile are great for day trips or special occasions. But for everyday use, they may as well be in the next county.
These changes are about time as well as distance. The more time families spend in cars, the less time they have for everything else. Contrary to popular myth, parents are spending more time than ever watching over their children. But because many are also working longer hours and commuting longer distances, family time gets squeezed.
This is not an attack on car drivers or the car industry. We own a car. So do most families we know. In many parts of the UK, the car is essential for daily family life. The car is here, if not to stay, then for the foreseeable future. My aim is not to cast blame, but to call for a better balance between the needs of car drivers and everyone else who has a stake in what goes on in our streets: in particular, children, who have a big stake, but no say.
You may think that car growth is just an inevitable side effect of modern life, and that tackling it is doomed to failure, given the twin barriers of market forces and the car lobby. But take another look at my first graph, and the most recent figures. For the past four or five years, traffic has been falling – something not seen since the oil crisis in the early 1970s. It looks like we are beginning to fall out of love with the car – especially in big cities like London. This offers perhaps a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revisit the relationship.
Interestingly, compared to the UK, countries like Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands own more cars, but use them less [pdf link]. Some of these countries, alongside Scandinavia, also feature at the top of international tables comparing child well-being. This is no coincidence. Rather, it is the result of government policies that tame the car and recognise the value of compact, liveable, child-friendly neighbourhoods with attractive parks and public spaces, and good public transport, walking and cycling facilities.
This is why we should be so alarmed about the government’s planning proposals, announced last week. These will see a drastic reduction in national guidance, and also a presumption in favour of any new development. They could, in the view of the National Trust, “lead to unchecked and damaging development in the undesignated countryside on a scale not seen since the 1930s”. In other words, developer-friendly suburban housing estates, poor transport infrastructure, low-grade public space, and ever growing car-dependence.
If we care about children’s freedoms, their appetite for experience and adventure, and the importance of giving them everyday contact with the people and places around them, we have to become less addicted to our cars. We need a planning framework, and a government, which helps us do this. And we need ordinary families to step up to the plate too, both individually and collectively.
One simple, practical, zero-cost example of this shift is regular, temporary, resident-led road closures. This brilliant idea is being promoted by the inspirational Bristol-based campaigning group Playing Out. How are they marking Playday? With an afternoon street play event (helped by an admirable degree of support from Bristol City Council).
To close, here’s a question. What can you do to make sure that your children, the children you work with, or the children whose lives you are shaping, don’t end up seeing the world just through a windscreen?