Making a Case for Children’s Independent Travel

Imagine if someone told you that your child’s wellbeing, quality of life, physical health, and school performance could increase if their car travels were replaced by independent travel, defined here as the freedom to cycle or walk in public spaces without adult supervision. This is a rather daring statement but, in fact, research from different countries and across continents shows that this is actually the case.

Children’s daily travels enable young ones to engage with society and fulfill their needs and wishes by moving from one place to another and allow them to enjoy the freedom of independently traveling with friends, all of which promotes wellbeing and quality of  life. There  are many emotional benefits associated with children’s independent travel too, such as increased happiness, excitement, and  relaxation, whereas passive and motorized travel leads to children feeling rushed and tired. The emotional benefits and physical exercise related to independent travel also seem to affect school performance in a positive way; for example, it is easier to concentrate after a leisurely walk or bike ride. Additionally, when children move about in their neighborhood independently, not only do they get physical exercise but they also broaden their social networks and sense of community and develop spatial skills, which enhances various aspects of wellbeing and overall quality of life.


The emotional benefits and physical exercise related to independent travel also seem to affect school performance in a positive way


However, while we regularly learn more about the positive effects of independent travel on wellbeing and quality of life, the reality is otherwise, as children’s independent travel in on the decrease. In 1970, 86% of all schoolchildren in the UK traveled independently to school, whereas in 2010, the corresponding number was 25%. In the US, numbers are no less discouraging. Within the span of one generation, the percentage of children independently traveling to school has dropped precipitously, from about 50% in 1969 to just 13% in 2009. While distance to school is the most commonly reported barrier to walking and bicycling, private cars still account for half of school trips between 0.5 km and 1 km, a distance easily covered on foot or bike. But for various reasons many parents choose the car, despite the fact that the distance between home and school is both safe and short enough for independent travel.

Changes in lifestyles have added to the complexity of travel needs whereby the versatility of the private car is hard to beat and seems necessary to satisfy families’ complex travel logistics. Additionally, across the world, we see urban areas growing in size to accommodate rising populations, which unfortunately increases the need for fast and flexible motorized travel. With regard to the school run, parents justify their car use by saying that it is the most convenient way of traveling and that they have concerns about traffic danger and feel the roads are too unsafe for children to travel solo (ironically not reflecting upon the fact that they themselves are contributing to other children’s road danger). It seems that in today’s frenetic society there is little room for children to explore their environment independently; parents often claim that the mornings are too stressful to allow their children to travel independently and that it is easier to “just take the car”.

Nevertheless, there are some encouraging examples to share of cities whose citizens’ travel behavior has completely changed, with the city of Pontevedra in Spain being one. Pontevedra has managed to reduce its car traffic by 97% since 1999, when local residents voted for a mayor who had vowed to transform the streets and give them back to the citizens. Today, the city is no longer a space for cars but an environmentally friendly city that has developed into an international referent in regard to urban planning, quality of life, and sustainability. Its streets and squares, which once were crowded with cars, are now dynamic, safe, and welcoming spaces for children’s independent travel. A city should be a place for exploration, discovery, and learning, which is what now makes Pontevedra ideal for the development of different competences and skills that stretch far beyond the classroom. The connection between transportation and children’s wellbeing and quality of life is important for parents and policy-makers to consider as they have the power and responsibility to influence children toward developing healthy travel habits. They also have the responsibility to support the use of healthy travel modes and to protect children from the negative effect of everyday travel.

Without this knowledge and awareness, there may be a lack of motivation to introduce policies or secure infrastructure investment that bring about changes in travel behavior. If a government wishes to support healthy travel  behavior  and connected communities,  it  should encourage independent travel. This can be achieved by, for instance, developing safe and child-friendly roads, reducing vehicle speed, and addressing psychological barriers. Increasing independent travel may also be achieved by introducing initiatives such as car-free zones around schools, increasing parking fees, or subsidizing public transpor- tation fees.


If a government wishes to support healthy travel behavior and connected communities, it should encourage independent travel


Most importantly, we all truly need to want to give up the car for other, more sustainable, travel modes. Is this a goal that is too ambitious or too hard to reach in today’s society? The city of Pontevedra proves otherwise.

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