Last week, the Global Designing Cities Initiative (GDCI) released Designing Streets for Kids to set a new global baseline for designing urban streets. Designing Streets for Kids builds upon the approach of putting people first, with a focus on the specific needs of babies, children, and their caregivers as pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users in urban streets around the world.
As a program of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) the supplement to NACTO-GDCI’s Global Street Design Guide rethinks street design. Most streets were not built with children in mind, and current street conditions in many places are unwelcoming and unsafe for kids. Traffic crashes kill 1.35 million people every year and they are the leading cause of death for young people ages 5-29. Traffic congestion and vehicle designs can also contribute to dangerously high levels of air pollution, which is responsible for the death of 127,000 children under the age of five each year. Many of these fatalities are preventable, and these numbers can be dramatically reduced through kid-friendly street design.
Adapted from Designing Streets for Kids, here are 10 actions that city leaders, transit agencies, and urban practitioners can take to address the challenges facing children and their caregivers— now and throughout the process of improving or redesigning urban streets.
Think from 95 cm
How does a 3-year old see the world? What are the specific needs of infants, toddlers, pregnant women, and caregivers as they move from place to place on streets, sidewalks, and on public transit? Designing streets for kids must take into account children and everyone who has, cares for, or interacts with a child. Children’s needs vary based on their age and local context, but they are also universal: like everyone, kids need food, shelter, play, joy, and healthy relationships with others. Streets can offer opportunities to address these needs, and what is good for one group of people can also benefit many others. Considerations such as improved seating options for pregnant women or sidewalks and curb heights that better accommodate strollers will also improve the safety and mobility of other street users. Streets that are good for kids are good for everyone.
Disincentivize Private Vehicles
Space is our most precious resource in cities because it is so limited. How street space is distributed determines mobility efficiency and how people actually use streets for their daily activities. One way to reallocate space for sustainable mobility is to replace mixed travel lanes with transit-only lanes, protected cycle facilities, or sidewalks to move more people using less space and fewer vehicles. Or, we can reclaim entire streets by closing them to vehicles altogether or creating shared streets by removing distinctions between pedestrians, cyclists, and cars and designing for low-speed travel.
Increase Transit Reliability
To improve existing streets and mobility, plan for transportation services that are affordable, reliable, convenient, and comfortable and for streets that have direct, continuous, and accessible pedestrian networks, protected cycle facilities, and dedicated transit lanes. Ideally, these can be easily combined to support a variety of different daily journeys. Analyze transit station locations, adjust and retrofit stops, or add new stops to connect them to critical services and key destinations for kids and caregivers.
Build Wide and Accessible Sidewalks
Sidewalks are the foundation of the transportation network for children and caregivers. Their design should reflect their use as both a right-of-way for movement and as a public space where children spend a large portion of their days. Well-designed sidewalks have a clear path that meets accessibility and pedestrian volume needs. A high-quality sidewalk has enough space for several people to walk side by side or in small groups, and it should provide enough room for conversations and play to coexist with movement. Safe and comfortable sidewalks are well-lit at night and have inviting building edges, shaded places to rest and walk, areas for play and socializing, and wayfinding systems.
Add Spaces for Play and Learning
Play is one of the main ways in which children learn and develop in their early stages of life. Play and learning should be incorporated into streets wherever possible, enhancing everyday journeys and augmenting what children learn in formal settings. Play and learning opportunities can be conceived of in new street designs, in large-scale street transformations, or as part of smaller-scale upgrade projections. Look for spaces, surfaces, street furniture, or other elements at various heights as opportunities to incorporate this. Consider textures, materials, paving, color, lighting, wayfinding, and interactive elements, keeping in mind long-term maintenance.
Provide Safe Cycling Facilities
Fully protected cycle tracks are the best type of cycle facility for children and caregivers on major urban streets. While children can cycle in line with motor vehicles on quiet streets with low speeds and volumes, dedicated and protected cycle tracks are necessary for them to navigate larger streets and intersections. High-volume cycling corridors and those where side-by-side riding is anticipated should provide wider cycle facilities.
Improve Pedestrian Crossings
Pedestrian crossings are a fundamental component of a safe, continuous pedestrian network. To support safety and comfort for all users, crossings should be frequently spaced, clearly marked, at grade, and as short as possible. When designing pedestrian crossings, special consideration should be given to children and people with limited mobility. Young children may move at slower speeds and cover less distance in the same amount of time as able-bodied adults. They can be harder to see and, therefore, may be more vulnerable at intersections that are hot spots for traffic crashes.
Lower Speeds by Design
Speed kills, and child traffic fatalities are preventable by designing for safer speeds. Street design has a strong effect on motorists’ default operating speed. Reduce the speed of through-moving traffic by minimizing the number of general-traffic lanes, and by adding horizontal and vertical deflection elements such as chicanes and speed tables where needed. Reduce turn speeds by tightening curb radii and designing compact intersections.
Add Trees and Landscaping
Green infrastructure provides a buffer from pollutants in the air and reduces storm water runoff and heat island effects. It also has added benefits for children and caregivers in urban areas, with numerous studies showing that children with more trees and greenery in their neighborhoods have better brain development and improved cognitive functions, ability to focus, and motor skills. Trees also lend shade to sidewalks, cycle lanes, and plazas, which is especially important in hotter climates.
Prioritize Children in Policies
Implementing and sustaining a long-term approach to street design that prioritizes kids requires a comprehensive effort that involves multiple agencies and stakeholders working closely together. Invite key decision makers to place kids’ health and well-being at the center of their work, whether they are shaping policies, programs, or physical projects. Setting a strong, long-term vision for putting kids first and ensuring that resources are allocated to achieving this vision will help different stakeholders know what they are responsible for in the short term. While adults must ultimately be held accountable for creating safe urban environments, it is important to meaningfully engage children in the process of shaping streets for them. Consider how children can offer input into local challenges, clarify priorities, and contribute to design solutions. Adjust engagement methods to suit different age groups and situations.