At least once a month when I’m talking to fellow parents, I hear a different version of the same sentiment: “I have to drive my kids to school—it’s too dangerous for them to walk.”
Where I live, in Los Angeles, it’s not hard to understand why many parents don’t let their kids walk and bike. Here, on streets designed for the fast movement of cars, crashes are the leading cause of death for kids aged 4 to 15.
About 4,000 children are killed nationwide each year in traffic collisions.
Reverting to cars for short trips like the journey to school is one reason that transportation emissions keep going up in the U.S.—a third of our vehicular trips are three miles or less. Yet you can see the evidence that people want to walk and bike on virtually any weekend in the U.S. People of all ages move through our cities during open streets events—in LA’s case, it’s over 100,000 people per event. But the reason those people aren’t traveling on foot or bike along the same streets to school or work on Monday? They don’t feel safe.
The reality of our climate crisis has been outlined in stark detail by a devastating United Nations report. And with transportation generating one-third of U.S. carbon emissions, it’s clear that unsafe pedestrian and biking conditions in our cities could end up making climate change much, much worse.
I find it astounding, actually, that 400 mayors have so confidently signed on to hit these ambitious emissions targets, something for which cities have no real historical precedent, while fewer mayors will commit to designing safer streets—something we know exactly how to do and can see demonstrated in cities all over the world.
Last year, Oslo recorded zero pedestrian or cyclist deaths. Over the last five years, the city replaced nearly all on-street parking with bike lanes and sidewalks in an effort to make most of its downtown car-free. Speed limits were dramatically reduced, with “heart zones” drawn around the city’s schools where officials made physical changes to streets to protect students walking and biking to school, including closing streets to cars during school hours.
Perhaps even more remarkably, last year there were no children under 15 killed by cars anywhere in Norway, a country with a population of 5.3 million.
In the 1960s, about half of American kids walked or biked to school. Now it’s 13 percent. | Photo courtesy of the City of Los Angeles
In 2015, a major study by the University of California at Davis and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy looked at how something as simple as a global increase in people biking could impact emissions. Around the world, about 6 percent of urban trips are taken by bike—a percentage that is far lower in most U.S. cities. Increasing that figure to 15 percent worldwide by 2050 could slash global emissions, reads the report. “Including the impact from increased public transport use, this figure could be cut in half.”
It’s a fairly obvious, localized solution—along with their emissions goals, mayors could easily set goals to double the number of people biking and walking. But the IPCC’s report calls for an accelerated timeline—not by 2050, but by 2030. Cities could meet this deadline by helping more kids walk and bike to school safely.
Since 1969, the number of American kids walking to school has fallen from 48 percent to just 13 percent, according to a 2017 Safe Routes to School study. This is due to a variety of factors, including the fact that students are more likely now than they were a decade ago to attend schools that are not within walking distance of their homes. But 31 percent of U.S. students in kindergarten through eighth grade still live within one mile of their school. Only a third of those students currently walk or bike.
Increased walking, biking, and transit are all listed in the recommendations of the 1,000-page UN report, but “Equal Safe Access to Educational Institutions” is specifically listed as a particularly low-risk/high-reward climate action.
“Collaborative efforts need to address safety issues from a dual perspective,” the report says. “First by working to change the existing infrastructure and use of roads to better address the traffic problems that children currently face walking to school, and then to better site schools and better control the roadways and land uses around them in the future.”
Making streets safe enough for all kids to walk and bike to school is something we can do today. Safe Routes to School is a national nonprofit with chapters across the country and a state-by-state report that provides a roadmap for the improvements that need to be made. These advocates have intimate knowledge of the challenges that kids face in the communities they serve and could advise cities on what changes should be made first.
It would be relatively inexpensive for the climate mayors in those 400 cities to start cordoning off sections of streets around schools with trees, bollards, and colorful paint as part of a protected, connected network of safe routes to school.
Cities might turn schools into mobility hubs, with bike share (including bike share for kids!), scooter share, and other electric vehicle share, so parents can drop off their kids and switch to other car-free modes to get to work.
These changes would be transformative, not just for kids and families, but also for people with disabilities and our swiftly growing population of older adults. The very first day after San Francisco closed Market Street to private vehicles in January, the street saw a 20 percent increase in cyclists.
What we choose to do over the next year will determine the path we set for our children. Do I want to tell my kids that their neighbors opted to preserve parking over their well-being? Do I want to tell my kids that their parents chose the convenience of an SUV over their shot at a future?
For city leaders, I ask you: If you claim you are taking climate action to prevent needless deaths, widespread poverty, and human suffering decades from now, it’s inevitable that at some point you will need to take dramatic steps to make more room for zero-emission transportation modes. So why wouldn’t you deploy those same changes immediately, which would start to save lives, create equity, and improve public health within a year?
Call them school zones. Call them zero-emission zones. Call them family zones. Call them green zones. Call them future zones. The challenge to eliminate emissions and eliminate traffic deaths in our cities is now the exact same challenge, and it really doesn't matter what we call it—as long as we do it fast.