Cars, streets and child health

Today Public Health England published new statistics on the link between children’s emotional wellbeing and physical activity.  They reminded us of the shocking statistic that only 1 in 5 children aged 5-15 achieve the minimum physical activity levels they need each day to stay healthy.

The strong focus on childhood obesity and the role of food and drink in driving that growing health crisis means that the important role of everyday activity is all too often overlooked.  Enabling children to walk, cycle, scoot, play and explore in the streets around where they live is so important for their happiness, resilience, independence and healthy growth.  My guest article in the UK Faculty of Public Health’s magazine Public Health Today set out why I think the Healthy Streets Approach is so desperately needed by our children……

The Healthy Streets approach delivers active children and healthy communities

Our efforts to tackle childhood obesity have focused on modifying diet, but the other side of the ‘energy in/energy out’ equation deserves careful consideration for the many co-benefits we can reap. A study by Mackett and Paskins (2004) assessed children’s energy expenditure during different activities and found that children burned the most calories when playing outdoors unsupervised or travelling actively. Neither activity is a routine use of time for the majority of children in the UK. Unlike past generations, most children in the U.K. do not spend several hours a day drifting around the streets looking for adventure and opportunity. Instead a car ride to organised activities, playing computer games and watching tv are more common.

There is good reason for this, over recent decades cars have filled our streets in ever increasing numbers. Now more affordable, convenient, comfortable and faster than ever their ubiquity means we don’t think to question their right to line our streets when parked and take precedence over other uses and users of the streets when they are moving. As a result many parents are reluctant for their child to walk with their friends to school, the park, the community centre or library and the sight of a child kicking a ball around in their street is rare. While many children living in urban areas live within walking distance of parks their ability to access them is constrained by the availability of an adult to accompany them. If we are to address inactivity amongst children then this is the issue we must face head on: how we will create street environments which are safe enough for children to travel on foot or by bike unsupervised.

Achieving this goal will deliver many wider health benefits. Streets in which car use is constrained (both in volume and speed) reduce road danger to all of us, improve air quality, reduce noise and are more accessible to the most vulnerable groups – older people, those living with illness and disabilities. These streets become welcoming spaces for everyone to walk, cycle and spend time helping us all to build some much needed activity into our daily routine and connect with our neighbours and communities. More eyes on the street helps reduce the fear of strangers that can further restrict children’s independent mobility.

I developed the Healthy Streets approach to deliver these outcomes. There are ten indicators of a Healthy Street, all are evidence-based to improve health, reduce inequalities and promote active travel. These indicators help to focus transport policy and decision making on what really matters: the human experience. The Healthy Streets approach moves us away from the passive acceptance of the dominance of motor traffic. We must consciously act to restrain motorised traffic through measures such as enforcing speed limits, ensuring pedestrian priority at crossings, reducing the convenience of driving short distances for trips that could be done on foot or by bicycle and installing cycling infrastructure that parents would be happy for their children to use unsupervised. Only through measures such as these, delivered at scale in villages, towns and cities across the country, can we provide an environment in which we can grow up and grow old healthy.