Livable streets for schoolchildren


back to issue

HOW do children view their world? What helps them connect with their environment and community? Or, perhaps more importantly, what gets in their way? These are questions that need to be addressed when working to make schools and neighbourhoods safe and accessible for children. Safe and livable neighbourhood streets, with adequate facilities for walking, bicycling and traffic calming, can also help children develop a positive and holistic view of their communities. Exposure to heavy traffic negatively affects children’s perceptions of their environment, and installing pedestrian and bicycle improvements can quickly improve those perceptions. This shift in perceptions may not only encourage more physical activity, but can also strengthen the connection between children and their communities. In sum, safe school area streets for walking and bicycling improve a neighbourhood’s livability from a child’s perspective.

In many high income countries (HIC), children are powerfully dependent on cars and their drivers to access vital opportunities to improve their lives (education, recreation, sustenance). Paradoxically, they are also the most vulnerable to threats posed by this traffic – children are often hit by parents chauffeuring their kids. ‘Look both ways and wait before you cross the street!’, parents will instruct their children.1 If a road is busy with speeding traffic and has no sidewalks and/or bike lanes, parents will likely tell their children to avoid it altogether. The underlying message is clear – cars rule our streets, effectively isolating our children from the surrounding community and limiting the range of activities they can participate in while growing up.

This limit on independent mobility also decreases children’s opportunity to be physically fit and healthy. But it may also impact on aspects of their mental health by diminishing their ability to independently experience and learn about the world around them. With auto-dependency becoming the norm in HICs, we have seen an alarming downward trend in children independently walking and biking to school. A recent poll found that while 71% of adults walked or bicycled to school when they were young; only 18% of their children do so. The movement to create Safe Routes to School has in large part focused on helping children get back on their feet and on bicycles in order to infuse more exercise into their daily routine. This is important: the proportion of children who are overweight has quadrupled in the last three decades.2 Creating safer streets for children to freely experience the world also shows promise toward providing fundamental improvements to children’s sense of well-being in their neighbourhood, as well as a connection to their community.


This image shows how community ties can actually be knit together by a street that is livable and inviting – or torn apart when auto traffic noise, pollution, and threats dominate the street environment (Source: Appleyard, 1981, p. 21).



This illustration shows how a resident’s sense of their home territories shrinks as traffic grows heavier and faster. Source: Appleyard, 1981, p. 23.

By 2020, there will likely be a decline in fatalities in high-income countries (down approximately 28%), versus an increase in fatalities of almost 92% in China and 147% in India.3 Reduction of road traffic crashes in the coming years will thus remain an important public health issue. Image mapping exercises dramatically illustrate how children (and adults) perceive their environment, and how doing something as simple as building a pathway can change those perceptions. This article focuses on a cognitive mapping exercise conducted in schools in Contra Costa County in the San Francisco Bay Area. This exercise demonstrates how high traffic affects children’s perceptions of their community and how making street livability improvements can quickly change those perceptions and help children acquire a more positive view of their community.

The practice of cognitive or image mapping originated in the field of psychology and was introduced to a broad audience of urban designers and planners by Kevin Lynch. Through his seminal work, The Image of the City, Lynch classified the physical, perceptible objects of an environment into five elements: paths, edges, nodes, districts, and landmarks.4 Urban planners have used image mapping to help identify important destinations, preferred routes of travel and barriers in a community.

My father, Donald Apple-yard, earlier a student and then faculty colleague of Lynch, used mapping exercises to conduct a renowned study on the impact of traffic on street and community livability. He did this by comparing three residential streets in San Francisco, similar in many respects except for their traffic levels. Some of his major findings were that as traffic volumes increase, quality of life factors related to healthy and strong communities (e.g., social connections, size of home territory, neighbourhood pride and property values) decrease. In adapting to these traffic impacts, residents often withdraw and retreat into the backs of their homes and away from the street and, consequently, their community. He also found that children and the elderly were particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of traffic exposure.

Figure 1 graphically represents the inverse relationship between social ties (shown by the lines across the streets) and vehicular traffic, which increases from top to bottom. In the top street, where there is light vehicular traffic, there are many social connections and an active street-life, whereas in the bottom street, the reverse can be seen with heavy traffic and fewer social ties. In sum, this image shows how community ties can actually be knit together by a street that is livable and inviting or, alternatively, be torn apart when auto traffic noise, pollution and threats dominate the street environment.

Additionally, Figure 2 shows how residents’ sense of their home territories shrinks as traffic grows heavier and faster. When heavy traffic forces residents to retreat into the backs of their homes and away from the street, the areas in front of homes – that could be vibrant places for children to play and neighbours to socialize – are left empty of street life. As a result, few ‘watchful eyes’ are left to enhance neighbourhood safety.


Following on the legacy of my father’s and Lynch’s work, I initiated a study to explore how traffic affects children’s perceptions of their environment, focusing specifically on the community environment between home and school. Early in the study, I worked with two colleagues, Vijay Jayachandran and Marcus Diederich, to conduct focused interviews and mapping exercises with nine-and ten-year-olds, having them draw free-form maps of their neighbourhood between home and school.

In order to gauge the effect of traffic, we chose two residential neighbourhoods with elementary schools: Parkmead (heavy traffic exposure) and Gregory Gardens (light traffic exposure). The communities were similar in most respects, except for their exposure to traffic volumes and speed. The light traffic-exposure (Light TE) neighbourhood had about half the amount of traffic as the heavy traffic exposure (Heavy TE) neighbourhood and the cars travelled at lower speeds (because of drainage swales that provided informal traffic calming). In addition, the Light TE neighbourhood had good pedestrian facilities in key locations, and the traffic it did have was not as centrally located (Figure 3).


Creating ‘collective cognitive maps’ like these help identify and assess problems and opportunities that children experience along the routes to school.

Following the same protocol for each group, we provided nine and ten year olds with blank pieces of paper and several plain, black pencils. We then read out instructions asking them to ‘draw a map of their neighbourhood, between home and school, as if they were describing it to someone.’ We also asked them to identify and comment on areas that they liked, disliked, or felt were dangerous, and to indicate the location of their friends’ homes and places they like to play. We gave each group the same amount of time for each task.


In order to highlight the children’s common themes, we created two composite maps, using a legend that would reflect the elements drawn on the maps. The legend designated cool colours for positive elements (green for homes of friends and acquaintances, blue for places they like to play), and warm colours for negative elements (red circles for danger, orange circles for dislike, and red squares for automobiles). The more children who drew a particular element, such as a road, the thicker the line on the composite map.


A map drawn by a 10-year-old child who was driven every-where. The result is a series of disconnected paths that lead separately from home to school, friends, or the mall, with little detail or connection with the community between home and school, as if he were ‘to describe it to someone’.

As was the case in the Heavy TE neighbourhood, cognitive mapping exercises like this provide a way for children to express their views of the world (Figure 5). Such exercises are invaluable for identifying and assessing the problems and opportunities experienced by children along the routes to school (e.g., important destinations, secret paths, preferred travel routes, and existing barriers). In turn, they can prove invaluable to helping community members, public staff and policymakers identify and articulate the most cost-effective solutions to making neighbourhoods and school area streets more livable for the children.


This graphic comparison of the children’s collective cognitive experience makes it easy to see the inverse correlation between their exposure to traffic and the quality of their neighbourhood experience. In the Heavy TE neighbourhood, the children frequently expressed feelings of dislike and danger and were unable to represent any detail of the surrounding environment. Newell Avenue, the main road in front of the school, is a tree-lined street and yet few of the trees were drawn; instead, red (danger, cars) and orange (dislike) dominated. Participants from the Light TE neighbourhood, on the other hand, showed a much richer sense of their environment, drawing more of the streets, houses, trees, and other objects, and including fewer signs of danger, or dislike and fewer cars. The children also drew many more places in the street where they liked to play and areas that they just simply liked: they noted playing in 43% more locations in their streets relative to the children in the heavy traffic exposure neighbourhood.

Another conclusion was immediately obvious: being part of traffic profoundly affects children’s perceptions. Many children primarily experience the world outside their homes from the back seat of a car. National surveys show that, on average, children spend more than an hour a day in a car, not including time in the school bus. As part of our study, a 10 year old child, who was driven everywhere, was asked to draw a map of his neighbourhood. Figure 4 shows a child’s windshield view of his world.

Another participant of the same study, a child who was also driven everywhere, was unable to make any connection with his community between home and school and he resorted to marking a line through the middle of the paper, drawing his school above and his home below the line.


A map drawn by a child who was able to bicycle and walk everywhere was able to express a much richer sense of her environment, drawing more of the streets, houses, trees, and other objects, and including fewer signs of danger or dislike and fewer cars.

Figure 5 shows how a child from the same group who was able to bicycle and walk everywhere could express a much richer sense of the environment, drawing more of the streets, houses, trees, and other objects, and including fewer signs of danger, or dislike and fewer cars. The child also drew many more places on the street where he enjoyed playing, as well as areas he just simply liked. In sum, as exposure to auto traffic volumes and speed decreases, a child’s sense of threat goes down, and his/her ability to establish a richer connection and appreciation for the community rises.


Contrasting these two points of view is important, and illustrates a still endemic problem with how much of our transportation planning is still conducted from the perspective of the person travelling inside the vehicle. Until we embrace and plan for the out-of-vehicle traveller, transportation engineers, modellers and planners are likely to continue to arrive at research conclusions, modelling results and roadway designs that serve autos and the in-vehicle travel experience.

These examples show how neighbourhood design – by placing schools, parks, and playgrounds away from homes and providing inadequate sidewalks and bike lanes to access them – can affect children’s sense of place. As parents are forced to chauffeur their children throughout their childhood, children can become cognitively disconnected from their community. The cognitive mapping exercise that we conducted in a predominately suburban area in Contra Costa County (California, USA) is a dramatic illustration of these findings.

In sum, as exposure to auto traffic volumes and speed decreases, a child’s sense of threat goes down, and his/her ability to establish a richer connection and appreciation for the community rises. A child from the light traffic exposure neighbourhood offered the testimonial in Figure 6.


The child from the light traffic exposure who was able to bicycle and walk everywhere in her neighbourhood offered this testimonial.


While the cognitive mapping study helped identify, prioritize, and gather support and funding for needed improvements, it also presented an opportunity to see whether making the street safer for children could change their perception of their neighbourhood. Within a year after the initial study, two walkways and a new stop sign were installed along the busiest corridors leading to the school in the heavy traffic exposure neighbourhood. Waiting almost a year for the benefits to be realized, I conducted a follow-up study to examine how these facilities affected the livability and the quality of life of this community’s school-children.

Before the improvements were made in the heavy traffic exposure neighbourhood, many children drew expressions of dislike and danger associated with automobiles, and were unable to represent any detail of the surrounding environment – possibly feeling overwhelmed by the threats posed by the automobiles. After the improvements alleviated the exposure to these threats, there were indeed fewer expressions of danger and dislike, indicating a greater sense of comfort and well-being. Furthermore, the students expressed a much richer recall of the characteristics of neighbourhood around the busy street (see Figure 7).


Before improvements (A), there were many expressions of danger and dislike. After improvements (B), there were fewer such expressions, indicating a greater sense of comfort and well-being.


The pattern is also clear from the maps made by individual children who participated in both the before and after studies. In Figures 8 (A) and (B), a child showed a very high association with the threat of traffic before the improvements (see the note in the lower right, ‘the cars never stop and there is too much trafick’). Furthermore, the busy, dangerous street between home and school is relegated to the bottom right corner of the map. Contrast this with an image drawn by the same child after the improvements. Note that in the second map the ‘n’ shaped loop of the child’s home street is much smaller and farther to the left. First, the heavy traffic/high speed street is now a much more significant portion of the child’s neighbourhood image, as is the school. Furthermore, one of the most significant elements that stands out is the new pathway that is clearly represented across the lower portion of the map, highlighted by the green rectangle.


In (a), the child showed a high association with the threat of traffic before improvements (e.g., see the note in the lower right, ‘the cars never stop and there is too much traffick.’). (To reference this area on the collective cognitive map, note that the child’s map is oriented with south at the top.)

While much of this child’s heightened cognitive sense of the neighbourhood can be explained by the maturity and experience developed in the period between the studies, the clear identification of the path-way marks its role as a major contributor to enriching the quality of this child’s neighbourhood experience. Another child also expressed a positive overall image of his neighbourhood after the improvement and again distinctly identified the new pathway (green rectangle) and stop sign (green hexagon) on the map (Figure 9).


Another child distinctly represents the new pathway (green rectangle) and stop sign (green hexagon).

While both children recognized that this street still presents a danger (‘very bisey’ and ‘not like because of all the cars’), their ability to manage and overcome the threat and domination of cars on these neighbourhood streets emerges due to the improvements to the pedestrian and biking environment. A comparison of the collective image maps of the children from the before group and the after group reveals how improvements to the pedestrian and bicycling environments help children develop a richer sense of their neighbourhood, as well as lessen the sense of threat posed by automobiles. These findings are especially important in light of the Safe Routes to School movement, which is bringing new resources into communities to improve the walking and bicycling environment for children.


A before-and-after study of improvements made under the Safe Routes to School programme in California found strong evidence of immediate success in five of nine schools studied. The study found more children walked to school, while automobile speeds were lower and more drivers yielded to pedestrians. The study found that projects that closed side-walk gaps were especially successful.5 While the study did not measure children’s sense of well-being, it seems reasonable to assume that this improved as well.

Several other studies have found that traffic and sprawling communities can impose further negative impacts on youth livability:

* Heavy traffic reduces the independent mobility of children and youth.6

* Opportunities and locations for spontaneous, non-structured play are severely restricted by traffic.7

* Chronic traffic noise can stress children and raise their blood pressure, heart rates, and levels of stress hormones.8

* In neighbourhoods where traffic is a nuisance and a threat, children have a limited range of play activities and spend less time outside. Children who live in neighbourhoods not dominated by traffic have a wider circle of friends, and so do their parents.9


This research seeks to address the question, ‘How does auto-dependency, and auto-domination of our streets and neighbourhoods, affect the way a child views his or her world?’ The maps compiled in this research show that as exposure to auto traffic volumes and speed decreases, a child’s sense of threat goes down, and his/her ability to establish a richer connection and appreciation for the community rises.

Without pedestrian and bicycle facilities to provide sanctuary for a child from automobile traffic, the negative sense of danger and dislike mean children cannot appreciate or possibly even identify the qualities of their neighbourhood that are memorable, positive, or special. Additionally, exposure to threats posed by automobiles limits a child’s positive association with his or her neighbourhood, including the area around the neighbourhood school. Building complete and livable streets that are safe for travel via foot, bicycle, and yes, automobiles, is especially important if we want our children to establish a healthy sense of comfort, well-being, and connection within their own community.

Supporting ‘youth livability’ by achieving ‘street livability’ objectives also helps engage children and adults in their street and community, ultimately making streets and public places safer for everyone. In closing, while new walking and bicycling facilities can improve a child’s physical health and safety, they also can allow children to explore, connect, socialize, and to!



1. Pedestrian injury is the 3rd leading cause of preventable death among children

2. C.L. Ogden, K.M. Flegal, M.D. Caroll and C.L. Johnson, ‘Prevalence and Trends in Overweight US Children and Adolescents 1999-2000’, JAMA 288, 2002, 1728-1732.

3. E. Kopits and M. Cropper, ‘Traffic Fatalities and Economic Growth’, Accident Analysis and Prevention 37(1), 2005, 169-178.

4. K. Lynch, The Image of the City. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1960.

5. M.G. Boarnet, C.L. Anderson, K. Day, T. McMillan and M. Alfonzo, ‘Evaluation of California Safe Routes to School Legislation: Urban Form Changes and Active Transportation to School’, American Journal of Preventive Medicine 28 (2 Suppl 2), 2005, 134-140.

6. P. Tranter and J. Doyle, ‘Children’s Freedom and Safety’, International Play Journal 4, 1996, 81-97.

7. M. Hillman and J. Adams, ‘Children’s Freedom and Safety’, Children’s Environments 9(2), 1992, 10-22.

8. G. Evans, P. Lercher and M. Meiss, ‘Community Noise Exposure and Stress in Children’, Journal of the American Acoustical Society 109(3), 2001, 1023-1027.

9. Directorate General, Kids on the Move. European Commission, Brussels, 2002.


Further Reading:

D. Appleyard, Livable Streets. University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1981.

B. Appleyard, Retrofitting Auto-Suburbia: A Community Guide to Overcoming Auto-Domination. University of California at Berkeley, Master’s Degree Professional Report, 1997.

Surface Transport Policy Project, High Mileage Moms. STPP, Washington DC, 1999.

Surface Transport Policy Project, Mean Streets 2000. STPP, Washington DC, 2000.

WHO, World Report on Traffic Injury Prevention: Main Messages. World Health Organization, Geneva, 2004.