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Streetfacts #4: Children Have Lost the Freedom to Roam

Think of this Streetfacts chapter as a PSA about how, in just a few generations, we have tightly restricted American kids' freedom to roam, play, and become self-sufficient.

The percentage of children walking and bicycling to school has plummeted from almost 50 percent in 1969 to about 13 percent today. Although distance from school is often cited as the main barrier to walking and bicycling, many families still drive when schools are close to home. According to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, driving accounts for about half of school trips between 1/4- and 1/2-mile long — which in most cases shouldn't take kids much more than 10 minutes to walk.

There are plenty of factors at work here: Lack of sidewalks and safe walking and biking routes. The fallacy of "stranger danger." School districts banning walking and biking outright. But all of these problems lead back to the original and biggest blunder: We continue to design our cities and towns for cars instead of for children, families, and human beings.

Look for more Streetfilms on this issue in the next year.

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  • disqus_QqCtsJzj2p

    Voici une rapide proposition de traduction pour le public francophone. En France aussi nous rencontrons ces types de problème qui sont autant d'atteinte à la santé publique:

    En quelques générations, les enfants américains ont vu se rétrécir leur espace vécu. De ce fait ils ont perdu leur espace de liberté et la possibilité de devenir plus rapidement autonomes.
    La pratique de la marche à pied et du vélo, pour aller à l'école , ne cesse de décliner, au profit des déplacements en voiture. Et cela, pour des navettes qui ne devraient pas excéder plus de10 minutes en marchant !
    Parmi les facteurs explicatifs: l'absence de trottoir, le manque de parking à vélos dans les écoles voire des secteurs scolaires interdisant ces modes de déplacement ! La plus grande erreur est de concevoir notre univers pour des voitures au lieu de le faire pour les hommes.

  • Jake Wegmann

    Nooo! Please tell me that this phenomenon of kids being constricted in their movements isn't happening in France, too. I had been under the impression that the non-English speaking world had been largely sensible enough to avoid this sort of thing.

    I'm counting on France and other countries to be a voice of sanity on this issue that we Anglosphere people can learn from.

  • disqus_QqCtsJzj2p

    La situation dans les pays francophones n'est pas si idyllique. Encore que on puisse faire une différence entre les pays d'Europe du nord (en avance) et ceux d'Europe du sud...

    Vous trouverez un article à l'adresse suivante:


    ou encore quelques textes sur la situation des enfants dans la rue. Le chemin de l'école est souvent une véritable galère.


    Heureusement, de plus en plus de villes françaises optent pour les modérations des vitesses (Zones 30 & zones de rencontre).Une à deux tous les jours...

  • http://karenlynnallen.blogspot.com/ Karen Lynn Allen

    Well done.

  • http://twitter.com/BicyclesOnly Steve Vaccaro

    Great Streetsfilm!

    Is this Christa's debut as "talent"?

  • Ian Turner

    I seem to recall that France is the most car dependent country in Western Europe.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=681858498 Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    She's done all the voice overs on the Streetfacts series. One more to go before we stop and see if people want more Streetfacts!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=681858498 Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Amazing seeing the retweeting going on for this film. One tweet retweeted 33 times! We will certainly be doing more on this.

  • corth

    Happy to lend me voice to the movement!

  • Dede Cummings

    I love this film, Clarence! I live in Vermont, and our biggest polluter is the automobile. People don't really get it here, and they should! Thanks for your great work and that of Christa—inspiring! Come over to the Vermont Greenprint for Health, and follow us!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jonathan.angelilli Jonathan Angelilli

    Nice video, such an important message. Active play is a major component of real learning. Let's design cities for human beings, not cars & special interests. What a novel idea. #PlayOutside

  • andrelot

    Even in the hypothetical absence of car traffic all the way through the route to school, children below age 9-10 should NEVER go outside alone or unsupervised by an adult, for the mere fact children don't have enough mental development to deal with things like pedophiles, drug dealers and other dangerous people that all cities have. Children are naturally trusting of adults (for biological reasons), and that makes them easy prey.

    So while problems like lack of sidewalks or other physically safe walking routes is an issue for kids and adults as well, let's not pretend it is okay for kids on 1st grade to walk to school alone.

    It is the same reason why kids shouldn't go to playground without parents or other adults looking on them: they don't know the danger, they can hurt themselves or even get a more serious injury. Fortunately, if indirectly, more judicial liability (= money concerns) made most cities take sensible approaches to preventing this hazard as they can be sued for attractive nuisances.

  • Ben Kintisch

    Kids who are 9-10 are in third and fourth grade. That's very different from first graders. I agree that first graders should be supervised, but the point of this video, I think, is that kids can and should walk and bike to school when infrastructure is safe and parents train them to be self-sufficient. Even if you insist on parental supervision, walking together for less than a mile, or biking for less than two or three miles, is very doable, and healthy for parents and children alike.

  • Ben Kintisch

    Yes, Jonathan, and when kids are active in the morning they have an easier time sitting still and focusing on their school work. I know - I'm a kindergarten teacher and lots of my children have a hard time sitting still because they don't get a chance to move their bodies before they get to school. If they were walking or biking with their parents to school, I bet it would improve their behavior during school lessons.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ross-Patton/682129211 Ross Patton

    Are you kidding me? What a paranoid, sheltered life.

    I walked to school and played outside with the neighbor kids all the time at that age. All day and all night. As young as 2nd grade. And i'm only in my twenties!

  • http://www.facebook.com/John.S.Rawlins John Rawlins

    I find your attitude most irresponsible. Of course, children under the age of ten can be outside without adults. Keeping them inside and never letting them explore the streets alone or with friends is child abuse.

  • http://www.facebook.com/John.S.Rawlins John Rawlins

    My reply was intended for andrelot.

  • voltairesmistress

    As a historian I can assure you that pedophilia was alive and unwell centuries ago. It is highly unlikely that such a primitive mis-wiring of the brain occurred recently in human evolution. The real difference is probably that we are now aware of every child abduction by strangers and many cases of child molestation. There are probably a couple of main reasons for this awareness:
    1) Even thirty years ago, children did not formerly report most molestations or attempts at such. Priests did not begin touching the young recently. My 80 year old mother tells of many such cases in her parish and of little girls being told by their parents to stop lying. It is a tribute to the democratization of society that formerly vulnerable persons (like children) have been given a voice and believed by adults.
    2) Cable t.v., internet, and other nationalized and international sources of news and entertainment make child sexual molestation cases nationwide affairs. As children, we were probably just as much in danger 30-50 years ago, as our children our today. If there is a real increase in danger it is due to percentages -- with so few children left to explore their surroundings, those few who do may become more likely targets.

    Perhaps we can re-take our environment from fear by first encouraging our children to explore the route to school, the playground, etc. with at least one friend. Children together, like all humans, are less likely than solo persons to be targeted by predators.

  • BlueFairlane

    And this is why I don't buy the sentiment that blames car culture for kids being trapped indoors. The problem isn't cars. It's ultra-paranoid helicopter parents who are afraid to let their children explore the world, and who instead are happy to let kids spend their childhoods plugged into a video game.

  • andrelot

    There are appropriate activities for each age. Partaking in bungee jump is not appropriate for a 3 years old. 100% adult supervision is not appropriate for a 13 years old.

    Keeping children supervised until they can assess danger better is not child abuse, is taking care of children. It doesn't mean they won't play with other kids, just that they will do so under a watchful eye of a responsible adult.

  • andrelot

    I agree with you. I don't think child molestation, bullying and the likes are new phenomena, nor do I believe that we are living in an acute crises of paedophilia, kidnappings and the like.

    What makes it different is that now we, adults, understand better how old negative events can traumatize a child for life and wreck him/her altogether. We are more informed. Therefore, we take more care than our grandparents' generation did.

    Remember: 130 years ago child deaths were relatively common, mostly due to diseases we now treat like appendicitis or prevent with vaccination like measles or TB. There were different attitudes that didn't value children as much, and pretty much every other family had some close story of a sibling who died while young.

    Fortunately today we moved past that age.

  • andrelot

    Once again, I think the issue here is age appropriateness. Nobody is proposing teens age 17 shouldn't go out without an adult nearby. We are talking of kids age 7, 8 and 9 who are vulnerable.

  • BlueFairlane

    Yes, and most modern parents give in to fear and vastly miscalculate what is age appropriate. 7-, 8-, and 9-year-olds aren't nearly as vulnerable as you suggest.

  • Coolebra

    The parents driving their kids to school present a more significant threat to my children's safety than the walk to school with a friend does.

    It is ludicrous that attitudes and beliefs surrounding fear of walking have cultivated an environment where a school bus now runs a route past my house to optionally pick-up children that live barely more than a quarter mile from school. Add to that the a.m. and p.m. drop-off/pick-up traffic jams around school and one must really question how that paradigm shift makes it safer for our children than walking.

    Kids grow-up fast and the next thing you know, they're bowling alone. Walking with friends to school is more than a mode choice.

  • Nate1952

    Remarkable to me that one huge element of this picture is almost always left out: status.

    Kids who are chauffeur-driven, and dropped off at the schoolhouse door are perceived as "winners". Especially if it's a high-end automobile.

    Kids who walk are perceived as "losers".

    This parallels the transportation paradigm in the culture as a whole. "Winners" travel by car. "Big winners" (the elite) have other people do their driving for them. Other transportation modes are used by people widely viewed as "losers".

    -- Nate (SLC)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Harshbarger/100001115946032 John Harshbarger

    I walked to and from school alone from the start(at age 6 even). sure it was only 3 blocks, but I was never in any danger. Danger today is blown out of proportion. Today the streets are safer than when I was walking as violent crime is almost half of when I walked back in the late 80's and early 90's. When I finally have children they too will learn how to get around on their own from an early age. Things are far safer than you think!

  • ZA_SF

    I appreciate the point, but small reality check: if "Tom" wasn't a WASP, there were a lot parts of America in 1945 that he couldn't roam 6 miles in, bike or not.

  • Coolebra

    . . . and so the pendulum swings.

    Yeah, it wasn't such a great idea that my grandparents allowed me to roam the woods alone when I was young; however, that doesn't mean that my children should be prohibited - in the name of safety - from walking to school with their friends.

    Come to think of it, though, those days walking alone in the woods helped cultivate a lifelong passion for outdoor activities . . . and an internal compass that helps me to know when I'm headed the wrong direction.

    Pursuing a path that stops kids from walking to school with a friend is definitely a case of heading the wrong way.

  • andrelot

    I'm thinking about the likely age (which of course changes from child to child) where they are developed enough to having lost the early infancy trust and naivite that all child have towards any adults who appear friendly to them. I think at some point, if properly thought, child can learn to make a clear distinction between who is in a circle of presumed trust (close relatives, teachers, church officers etc) and who is a "stranger" in the sense of "people I should be always aware of".

  • voltairesmistress

    Anticipating a child, I am weighing these trade offs. My most treasured experiences were adventures by bike and on foot, sometimes alone in the woods at age 10 or 12, though usually within a mile or two of home. Had a lot of time to think too on a 2 mile walk to school and another loop of 3 miles to a music lesson. Definitely arrived alert at high school each morning after a 4 mile ride. I hope we find a way to balance reason with adventure with our kid on the way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Harshbarger/100001115946032 John Harshbarger

    andrelot, "church officers" You may want to rethink that part given the history that has come out about the church.

  • Coolebra

    I've had a football team of kids, or at least that's what Walter Payton classified them as when we had the opportunity to hang with him one time. They all walked to school. They all hung out with friends after school and walked home, sometimes alone under the dim shimmer of the stars on a moonless night and only an occasional streetlight. Shhhhhh -- they even trick-or-treated after curfew with their friends.

    We always try to do better than our parents and grandparents, or so we are all told we must. We must learn from their mistakes and improve. Funny thing, though. Not everything they said, did, and authorized needs to be improved upon; some of it needs to be replicated.

    If there's one thing I learned from my multi-skilled grandfather, it was the old adage that "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." That advice is dead-on. Kids walking to school ain't broke.

    Congrats regarding your child on the way. Let her/him live and experience life. Enjoy the time you have together. It will not be long before s/he is hitting CTA rail for a midnight show in what you view as a bad part of town. It will not be your choice any longer. Do you want that child to be confident and aware in such circumstances, or experimenting with new freedom at an inopportune time?

    Sometimes, you just have to let go. Letting a kid walk with friends to school? That decision is a piece of cake compared to what they'll send your way over the years.

    Sure, coach kids about strangers. Teach them about safety, and even check to see if they have paid attention by observing them on their way to school when they don't think you're watching. Do all these things to minimize risk.

    But let them be outside and walk - walk until they are tired. It is a right of passage.

  • http://profiles.google.com/unconventionalideas John Andersen


    People will need to work through that if we are ever to establish a culture of walking.

  • Bklyn_123

    Thank you for this! I just found this film because I've been thinking a lot about children navigating busy city streets (with or without their parents), especially 4th Ave in Brooklyn. As a parent of 2 teenagers and one 7 yr old, it is pretty accurate that most children under 10 years old do not commute by themselves in NYC. But once they hit middle school, most do and they deserve the safe streets (and parental support) to get to school by foot, bike or public transport. My middle schooler walks 20 mins (about 1 mile) each way, everyday to and from school. Though most of her friends walk, her commute is considered "far" (though not by her) and her friends are often surprised by it. This same middle school has parents blocking the bike lane with their cars on a daily basis. Though it has to be a very small percentage of parents that do this, it clearly creates hazards for everyone else, including other students.

  • davistrain

    Time to put in a "plug" for "Free Range Kids" by Lenore Skenazy. It's full of good advice, and even if your children went out into the world to seek their fortunes long ago, it's a "good read".

    Just the other day, our carpet and drapery cleaning expert was telling us about his dad, who is a homicide investigator with the LA County Sheriff's Dept. One of his assignments is to speak at public gatherings and assure the audience that crime rates really are going down, and it's the media in general and TV news in particular that make us think that there's a criminal behind every bush.

  • bz2

    David Hembrow, bless him, has launched http://childhoodfreedom.com/ on this very subject.

  • veronica berg

    I can remember this when I was growing up. But now that I am a parent I would never let my children do it. I want to know my children are safe and sound. That they have not been taken or hit by a car or whatever may occur. I remember seeing parents bring their children to things and leave them or send the children alone to things. I always wondered where is the support. I wanted my children know they were loved and well cared for.

  • Amber Ballard

    As a parent it is not the lack of sidewalks or the distance from home to school, but the people and accidents that can be avoided by not walking or biking around town. I take full advantage of the time spent driving to and from school with my daughter, we talk about the day's happenings and "catch up" with each other. We are able to find plenty of ways to incorporate exercise and exploring into her days without having unsupervised outings about town.

  • School Zone

    Oh, so those parents who allowed there children to show up on their own didn't love them? Let's refrain from any judgmental statements that can be characterized by "I love my children, so I do _________." and start with the premise that parents make the right decisions for their own children.

    When I look back at my childhood, I see that one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was the sense of independence that came from walking and biking places and not having them cart me around to and attend all of my activities. My parents didn't have to drive me to school or anywhere or hold my hand at all of my activities and functions for me to know that they loved me.

  • School Zone

    Supervised exploring?

  • Adil Rasheed

    culture of walking is necessary

  • http://allisondan.wordpress.com/ Dan Allison

    Two facts to keep in mind about perceived safety:
    1. The leading cause of death for children 4-14 is motor vehicle crashes, most of which occur in their parent's own vehicle.
    2. The greatest danger to students who walk and bike to school is the parents who are driving their own children to school. I cannot understand why the need of some parents to FEEL safe trumps the rights of other children to BE safe while walking and biking.

  • Ed
  • Brigita

    I have a 5 1/2 yr old and we're getting ready to buy him his first pedal bike. He does not have any experience with a balance bike and has only ridden a trike in the past. How difficult would it be to start with a pedal bike and no training wheels of vaikiški dvira?iai?

  • Isabelle Philipp

    When I was little we had no balance bikes in Europe. We all learned to bike without problems at age of 4. Many of us had training wheels first on their bike. With 5 1/2 he should learn it in no time. Balance bikes are only for very young kids who can't yet coordinate the complex pedal movement.

  • happykt

    My mom and dad taught me the dangers of pedophiles when I was 4 yrs old and this was in 1967. They taught my siblings the words pedophile and child molester and the horrible things they could do to us (rape, murder and beheading -- 2 naked twin boys were found decapitated in Cleveland in creek when they were growing up) but they encouraged all of us to walk and bike to school or take the bus to our commercial center, which was 3.5 miles away from our house. We all walked or biked to school until we hit high school and then we used our parents old car. Everyone in my old neighborhood used to free range from their house up to 3 miles from their home. I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, about 15 minutes from Lakewood but it wasn't as dense or walkable as Lakewood. I think parents nowadays have just been taken in by the hype of 'stranger danger' and don't want to be seen as a 'bad parent' by allowing their kids to free range like they used to.

  • Antony Hayward

    so american school districts have banned walking or biking to school so what happens if you don't drive and aren't on a bus route?