“If we’re going to talk about transport, I would say that the great city is not the one that has highways, but one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can go safely everywhere.” – Enrique Penalosa, Former Mayor of Bogota
Worldwide, 1.3 million people die every year as a result of traffic accidents. About 10%, or 130,000, of these deaths occur in India. Countless more people are injured every year in traffic accidents, many in ways that permanently alter their lives. While every traffic fatality and injury is a tragedy, a closer look at the numbers reveals a particularly poor outlook for children and young adults – road traffic accidents are the 2nd leading cause of death worldwide for those aged 5-18.
There are two mega-trends which suggest that, for children in India specifically, the threat from road accidents is going to become increasingly dangerous. The first is urbanisation. Currently only 30% of Indians live in its cities. This is projected to increase significantly. The most widely accepted estimates suggest that in the next 20-30 years, an additional 300 million people will call urban India home. It is in the streets of dense cities that most children come in conflict with vehicles, often because streets are the only open, public spaces where children can play and engage with their environment. The second mega-trend is motorisation. Despite the seemingly endless traffic jams that are a reality for most urban residents in India, only a small proportion of Indians own motor vehicles. But as we become wealthier as a nation, and given the aspirational value of owning a car, this number is set to increase considerably. And more vehicles equals more potential for road accidents, and more potential conflicts between vehicle users and children.
Moreover, children are not at risk from road accidents alone. One side effect of the increasing use of motor vehicles is the deteriorating quality of the air we breathe. While adult urban residents may accept this as the cost of urban life, children disproportionately bear the brunt of poor air quality. Respiratory problems have significant negative effects on the growth and development of children, with major long term and irreversible impacts on quality of life.
So what can we do to reduce the risks faced by children due to the growing urban transport needs of our cities?
I believe there are three things we must do immediately:
First, we need to redesign our streets. The current paradigm of street design in India places the motorised vehicle at the centre of attention. Streets are designed with the aim of making vehicles move faster, with little attention paid to other users, particularly pedestrians. The effects of this are dire – in most Indian cities, the majority of traffic accident victims are pedestrians, most of whom are killed or injured due to collisions with vehicles. Children and young adults in particular are placed in danger, when street design fails to take their safety into account.
Second, we need to improve the quality of urban air that children breathe. Several cities around the world, for example, have created ‘low-emission zones’ around residential neighbourhoods. This requires the development of strategies to keep the traffic that flows through residential neighbourhoods at a minimum. Such strategies include ensuring the major transport corridors of a city function well enough to prevent the need to use residential streets. It also includes, on a broader level, supporting lower polluting modes of travel, like public transport, and better vehicle technologies.
Finally, we need to pay particular attention to how children use urban environments, and ensure their safety is the paramount goal of urban design. Many countries, for example, have developed ‘Safe Route to School’ programs, wherein the streets that children use to walk or cycle to school are identified and designed to calm traffic speeds. In certain cases the design of these streets also aims to incentivise motor vehicle users to adopt alternate routes entirely. Areas around facilities used predominantly by children, such as parks, are also redesigned to minimise the potential conflict between children and fast moving vehicles.
In summary, urban planners, transport planners and urban designers need to re-assess the role of children in urban environments, and place their safety at the core of their practice. Another quote from Enrique Penalosa sums this philosophy up best: “Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.”