CITY SPOTLIGHT: Sweden's Trafiklekparken
This post is part of our CITY SPOTLIGHT blog series. City Spotlight shines a light on the latest news, developments and initiatives occurring in cities and towns where CNU members live and work.
This City Spotlight post highlights the Swedish Trafiklekparken, or "traffic play park," in which children can safely learn how to navigate neighborhood streets. This post was written by Nicholas Richter, a Seattle-based urban and regional planner with an interest in transportation and sustainable development, who studied spatial planning at KTH in Stockholm, Sweden. Read our previous spotlight on the New Urbanist Renaissance of Downtown Redwood City.
Our ideas about what is "normal" are largely shaped by the experiences we have as children. Our habits, likes, and dislikes are all heavily colored by what we are exposed to at a young age, what we see others enjoying, and what we are encouraged to try by our parents. Studies have routinely shown that adults with healthy habits are more likely to have been kids with healthy habits. While we work to build cities that support walkable and bikeable places, the predisposition to bike and walk is influenced significantly by whether walking and biking were part of our lives as children.*
If our primary experience is being driven around passively (as is often the case in suburban development), then that becomes the default that we expect as adults. In contrast, if walking to the store or biking to a friend's house is a normal part of childhood, then we are more likely to both do that as adults and seek places that are built to support that, creating a virtuous cycle. These facts are the basis of many of the current best practices in urban and regional planning, including support for developments that enable people to live a full life within walking distance of their home, the growing adoption of "complete streets" guidelines, and efforts to promote walking and biking for everyone between the ages of 8 and 80.
Understanding Street Signs and Symbols
While the goals set by communities around the nation for safer streets are clear, so too is our current reality: Streets can be dangerous, often lethal, places, especially for those with little experience or practice on them. The road network works miraculously well when one considers the hundreds of thousands of people who have to work together in order to get from one place to another with an acceptable level of safety. The reason that roads are as safe as they are is that nearly all drivers know the rules and symbols of the road. This creates predictability throughout the system that lowers the rate of collisions within the system.
We rightly expect people to stop on a red light or at stop signs. We expect other drivers to cooperate with us when we signal to change lanes. We know when to slow down because a sign indicates that there are curves in the road ahead. Our literacy in the symbols of the road and experience of driving enable the whole system to work as well as it does.
Where we run into trouble is where these two worlds intersect. Many parents are willing but wary when it comes to teaching their kids how to get around their neighborhood on their bikes. We see this through a number of different initiatives in communities around the country, such as traffic calming treatments on residential streets by the local government or bike buses to school organized by parents. The federal Safe Routes to School program that provides guidance (and funding) for local street improvements and activities for educating children about on street safety. What most parents recognize instinctively is that their children are not small adults and that their inexperience is a critical threat to their safety, regardless of how much effort is put into roadway design or driver education. Children need to gain experience and have different capacities at different ages. They need to gain a critical mass of basic traffic literacy and safety experience in order for their parents to feel confident that they will be as safe as possible when they do eventually go out on their own. How children gain this experience is through practice, but that requires a time, place, and guidance to make it possible. For many children, one or more of these is missing. In a worst case scenario, they end up learning about traffic in vehicular traffic and without a strong parental presence.
Improving Traffic Literacy
Preventing this last scenario requires a little bit of ingenuity. Even when you have a parent who is willing to take the time to teach their child about bike safety, the places available to do so are less than ideal. Separated bike trails, such as the fantastic Burke Gillman Trail in Seattle, offer a dedicated right of way for bikes, but families share the space with high speed enthusiast cyclists. The local school yard may offer a safe place specifically for children, but the conditions by default have little to do with what a child will find on the street. Meanwhile, the neighborhood street is subject to vehicular traffic at a regular, but unpredictable, interval. If all of these facilities are imperfect, what would a facility that melds the best of all worlds be? Trafiklekparken.
On my recent trip to Sweden, I found an example of just what that type of facility might look like. It's called trafiklekparken. The name translates as "traffic play park" and, in the Swedish tradition of having literal names, it's a park for children to play in that is designed to teach them about traffic safety. The current park was completed in 2007 by Täby county just outside of Stockholm and provides a safe place for children to learn about the rules of the road without having to compete with cars or other cyclists for space. It also provides a place for parents to meet and relax while their children bike their way through a miniature Swedish road system. The park includes accurate, but miniature, depictions of the signage that children will find on the actual street, different types of intersections (including a roundabout), a railroad crossing with boom gates, and provides a permanent place for the children of Näsby Park to come, play, and ultimately develop their traffic literacy in an environment tailored for young riders.
When I came across the park, there were about four children on bikes from three families using the play area. The parents were talking to each other near the "bus stop" while two boys on their bikes raced towards the "railroad crossing" and a little girl pushed a baby carriage across the marked “crosswalk”. The children there ranged from ages three to seven. A couple of things struck me about this scene, besides the general congeniality of it all.
First, the children were all actively engaged in age appropriate activities and were autonomous in the park. All of the children were on their own bike and not restricted to a trailer bike or bike seat. The parents felt safe enough to provide their children with free reign throughout the park. Secondly, this seemed to be a relaxing outing for the parents. The parents were meeting to socialize with other parents while the kids burned off their own energy in the park and for parents with multiple children it was logistically easier on them. They could take all of their children, no matter the age, to the park without being concerned about mixed skill levels or their inclination towards biking. In this case, the young girl didn't have a bike, but was happily busy with her own toys.
By providing a place like this, Täby county has helped make it easier for parents to set aside the time needed to help their kids learn skills, gain confidence on their bikes, and ultimately keep safe when their parents decide they are ready to ride alone in their neighborhood. Fantastisk!
*One branch of study in this area is based on the theory of planned behavior, which explores the interaction of attitudes, norms, empowerment, and (secondarily) availability of resources in intention development in the choices we make. Attitudes and norms are both areas that parents are able to influence in their child, which ultimately influences the child’s behavior throughout life. As two examples of this at work, consider recent work on biking and vegetable consumption: Dill and Voros (2006) found that higher levels of cycling as adults was associated with childhood cycling for fun and Hill (2011) found that adults who ate more fruits and vegetables more often recalled eating fruits and vegetables as a kid.
Hill, Mary D., "Recalled Fruit and Vegetable Intake while Growing up and its Association with Adult Fruit and Vegetable Intake among U.S. Adults - Analysis of the Food Attitudes and Behaviors Survey" (2011). Public Health Theses. Paper 169.
Dill, Jennifer and Voros, Kim. “Factors affecting bicycling demand: Initial survey findings from the Portland region” (2006). Submitted for presentation and publication 86th Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board.
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