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Over the last century, our use of the street has been transformed. The street was once a place where we would regularly chat with our neighbours or walk to work or local shops, and was even used as a space where children could play.
The increased dominance of cars in our urban areas over the past 60 years has made these basic functions difficult, unpleasant and in some cases impossible. The disadvantages of streets that are dominated by cars are widely documented; pollution, traffic accidents and congestion to name a few. Facilitating walking and cycling with the correct infrastructure is a step towards making our streets happier and more pleasant. However, transportation habits and behaviours will still require change away from the car if we want to create happier streets.
My research aimed to explore this question by interviewing parents and children from two resident-led play streets: Six Streets, Derby and Howard Avenue, Bristol. Both playing out Howard Avenue and playing out Six Streets created an ideal opportunity and a safe environment to easily practise and gain confidence cycling and scooting. The play streets provided an open space, on the children’s doorstep, with a surface that was flat and hard making it ideal to experiment with active travel and practise tricks such as wheelies or bunny hops. The play streets also helped build positive perceptions of safety and gave parents more confidence to allow their children to travel independently.
Furthermore, four interviewees mentioned how the visibility of children practising and playing with bicycles and scooters created contagious behaviours and other children would also want to join in.
Whilst the play streets didn’t totally transform participants’ behaviours, they did have a subtle influence on the transport activities of adult participants and their neighbours. During the playing out sessions, many participants or neighbours would be discouraged from driving to avoid interrupting the play street. This interruption could be used as a stepping stone to break the routines of regular car users and could make neighbours reflect on their own transport choices. On the other hand, I found that the play streets did not influence the mobility behaviours of participants who would typically travel by bike or by foot. The play streets also made many parents and older neighbours reminisce about times when streets were safer and when they used to play on the street: “I have seen [the street] change from no vehicles to many. It would be nice to go back to the days when children could play out in safety”.
Even though this study was small, the research I carried out was promising, and certainly showed signs of a relationship between play streets and mobility behaviour especially amongst children. Play streets could play an important role amongst other measures in transitioning towards a society that priorities streets for people rather than streets for cars. A play street gives participants and especially children an opportunity to experience an alternative reality where the street becomes sociable, safe and a place to have fun. More research will have to be carried out to explore the relationship between participating in a play street and the likelihood of continuing active travel, living a healthier lifestyle or politically supporting alternative streets later in life.
The expansion of play streets and playing out will ensure that more of the next generation will experience and understand that more liveable, sustainable and enjoyable streetscapes can become the new normal.