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The term “active travel” has become shorthand for walking, wheeling and cycling and is something health experts and policy-makers are keen to encourage and enable for health and environmental reasons. Walking and cycling are currently the only means of transport that are almost entirely carbon neutral, non-polluting and health-giving. Reducing car dominance and dependency (including electric vehicles) would also make streets safer, open up space and enable communities to connect.
In the midst of the pandemic the Government announced a £2billion fund for local authorities to quickly implement measures such as school streets, cycle lanes and low-traffic neighbourhoods. We would strongly urge councils to add play streets to their active travel strategies as a low-cost, community-building way to demonstrate the benefits of safer, more people-friendly streets.
Through using the street in a different way, play streets encourage a shift away from a “roads are for cars” mentality, showing that the streets where we live are a shared space for everyone to use, including children. This should influence car drivers to drive more considerately through residential areas, with greater awareness of other “road users”, or even to avoid driving for short journeys.
Safer, less traffic dominated streets are the key to increasing active travel, especially for children. A survey commissioned by British Cycling in 2019 found that:
Active travel has huge health and environmental benefits for everyone. But for children, it has an extra and incredibly important significance, as walking and cycling are thier only means to get around independently of adults – to get to the bus stop, call on a friend, go to the park or local shops, get themselves to school. The benefit of this “independent mobility” for children is immeasurable, opening up opportunities, enabling them to be outdoors and active, to connect with friends, to gain confidence and to feel part of their local neighbourhoods.
Play streets support children’s independent mobility in several ways:
One specific way that play streets help children to be more independently mobile is by giving them a safe opportunity, on their doorstep, to learn to cycle in a street environment.
In our 2017 survey of over 100 play streets, 80% said that children had learned or improved physical skills including riding a bike.
One parent commented, “My boy has been practising cycling during our playing out sessions and it’s totally paid off. He’s now independently cycling.”
Research by the University of Bristol on play streets found that, “Another prevalent behaviour, which may promote increased physical activity and independent mobility beyond street play sessions, was development of cycling skills and confidence. This was observed in those children new to cycling (some as old as nine and ten years) who had not had the opportunity to learn how to cycle or were not confident enough to cycle unaided”.
Parents have also reported that play streets provide a good opportunity for children to learn the “rules of the road” in a safe, managed environment (e.g. stay on the pavement until the road is closed to cars; be alert for moving vehicles). Seeing their children gain more road-sense gives parents confidence to gradually allow their children greater freedom to walk and cycle, in line with their growing skills and awareness.
Another factor in helping children to be more independent is the normalisation of being out in the street and, along with this, a sense of “Safety in numbers”. One Bristol play street organiser reported that, “A spontaneous scooter gang emerged in our street recently, a sure sign that after 18 months of playing out formal sessions in our street things are changing!”.
As children’s freedom to be outdoors and get to places independently has diminished, they have become largely dependent on adults to take them to places and activities in order to have fun, socialise, play and be active. Often these journeys are done by car. By creating an opportunity for children to play together near home, helping children to make friends locally and normalising the idea of ‘doorstep play’, play streets reduce the need for these car journeys.
Research from the University of Amsterdam showcases evidence of how play streets can transform transport behaviour and act as a stepping stone towards enabling active travel in children, changing driver behaviour and reducing car usage.
Play streets can help build support and compliance with other measures, such as 20mph zones, by demonstrating the importance of slower speeds and safer streets for children and for communities. Bristol City Council team promoted and supported play streets in the city alongside their implementation of a city-wide 20mph limit and put children’s voices at the heart of their messaging.
Conversely, research shows that “Other initiatives such as traffic-calming and speed restrictions (20mph zones) are likely to complement street play initiatives. Further work should focus on investigating how policy initiatives may be synergistic and provide added-value for promoting health and social wellbeing in communities”.
Play streets give communities a chance to experience their street free from traffic in an unthreatening, temporary, community-led way, building support for more permanent changes.
Permanent changes to streets, such as the recent advent of low traffic neighbourhoods, can be extremely controversial – even ‘war-like’, as they are often presented and perceived as a battle between different road-user groups (e.g. pro-cyclist, anti-car driver). Putting children’s needs at the forefront of such proposed changes provides a common purpose and takes the heat out of the debate; most people have children in their lives who they care about – and we have all been children.
Furthermore, these changes are very often proposed or even imposed by local authorities, making communities feel ‘done to’ and often resulting in a negative backlash. Self-organising temporary play streets gives residents more sense of ownership and agency over their own ‘front yard’, making it far more likely they will engage with any proposals or consultations in a positive way.
Finally, play streets instantly transform a traffic-dominated road into a playful, vibrant people-friendly place, where cars and children can happily co-exist. They make visible the need, desire and potential within communities for residential streets to be liveable public spaces. They show what is possible for streets in a very simple and tangible way, allowing people to imagine a different reality, where space is used and shared more fairly. As one parent said of her play street, “It’s important to remember that roads are not exclusively for cars and can be used for other things”.
Back seat children. Living Streets (2008)
Can play streets help transform travel behaviour? Hudson. (2021)
Children’s Independent Mobility: A comparative study. Shaw. (2013)
Children’s Independent Mobility: an international comparison and recommendations for action. Shaw. (2015)
Hackney play streets: rethinking, re-materializing and representing public life on street. Griffin. (2015)
How play streets support the development of physical literacy in children. University of La Trobe (2020)
National Institute for Health Research (2021)
Playing Out Survey (2017)
Playing Out Survey (2021)
Reported road casualties in Great Britain: Annual Report (2018)
The Mass Experiment (2012)
The State of Cycling 2019
Why temporary street closures make sense for public health. University of Bristol (2016)