Play Streets — another point of view

I’m writing about a Web page on a Web site of the British organization Sustrans (“Sustainable Transportation”),The title of the page is “How children lost out to cars in the battle for space on our streets”. Here are two photos from that page, comparing conditions on the same street in 1982 and more recently:

Victoria Crescent, Newport [Wales], 1982

Victoria Crescent, Newport [Wales], 1982

Victoria Crescent in the Present Day

Victoria Crescent in the Present Day

That’s quite a change — but was there a battle?

I am moved to state a different opinion. Sure, it’s OK for some streets to be play streets. A street hockey goal often resides in the dead-end street where I live, and that’s fine. Inline skates wouldn’t roll on grass, and the puck wouldn’t slide, either. On the other hand, the collector street that leads down a hill out of my neighborhood isn’t an appropriate place for children to play, and never was.

The Sustrans article doesn’t make that kind of distinction.

Try cycling on any popular rail trail and I hope you’ll notice that bicycle speeds which optimize travel times and provide exercise for fitness are not safe where children wander. My bicycle is not a toy for play in the street, it is a tool for transportation, exercise, sightseeing and riding in the company of friends. For that I need streets where rules of the road apply. Turning a blind eye to the problem with bicycling on play streets is one of the more annoying aberrations of populist bicycle advocacy. To me, it is one more aspect of the fabled toy bike syndrome, and also would go so far as to make motoring more difficult by putting children in the way of motor vehicles.

Certainly, the issue is a bit different in Europe, where urban streets were laid out hundreds of years ago, many are narrow and lack sidewalks, and urban residential areas lack play space. There, streets must more often double as play space. In most North American cities, there is less desire for play streets because there is more space for children to play, without playing in the street.

Characterizing the assignment of street usage as a battle strikes me as skewed, because, at least on local streets like the one in the photo, we would then be talking about residents’ doing battle with themselves. Some of the children who played in the street 20 years ago are the adults who park cars there now. The change in use of the street occurs incrementally — one car parked on the street, then two, etc. The resulting reduction in the quality of street life is slow decay, not a battle.

It’s different, or course, on main streets where the decay is due to through traffic which turns a formerly quiet street into a “traffic sewer”, or where neighborhoods are gutted put a highway through. In that case, residents often do battle with non-residents.

4 Responses to Play Streets — another point of view

  1. Has not the primary purpose of a street always been moving people, whether locallyor regionally? What we seem to have lost in the late 20th century is the civility that allowed us to play in the streets without it seeming to be a dire imposition on traffic and likewise, when we played in the streets as kids, we didn’t WANT to be an imposition to traffic. Streets were where we rode our bikes, whether it was just up and down the street or to the playground.

    Taming the streets doesn’t have to mean being anti-car. Just means we have to socialize ourselves again.

  2. The primary purpose of streets has not always been moving people. Maybe so-called Highways were originally intended to move goods and armies, but until the arrival of the motor vehicle, urban streets were equally markeplaces, social spaces, playgrounds, AND places to ride/drive through with your horse, cart, or (for a short interval) bicycle. I read a rather nice historical account of the conversion of american streets from the type I describe to the “made for transport” type: http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/fighting-traffic . I highly recommend it.

  3. Khal, it’s quite a jump from “Has not the primary purpose of a street always been moving people, whether locally or regionally?” to “What we seem to have lost in the late 20th century is the civility that allowed us to play in the streets.”

    But that’s certainly a huge part of the current conflict, the desire to “play in the streets” rather than to get somewhere safely and efficiently (even if that’s the guise).

  4. Pingback: Cars declare war? | John S. Allen's Bicycle Blog

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