Zones for Kids Outdoors

Consider these trends on many of America's residential streets:

*Kids own bikes but are rarely allowed to ride them.

*Instead of letting children walk to a nearby school, parents drive them.

*After school, children can't walk to a local shop for fear of "stranger danger."

What's wrong with this picture?

Yes, the days of Andy Griffith's Mayberry may be over. But too many parents are afraid of their own neighborhoods.

Unlike their own childhood days of playing near the street, today parents worry about speeding cars or assaults by strangers - even when the reality may be otherwise.

Kids are instead driven to safe play activities or allowed to become couch potatoes, reducing valuable playtime with neighboring children that promotes social development. Many parents deal with this concern by paying a premium to live on a cul-de-sac or in a gated community.

Some towns set up "kid watch" groups, where a child can escape quickly to a safe home if faced with danger. To slow down cars, they lower the speed limits.

Such steps are partial answers to parental fears. Local governments can do more. For starters, they might look at a trend in Europe to create "home zones." Simply, these are residential areas where the priority has shifted from cars to kids. With an imagination and political will, a community can make their neighborhoods friendly to pedestrians and bicycles.

Britain, for instance, picking up on "home zones" in Holland and Germany, announced this week that it would set up nine pilot zones.

Government will use "traffic calming" measures such as narrower roads, better signs, plants, benches, speed bumps, crossing priority for pedestrians and cyclists, and speed limits as low as 10 mph.

In one such zone already set up in Leicester, the number of children playing outside has increased from 35 percent to over 55 percent. The number of children being allowed to walk to school jumped from 21 percent to 35 percent.

Such actions take legal changes, money, and dealing with the concerns of police and fire departments that want wide and fast streets for their vehicles.

Holland plans to turn all its residential areas into home zones by 2006. It's spending about $2.50 per person per year to do so.

That's a worthy investment in happier families and in kids who just want to have fun - outdoors.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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