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The absence of children in transportation planning

Doug Joiner, park

An adult teaches a child some safety techniques during a walk through a park: Hold hands when possible, keep an eye out for oncoming pedestrians and vehicles, stay to one side to allow easy passage to those who are moving more quickly. Credit: Kelly Jordan

By Guest Columnist DOUG JOINER, a lifelong child and adolescent advocate

In January 2012, I was introduced to Safe Routes to School in metro Atlanta through the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors via a Kaiser grant. As I assessed the program in metro Atlanta, two disturbing issues immediately caught my attention.

Doug Joiner

Doug Joiner

First, transportation planning at the local, state and national levels does not specifically include one of our more vulnerable populations: Children. Second, the Safe Routes to School National Partnership programming is sparse in low wealth minority communities in our region, as well as across the state and country.

Regarding the first point, a number of diverse national transportation organizations – Vision Zero, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Federal Highway Administration, Smart Growth America, the American Public Transportation Association and, the Transportation Association of America – all have methodologies to report findings regarding low income communities. The results exhibit higher than the national average of pedestrian injuries and deaths due to unsafe streets. As in many chronic diseases, the injuries and deaths are disproportionately higher for African-American and Hispanic children.

Within our community, various stakeholder organizations have captured transportation data that omits the needs of children as commuters.

The Atlanta Regional Commission formulates the region’s long-range transportation plan and ARC’s board adopted the original framework plan July 27, 2011. The word “children” appeared only four times in the document. The Atlanta City Council adopted Atlanta’s Transportation Plan in December 2018 and it mentions the word “children” once. Regarding transit and equitable transit oriented development, neither MARTA nor the TransFormation Alliance has a framework for addressing children and youth as commuters on transit. The Atlanta BeltLine has 19 schools within a half-mile of the 22-mile loop of multi-use trails; currently, the BeltLine does not have a formal public safety plan specifically for children who will utilize the trails as a route to school.

Doug Joiner, park

An adult teaches a child some safety techniques during a walk through a park: Hold hands when possible, keep an eye out for oncoming pedestrians and vehicles, stay to one side to allow easy passage to those who are moving more quickly. Credit: Kelly Jordan

These documents, which purport to address transportation needs “for everyone,” fail to address the transportation and commuting requirements of children and youth. This omission becomes an issue of equity and children’s rights to health, safety and protection.

Regarding the second point, planning for Safe Routes to School, low wealth communities do not benefit from programming for this national program – even when infrastructure funding is available. In comparison, programs are quite active in communities with higher incomes, according to reports by Census tracts and ZIP codes. This further highlights the Atlanta “tale of two cities” in low-wealth communities, and goes beyond the oft-cited issues of housing, employment and transportation. The disparity now includes the lack of health and safety programming in low-wealth communities.

Historically, schools in the Atlanta Public Schools system north of I-20 and schools south of I-20 have had vastly different student engagement outcomes. One major factor is the comparatively low amount of parental engagement in low-wealth minority communities, which are concentrated south of I-20. These Southside communities are fragile and need the support of cultural considerations of that community’s historical context and the social constructs that have negatively impacted them.

Adding their children’s commute to conversations about the children’s education would increase the parents’ engagement, even as the parents’ attention is absorbed by social determinants impacting health, safety and economic mobility.

Doug Joiner, children in parade

Children learn to walk safely and respectfully in group settings, such as this parade. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The notion of children as commuters, when utilized as a community engagement tool, would enable a centering to focus conversations and activities of adults regarding children and how to interact with them regarding the various associations they have during their daily lives. As the notion of children as commuters and Safe Routes to School become institutionalized from the home to the school, the capacity increases among parents, schools and wider community to acknowledge their roles and their piece of the community pie to create sustainability within these neighborhoods.

The regional and local transportation and transit systems mentioned earlier could, through the inclusion of the notion of children as commuters, facilitate meaningful participation capable of refocusing and investing in the needs of children – walking to and from schools, libraries, places of play, etc. The specificity of children’s needs in transportation requires their inclusiveness, increases exposure to greater mobility and personal exchanges that enhance emotional learning.

Our region has an opportunity to create a new urbanism with children in mind through Atlanta’s city administration, city council, Atlanta’s school system, BeltLine, MARTA and Transformation Alliance. This trans-disciplinary approach in engaging children and youth will give greater understanding to leadership in terms of transportation’s impact on their lives. There are three things which strongly impact children and youth: Families, Community and Schools. The idea of children as commuters guides all shareholders in intentionally crafting the structures to support and nurture child friendly mobility and ultimately the mobility throughout a community and city as a whole.

Doug Joiner, girl on bike

Keeping an eye out for oncoming traffic, this young bicyclist learns how to navigate her under the watchful eye of an adult as part of her lessons in street safety. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The concept of “children as commuters” has grown into a model that’s been successfully implemented by Morehouse School of Medicine’s Atlanta Promise Neighborhood and REACH grants. As a program, Children as Commuters also has been successfully utilized by Families First in their parental engagement work in the Jackson Cluster. Deep River, LLC., a company I founded, developed the program after the Kaiser grant ended. Safe Routes National Partnership remains knowledgeable and supportive of the work in Atlanta as part of its efforts to combat childhood obesity, promote commuter safety and prevent asthma – all of which are sorely needed in low-wealth minority communities.

This work to promote our children’s safe mobility continues the thoughts of the Rev. Howard Thurman, a mentor of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights leaders. Thurman graduated from Morehouse College and returned as a professor at Morehouse and Spelman colleges. Thurman wrote, in Jesus and the Disinherited:

  • “The doom of the children is the greatest tragedy of the disinherited. They are robbed of much of the careless rapture and spontaneous joy of merely being alive. Through their environment they are plunged into the midst of overwhelming pressures for which there can be no possible preparation. So many tender, joyous things in them nipped and killed without their even knowing the true nature of their loss.”

Children have the right to be engaged in their community and city. This embracing of children reinforces their esteem in relationships and prepares them for life’s trajectories. If leadership in public and private sectors are not willing to invest, explore change and innovation, they will be the missing pieces that would ensure that this international city is child safe, healthy, eco-friendly, and a joyful place to live. The city, its economy and its people’s lives, all benefit when we secure the lives of Atlanta’s children.

Note to Readers: Doug Joiner came to Atlanta in 1973 and received master degrees from Atlanta and Emory universities in social work and public health. He gained over 35 years of administrative experience in the psychiatric hospital business as a “start-up/turn-around specialist,” primarily in child and adolescent long-term residential and acute care hospitals. He sees Children as Commuters as a spring board to the inclusion of children and youth in developing child friendly initiatives in cities.


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  1. don speaks July 31, 2019 12:39 pm

    The problem which we have is an absence of community RESIDENTS-NOT SPOKESPERSONS included in our planning. It not feasible to have children involved, their parents and caretakers should always be considered and included. I inclusion requires TRUST in the process and the outcomes of the process. Since our poor communities of color and low resources have not been cultivated to participate; therefore every plan that move4s forward is void of real resident input.. Politicians and advocates by definition DO NOT have an authentic, genuine perspective or desire for inclusive planning.. Children belong to adults, or government through parental failures, and could never be at the so called'” table”.. If we are to create An inclusive functional environment our future all planning has to be adapted to be inclusive. Children should be in school ! When we get the process right, the result will reflect sensitivity to needs of children, whever they live!!Report

  2. Doug Joiner August 1, 2019 7:07 pm

    I must apologize as after 35 years of working in mental health with children and adolescents where parents were engaged from the start. I appreciate your comment as the article eludes all systems are not inclusive of the recipients of what they provide. Nationally, there is a gap of inclusion with educational systems and low wealth parents. You are correct, parents need to be included; without their involvement there can be little change or success. And yes, children should be in school, however, they have to get their safely first and be in a frame of mind to learn. We are looking to follow this piece up with the educational and community engagement references to the absence of children in transportation planning.

    I will push back and say it’s critical that children’s voices are included in the process you refer to. There are multiple positive examples of child and youth inclusion throughout the globe. In this country, however, there is a lacking thought in the value of their voices.

    Thank you for your comments.Report

  3. Nick Stephens August 13, 2019 2:25 pm

    Great article Doug! As someone who started bike commuting at age 11, as a 6th grader at Inman Middle School, it’s long been clear to me how children and youth are excluded from the conversation about how to improve our streets for pedestrians and other people not in vehicles. One of my biggest complaints, which shows the extreme disconnect between people who make laws and young people who use them, is the fact that it is illegal for any one over 12 to ride a bike on a sidewalk in Atlanta. So, by law, 13, 14, 15-year olds who aren’t even eligible to get a license or drive are forced to share the road with cars. Of course, there is no mandatory training for those youths to know the rules of the road. Somehow, they are just expected to maintain their safety in the incredibly hazardous environment of roads without any guidance. It fundamentally shows how bikes and other LIT devices simply shouldn’t share space with cars. Despite claims that these are all vehicles, with just a little thought or consideration, it’s clear that they are treated very differently, both in the law, and on the road.Report

  4. Jarod Guillette August 14, 2019 8:27 am

    This is a wonderful article that hits the nail through the heart of the issue, right on the head. Rural and low-income areas in much of the United States and other minority communities, such as our reservations face similar transportation infrastructure issues and they often go ignored. I worked for several years as a teacher in Indian Education, and many of my students often said it wasn’t safe to walk to school or around the town due to a host of reasons, one of them infrastructure. I live in small town USA in the poorest county in the state and the socio-economic divisions are witnessed in how a person moves around; new cars for few, jalopies for the rest, and the hardest up, a pied. Those hardest hit are the children seen walking with their parents/guardians. As a child I remember freely biking all over town, never worrying about mobility, the privilege of a wonderful upbringing. However, the children you speak of in your article I see everyday and wonder, what else can be done and how soon. I’d fully agree that children need to be involved in the process and considered a vital part of the design requirements. When children are safe to move about without a worry or care, then we have a fully equitable transportation system. Thank you for your article and thoughts. It has given me a lot to think about as a transportation planner.Report

    1. Doug Joiner August 14, 2019 6:21 pm

      No! “Thank you Jarod”. You’ve captured the whole point of ‘adults talking about what children do’ in your comment of thinking about it more. So there is, first, an awareness of the lack of inclusiveness and then, an opportunity to create a truly equitable system of mobility and learning through the lens of children and youth. I dare say “We get it right through them; I believe the rest of us are assured”.

      I appreciate your comment.Report

    2. Doug Joiner August 14, 2019 6:29 pm

      My apologies, I forgot to add how much I enjoyed and could relate to your story…it get’s to the heart of it, as you remarked. Be well as you go.Report

  5. Doug Joiner August 14, 2019 5:46 pm

    Nick “Thank you”. The basic theme of Children as Commuters is “Adults need to talk about what children do; not just parents but organizations, municipalities, etc.”. Teaching children and youth to get to and from the places they go just makes sense. I believe the Baltimore and DC school systems teach all second graders to ride bikes and introduce them to safety at an early age. There are some students from Grady High trying to muster more support and awareness. We’ve supported Fulton County Sheriff Ted Jackson’s Office of Public Safety as recipients of Be Seen and Be Safe via the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety (GOHS) which has been granted federal funds from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to promote the development and implementation of innovative programs. Sheriff Jackson has said “We want to be preventative regarding the health and safety of children”. Hence, the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office community services unit teaches child pedestrian safety to elementary school aged children in the APS and Fulton County school systems (sadly enough not very many schools take advantage of this free opportunity). The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office also coordinates an annual bike rodeo in the spring.
    I had a mentor who once said “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. Nick, you are on point…time to do things differently!”
    Again, I appreciate your comments.Report


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