Too Often, Children Are Forgotten by Transportation Planning

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.

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 SchoolNational 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.

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.

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.

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.