The Atlantic Cities explores the work of Bruce Appleyard, who studied children’s mental maps (cognitive mapping a la Kevin Lynch) of their neighborhoods. The unfortunate headline is Kids Who Get Driven Everywhere Don't Know Where They're Going.
The Atlantic Cities describes Appleyard’s work. His goal was to compare the maps of children in high traffic and low traffic neighborhoods. Maps by children in high traffic areas included fewer trees, more areas considered dangerous, and fewer locations where they played. Maps by children in low traffic areas included more trees, fewer areas considered dangerous, more locations where they played and a better understanding of the geographic connections in their neighborhood.
The Atlantic Cities quotes Appleyard extensively, but did not provide source or date of the research. I found the source: an article at bikewalk.org titled "LIVABLE STREETS FOR SCHOOLCHILDREN: How Safe Routes to School programs can improve street and community livability for children" (pdf). It’s from 2005 and was published in NCBW Forum, a publication of the National Center for Bicycling and Walking.
Appleyard only mentions children traveling in cars in passing. He provides a sample map of the area between home and school by one child “who is driven everywhere,” and describes a map by second child in that situation. Both maps, he concludes, show limited understanding the neighborhood’s geography. It’s not clear if they are from the high or low traffic neighborhoods, or perhaps they represent both. He suggests, based on these two examples, which were gathered as part of the larger study, but clearly not the focus, that heavy traffic can turn parents into chauffeurs, and that they in turn can impact children’s mental maps.
These examples show how neighborhood design — by placing schools, parks, and playgrounds away from homes and providing inadequate sidewalks and bike lanes to access them — can affect children’s sense of place. As parents are forced to chauffeur their children throughout their childhood, children can become cognitively disconnected from their community.
The main study, of two neighborhoods both in Contra Costa County California, does not delineate groups based on which children spend more time in the car vs. less. The distinction is whether there is more traffic in the neighborhood or less. The lower traffic neighborhood had about one half the traffic volume of the other.
Appleyard’s follow up study, after two years and the installation of traffic mitigation in the high traffic area (“two walkways and a new stop sign”), did substantially change children’s maps. Appleyard did not indicate whether the children’s travel percentage by car or foot/bike had changed, only that their mental maps changed.
That said, he did note that in a study of nine schools in California that did make improvements to traffic management under Safe Routes to School, resulted in more students walking to school.
A before-and-after study of improvements made under the Safe Routes to school program in California found strong evidence of immediate success in five of nine schools studied. The study found more children walked to school, while automobile speeds were lower and more drivers yielded to pedestrians. The study found that projects that closed sidewalk gaps were especially successful.10 While the study did not measure children’s sense of well-being, it seems reasonable to assume that this improved as well.
I fully support efforts to make cities more walkable and bikeable. And, it may be true that children who spend time in the back seat have poorer mental maps of their communities that children who walk and/or bike. The study discussed in The Atlantic Cities article, however, does not provide evidence of that conclusion.