Designing Roadway Infrastructure Through the Lens of Child Safety

By Kate O'Brien, Senior Writer for Meeting of the Minds

Kate O'Brien is a consultant and writer for Meeting of the Minds. A collaborative consultant focused on facilitation, coaching, and capacity building, Kate supports an array of change agents and their transformative work in communities across the United States.

If you could experience the city from the elevation of 95 centimeters—the height of the average three-year-old child—what would you change?

Answers to this question, and variations on it, were plentiful last week in a break-out session titled ”Targeted Interventions to Improve Road Safety” in which four expert panelists, representing work on three continents, contemplated such provocative questions while sharing data and case study examples of their work to advance road safety. The session was part of this year’s MOBILIZE, the annual sustainable transport summit of the Institute for Transportation and Development (ITDP), which convenes urban transport and development practitioners and researchers to celebrate best practices and accelerate implementation of sustainable transport projects.

MOBILIZE was held this year in Fortaleza, Brazil to honor and learn from this coastal city of 2.6 million in the state of Ceará. During his six years in office, Mayor Roberto Claudio Rodrigues Bezerra and his administration have achieved a massive reduction in road fatalities using relatively simple, low-cost interventions. Several of these practices were featured in site tours where attendees learned by experience on bike, on foot, and on integrated public transit across the city.

Why road safety, and why a focus on children? Here are just a few of the many statistics this session’s panelists offered at the outset to demonstrate the intense need for a universally inclusive approach to roadway design:

  • Every six seconds, someone in the world dies or becomes seriously injured in a roadway incident.
  • Roadway fatalities are the leading cause of death worldwide among young people ages five to twenty-nine.
  • By 2020, road traffic incidents are projected to become the principal cause of premature death and physical disability among people ages five years and older.


Each panelist asked some variation on the question, “why aren’t roadway deaths among pedestrians and cyclists framed as senseless and preventable the same way fatal airline crashes are?”. Although the world’s decision-makers aren’t characterizing roadway fatalities in the same way they do airline crashes, the panelists assert that roadway fatalities are significantly more prevalent than airline fatalities, and are most certainly preventable.

Panelist Dr. Geetam Tiwari, professor at Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, affirmed this point. She says that her research, and the broader body of urban mobility research worldwide, shows unequivocally that “speed is the single most important issue we must address to ensure the safety of vulnerable road users whether pedestrians, cyclists, or motorcyclists.”  

Quite simply, she says, reducing vehicle speeds on roadways will reduce the number of pedestrian deaths worldwide. While this may seem obvious to urban transport professionals, what Dr. Tiwari and her fellow panelists were contemplating involves more than an infusion of pedestrian- and bike-friendly infrastructure. It involves will-building work –  changing hearts and minds of decision-makers with the capacity to change policies and practices – which is inherently unpredictable, rarely linear, and highly reliant on an adaptive communications strategy.

Toward that end, on offer at MOBILIZE were several tools, resources, and case studies of projects whose leaders aim to re-humanize public roadways and disrupt the automobile-centric culture that dominates them in many places. What follows are a few key highlights focused on advancing universally accessible improvements to the built environment.

Panelist Christopher Kost, ITDP’s Africa Program Director, shared his team’s work in Nairobi. There, an outdated and mismatched design manual meant for rural streets still guides urban street design practices in Nairobi and across all Kenya’s major cities. In response, the ITDP team led the development of a guiding document titled “Streets for Walking and Cycling” specific to an urban streetscape where shared transportation modes coexist, and safety of the human being on foot or bicycle is prioritized. Examples from his team’s emergent design manual includes:

  • Dedication of space for pedestrians via replacement of all footbridges with at-grade crossings at all intersections
  • Dedication of space for cyclists via separated, protected bike lanes
  • Specification of raised “tabletop” pedestrian crossings at all BRT stations
  • Reduction in traffic lane widths to ensure slower vehicular speeds

Kost says implementation of these updated, evidence-based practices “will make a quick and practical impact on road safety, most especially for young people and the elderly, our most vulnerable roadway users.” Now that the new design guide is complete, Kost says, “ITDP is conducting outreach and will-building work across Kenya to ensure these practices become standard issue.”

Efforts like these are critical to establishing a consistent culture of prevention, asserts Dr. Tiwari, who cited worldwide need for preventive roadway design sensibility that at once recognizes human frailty, accepts human error, and creates a forgiving environment. She referenced the International Social Security Association’s (ISSA) VisionZero guidance, developed to advance a strong prevention culture worldwide, as a framework that reflects this ethos and offers planning and advocacy teams practical steps for realizing such a culture in roadway design practice.

Pivoting to other practical tools and strategies for implementing preventative practices, Dr. Tiwari also offered the results of a 1968 study which showed that “children below the age of ten do not have sensory or cognitive ability to cope with modern traffic.” Dr. Tiwari says that while this is information we’ve known for decades, our car-dominant culture has enabled us to ignore it, at the peril of the world’s most vulnerable roadway users: children and elders.

Panelist Claudia Vidigal is a psychologist who has spent the past twenty years promoting and defending children’s rights in Brazil with the Bernard van Leer Foundation, an independent foundation working worldwide to inspire and inform large scale action to improve the health and well-being of babies, toddlers and the people who care for them by providing financial support and expertise to partners in government, civil society, and business to help test and scale effective services for young children and families.

Vidigal affirmed the findings from the 1968 study, and took this youth-centered perspective a step further. In her work, Vidigal regularly offers the perspective of babies, toddlers, and their caregivers; and in this break-out session, she guided the audience through an exploration of child-centered roadway design through the lens of early childhood development. Citing an ever-growing body of research on brain development during the formative years of early childhood, Vidigal framed the issue of road safety as “a practice establishing a good start for all children, putting each individual child on the path to realizing their full potential, and collectively, setting the foundation for a healthy, creative, and peaceful society.”

Vidigal discussed how babies’ first 1,000 days on earth is a time when more than one million synapse connections happen in the developing brain. “All sectors need to be involved in raising a child,” Vidigal says. “Mobility touches all aspects of a human being’s life. How we experience our community as we travel through it, and as babies, as we travel through it with our caregivers, shapes our brains, shapes us as people.” It is this sensibility that informs the Foundation’s Urban95 project.

The Urban95 approach to developing the built environment is informed by one guiding question: ‘If you could experience the city from the elevation of 95 centimeters—the height of the average three-year-old child—what would you change?’ The Urban95 project resulted in development of the Urban95 Field Guide, a toolkit created by a team comprised of staff from the Bernard van Leer Foundation and Gehl, one of the world’s preeminent firms practicing people-centered urban design.

“We need to broaden who we talk to in terms of encouraging and informing changes that will increase road safety,” Vidigal says. Borrowing from the introductory language of her team’s toolkit, the Urban95 methodology guides its users to “gather empirical evidence and arguments for improvements in the public realm by conducting surveys of youth and their caregivers.” From these activities, design teams can gain insight into public life and better understand the life of a place, and what physical changes to the environment will create a more sustainable and livable city for all.”

Panelist Karisa Ribeiro, whose presentation of kindred work followed Vidigal’s, is Transport Specialist with the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). IADB provides loans, grants, and technical assistance to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, working to reduce poverty and inequality, helping to improve health and education, and advancing infrastructure in a sustainable, climate-friendly way. Ribeiro helped IADB change its financing strategy a few years ago in response to data that shows increasing rates of childhood deaths by road traffic injury worldwide. Now, all projects funded by IADB must contemplate the development and implementation of road safety strategy.

Ribeiro takes particular interest in advancing roadway safety at schools and the neighborhoods surrounding them. In her agency’s Safe Routes to the School work across Latin America and the Caribbean, her team has developed this Tool for the Implementation of Safe Routes to the School in the Latin American and Caribbean Region, designed for communities, cities, decision makers, associations, organizations and all people interested in the development of safe routes to local schools. Always taking into account the adaptation of solutions to the local context, the tool aims to help encourage partnerships and galvanize groups of people together toward action. Rebeiro shared her remarks as both a transportation professional and as a mother, and modeled her commitment to these issues by showing a photo of her children while telling a story of a recent student death at her children’s school resulting from a traffic-related injury.

“Distraction is the greatest contributor to accidents around schools,” says Ribeiro. “And it’s preventable. Each individual in a community needs to feel a sense of responsibility for the safety and security of our children.” Toward that end, IADB has developed several free and low-cost resources and trainings on a variety of subjects in order to build the capacity, leadership, and behavior change within organizations to which it provides financing. This particular training called “What is Road Safety?” is geared to a broad, general audience and is available in three languages.

“These kinds of tools help build capacity for all kinds of people to become actively involved in creating the positive change we need to see in the built environment,” she says. “Pillars for road safety have long focused on infrastructure. We’ve had a decade now of increased road safety action. But change has still been slow to happen. What we need now is a focus on behavior change.”

This author certainly came away from MOBILIZE equipped with a renewed sense of optimism about advancing exactly this kind of social and place-based change on roadways in her own community in Portland, Maine. I hope you’ll come away from reading this blog post more inspired and curious, too. For more information on Meeting of the Minds’ ongoing exploration and study of behavior change initiatives from around the world, please visit our Behavior Change blog series.


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1 Comment

  1. If levitation in vehicles develops in 2020, we could be reinvesting a large health capital into new complementary developments.
    The cyclists and pedestrians plus scooter and new technologies would have the freedom and security that we do not have today.
    Can you imagine cities in India with virtual aerial tubes full of vehicles in only one direction from where they detach and descend at moderate speed, after traveling at high speed and in a short time from a distant sector of origin?
    We would all travel on 50 or 100 meters, but never at 3000 as an airplane, no more complex street designs and road networks filled with increasing questions, to finish leaving an air highway right where the GPS in combination with the range sensors with the other vehicles decide within the traffic network, to park on our house or garden without risk of vandalism, only in vandalism in the underdeveloped areas or countries the time and cost saving is enormous, think like a country of those, you leaves home, closes and hides everything, then more keys for doors and cars and time to be sure that nothing is missing, including insurance and warnings to neighbors … everything changes and leaves from the roof to an air street without police …
    Well I forgot something important, the planes will surely undergo major modifications such as airports … and wheelchairs also …
    What will a child say who was born in a street free of obstacles at high speed, and the quality of life without smog, I think it would be difficult for them to understand how their grandfather or father died as a result of pollution or a violent clash on public roads. If only at 95 cmt of stature we saw the horizon free of obstacles where we could breathe very deeply.
    A large amount of financing to solve poverty can be achieved at the expense of today’s road safety.
    It seems that there is a lot of capital and effort in the future that can be invested today (actions of future values) from road financing, IDB, road safety, health and citizen security among other items more than sure these pages will fill with brilliant arguments.
    By the way Recife is a wonderful city, Porto de galihnas and Olinda are places to come back always thanks!


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