The popular notion that all modern children are chauffeured around by their parents and never walk has been overturned by researchers at Lancaster University.
The study, which was funded by the ESRC, has discovered children may not be as pampered as had previously been thought. The finding that walking still accounts for 60% of all trips by 10/11 year olds in the Manchester/Salford and Lancaster /Morecambe urban areas challenges recent statements about a decline in the amount of exercise children get through walking.
The study also found that, despite a predictable increase in car use, walking and buses remained important in the case of 17/18 year olds and accounted for over 75% of all trips in each town. The researchers conclude that transport policy should pay far more attention to the needs of pedestrians, rather than assuming that one solution suits all. “Many everyday journeys are undertaken on foot, but this is a form of travel that has been marginalized in much transport policy,” says Professor Colin Pooley, the project leader.
The research, which was based on detailed questionnaires and in-depth life history interviews with 156 respondents in four age categories, ranging from 10/11 to 60 years of age, found that for most people actual travel experiences had changed very little since the 1940s despite the increase in affluence and car ownership. For children aged 10/11, both the total distance travelled and the average trip length increased slightly, but the mean time spent travelling declined a little. There has been a decline in the proportion of 10/11 year olds allowed to travel around unaccompanied, but even today over 50% of trips are taken without an adult, In all, the researchers collected 160 hours of taped interviews and data on over 895,000 individual trips.
Children’s accounts of their play experiences have also changed little since the 1940s. Key themes include the importance of boundaries, the significance of traffic, the need for children to tell parents where they are going, the nature of rules, and the impact of territorial rivalry between different groups of children. However, the area in which children are allowed to play today seems to have shrunk over time. In the1940s, some children were allowed to roam freely over a wide area, whereas 21st century children are more strictly controlled by their parents. Few of the young children interviewed had dealt with risk, and compared to earlier generations they have not had the opportunity to learn to negotiate and to deal with challenges.
While the children who were aged 10/11 when interviewed said they were nervous of being abducted or run over, respondents who were the same age in the 1940s swam in dirty canals and played in air raid shelters and did not tell their parents about encounters with “flashers.” “We suggest that this reflects the much greater publicity given by both national and local media to a small number of specific events such as child abductions and related dangers,” says Colin Pooley.
Other project findings were that people in their sixties are much more mobile than at any time in the past, but also that older people may also adjust their travel because of perceived risks.