February 11, 2019

The Effects of Transportation on Early Childhood Development


by Julien Vincelot and Patrin Watanatada, Bernard van Leer Foundation

If you were in Los Angeles one morning last September, you might have noticed small groups of adults making their way downtown on foot while pushing empty strollers or carrying bags of rice as heavy as an 18-month-old child. These men and women had come from Amsterdam, California, Dakar, London, Madrid, New York City, Shenzhen, Tel Aviv, and other cities to contribute their expertise to an Urban95 meeting on urban transport for families, hosted by the Bernard van Leer Foundation. Urban95 asks city leaders, planners, designers, and engineers: “If you could experience the city from 95 cm—the height of a three year old— what would you change?”

Babies and toddlers deserve a good start in life, and the best way to achieve that is to support the people who care for them. So, what does this have to do with transportation?


Urban Transportation and the Developing Brain

Between conception and age three, the brain is developing rapidly and is more sensitive to external experiences and inputs—both negative and positive—than at any other time in life. These experiences set the foundation for health and learning in later childhood and into adulthood. And they are powerfully influenced by the mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, siblings, friends, and professionals who care for them. These primary caregivers not only influence the quality of food, play, and healthcare but they also provide warm, responsive human interactions that the developing brain depends on to build neural connections.

Urban transportation can affect the quality of the experiences that shape the developing brain— for good and for bad. It affects access to healthy food, healthcare, childcare, and other key early childhood services. The quality of transportation and planning affects the extent to which pregnant women, babies, and toddlers can access the services they need for healthy development: sources of healthy food, well-baby clinics, and other primary healthcare, childcare, parks, and play spaces.

It can cause stress for caregivers. Traveling in the city can be tiring, long, stressful, or dangerous for caregivers, which affects the quality and amount of responsive care they can provide.

It can pollute the air. For children under five, the top two causes of death are preterm birth complications and lower respiratory illnesses. In urban areas, air pollution from vehicles is a significant contributor to both. What’s more, the damage air pollution causes to still-maturing brains and lungs—asthma, cancer, cognitive impairment, and reduced lung functioning—can last a lifetime.


How City Planners and Transport Agencies Can Build Healthy Brains

Better walking and cycling infrastructure, widespread, affordable and safe public transportation, and low-emission zones benefit every urban dweller, including babies, toddlers, and the people who care for them. But until these exist throughout every city, we encourage cities to prioritize the health of their youngest residents and the adults they will become by considering the following:

  • 20-minute (or less) neighborhoods for babies. City planning for the needs of pregnant women, babies, and toddlers starts with understanding where they live and where they need to go. Shortening distances to key early childhood services is one of the best things a city can do for the healthy development of its babies and toddlers. Researchers at Turkey’s Kadir Has University and the TESEV thinktank have produced Istanbul’s first map of children under five by income level, and some of its municipalities are beginning to use the map to plan home visits and public spaces. In Tel Aviv, Israel, the departments of Community, Culture & Sports and Social Services are collaborating to share physical facilities to locate early childhood services closer to families. This is being piloted in five community centers with the goal to allow parents to walk to well-baby clinics.




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