Focusing on Early Years: With Cecilia Vaca Jones & Ankita Chachra

11 min read.
Cecilia Vaca Jones is the Executive Director of the Bernard van Leer Foundation. Before she joined the Foundation, Cecilia was the Coordinating Minister of Social Development of Ecuador from 2013 to 2016, where she was responsible for policies in health, education, housing, sport and social welfare. Ankita Chachra is the Knowledge for Policy Director of the Bernard van Leer Foundation. Previously, Ankita worked at NACTO’s Global Designing Cities Initiative (GDCI), where she addressed street and public space challenges and led the Streets for Kids programme, that recently published the guide on Designing Streets for Kids.

What are some needs of young children and caregivers as street users? Could you speak to some of the key experiences of children and caregivers on streets and how they can be better supported from both a policy and design perspective?

A: All people essentially have the same needs, but in the case of young kids and caregivers, these are heightened, even in things as simple as the speed at which they walk or the way in which they walk on the streets. For them, a lot of time it is about playing and interacting with what they’re seeing in their surroundings. They are also more sensitive to air and to noise pollution. In most parts of the world we do not consider anyone that has limited mobility in street design and often forget how loud the street can get, how the air can negatively affect us.

In terms of road safety and personal security it is especially important for children. Young children are really dependent on how caregivers perceive the built environment in terms of what they’re able to do, what they’re able to explore so that caregiver perception of safety is key. Lastly, in terms of the joy and comfort aspect, I think that we often don’t think about the momentary needs of children. For example, a child might get tired very quickly or they might have a tantrum. For a caregiver with a child those needs must constantly be factored into the way you navigate the street. You are constantly scanning for the next seat, the next place where you can change a diaper, where you can eat a snack. On the other hand there’s also a need to think from the child’s perspective, and support their ability to explore. How do we make sure that streets are not a dangerous place for them but a place where children can explore and experience beautiful things as they are growing up.

C: To compliment what Ankita was saying I think for me the most important thing from a child and caregiver perspective is the ability to feel that streets are a public space where they can immediately access and be able to play, to feel safe to create positive interactions, to meet other people. That’s where the work we’ve been doing on early childhood development is trying to improve streets and improve public spaces in general. We are increasingly seeing the need for access to public space, especially during this pandemic. Depending on where you are living, you don’t necessarily feel the street is a safe place where children can play or run freely or for caregivers to meet other caregivers. So really, recuperating the status of the street as a safe place to have positive interactions is critical right now. There’s a lot that can be done from a policy perspective and it’s been quite interesting to see how the pandemic has pushed different cities into trying to do this rapidly.

As Ankita was saying, the other very important element of our streets is that they need to be safe and healthy places for children to develop and have a healthy development. If streets have very high levels of air pollution it is very negative for the development of the brain, lungs and hearts of babies. Of course if streets are not safe places where children can play freely then again this prevents development, it doesn’t really allow them to experiment. Streets are the largest public space that we have in cities, and they should be a better space for children to grow. 

A child’s brain development from 0-3 years old is critical. How can cycling facilitate this development for children? 

C: As I was saying the reduction of air pollution is very beneficial for babies’ development. That’s why the promotion of active mobility as the main way for families with young children to move around the city is very important. Firstly, because it is a healthy way to move around the city and second because it is a way to create positive interactions in the brain of young babies and that’s quite easy to see. For example, when families either bike or walk to their daycare centres, babies seem to be a lot more stimulated than babies that are driven to the daycare centres. They are constantly being stimulated because of the different perspectives that they get from the bike seat so they are constantly interacting with their environment as well as with their caregivers because they’re close. They’re talking to them, watching different things together, feeling the air, the rain, the sun and all of these things are creating immediate connections in the brain of babies.

Bicycles are very important in cities for short distances in a way that facilitates the mobility of caregivers. Caregiver journeys and mobility patterns are very complex. Families with no children have very specific ways to move, such as to the house, to the office, to the supermarket and back home. Families that have young babies or toddlers make many stops before their final destination. They have to do a lot of short journeys. For example, now that I’m living in the Netherlands it is quite interesting to see that the main caregivers, which are usually women, use bicycles a lot more than men and this is related to the fact that they have to do all of those short trips. Doing these short trips using the bicycle is easier, and faster. So you have several benefits in one option: ease, speed, health, babies’ brain development, and greater connection between caregiver and child.

A: From the air pollution perspective, a study was recently conducted which debunked the myth that cyclists or pedestrians have a greater exposure to pollution compared to motorists. Despite the fact that cyclists are breathing more while they’re biking, in a car there is 60% more pollution exposure, so even in the places where the air is bad enough and you can’t have children bicycling, it’s worse to be in a car. We need to start making important decisions on how we want people to move and how we want people’s choices to be in the future. Another interesting study compared children who were exposed to bike or public transport from when they were young to those being driven and their choices when they grew up. So we’re also thinking of how mobility shapes the future. Lastly, the moment you remove the amount of cars on the streets, the street noises really change. The ability for children to experience the nature around them in the city is something to strive for.

C: Societies that promote active mobility from the very beginning can strongly influence social behaviours and it is being increasingly proven that children that grow up riding their bikes to their schools feel more comfortable going forward and that becomes their way to get around the city. They go further, and learn to discover and explore their city. I saw this exercise with children that was recently done in Paris where they drew different things and it was interesting to see that those who ride their bicycles to the daycare centre were a lot more creative than children that took a bus or a car. There is also evidence that children who ride their bike to school perform better.

Caregiver Journey in the Netherlands. Photo by Peter de Ruiter/Bernard van Leer Foundation

A lot of projects including: defining sidewalk and bike lane width, designing intersections and urban bike share programs have not traditionally considered caregivers & young children’s specific needs, but things are changing. Could you cite a few initiatives that the Foundation has been involved with that support active mobility for all demographics?

C: There are several illustrative cases that reveal quite different strategies. Tirana for example, is really trying to change the modes of mobility by promoting biking as one of the main ways to move around the city. They’ve been building a lot of bike lanes, but at the same time they’re trying to work with very young children so they get used to biking safely, as well as working with women to get them to bike more. A survey was recently conducted to gather a better sense of the gender split of cycling, and while there are still more men than women biking, the fact that the city is interested in why that is, shows good progress from a policy perspective.

Boa Vista is another example of a city that has really transformed the way that they see their mobility. They have built a lot of bike lanes and they have implemented some interesting policies. The Mayor of Boa Vista started actively trying to change the behaviours of public servants to use bikes to both increase their health and efficiency. These particular government workers who conduct home visits are mainly women so it also acts as an empowerment tool. Lima has also undergone recent and rapid positive change. It’s a megacity that is both congested and polluted, yet as a response to the risks of public transportation during the pandemic they created many temporary bike lanes to give people an option to move on bicycles. There is now the desire to make these temporary bike lanes permanent. While Lima is not directly addressing the needs of children and caregivers, they are really thinking which are the best ways to connect different districts and make people feel safe. They are also working to sustain car-free Sundays in the long run. This is a very positive policy for early childhood development because it reduces pollution and gives a different use to public space to play or move actively.

Lastly, I would mention Pune in India. City representatives came to our masterclasses in Denmark and they were quite impressed with the traffic park in Copenhagen so they decided to do the same in Pune and it was amazing. It enables kids to learn how to understand traffic, learn to respect the norms of traffic, stop at the traffic light, stop if you have crossing paths.  It’s a really fun park where children can go and learn how to ride in a city. What I like about the traffic park is that they are not dealing with changing the infrastructure of a city but they are trying to change and modify the behaviours of the people living in the city. Hopefully in a city like Pune that has a long story of people biking, they can come back to bike again.

A: I would highlight Bogota’s “kids first” program that is a very strong policy rooted in road safety. The mayor developed a very comprehensive approach. They started looking at traffic lights and how kids were moving.They created bike routes to school and they had these chaperones for children. Even from the parenting perspective, this removed the stress of dropping the kid at school especially in marginalised communities where this can be time consuming due to distance. Bogota is a great example, but generally I think Latin America is really pushing forward on embracing biking, and seeing it as a way to democratise the way people move especially in high density areas.

Fortaleza is also doing very interesting work, and has established a clear mission to become Brazil’s most bikeable city. They have prioritised bike lanes and are reclaiming public space for pedestrians. The last example I would give is Milan, a city that suffered tremendously in the pandemic. They created a vision of not going back to normal, they had bike lanes implemented overnight. They have been reclaiming space, and Milan has a junior bike share system where you actually have a baby seat in certain bikes in the city’s shared system. Giving that option to caregivers is a small change that makes such a big difference in how caregivers and children can use bike infrastructure in a city. 

Bicycle Education in Tirana. Photo courtesy of Joni Baboci.

How do you think bike advocates should be modifying their demands to policymakers in order to better meet them to young children and their caregivers? How can the narrative be more inclusive to this demographic? 

C: There is a lot of power in collecting these different success stories. When one city makes advances, others want to do it. There is also a need to acknowledge specific barriers when advocating for biking. There are many women that want to cycle with their babies but have no access to public bikes with seats, or simply don’t know how to bike, so there is a need to target very specific groups of age and from a gender perspective. Bike advocates need to have the lens of children if they want to get more people on bikes in a sustainable way. Thinking from the early years is not just because of the benefits but also because these children are the ones that will sustain the culture in the future. You want to make sure you are changing social behaviour towards more healthy ones, while overcoming all the barriers that people have to biking. The stories of many of the bike advocates around the world are interesting to create simple messages with strong evidence.

A: From the infrastructure advocacy perspective there is a need to bring in the child perspective and also think about what the mayor of given city is prioritising at the time. If the concern is air quality or mobility for example, a strong case for cycling can be made. To me it is not a matter of space it is a matter of priorities. We have to prioritise the future of the city in a way that keeps young children in mind, and to achieve this the narrative needs to be shaped depending on who you are designing for. The truth is that if you are thinking from a two year old perspective, you are designing for everyone. It is a golden-age group to think about.

Access our Report on Cycling Cities for Infants, Toddlers & Caregivers