The meaning of livable streets to schoolchildren: An image mapping study of the effects of traffic on children’s cognitive development of spatial knowledge

Key takeaway:

  • This study examines how traffic exposure impacts children’s development of cognitive spatial knowledge. Children who actively commute and experience less traffic exposure have better health outcomes, perceptions of their neighborhood, and spatial knowledge.


  • The main hypothesis tested in this research is: Increasing exposure to higher automobile traffic volumes and speeds, exacerbated by inadequate walking and bicycling infrastructure along the routes to school, limits children’s development of cognitive spatial knowledge.
  • Children in the neighborhood with heavier traffic exposure frequently expressed feelings of dislike and danger when exposed to higher traffic volumes and speeds. The increased exposure to traffic threats limited their ability to pay attention to and remember characteristics of their neighborhood.
  • Meanwhile, children from the neighborhood with less traffic exposure demonstrated a much richer sense of their environment and could identify more areas on the street where they liked to play.
  • Children’s exposure to traffic threats reduces their ability to recall neighborhood characteristics, enjoy their neighborhood, play and have a wider group of friends in their neighborhood, and develop spatial knowledge.
  • Children who are able to actively and independently interact and experience their neighborhood via walking and/or bicycling, as opposed to being driven everywhere, have greater spatial awareness and knowledge.


  • Safe Routes to School efforts should be comprehensive, not only educating and encouraging kids to walk to school, but also incorporating engineering improvements to decrease traffic volume and slow traffic speeds.


  • The author used cognitive mapping exercises through a series of focus group interviews with nine and ten year old children in two similar suburban neighborhoods and schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. These neighborhoods were similar in many respects (i.e., lacked sidewalks, school located in the middle of the neighborhood, few off-street pedestrian and bike pathways, similar socioeconomic demographics), but differed in the level of children’s exposure to traffic (based on volume and speed).

 Appleyard, B. (2017). The meaning of livable streets to schoolchildren: An image mapping study of the effects of traffic on children's cognitive development of spatial knowledge. Journal of Transport & Health, 5.

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