Moving smart from the start

May 25, 2012

Bambini project encourages parents and toddlers to use sustainable transport

By Nathan Johnson

FIVE-SEATER!: This Utrecht woman should win a pedal medal. Photo: iStock

Bringing a child into the world is a radically life-changing experience. It's also an event that results in many couples buying their first car, or even a second car. Bambini is a demonstration project that targets new parents and toddlers in an effort to encourage sustainable mobility, such as walking, cycling and using various modes of public transport. The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC) is involved in the project as an external supporter.

Introduced on the heels of the highly successful Aeneas project, which focused on public transport accessibility for the elderly, Bambini brings together an Austrian project coordinator, FGM-AMOR, and 11 project partners from throughout Europe. As two-thirds of urban car trips cover distances of less than 5 kilometres, the ultimate Bambini project goal is to promote walking, cycling, taking public transport and car-sharing as highly viable alternatives that are cleaner, healthier and safer.

Backseat development

Children who are regularly transported by car from a very early age begin to understand the world as seen from the back seat of a car, and grow into feeling that this is normal. Children who grow up experiencing their surroundings on foot or by bicycle, or while riding public transportation take in a much wider variety of experience, and are also likely to be more amenable to soft-impact modes of transport when they reach adulthood.

To encourage as early a start as possible, Bambini has helped to organise pre-birth classes in which parents-to-be are informed about modal options, transport routes and schedules, and introduced to helpful devices such as baby slings, bike trailers and push chairs.

First steps

A huge amount of urban traffic is the result of parents transporting their toddlers to and from day-care facilities and kindergarten by car. As many of these trips cover relatively short distances, this increased car traffic creates a far less healthy environment in which to live.

Bambini offers classes and workshops to try and address this problem. One method is to promote the health and environmental benefits of sustainable transport in fun and playful ways. Another is to provide toys and picture books demonstrating sustainable and energy-saving principles.

Two wheels, two feet

When children are old enough to walk at arm's length and even ride a bike, a whole new world of exploration is opened up to parents and children alike. As anywhere between 60%-80% of all urban destinations are reachable by bike, there is little need to pack everyone into a car if families have bikes or just enjoy walking to where they wish to go. And you can take lots of different routes!

Walking and cycling have inestimable health benefits and, in many cases, getting to and from school is one of the only opportunities a child or parent will have during the day to actually exercise outdoors. When parents insist on constantly transporting their young children everywhere by car, they increase the odds of ill health, lethargy and even obesity.

Play and imagination

A survey revealed that 66% of children's toys in Austria are related to cars. Such toys, combined with frequent car travel, combine to establish a bond between the child and automotive transport that can be quite influential and long-lasting. Bambini has worked to motivate industry to develop toys that promote softer modes of transport and instil a different kind of relationship between children and their environment.

One of the project partners, the toy company BAJO, produces high-quality wooden toys, many of which feature bicycles, trams and other softer forms of transport. The company is also producing special picture books that adhere to the same philosophy and is bringing them into their regular product line.

There's no place like home

SIGNS OF THE TIMES: Drivers beware! Photo: iStock

Of course, a child's life isn't just about secure environments (e.g. home, school) and going back and forth between destinations: it's also about having places to play and interact spontaneously with other children. One recent urban innovation--which has enjoyed extraordinary success in Freiburg, Germany, for example--is the 'home zone' concept.

A home zone is basically the conversion of an existing street into an area that gives precedence to bicycle and pedestrian traffic, and children playing. Cars may proceed through a home zone, but only at walking speed (roughly 5 kmh). There is special road and street signage to indicate these zones and where parking is allowed is prohibited. There are currently 180 such zones in Freiburg alone.

The Bambini project is involved in implementing a series of related three-level projects in France and Belgium to encourage this exciting type of urban renovation. As such an approach uses already-existing infrastructure, it is a cheap and effective means of enhancing urban quality of life.

Sustainable outcomes

Upon project completion, the Bambini website will continue to provide information about project efforts and achievements, and the ongoing production of new toys and books by project partners will continue as well. Hopefully, project efforts will catch on elsewhere as more and more urban residents throughout Europe begin to explore their own living environments out in the open.

Please visit the Bambini project website!