This is a clear case of the disconnect between planning activities and everyday life. As idealistic planners, we cannot take anything for granted. In all of our planning activities and initiatives, we MUST include ALL stake- and interest-holders.
The Federal government has a program called the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program, which aims to encourage the riding of bikes and walking to and from school. This initiative is being applied at all school levels, including elementary and middle schools. However, in all planning activities in which I have been involved, I never once saw reference to whether the kids would be allowed to walk or bike ALONE to school. These decisions are unique to each community and planners, public officials, police departments and parents all need to come together to address these issues prior to implementation.
Police officers are uniquely aware of dangers that might lurk around the corner. They are the ones that book that child molester in the neighborhood or interrogate a rape suspect. They can recognize potential dangers, such as open ditches in the neighborhood (such as one in my neighborhood). They are asking parents to be equally wary of issues that can crop up. And I think this is reasonable.
In any event, the police force must be represented in neighborhood planning activities. Planning officials and consultants should insist that a representative from the police department sit on the planning meetings as part of the development of linear parks, greenways and the addition of trails, especially near schools and other vulnerable populations.
We might bemoan that things were easier when we were kids. Back in the day, when kids could walk to school on their own, leaving mom to bake cookies in pre-suburban America, there were many other kids walking or biking to school as well. Now, not so much. Parent cab services are the norm now. It would be good, as we make a needed-cultural change away from auto-dependent lifestyles back to walking and biking lifestyles, that we refrain from throwing caution to the wind.
It behooves us to walk to school with our child; consult with our local police force as to their perception of crime in the area; and evaluate local attitudes to walking to school. The police force should be seen as a critical partner in the Smart Growth goals of a particular community.
The police are not the enemy. On the contrary, their job is to keep our communities safe, and I am sure they don’t want to be babysitting our children, regardless of the wonderful walkability of our revamped neighborhoods. Through open dialogue and discussion, each community as a whole will arrive at its particular comfort level with walkability.