Parents don’t always agree with practitioners about safe cycling routes for kids

by Rayla Bellis

Bicycle Level of Traffic Stress (LTS), a system for rating bicycle routes from low- to high-stress based on factors like vehicle speed and separation from traffic, has been gaining traction nationwide as an approach for identifying needed investments, evaluating the overall completeness of bicycle networks, and even making project ranking and selection decisions. However, a recent study led by Rutgers University indicates parents’ perspectives about “low-” and “high-stress” environments don’t always align with transportation practitioners when it comes to the safety of their children.

The research team surveyed 187 parents in Highland Park, N.J. They asked whether the participating parents would ride alone and let their children ride alone on six routes in the area: a multi-use path in a park, wide residential street, narrow residential street, busy street with shared lane markings, busy street with a buffered bike lane, and a protected lane on a quieter street. The study authors then compared the results to the LTS classifications.

In general, the study found that parents preferred separation from traffic to a greater degree than the LTS framework suggests. Eighty-eight percent of parents would allow their children to bike on separated multi-use trails, but only 44 percent would allow children to bike on wide residential streets, and just 32 percent would be comfortable letting their kids bike on narrow residential streets. More parents were comfortable allowing their children to bike on busy streets with buffered lanes than in traffic on narrow residential streets.

As the study authors note, these findings do not invalidate the Level of Traffic Stress framework, but rather point to opportunities to refine it. Practitioners should continue to adapt the LTS approach to reflect nuanced feedback such as what this study provides (for example, by differentiating between different tiers of low-stress streets).

Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager at SSTI.