Metropolis

What if Instead of Asking Children to Dress in Reflective Tape We Built Streets That Were Safe to Trick or Treat On?

People trick-or-treat in a Brooklyn neighborhood on Halloween night on October 31, 2015 in New York City. Throughout the country children and adults are dressing-up in costumes to both scare and entertain as they make their way through neighborhoods collecting candy treats. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
People trick or treat in a Brooklyn neighborhood on Oct. 31, 2015 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

You know what’s really scary about Halloween? Children between the ages of 4 and 8 are 10 times more likely to be killed by a car on Oct. 31 than on an average evening, according to research published Tuesday.

This is not by any means reason to keep your child inside, on a leash, or dressed as a highway worker. According to the same study, the absolute risk is very, very small: 2.5 fatalities per 100 million Americans in 2015, at the end of a four-decade study period.

But the data is one more way that Halloween shines a light on the way we built America, for better and for worse. On the positive side, Halloween is the holiday that most venerates good neighborhood design. Tiny ghouls and pumpkins prove to be more astute critics of urban design than the credentialed professionals at City Hall, with their instant recognition of welcoming features like sidewalks and streetlights. A city’s best neighborhoods for trick-or-treaters will also have houses that aren’t too far apart, windows facing the street, and front doors that are easy to find. They might have parking accessed via back alleys, small or nonexistent front yards, or a front porch or stoop rather than the blank door of a garage. Planners call this accidental architectural standard the trick-or-treat test.

The flip side of that is that Halloween is a moment to reflect on why so few American neighborhoods live up to that standard, and what we can do to build more of them—or perhaps more practically, let more people live in the ones we have. Families shouldn’t have to commute to go trick-or-treating.

No design feature determines a neighborhood’s Halloween potential like the speed of passing cars. The spike in pedestrian fatalities on Halloween is the most vivid example of this. But a more typical one, in some ways, is the response of city governments to the anticipated, extraordinary event of … children walking around the city.

In San Francisco, which is not a forlorn hiking trail but one of America’s most densely populated cities, the Sheriff’s Department advises making your children carry flashlights. Virtually every city in America urges parents to drape their children in string lights, glow sticks, or reflective tape. Orange County, California, got the message out with Ready Fox, a vulpine road worker whose workaday neon vest is a perfect fit for this particular Halloween panic.

For the most part, however, the problem begins and ends with the way Americans drive in residential neighborhoods—fast, and with the expectation no one will be crossing the street. AAA, of all places, has some advice that targets the right people: Slow down. Drive 5 mph under the speed limit. Look for children crossing the street. Watch for people walking in the road.

Better yet, we could build neighborhoods that make cars slow down. That way, on the one day America permits children to walk around their neighborhoods by themselves, we wouldn’t have to dress them up like they were repairing subway tunnels. It might be nice on days that aren’t Halloween, too.