Monday, June 10, 2013

Op-Ed: Oregon Needs Mobility Education

Oregon’s graduated licensing program has received much praise in its effectiveness at reducing crash rates for teen drivers. Given this success, I propose that the state continue to lead the nation in driver preparedness by instituting mobility education, starting at the elementary school level. This recommendation focuses on the state level because the Oregon Department of Transportation already handles driver education within the state. Furthermore, instituting this novel idea as a pilot program within the state will allow for gradual adoption and flexibility in implementation.
Mobility education is a model for teaching children how to interact with all modes of transportation, including by foot, bicycle, bus, and automobile. This program is most famous and widespread in the Netherlands, where instructional courses at “traffic gardens” promote safe transportation practices to elementary school children.

These educational programs start when children are between 10 and 11 years old (1). Another program, implemented in Germany, has age-specific stages, such as safety skills (grades 1-6), social & environment impact (grades 7-10), and sustainable mobility (grades 11-13) (2).

The value of this education extends into many areas. According to a German report on mobility education, many accident statistics involving children point to a lack of development as the root cause (2). Actively engaging children and young people in their transportation choices and environment helps encourage healthy habits and cognitive development that extend into adulthood.

Driver’s education in the United States currently focuses on one mode of transportation, the all-powerful automobile. Furthermore, many driver’s education programs are just geared towards preparing the student to successfully pass the licensing test (3), and are less concerned with development and other modes of transportation. Instituting mobility education expands the topic coverage, focusing on all modes of transportation and putting a greater emphasis on awareness, safety, and interaction between modes.

The growth of non-automobile forms of transportation and advocacy for transit-oriented development calls for Oregon to rethink their approach to driver’s education. ODOT’s focus on climate change, sustainability, and active transport should include an exploration of new and innovative programs that focus on less carbon-intensive ways to get around, such as public transit, cycling, and walking (4). A pilot program in mobility education gives ODOT enough flexibility and a short-term commitment to see how this new idea would play out in cities and towns around the state.

Although Oregon could still lead the nation by adopting such a program permanently, we would not be the first state to try out a pilot program. A Washington organization, Mobility Education Foundation, ran a mobility education pilot program at the high school level in 2007 (5). This program was focused on effective and holistic education of teens, building partnerships, and implementing sustainable action. Through legislative action, local initiatives, and market-based approaches, MEF hopes to overhaul Washington’s current system, shifting the focus from drivers to broader mobility education (5).

Critics of this proposal would certainly cite the costs of implementation, even at the pilot program level. With cuts to funding for Safe Routes to School, available pools of money seem to be drying up. However, I feel that this issue is important enough to require attention and funding from the state or federal level. Given that children are involved, legislators should respond enthusiastically to the idea of improving the education and safety of America’s youngest generation.

In addition to this idea’s appeal based on safety for children, mobility education has much broader impacts related to obesity, sustainability, and equity. Focusing on other modes of transportation other than the automobile exposes children to active transport at a younger age. Developing these habits early, in an educational framework, can help children understand the benefits of walking and cycling, as well as the interactions these modes have with public transit and driving. Germany’s multi-staged approach (2) gives children and young people a much deeper understanding of many aspects of sustainability. Mobility education has the potential to feature an interdisciplinary approach that would help increasing children’s understanding of these complex topics.

Regarding equity, mobility education focuses on more affordable modes of transportation and could provide more cultural and community-specific lessons regarding these options. In a perfect world, this educational program would go hand-in-hand with infrastructure improvements for public transit, cycling, and walking. These changes should focus on areas with the most need, dispersing high-quality infrastructure across the state.

Oregon includes a wide variety of rural, urban, and suburban communities. Mobility education should not take a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Instead, ODOT’s pilot program would allow different jurisdictions to try out programs they deem appropriate for their community, within the boundaries of mobility education’s core values and goals. By starting small, ODOT can test out and refine what programs are most feasible in certain conditions and areas. Simply embracing the idea and trying out a more holistic, less auto-focused educational program has the potential to improve Oregon in many ways. With the success of this pilot program, Oregon could continue using innovative approaches that address real concerns of safety, education, sustainability, equity, and public health.



  1. Maybe they could set up a grant program, like SRTS, and non-profits/schools could apply for the funds to implement this focus. I like this idea.

    1. Thanks, Kate. I think a grant program could work; I just worry that funding would get cut like SRTS! I definitely think that gradual implementation, through a pilot program and/or grants, is the way to go.


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