A "trikeshare" stand in the Secret Traffic Garden. Image by the author.

Students in Petworth are learning about transportation with a “traffic garden,” a miniature city that demonstrates how street design impacts their lives. Using cardboard boxes, fabric, and copious duct tape, campers built everything from a trails network to traffic signals.

It’s part of a transportation-themed camp that Briya Public Charter School and The Bureau of Good Roads, a company that teaches people about street design, have hosted for the last three summers. At the end of last month’s camp, the 12 local children who participated were in a high state of excitement as they unveiled the traffic garden they had built from recyclables and craft supplies. They assembled the traffic garden in the enclosed playground at Sharpe Health School, where Briya is temporarily located.

Students learn about street design in a "traffic garden" at Briya Public Charter School. Image by the author.

The traffic garden design plan was put together with the aid of a prototype model. This helped the nine- and ten-year-old campers visualize where to locate features on the existing playground layout. 

Campers designed a prototype of the "traffic garden" they built. Image by the author.

I, a staffer from The Bureau of Good Roads, two teenage interns, and an adult volunteer assisted the students in the fabrication. They explained basic engineering ideas as part of the construction process, as well as during testing in the playground.

While this traffic garden was a temporary installation, permanent facilities of this type can be found around the US and beyond. Traffic gardens go by many other names, depending on when and where they were built.

The most common US terms appear to be variations on “Safety Town” and “Safetyville,” but the newest facilities, such as those recently built in Seattle, are known as “traffic gardens”. Features vary depending on size and style but all have common elements of child-scale streets designed for walking and biking. Facilities were usually intended to teach traffic safety to local school children.

A food truck in the "traffic garden." Image by the author.

After three weeks, campers finally got to cut the ribbon and show off their handiwork. As the hosts, they talked about roundabouts and pedestrian crossing design and took turns manning the traffic control center. They gave lessons in using their trike share system and demonstrated the self-driving car. For one happy summer morning, the traffic garden was a bustling place as campers explained transportation ideas to an audience made up of parents, staff and a handful of people from the street design world.

The Secret Traffic Garden Club engaged children by adding mystery, purpose, and creative fun to street design. But the existing built world itself is a readily-available tool that can be harnessed in such design teaching.

A self-driving car in the "traffic garden." Image by the author.

With children, we typically focus on roadway safety education rather than making the connection to how streets are put together and work. Introducing them to street design ideas deepens their understanding and should increase their observational skills as they engage with daily life. We saw that when The Secret Traffic Garden Club members briefly became the most hard-working transportation design crew around town.

Fionnuala Quinn lives in suburban Fairfax. She has turned her passions for engineering, education and transportation into spending her time thinking of ways to engage more people into the conversation about how our streets work.