Trick-or-treating is a classic American tradition that brings together communities around the country every year during Halloween. It is immortalized through popular culture like the Hocus Pocus film or The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” episodes.
This episode was written by Ryan Allen and originally published by Strong Towns.
Sadly, a new, sterile version of this Halloween tradition called trunk-or-treat has been gaining popularity because of our dangerous streets. Natalie Bicknell chronicled the rise of the Trunk-or-Treat phenomenon in Strong Towns back in 2018.
Since then, there has only been increased attention to this replacement of traditional trick-or-treating, covered by national and local outlets alike, such as Fox News, The LA Times, and the Detroit Free Press. Popular blogs like The Pioneer Woman and retailers such as Amazon have even started leaning into decorations not just for houses but for our vehicles.
Halloween has long been one of the most dangerous days for pedestrians of any day in the entire year, especially for children. With the advent of COVID-19, American streets have only become more dangerous. Given the safety concerns, communities and local institutions such as churches or schools have opened their spaces for trunk-or-treat events.
The pandemic steered people toward more controlled environments, showing them that trunk-or-treat could be a safer alternative to the holiday tradition. Unfortunately, it is a logical reaction for individual parents to choose trunk-or-treat over traditional trick-or-treat, given the dangers faced by pedestrians that have been engineered into our street design.
With the rise of trunk-or-treat, the classic trick-or-treat tradition might seem doomed, but there are ways to ensure its survival. It takes communities coming together and reclaiming the value in their own streets and spaces.
Locals Empowered to Save Trick-or-Treat
Some localities have collectivity fought back to preserve the trick-or-treating tradition by closing streets during Halloween. One such example comes from the residents of Palmyra Avenue in my neighborhood of Old Towne Orange, California.
Old Towne Orange has long been a popular destination for trick-or-treaters on Halloween, with the Palmyra Avenue area of the neighborhood acting as the epicenter for the holiday action. The residents go all out, decking out their homes in theme-park-level decorations such as animatronic ghouls and spectral stagecoaches. Perhaps this spirit is partly the residual proximity to Disneyland, which sits just a few miles west of the town.
The spectacle brings in families and scores of kids from across Southern California. On Halloween, the sidewalks are jampacked with Barbies, Spider-men, dinosaurs, ninjas, and every other kind of costume popular with kids today, as parents watch on with glee.
Given the popularity, the neighbors lobbied to shut down the street to traffic during Halloween last year and will continue the tradition this year. With help from the city, barriers and signs are put in place, and once they go up, cars cannot come or go until Halloween ends.
These safe streets block vehicles so that families can allow their little Marvel superheroes or Disney princesses to run around without the fear of an inattentive or speeding driver. The success of the initiative can be seen in the crowds of excited kids, parents, and other locals lining up in front of Palmyra Avenue houses, spilling over into the sidewalks and onto the streets.
Families across the country worried about losing the trick-or-treating tradition due to dangerous streets should consider community organizing efforts similar to Palmyra Avenue. Slowing down cars, or removing them altogether, is the key to bolstering our American tradition again.
Trick-or-Treat Is Worth Saving
There are few places today for children to walk and roam free, and the loss of our traditional Halloween for a parking lot version only adds to the continued erosion.
In a recent commentary in The Journal of Pediatrics, scholars synthesize research showing that declines in children’s mental well-being were related to “a large decline over decades in children’s opportunities for independent activity.” Resilience is built through acts of independence and individualized choices as we grow.
The switch from trick-or-treating to trunk-or-treating is one more lost opportunity for American children to build independence.
For the youngest kids, trick-or-treating might be the first time walking up to a door and ringing the bell. It builds confidence and familiarity with the neighbors and broader neighborhood.
As kids get older, they venture on their own during Halloween, potentially getting into some mischief along the way (the namesake of the holiday). Nonetheless, traipsing through the neighborhood helps strengthen local connection and sense-making to a specific place.
A rising generation may not ever experience trick-or-treating, only viewing it through those aging pop culture references in movies or TV. Not unlike recent generations discovering their cities once had dense cores and expansive street-car networks before being paved over for parking lots and high-speed roads.
The critique of trunk-or-treat is not an urban elitist takedown of rural America. The practice actually makes sense for rural communities where housing is spread far apart.
Trick-or-treating is supposed to be a suburban tradition. But our suburban development has become hostile to our own traditions. Neighborhoods are built without sidewalks, streets are wide, and trees are cleared—all to be more forgiving to drivers without consideration of the broader externalities to our communities.
Wide, open roads forgiving to drivers are fine for highways, but they make little sense in the middle of the communities where we live. We would never let kids trick-or-treat along the highway, so we shouldn’t design our neighborhoods with the same principles if we expect kids to explore freely.
We shouldn’t be changing our holiday tradition because of our dangerous streets; we should be changing our street design. This Strong Towns Approach goes beyond just Halloween. Traffic circles, street trees, curb extensions, and other traffic-calming measures can be installed to make our places safer all year round.
For instance, while shutting down Palmyra works well for Halloween night, people still visit the street throughout October to see the decorations. With no barriers and scores of pedestrians walking around the dimly lit streets, the scariest night on Palmyra isn’t October 31, it is the rest of the year.
It may seem that on the surface we are merely trading one place to hand candy to kids for another place. But it goes beyond that. The change is about our collective choices prioritizing cars without considering the consequences that impact a broader range of American life.
Without taking local community action, parents make the rational choice to forego trick-or-treating and instead attempt to keep the tradition alive through a more sterile and controlled environment. The rise of trunk-or-treat is just another symptom of how we lost our streets, but we can come together and save our tradition.