Through the Eyes of a Child

It’s quite easy to be optimistic about the future of cycling in the UK when you visit London. In the five years I’ve been away (was it something I said?) cycling has become visibly more popular – and when you take to a bike, even in the suburbs, there are pockets of surprisingly, well, not unpleasant places to cycle. It’s not that things are good, exactly, but it feels as if things are at least heading in the right direction. If you pick your areas carefully (Camden, mostly) the bike seems to have been considered at almost every junction, to the point where you become quite indignant to find a one-way sign that doesn’t have ‘except cycles’ underneath it (and you realise you have crossed the border into Islington).

And then you make the mistake of taking your nine-year-old niece out for a bit of a practice cycle on a quiet Sunday morning, in preparation for the school run. It’s not that she can’t cycle to school already – she does, occasionally, when my sister can take the time to accompany her and her sister on foot. She even does it more or less independently – being much faster than her little sister, she tends to ride on ahead, crossing the side roads on her own, and waiting for another parent to come along before tackle the crossing at the big roundabout. And she is only able to do this because she cycles on the pavement.

Which is illegal. Even if you’re nine – hell, even if you’re four – it’s illegal to cycle on the footpath. It’s just that, until you’re ten, you can’t be prosecuted for it, just as you can’t be prosecuted for stealing cars, or shoplifting (technically, as she’s a regular offender, she could be taken into care, especially as her mother blatantly encourages her in this criminal behaviour). Now it’s obviously pretty unlikely that anyone is going to arrest her – but her tenth birthday is looming, and I thought I’d see what the practicalities of her actually cycling legally to school might be.

So off we went. It’s Sunday, it’s quiet but there are still a few cars about. We start on their street, which is one way and has parked cars on either side leaving exactly a car width of space between them and by cycling behind her I can prevent any moron from overtaking us. We sort of manage that, then reach the High Street, which is clearly impossible – lorries, buses, cars nipping into parking spaces, people crossing, multiple lanes of traffic. There’s no way she’s cycling in that so she gets back on the pavement. On we go to a mini roundabout and turn up what ought to be a quiet residential street but is in fact a through route as well, so there’s a mixture of parked cars and impatient drivers, along with traffic islands every 30 yards or so forming nice pinch points. I try and visualise explaining to her how to take the lane in front of an impatient 4×4 which is racing to overtake her before it gets to the next traffic island and send her back onto the pavement before someone rings social services. We continue until we get to a stretch without any parking and we try the road again which is fine until the double yellows end and there’s no way she’s going to pull out to get round the parked car while there’s a car behind us. Why would she? Everything she’s learned in her short life up to now is that if you see a car coming you stop and get back onto the pavement. I don’t want to put her off riding a bike so I send her back onto the foot path, and that’s where she stays for the rest of the ride. In the mile and a half between her school and her house, there’s no more than 100 yards that seem suitable for a child on a bike, however confident. And there’s not one single concession anywhere on that route for bikes. Nothing, except the pavement itself, and the tolerance of the local residents for children cycling on them instead of on the road

This is ridiculous, when you think about it. It’s not as if cycling to school is some sort of deviant behaviour we can’t actually ban, but we don’t want to do anything to encourage. We want children to be active, we bemoan the fact that they’re not, we complain about the congestion caused by the school run, we run special events to encourage kids to cycle to school. And yet the only thing we do make that actually possible on 90% of our roads is to turn a blind eye to ‘criminal’ behaviour. Oh, and training. For yes, my niece will soon be doing the bikeability training which will teach her that she shouldn’t ride on the pavement but should take the lane out there with the 4x4s, looking out for doors flying open as she passes the parked cars, holding her own at the pinch points, and negotiating a roundabout among buses and HGVs. Have we, as a society, gone completely insane?

After our ride, I asked my niece if she’d enjoyed it, and she had – that and the ride to school the next morning. She liked having someone who could ride alongside her, a bit of company, someone to chat to, rather than forging along on her own, with her mum trailing behind on foot with her sister. ‘Haven’t you any friends who could cycle with you?’ I asked. ‘Well there’s only X’, she said. ‘And she’s an only child, so her parents would never let her.’

Of course not. Why would you let something as precious as your only child out there to cycle in an environment that is completely indifferent to their needs? Where the only thing that guarantees their safety is the alertness of the child – and of every single driver they encounter? Why would you let any child? There can be no cycling revolution in London or anywhere else until the roads are fit not just for ‘cyclists’ but for children. And once we have achieved that, then cycling will be for everyone. And for all the changes you might see in central London, it’s not just that we’re not there yet – we’ve not even started. In fact we’re still arguing about whether we should make the journey at all.

There is another way

22 Responses to Through the Eyes of a Child

  1. SRD says:

    I’m not saying you’re wrong about any of this, but you really should come and red with us, and see that even with crappy infra it doesn’t have to be like that.

  2. disgruntled says:

    I’m not saying it’s impossible,- I can imagine with a suitably alert and skilled parent it should be doable – but that it’s hardly the conditions that encourage cycling to school. Sure, we can make it work and even make it perfectly safe, but since when do we make the virtuous choice the one that is the most difficult, rather than the easiest?

  3. babymother says:

    Like I said in my ‘share’ of this post on Facebook – as the parent in question on the (lack of) infrastructure in question, I’ll continue to encourage my child to cycle on what currently happens to be pavement until it turns into the cycle path it’s supposed to be. When the little sister gets more able (which is happening fast) I’ll cycle with them rather than walking, and we can all get arrested together. I suppose that’s sort of making a statement about how we should be travelling (by bike and not car) without risking our lives to make it. On our way we always pass a dried bunch of roses taped to a lamp post. I’m not sure I even want to know…

  4. disgruntled says:

    I’ll pay your bail 🙂

  5. Rebecca says:

    These are the kinds of things that so depress me about our governments. And it’s particularly poignant to me now because I saw the aftermath of an accident just the other evening, though it was probably an adult, rather than a child.

    I was driving through the French Quarter, where traffic is usually no more than a crawl, taking my sister to work. Police and emergency vehicle lights flashing warned us an accident had just happened, and when we got closer, we could see someone being strapped into something while still pretty flat to the ground.

    My sister and I were both impatient with the people in front of us for their rubbernecking. We both feel it is an invasion of privacy, but I also don’t want to see any horror I won’t soon forget. Because I was concentrating on traffic, I didn’t pay much attention to my sister’s observation that it was strange only one car was there. If I’d given any thought to it, I might have assumed a pedestrian had been hit, too many people don’t mind the walk signals here.

    But as I was driving back home after dropping my sister at work, I passed the accident site once more, just in time to see a policeman wheel a bike to the back of a police vehicle.

    And it really hits home to me because I have a ten year old granddaughter who rides her bike all over her neighborhood. I’ve been telling her since I moved here, *always* look both ways when cycling through intersections, even when the streets are one way – as 99% of them are where she lives. I told her that people go the wrong way down streets all the time.

    She told me she already had personal experience with that and when she and her friends see people doing that they yell, “You’re going the wrong way!”

    So at least she’s alert to the problem. And though I deplore the horrendous state of roads in this city, particularly in her neighborhood, I am grateful for the fact that the almost continuous potholes make it almost impossible to drive more than 5 miles an hour where she is riding her bike.

    It’s all politics, rather than what’s best for the actual voters, and that is just so very sad. But what makes the accident I saw even more sad is that there has been at least some progress here. I was pretty shocked to see bike lanes here in the French Quarter. Since I walk, rather than ride, I’m not sure how good they are or if there are enough of them. But I was shocked to return to Louisiana and find that they even existed.

    That gives me just the tiniest glimmer of hope…and not that I actually prefer to be gloomy…but I’m afraid it’s the kind of illusion you referred to earlier. Maybe what I’m seeing at first glance doesn’t really indicate what the actual situation is. Such a struggle sometimes, for so long, to achieve so little.

  6. zungg says:

    Brilliant writing. Justifying your newly won advocacy-laurels!

    What you say here about kids cycling in the UK is applicable to ordinary adults too, in most UK cities I’m sure and certainly in the U.S. Everyone I know who cycles here (a small sample, admittedly) takes the sidewalk at times – even me! – simply because there are so many roads on which it’s completely impossible to ride a bike, even if you’re a fast, assertive lycra-lout like me.

    The upside in CO is that it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk and there’s never anyone walking on it… ’cause why would anyone walk anywhere?! It’s called a drive-thru, not a walk-thru!

    My kids ride to school but it’ll be some time before I’ll let them do it on their own, even though it’s only a mile and they’ve only to cross one main road. It’s a fast road and I’ve seen people run that red light many, many times…

  7. Andy in Germany says:

    Reading this I’m reminded that Germany isn’t quite as bad as all that, although it still isn’t great. We have a lot more places for children to ride, and they are allowed on the pavement until they are twelve, but we have the same problem of being dumped on the streets and expected to ‘deal with’ aggresive drivers.

  8. disgruntled says:

    I should say I’m not in any way criticising people whose kids do ride on the roads – we’ve taken groups of children on (selected) roads up here and it’s been fine. Every child and every road is different, and most parents whose kids cycle have found a means for them to do it safely. My point is that it shouldn’t have to be something that’s an effort and difficult and requires massive skill and courage. It should be something an averagely dreamy, not-particularly confident child could do as a matter of course

  9. Sara_H says:

    Thank you for this post. I’m in the same position, I have a ten year old son and riding with him is terrifying.
    I’m not brave enough to let him ride alone yet, what a ridiculous situation, 10 year old kids have to be supervised when cycling because our roads are so hostile.
    Yes, I often direct him into the pavement, and on these occasions I also ride there myself as I don’t feel I can concentrate enough on my own safety on the riad whilst trying to supervise his on the pavement (where he still has to negotiate driveways, side roads, pavement parking etc).
    The yard stick has to be: are our roads/infrastructure safe for children and OAP’s safe to cycle on independently? If not, we’ve failed.

  10. Flighty says:

    A thoughtful post which shows just how crazy our travelling priorities have been allowed to become. At some point in time it surely must change for the better, but as to when that’ll be… xx

  11. The reference to build cycling infrastructure should be the more exposed riders, the most vulnerable ones, so we better cut all the “just draw a line” crap and start seriously fighting car-alienation.

  12. Hi Sally, this ties in perfectly with the new Childhood Freedom campaign ( I think the basic question that needs to be asked about any route, city or rural, is “Would you let your 8-year-old child cycle it unattended”? If not, back to the drawing board.

  13. Thank for you this post. I’m a confident cyclist who cycles 40 miles 3-4 days a week from suburbia to central London & back as my commute. I’m getting married soon and hopefully some little ones will be along in due course. I would like said little ones to be able to cycle to school and have their own freedom. This post resonates with me incredibly loudly.

  14. disgruntled says:

    Thanks all – this post certainly seems to have struck a chord…

  15. […] to be sexist and anti-bike in the same highly biased column. Town Mouse looks at cycling in the UK through the eyes of a child.  Despite the blame-the-victim teachings of Forester and Franklin, incompetent cyclists are a […]

  16. Central government doesn’t take our infrastructure seriously, it was designed and funded by politicians with a vested interested in motorized transport in the 60’s and 70’s while they strangled public transport along the way.
    The Dutch don’t have a highways agency run by petrol heads and an environment agency run by conservationists, they have a department of Infrastructure and Environment that has the job of making their country sustainable and run smoothly for the people that live there and use it. We haven’t a hope of improving the quality of life in this country while we have a system with no interest in the long term picture. There have been so few large infrastructure projects taken on and as a result we have a country crawling along on a largely victorian network.
    Where are the philanthropists and visionaries now? I declare this country’s transport network terminal and the whole thing needs a rethink from the driving licence that perpetuates road deaths that far out strip any wars we’ve had this century, to our children doomed to inactivity, poison fumes and depriving them of the sheer pleasure of travelling on double decker trains, trams and riding their bikes.

  17. I am a Dutch national, who lived and worked in the UK as Bikeability instructor for the last five years.

    Being Dutch, I naturally loath British road infrastructure as it stands for all the obvious reasons.

    Of course, Bikeability is a very cheap way for the government to promote cycling in a car-addicted country without making a real commitment. I totally agree that change of road lay-outs and building of good segregated infrastructure for cycling (ideally not shared pavements with pedestrians please) is the ONLY way to change this country’s travel habits, but this doesn’t take away that I find Bikeability a good scheme in itself.

    Bikeability Level 1 and 2 as taught in primary schools are in many ways the equivalent to the Dutch “traffic exam”, which Dutch children do when they are 10/11. Now, Dutch children grow up with traffic participation from young age and for them, the exam is not much more than an hour test with some theory about road signs and priorities-rules provided by a policeman beforehand.

    British children generally don’t have the exposure to traffic participation from young age and that is why the 10 hour Level 1 and 2 course, is such a great tool, as it is the ONLY cycling and traffic education these kids get in their entire school career. For many children it is the very first time they are out cycling on the road and the very first opportunity they are actually allowed to interact with traffic, making up their own minds and making them aware of all those hazards cyclists are exposed too. In a a society ruled by cars I shout it out loudly for those ten hours I got with those kids; Yes, roads are not just made for cars and you are allowed to cycle, because it is fun! And you know; we are going to teach you some tricks to make those drivers in their metal boxes behave around you (how dare they not to)!

    Most of all; from experience, I find that Bikeability Level 1 and Level 2 is a BIG experience in these young people’s lives and it indeed enables SOME children to make independent journeys on more quiet roads, which indirectly also encourages other children to cycle at a later stage in their lives. And yes, we also tell the children that Level 1 and Level 2 is NOT intended for cycling on main roads. If things get tricky, it is always fine to get off and walk on the pavement. We also tell the children to practise the things they’ve learned on the course with their parents, as they need more riding hours under their belly to become “natural” (as Dutch kids are!)…

    Now, recently funding has become available for Bikeability Level 3 for children in secondary education and now we are getting on to the topic of the niece and her journey on the big roundabout and dealing with the HGVs, etc, etc.

    We teach Level 3 now for about a year ourselves to children in Year 7 and 8 (12-14 year olds) and being a Dutch instructor, I mostly focus on what I find important for those children; giving them the ability to cycle to college or to the sports club independently without the need for motorised transport.

    So, we do a session about route planning and I go through the traffic-calmed routes being available I would choose as a Dutch person who doesn’t want to be exposed crazy traffic flows. We also cycle these routes and then of course, naturally at some stage will end up at that cross roads junction with traffic lights, roundabout or short section of main road that can’t be avoided. We talk about it, we do it (and if you follow the Bikeability manual you can do it safely!), but then we have a break.

    I make the children look at the junction from the side. Do we really enjoy cycling like this, pretending we are a motor biker (but without the engine) and all the time checking and make other people behave as they should? Ok, it was fun for now and it is a kick to “have done it”, but if you have to cycle like this for any length of time? And what about those drivers at that junction? Nine out of ten wouldn’t dare to do it on a bike, so why must you? I clearly make the whole thing optional and tell the children again that they can opt out any time they can!

    Now, in this way, I find I really enable those teenagers to make their own journeys and to deal with hostile conditions (I often suggest at the end of the session that parents should make the same journeys with their children), but also make them aware of the fact that cycling among HGVs should indeed not be the norm!

    There is this flexibility of interpretation in the syllabus of Level 3, although I know there are instructors out there who will make crazy roundabouts as the norm of what should be achieved as part of Level 3. Well, in fact, it is not; it is an optional thing and if you are a parent who has done Level 3 one way or the other I would suggest you approach the issue in the same way. Go out together and go through the routes your child might want to cycle. Have a close look at their abilities and motivations yourself. Are they keen to do that roundabout and do you have the confidence they can indeed read the traffic flow to be able to do so or not? If they are, they’ll do it at some stage anyway and then it is good they had some training. If they are not, just stay away from it and use the back streets. If such routes are not obvious ( and I know from experience in many places they aren’t) STAND UP and SHOUT LOUDLY! It worked in the 1970s in The Netherlands and the climate for change in the UK has never been so good as it is now! Bikeability is part of that climate and generates a lot of goodwill for cycling. I totally agree that just this goodwill is not enough and that a REAL change in infrastructure is needed, but I felt that Bikeability as a scheme in itself is a good thing and that this voice should be heard in this on-line conversation…

    Eric van der Horst

    • disgruntled says:

      I think we agree here. But the problem with bikeability for the younger kids is this: by (correctly – it’s the law) telling them not to cycle on the pavement and instead giving them the skills to cycle on the roads which at school run time will inevitably be contested and full of impatient drivers, we transform a journey which was pleasant and easy for a nine-year-old to do on her bike (if not for her fellow pavement users) into one which requires skill and confidence. As you say, the child has to learn how to control all those adults in their metal boxes. For some kids on some days that would be a huge kick – even for most kids on a good day. But as anyone who’s cycled on our roads knows, it’s quite stressful to have to do it day in day out even as an adult. And it only takes one close encounter with a driver who is not paying attention – or worse, is aggressive and impatient – and no amount of training will help make that feel safe. Take a child who’s not particularly fearless and suddenly the bus or Mum’s car seems the easier option. Especially as ‘teacher’ has told her that it’s not okay to ride where she was riding before and managing fine.

      Sure, my sister can find another, longer and quieter route – but then her younger daughter may not manage the distance. So they stop cycling and find another means of getting to school and when my sister asks her council to provide them a cycle track up that road they point to the fact that very few people cycle on it so there’s no demand. And the only kids that persist in cycling to school are the strong and the fearless – the same demographic that ride as adults, and we stick at about 2% mode share same as we ever have.

      This is not the fault of Bikeabilty, of course – it’s back down to the conditions we have deemed are acceptable on our roads, and it’s for us as a society to change that. But we do have to be careful not to let the government think training is the whole solution, as opposed to a tiny sticking plaster

  18. […] joys (and occasional non-joys) of cycling, the difficulty we face trying to find safe routes for kids to cycle to school and all the other manifold reasons why investing in cycle paths might be a better idea than, say, […]

  19. […] doesn’t involve inconveniencing the sacred traffic in any way shape or form, I’ve even blogged about this before – and yet I’m still surprised by just how good cycling infrastructure has to be in […]

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