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.