It’s odd. I am a founding member of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, I am a confirmed believer in ‘8-80’ cycling in towns and cities, I campaign constantly for the best cycling infrastructure, not some pitiful compromise that 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 order to make it possible for kids to cycle comfortably on it without causing their parents or any other adults present agonies of anxiety.
This summer, for the third year, our local cycling campaign has been running easy paced summer rides around Bigtown. This year, we’ve been successful in attracting not just existing cycling families, but a couple who have clearly excavated their own and their kids’ bikes out of a shed where they have been interred for a while. These are children who can more or less ride their bikes but have never had any cycle training, accompanied by parents who haven’t much more experience themselves. And it’s reminding me just how far we have to go before we’ll see kids riding about routinely with their parents, never mind on their own. Now, Bigtown does have some decent cycling infrastructure, adjusted for the UK. We have two ex-railway paths, which are almost joined together (as long as you don’t mind going quite a long way round to stay off the road) and lit, wide, etc, although one of them does require you to navigate several toucan crossings where the wait for the lights is pretty endless and you then get about 15 seconds to cross. We also have a decentish shared use riverside path which is a bit narrow and crowded in the summer but most people are good natured about getting out of the way of a bunch of kids on bikes and the local dogs are largely well trained – standard dog manners around here are for the dog to be sitting at its owner’s feet whenever a vehicle goes past, and this applies to bikes as well as cars, so as long as you have rung your bell in enough time, the problem of elastidogs on endless expanding leads is not too much of an issue.
So we could just ride up and down these paths every Saturday afternoon, and we’d have a nice time, but except for those families who live on one of the paths and need to go to places on the other path, it wouldn’t really show them any useful routes and would be a bit boring. So we try and expand the routes using quiet residential roads, 20mph limit areas, rural roads, and the occasional bit of non-off-road infrastructure that the council has seen fit to provide. And this is where the eye opening comes in. Riding on these roads with kids under about 8, or kids of any age who haven’t ridden extensively with their parents, is terrifying. Even in strict formation, with an adult per child, adult on the outside, child on the inside, and the adult coaching the child (pull out round that parked car, watch out for that pothole, that’s great, keep pedalling, use your brakes, look out for that lady crossing the road, well done, use your bell, keep pedalling, don’t listen to that man, don’t worry about that car, it’s just beeping to say hello, no I don’t know what that word means either, keep pedalling, you’re doing fine…) it just doesn’t feel either safe or pleasant as a way of getting about. A couple of times, even on routes where I’d cycle quite happily on my own, I’ve ended up putting the kids on the pavement, or even getting the whole group to dismount and walk a stretch. It’s just too stressful otherwise.
It just goes to show how long a way we have to go – and how high our standards have to be. In many ways it’s depressing, because if even the semi okay stuff is not good enough, we’ve got even less of a network than we thought we had, and a higher mountain to climb. But in other ways it is encouraging because it’s a reminder of what can be gained. Last weekend it was absolutely pouring all day, and yet one of our ‘novice’ families still showed up to be counted. Indeed, they had almost given up on us arriving when we met up with them (they were joining us en route) and were heading off to McDonald’s when we spotted them. As I rode up to see if they were still up for a ride, both little girls’ faces lit up at the idea. Riding a bike, in the rain, along crap infrastructure, to a field, to see a stone circle that has, frankly, seen better days, was officially more fun than McDonalds.* Imagine what it would be like if we had really fantastic cycle paths for them to enjoy…
And if any of this rings a bell, or even if it doesn’t, could you please help some research of a friend of mine and fill in this survey?
* Of course, the tray bakes I bring along may have played a part in this.