Do I have to drive my kids to school? My daughters’ school is two miles away; surely too far to expect a four and seven year old to walk. They’ve both got bikes, but cycling would be way too dangerous. Or at least these are the thoughts that flit through my mind as I slam the car door shut and put my foot down, because someone lost their mittens at the last minute and we’re late for school again.
My thinking is typical: UK school children are living further from their schools and getting there by car more than they used to, according to the Walk to School campaign; fewer than half walked or cycled in 2008. And last summer when a couple in south London, the Schonrocks, allowed their young children to cycle unaccompanied to school, it caused a massive controversy in the press. Apparently we assume that our kids are better off inside a car.
But something is on the horizon that may challenge that assumption. The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, founded by seasoned campaigner Jim Davis, will have its inaugural meeting on 29th January (in a café on Old Street named ‘Look Mum No Hands’ - where else?).
‘This is not a campaign for cyclists,’ Jim explains. ‘We want to convince the 97% of people who never cycle to get on a bike. You don’t have to wear Lycra. We want to see ordinary people hopping on their bikes to go to the shops.’
Among other things, the Cycling Embassy mission statement puts the case for good cycle infrastructure, and to make ‘riding a bicycle as easy as riding a bicycle.’ ‘The roads seem like a war zone,’ explains Jim. ‘London cyclists are mainly men from the ages of 20-50, wearing their cycle battle gear and riding aggressively. It doesn’t have to be like this.’
A link from their website led me through umpteen blogs written by impassioned cyclists (apparently, you can’t make a bike ride in this country without blogging about it), and they all look yearningly to the cycle-friendly cities of Denmark and the Netherlands. It’s not hard to see why, when you browse photos on websites like www.Amsterdamize.com (where I found the photo above): everyone including children is on a bike, either riding their own or perched on an adult’s, whizzing confidently along city streets.
One cycle blogger is David Hembrow, who writes A View from the Cycle Path. He points out that the Netherlands was not always the cycle utopia it is today. Cycling in the Netherlands declined sharply in the post-second world war period, he says, and as car use rose, so did the road death toll, including 450 children in 1972. The following year a pressure group was started called "Stop de Kindermoord" ("Stop the Child Murder"), which
‘successfully influenced the Dutch government to re-emphasize building of segregated cycle paths, and to make money available to pay for them. This resulted in both a rise in cycling and a reduction in cyclist deaths, reversing the previous trend. It has been a success not only for child cyclists, but for all cyclists, and indeed for the population as a whole’ (10th Jan).
Now, in places like Assen and Groningen in the Netherlands, up to 40% of every journey is by bike. The UK’s figure is closer to 3%.
Jim Davis is horrified by the number of road deaths in this country – last year it was 2,220, according to the Department for Transport; 184 were in London. ‘If we lost that number in Afghanistan, we’d call it a bloodbath,’ he fumes. ‘But on our own roads, we just accept it as inevitable.’
This is London, though, not a town in Holland you’ve never heard of. Does Jim really think that a similar change is possible here?
‘Yes! It can be done. Copenhagen and other European cities have designed cars out of their city centres and given them over to pedestrians. If we can spend millions on widening the M25, which previous experience should teach us will make it more congested, why can’t we give the next generation the gift of truly sustainable transport? That means creating proper, segregated cycle paths, not just painted in, and having standards – not guidelines – for how we plan cycling provision.’
Jim’s vision for a cycle-friendly London is a revolutionary one. He pictures children being independently mobile, perhaps even cycling alone to school from the age of six, as is the norm in the Netherlands; happiness and self-esteem rising; obesity declining; and the neighbours getting to know each other as they spend less time in their cars. Pedestrians would benefit from more thoughtful walkway provision too; especially the disabled, the elderly and anyone pushing a buggy. It’s a lovely vision, and my inner hippy is getting quite stirred up. Is there anything we can do other than join the Cycling Embassy and hope their plans succeed? What about that crazy idea of cycling to school?
‘Objectively, cycling is safe,’ claims Jim. ‘But it doesn’t always feel safe when you’re close to traffic, especially with a child. There’s safety in numbers, though. Find out if anyone close to you also wants to cycle to school, and go together. You could try a dry run at the weekend. The Transport for London website can help you plan the safest route on a bike, even if it’s not the most direct route.’
Right. I’ve joined the Cycling Embassy – it’s free, for now – and I’m going to try to save on petrol and be less car-centric. Perhaps we’ll aim to cycle once a week, to start with. When it’s warmer. But…can we really get out of the door twenty minutes earlier? And where are those *&$*! mittens anyway?
The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain www.cycling-embassy.org.uk
A View from the Cycle Path http://hembrow.blogspot.com
Walk to School campaign www.walktoschool.org.uk