Cycling and Children: how good does it have to be?

When I see children cycling in London (or elsewhere in the UK), they’re almost always on the pavement – except when we have our monthly Play Streets. The Play Streets represent an inversion of the norm: cars are (politely) excluded or – if resident – slowed to walking pace, while people get their space back. It feels like a little carnival: they walk, cycle, run, dance, and draw in the street. Once a month, we put people before motor vehicles.

At a recent session of my MSc Transport course Lucy Saunders did a guest lecture about the new TfL report ‘Improving the Health of Londoners‘, which came out recently. The report’s quite ground-breaking in talking about a transport authority as having a public health role, and needing to ensure that schemes and policies promote health – particularly through enabling walking and cycling, which can make a big difference to healthy life expectancy and quality of life, especially for older people. During the discussion, one of the students spoke about how difficult it was to keep health benefits in view, when planning transport: ‘The time savings benefits appear up here, and health is off down there somewhere’. He was right. At the moment, as with Play Streets, our planning tools are often stuck at the stage of only prioritising people’s lives over motor vehicle convenience every now and then, in exceptional circumstances. Bring out HEAT occasionally if something’s a ‘walking’ or ‘cycling’ scheme, turn people’s lives into money, and weigh the value of a statistical life against motor vehicle flow.

How do we get people back into planning? At one of the Modelling on the Move events that I organised, much reference was made to the ‘data gap’ (in relation to cycling, but it’s not only cycling that’s affected). We don’t have the data, so we can’t put it into the model, so we don’t know what will happen, so we can’t plan for it, so very few people do it, so there’s no policy interest – and no data. Nicely circular. A lot of people are trying to intervene at different points in the circle, but as with any entrenched paradigm, it often feels like there’s no movement: the system has the ability to absorb and marginalise challenges, and keep rolling along in the same old way.

But the right data, at the right time, can help bring about change. Watching The Human Scale, the film about the Danish urbanist Jan Gehl, the role of data was clear. He talked about realising that transport researchers and planners studying streets collected information on what motor vehicles do, but not what people do – and realising that when you have the data about people, you can start to think about planning for people.

So I was thinking about data gaps in planning for cycling, and one area I thought it might be worth looking at is around cycling and children. Cycle Infrastructure Design says (page 12) that children:

may require segregated, direct largely offroad routes from residential areas to schools, even where an onroad solution is available.

Our classic ‘onroad solution’ – as per the cover of Cycle Infrastructure Design – is a narrow painted advisory lane right next to motor traffic, while the ‘segregated, direct largely offroad’ routes has turned into (widespread, but patchy) tolerance of children cycling on pavements. Looking at cycling rates among both adults and kids we can see how successful it’s been. As we seek to move away from these ‘solutions’ towards universal design – see my post on Hills and Huntingdon Road schemes – just how good does it have to be? What kind of segregation – will armadillos work? How quiet does a residential street need to get before parents will let their children ride on the road?

If London’s going to get to 5% mode share, we have to broaden the demographic of cycling, and get people cycling for non-commute trips. One key aim must be to create environments that are good enough for people to choose to ride with their children. This can help gender balance (and we know that seven in ten of London’s cycle commuters are still men), as women are more likely than men to have complex, chained trips that involve escort journeys (e.g. taking kids to school). The tradition of planning separately for the nervous newbie and the hardy commuter forgets that many commuters need to pick up or drop off kids on the way, either sometimes or all the time. If the mainstream cycling infrastructure isn’t good enough for people to ride on with kids, it’s going to create a glass ceiling that severely limits our cycling mode share.

So I’m planning to carry out a survey looking at people’s views on cycle infrastructure, in relation to kids. In other words, asking: would you ride here on your own? With a child on the back? Would you let a 12 year old ride here alone? This can help to quantify the extent to which existing – and planned – schemes and streets include or exclude people. If we’re building stuff that isn’t suitable for children, not only are we marginalising children, but because of the gendered division of labour, we’re also disproportionately excluding women. Failing to enable people with pushchairs to access a service can be indirect gender discrimination, so what about cycling environments that don’t feel safe enough for people with children to use? Maybe being able to pin down a bit more clearly when cycling infrastructure is and isn’t child-friendly can be a tiny step in moving towards cities, and planning tools, that are built around the needs of people in all their diversity.

Tonight The Streets Are Ours by Richard Hawley on Grooveshark

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3 Responses to Cycling and Children: how good does it have to be?

  1. Why is it that the little planning for cycling that there is, is always focused on commuting, or if it involves children routes to school (which is commuting for kids). Why is there almost no focus on modal share?

    I have never seen a document about cycling in a (mainland) European city which talks about cycle journeys just as commuting. On the mainland of Europe it is always about modal share, and if commuting is considered at all it is in the context of cycle congestion.

    The bicycle will only be taken seriously as a means of personal transport (like walking, only faster), when it can be used for all journeys. Not just to and from work, or school.

  2. Dmitri F says:

    Stockholm has similar issues. Most cycle related documents and cycle plans focus almost entirely on commuting and leave only a tiny bit of room for other trips.

    Maybe it’s because commuting has patterns and those patterns are generally less erratic than normal human movement, so it is easier to build. Most likely however, it is just a lack of perspective on the part of the planners and politicos.

  3. Tim says:

    Predictably, my tolerance for cycling in traffic is hugely reduced when the kids are on-board, often to the extent that I become a pavement cyclist for short sections of many journeys.

    This is not something I’m particularly comfortable with, but the mile walk to school (for example) would take an eternity on foot with a four-year-old and it just seems crazy to drive there and back home to pick up the bike for my commute. Of course a lot of the other parents drive a similar distance, adding to the danger and congestion of the school run.

    I’m reading “Bike Snob Abroad” where the author nicely describes both the trepidation which accompanies riding a bike with a child, and the casually expressed concern (ie criticism), which other people – often drivers – sometimes proffer. With his new son on the bike…

    “As we set out for a trial run around the neighbourhood, my arm hair stood on end to detect any stirrings in the atmosphere caused by approaching motor vehicles. My ears cupped and swiveled like a pair of satellite dishes, and I could hear a cat on a porch two blocks away licking its private parts with its bristly tongue.” (you get the idea…)

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