Children and Cycling: headline findings from the first paper

Cross-posted from the Guardian Bike Blog where it appears in edited form here.

Recently the House of Commons added in a requirement for a national ‘cycling and walking investment strategy’ to the Infrastructure Bill. This will mean the Department for Transport setting targets and allocating investment for cycling.

Some good news – although the amount of funding is yet to be determined. But experience in London has shown that even with reasonable funding and political support, getting the infrastructure right remains a challenge.

This, the cover of our national cycle design guide, always gets a laugh when presented in most other Northern European countries.

This, the cover of our national cycle design guide, gets a laugh when presented in most other Northern European countries.

We are hobbled by history. Our national cycling design guidelines reflect a failed approach, of designing for cycling as if it were driving or walking. Successful countries design for cycling as cycling, with mode-specific needs related to speed, safety and comfort. And they design for cycling for everyone, from children to grandparents. By contrast, the cover picture on Cycle Infrastructure Design says it all about our target market – sporty, youngish men, who enjoy mixing it with lorries and buses. A pretty small minority.

Even the updated London Cycling Design Standards (LCDS), good in many respects, says relatively little about designing for child cycling. This isn’t just a children’s issue, it’s an equalities issue, as LCDS acknowledges. Women are more likely than men to be travelling with children. So failure to design for children might be one reason why, even where cycling’s increased, we’re seeing little change in gender balance.

There’s also a gap in the research. There’s lots of surveys asking people about cycle infrastructure preferences. But no one has asked about riding with or by children. We assume standards need to be higher than for riding by solo adults, but haven’t explored how high they need to be. Are residential streets generally ok for child cycling? What levels of segregation are needed on busier roads?

Asking about preferences is limited – we also need to look at what happens to child cycling when infrastructure is radically improved. But as we – and other low-cycling countries – are only just getting around to that, there’s not much evidence yet.

So I carried out the first online survey measuring adults’ attitudes towards child cycling, using ten infrastructural examples. Nearly 2,000 people responded to the survey, and a paper on the results has been accepted for publication in the European Journal of Transport and Infrastructure Research, which you can read here.

Even people happy to ride on busy roads themselves are generally not keen to ride there with eight-year-olds. One commented:

‘I will cycle regardless of the conditions, but not with my children unless they are either being carried by me, or they have separated space from motor traffic. I have no confidence that drivers will be careful around my children cycling.’

There was remarkable consistency across genders, ages, and locations, in views about designing for child cycling. People supported substantial separation from motor traffic, in various forms. Separation by kerb or by car parking was very popular, as were park routes and streets closed to through motor traffic.

By contrast, riding with buses, painted cycle lanes, and residential rat runs scored poorly for riding with children, even among many respondents prepared to negotiate these environments alone:

‘I love cycling, and believe myself to be a confident cyclist. However, when I have my child on board, I feel that I have to plan my journey carefully and there are MANY routes that I am happy to ride alone, but simply would not take a child on.’

This doesn’t just affect children’s mobility. It also substantially restricts mobility for fathers and perhaps even more so, mothers. As one commented,

‘If I have another child it saddens me I may have to stop cycling as I won’t be able to transport them both.’

Others said they weren’t willing to ride with children even on back streets, because they feared inconsiderate rat-running drivers. Rural areas were described as particularly difficult, with fast and busy roads blocking even short trips.

What can we take from these findings? Park routes are seen as extremely suitable for children. I believe authorities should, as in the London Borough of Hackney, allow considerate cycling in all parks and green spaces unless there are exceptional compelling reasons against. We need these routes now: even if we invest substantially and well in cycling, it will be some time before most streets are suitable for children.

Secondly, it looks like residential streets in themselves aren’t good enough, if they carry significant amounts of through motor traffic. Closing these to rat-runners, while maintaining motor vehicle access (“modal filtering”), may make a major difference to child-friendliness.

There may be other benefits, as found in recent research by Hart and Parkhurst, where the street that wasn’t a through route for motors was the one where people knew their neighbours and helped out elderly people living on the street.

Other research I’m doing suggests driver behaviour has a substantially negative impact on places that are often assumed to be quiet streets, but used as rat runs. Who wants their child to be at risk of harassment, such as engine revving, tailgating, beeping, verbal abuse or worse, being driven at? Most adults aren’t that keen on it either. So modal filtering could be a key part of creating streets for everyone, where motors can access homes and shops, but don’t dominate.

One survey question involved crossing a busy road. This was widely seen as unsuitable for children. So even where residential streets are quiet enough for child cycling, this may be counteracted by failing to provide protection at junctions. We need to investigate these barriers and have courage to put children before motor traffic flow.

One final recommendation is around methods of segregation. Clearly, paint isn’t good enough; nor is being segregated from cars but mixed with buses. Armadillos – small pieces of plastic delineating a cycle lane – received more mixed feedback and need more study. The most popular forms were those that provided a greater sense of separation: kerbs, and car parking. These should be the default form of provision on busier roads where we segregate rather than filter.

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12 Responses to Children and Cycling: headline findings from the first paper

  1. edmund white says:

    Hi Rachel
    I think you have the right of it, what is safe for children, is safe for all. In the Netherlands it was child deaths & safety that sparked there change of infrastructure. We need to learn from places like them. What is it with some drivers, as soon as they get behind the wheel of a car, the red mist comes down, & they are the only thing on the Rd that counts. Maybe it’s cars we need to get rid of, so many of us are not really fit to drive. It’s not likely I know, but I can dream. Yours Eddie

  2. Christine Jones says:

    I have now left the UK and moved to Holland. I have two boys 6 and 8 years old who now ride to school every day. We share the busy route with hundreds of others on bikes, all ages and ethnicities. It’s always a joy.
    I hope one day to be able to ride in the UK with my grand children, it’s too late, I fear for my kids, who will be grown up before I’d let them ride on the roads where we lived in the UK but I hope that in a decade or so the situation in the UK will be better.

  3. Colin McKenzie says:

    All the problems you cite as reasons why people won’t cycle with children, or let children cycle alone, are caused by driver behaviour. Why do you treat this as a given that can’t be altered? We know that driver behaviour CAN be changed, for a lot less than the cost of comprehensive separate cycle infrastructure. It has happened repeatedly over the years, for example the change in attitudes to drink-driving, the good compliance with the seat belt law, and the radically reduced speeds on main roads when the first speed cameras were introduced.
    A minor law change (e.g. strict liability, or a legal minimum clearance when overtaking), coupled with good publicity and visible enforcement, could transform driver behaviour around cyclists, virtually overnight. Once that’s happened, people will no longer get frightened when cycling, and will start to believe the stats that show that cycling isn’t particularly dangerous.

    • Michael J says:

      Really? You’d like your 8 year old child to be “taking the lane” in front of an artic? Even if the driver is the perfect, observant, “respectful” road user, one little fall from the bike (stone, manhole cover, ice, etc) and you no longer have your 8 year old child. The most that would happen on proper protected infrastructure (or traffic calmed dead-end residential streets) is a few grazes.

      Do you not understand that it’s not that the total number of people squashed by HGVs is low (and hence “cycling isn’t particularly dangerous”) is that it happens at all?

      • Colin McKenzie says:

        Ah, the appeal to emotion, and the worst case. How about looking at the evidence instead? I would infinitely prefer a young cyclist to be riding in front of an HGV than beside it, whether on a cycle track or not, because of the huge danger if the lorry turns left. In your scenario, the driver will simply stop if the cyclist falls off. Most collisions are the result of drivers not seeing a cyclist. But what scares people and puts them off cycling is the close and fast overtakes, the tailgating (should that be rear tyre-ing?) and the general fear that a driver behind you is likely to do something stupid.
        On-road cycling will become positively pleasant when cyclists can have confidence that drivers will respect them, and only overtake when it’s safe. Cycling in France feels safer than in Britain, even though it probably isn’t, because there’s a legal minimum clearance to give when overtaking.

  4. Kirsten Howells says:

    Great post Rachel. I have to agree with Eddie and Colin in that we need to focus on changing drivers’ behaviour towards cyclists.

    I’ve just returned from Copenhagen where they have the best cycle lanes I’ve ever seen – many are almost as wide as the space devoted to cars! This is simply impossible to implement in this country due to the nature of our road infrastructure so we have to live with what we have.

    To make the roads safer for ALL of us and to enable children to safely ride to school or for leisure we must look to drivers and change their attitudes and habits. Most drivers are courteous and I always try to give them a wave (every cyclist should!) as this is a two-way relationship building exercise. If us cyclists acknowledge and reward good driver behaviour, hopefully this will spread and help to improve the situation.

    More cycle lanes would obviously be great but a nationwide campaign to promote cycling, its benefits, sharing the road with cars, lorries, horses etc. would be a good use of any funding the Government can offer. There is enough room for all of us but all of us need to have a little more patience and consideration for each other. If that happened overnight, UK roads would be safer for everyone, including car drivers!

  5. Andrew Cranmer says:

    I have to agree with the above posts that it is driver behaviour that needs to change. Most drivers are courteous, at least most of the time. But there is a significant minority who aren’t, and others that don’t pay much attention to what’s happening around them.

    Changing driver attitudes in my view requires a combination of factors. Improved road design. Lower speed limits. Proper enforcement of existing laws (speed limits, ASLs, red lights, etc). Lorries that give the driver proper visibility.

    Better promotion of cycling would help, but it seems to me that similar changes in behaviour (drink-driving, seat belts, excessive speeding, smoking, racism, corporal punishment on children, etc, etc) are generally kick-started by legislation that is properly enforced. Some may resent it at first, but slowly what was previously regarded as the norm becomes unacceptable, and then becomes a disbelief we ever used to find it acceptable.

    Perhaps I’m idealistic, but I really do think we will get there and one day in my lifetime, cycling will be the default form of transport, for kids going to school, commuting, shopping, local trips, as well as for the faster, longer rides I also enjoy. And we will see kids’ trailers, cargo trailers, tandems and all flavours of bikes on our streets.

  6. Anthony Cartmell says:

    I think the people who think we can change driver behaviour are completely missing the point. Drivers do not deliberately kill and seriously injure cyclists, and it’s always “the other drivers” who are the bad ones. Drivers are well-protected, and have nothing to fear even if they’re involved in quite serious crashes. They have no interest in taking more care than they already do. The vast majority of drivers have never crashed, and will never kill or injure anyone. But there are millions of cars and lorries, and each one is potentially lethal in a very real way.

    The other aspect is that even well-driven cars and lorries are incredibly frightening. The well-understood severity of the outcome of a nasty incident has much more weight in people’s minds that the unknown statistical likelihood of the situation happening. This is why people fear flying, sky-diving and cycling, even though statistically these activities are safer than crossing the road on foot. The fact that a car or lorry _could_ kill my children is enough to make me really not want my children cycling amongst cars and lorries.

    We only have to look at the experiences and successes of health and safety in industry to see what works and what doesn’t. In an industrial situation, where safety is taken very seriously, they know that behaviour change and protective clothing are the least effective interventions. The most effective things to do are to eliminate the danger entirely, or to prevent human beings coming into contact with the danger.

    Human beings make mistakes, and they take shortcuts and risks all the time. On our roads this leads to ordinary people killing and maiming innocent people, quite unintentionally.

    We don’t need “road safety”, we need “road danger reduction”: we have to keep the soft squishy human beings well away from the big heavy fast-moving metal things.

    • Jitensha Oni says:

      Agree but let’s be quite explicit. The behaviours that one finds objectionable in drivers: among others, ignorance, stupidity, misjudgement, bravado, inexperience, impatience, inattention and malice, are exactly the behaviours you will get from children cycling. And you’re going to have at least as hard a job getting compliance from children, especially if unchaperoned. This blogger is doing some finger-wagging about the way Japanese high school kids cycle to school – but look where they are doing it on the pictures!

      Anyway, the fact is that more and more UK local authorities are now discovering they can suddenly find protected space for cycling where it hadn’t seemed possible in the past, with the plans now starting to look quite good in *some* places, so the ball is rolling on that score. Keep rolling it and let’s see where it leads. Blog articles decrying the poor standards of kids cycling to school, one would hope.

    • Mark Severs says:

      “Drivers do not deliberately kill and seriously injure cyclists”

      Has Anthony Cartmell ridden a bicycle in traffic in a city lately? Has he experienced punishment passes and brake-checking? Has he had his rear wheel shoved by impatient cars behind him? Has he had a yob in a passenger seat open the window and physically push him in an attempt to knock him over? Has he had a van stop, and the driver get out an punch him? Has he been run over and then, from the ground, watched a drunk driver attack his wife, using the car, in a very deliberate murder attempt, with 46 witnesses, only to be told by the police that they absolutely refuse to investigate?

      All of these are part of my experience, some more frequent than others.

      Drivers most certainly DO deliberately kill and injure cyclists. It is happening both deliberately, and also without prior intent yet completely avoidably, and without punishment. In essence, most of the deaths are not accidental. But the point stands; if you wish to murder someone, use a car. You will be allowed to get away with it.

      The authorities/government approve the danger on the roads, or the building of proper infrastructure would have begun several governments ago.

      The police approve of the danger, or they wouldn’t refuse to attend the scenes of accidents, refuse to investigate crashes, or refuse to accept reports of violence unless the victim personally attends a police station (not easy if they are in hospital).

      The law approves of the danger, or the sentences for killing and injuring people using a car would not be so desultory.

      Politicians do not care whether we live or die, and getting on a bicycle only makes them even more disinterested in our imminent death. They make hollow promises just before elections, then a couple of years later everyone realises they were lies… or otherwise, the bike schemes promised in the 70s, the 80s, the 90s and the 00s would have been built.

      However, Anthony Cartmell’s comparison with industrial safety is exactly correct. Separate the victim from the area of danger, and allow them to proceed without very heavy, fat objects getting anywhere near them, and the journey will be completed without incident. A segregated cyclepath and an unbundled route are directly equivalent to a safety guard on a lathe.

  7. congokid says:

    @ Andrew Cranmer

    Most drivers are courteous, at least most of the time.

    You’re right. And that’s simply not good enough.

    Presumably all motor vehicle drivers are already trained to drive properly, safely and with regard to other road users. Yet the death toll in London alone this year (29 pedestrians and people on bikes in just six weeks), suggests that we simply can’t rely on all motor vehicle operators to do so safely on shared roads.

    @ Colin McKenzie

    the appeal to emotion, and the worst case

    The worst case, perhaps, but unfortunately, not a terribly rare one.

    On-road cycling will become positively pleasant when cyclists can have confidence that drivers will respect them

    How would anyone know when that point has been reached? Do you have a figure in your mind how few (or many) deaths or injuries need to happen before schoolchildren (or, more importantly, their parents), can have ‘confidence that drivers will respect them’?

    driver behaviour CAN be changed

    If you can point to a country where mass cycling came about solely thanks to driver education then I might believe this. Bear in mind in the UK we’ve been trying this approach for the past 40+ years but apparently we *still* need driver education to try and reverse cycling’s abysmally low modal share.

    @ Kirsten Howells

    Copenhagen … have the best cycle lanes … simply impossible to implement in this country due to the nature of our road infrastructure so we have to live with what we have

    I wonder why you would say this. Are you a traffic engineer? Roads can be repurposed and usage reallocated, you know. It happens all the time – it happened in New York and it’s just about to start in London.

    nationwide campaign to promote cycling … sharing the road with cars, lorries

    Survey after survey suggests that this is exactly what most people, especially those who don’t currently cycle much or allow their children to, don’t want to do.

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