Cities fit for Children?

Cross-posted from the Near Miss Project.

I – and others – have remarked on how in the UK we think cycling’s a good thing (in the abstract) but hate actual cyclists. It occurs to me that the same could be said about children. As a society we worship youth, but actually existing children and young people are often seen as a problem.

What about children cycling? In some respects, child cycling is seen as normal. Back in 1981, the then Conservative government’s Cycling Consultation Paper stated:

‘[Cycling] provides personal transport for children and other people who cannot drive or do not have a car’.

In fact, this is part of our historic problem – that cycling is seen as something for those who have no other choice (not allowed to drive / not able to drive / can’t afford to drive / weird tree hugger who doesn’t want to drive). Not something for the normal adult majority.

So on the other hand, actual children cycling on our streets may in fact be doubly marginalised. Not only are they ‘cyclists’ – as I’ve written elsewhere, a stigmatised category in the UK – but they’re also children, by definition out of place in roads where our transport appraisal procedures see adult motorised commutes and, even more so, business trips as the priority. Children are not going to work or to meetings, and thus, they are ‘in the way’ of people with more pressing business. If they’re cycling, can’t they do it in the garden or in the park?

Hence, while it may seem shocking, children and people riding with children are far from immune from near misses and aggression. I remember experiencing driver hostility while riding with children as a trainee cycle instructor. This included a couple in a car stopping to gesticulate and shout at me and other trainers for letting children put themselves at risk on the roads and get in the way of drivers. (My instinctive response made me think that I might not be temperamentally best suited to the role).

This letter (sent to a headteacher) was forwarded to me by a parent at a school in Kent, where the children are encouraged to walk and cycle, which is both good for their health and poses little risk to others. But a spate of ‘near misses’ is threatening the best efforts of teachers and parents:

“Last week, one of my children was cycling to school and was almost knocked off his bicycle – almost being within cms, not inches!
One of the school mums was racing out of the street, and almost hit him. It was his right of way and she was flying past the parked cars. He was understandably very shaken up and immediately moved to the pavement and is not keen to cycle on the road again. The mum in question got a fright too. She was going fast enough that had she hit him, she would have done some serious damage. He cycles regularly and often lands up having to pull over into the gutters to allow cars to pass as they just don’t stop.
I can’t understand how parents of children in the school don’t think that he could be their child. Please could you send out a parentmail asking parents to be aware that children are cycling to school, that they have as much right to be on the road and to be careful!
On the same morning, while walking across the school drive into the grounds, 2 cars turned in the school drive – I understand that some have a fair distance to drive to get their kids to school, but the children I bring to school have a right to get to school safely.
Every week, cars mount the curb as they go around the bend – some wait for walking children to pass, but others don’t. I have been hit twice by wing mirrors. Will parents only think about the consequences of their actions after someone gets hurt?”

As I’ve written elsewhere, to make child cycling mainstream we’ll need to do a lot to improve infrastructure. Alongside this, we also need to act on other fronts, including enforcement, to create cities fit for children. Edinburgh City Council is currently trialling a car ban near primary schools, for example.

Many changes will be needed in the long struggle to change the default assumption in the UK that size, power, and danger rule on the roads, and everyone else should stay out of the way. An assumption that has made our streets too often resemble the worst kind of playground bullying: but one where the bullies are adults equipped with deadly weapons.

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2 Responses to Cities fit for Children?

  1. Let me put forward an idea I’ve had which is rarely – if ever – mentioned.

    I should say that this is entirely tangential to this post (and indeed anything else about children cycling as a from of transport) but was kicked off by the comment you make here:

    “In fact, this is part of our historic problem – that cycling is seen as something for those who have no other choice (not allowed to drive / not able to drive / can’t afford to drive / weird tree hugger who doesn’t want to drive). Not something for the normal adult majority.”

    I think this comment is quite correct.

    So here’s the thing: In this culture things for children or done by children are seen as childish – which literally they are when done by children. What troubles me is that when some (not pro-cycling)people have discussed this matter with me they recount their childhood experiences of cycling with happiness – but this is NOT an endorsement of cycling as a serious mode of transport.

    Indeed it is the opposite. It is precisely because cycling was done by them as children – because they see it as therefore “childish” – that they cannot conceptualise cycling as sensible everyday transport for adults. It has to be sport or playing. Yet again any perceived challenge to car dominance is sabotaged.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that a there is an ambiguity we have to be aware of: associating cycling with children has the (unintentional) possibility of eroding it’s everyday transport role.

    Does that make sense?

  2. Clive Durdle says:

    Most definitely! So we have another layer of institutionalised discrimination and a form of corruption?

    On near misses, why are we not following basic health and safety and criminal law? A near miss is a canary in a coal mine, being hit by a wing mirror is assault with a weapon.

    Some models suggest that for every accident there are approximately ninety near-misses”

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