Just before I set off for David Hembrow’s Study Tour in The Netherlands late last year, people jokingly said to me, ‘don’t forget to put aero bars on your Dutch Bike’. I thought these were quasi-hilarious jibes about the aerodynamic qualities of my Dutch Bike or lack thereof. It wasn’t until I was enjoying a coffee and looking out of a delightful Dutch Bed & Breakfast window one morning that I actually understood what they meant – amongst the legions of young people cycling to school and college were bikes with aero bars fitted onto them. Although they were probably to assist in persistent headwinds (as some students cover quite a distance on their commutes from outlying suburbs and villages), they were also remarkably handy for resting ones arms on to use a smartphone for social networking – an essential pre-requisite to youth. Indeed the infrastructure provided allows all ages to cycle in groups and chat away which is social networking at its best. There were no shouts from motorists, and I assume no-one froths at the mouth in the local or national newspapers either. Basically, the Dutch have created an environment where their children can be children and don’t have to pay anything like the ultimate price if they make a mistake. I think that’s very honest, civilised and quite incredible.
This situation came at a cost. The Netherlands and the UK both saw widespread decline of the bicycle from the 1950’s as the car became the symbol of modernity. A lot of old cycle infrastructure was ripped out to make way for such progress. The result? In 1972, a total of 3264 people were killed on Dutch roads, and in 1973, 450 road deaths were of children, mostly travelling to and from school. Since that point, and partly due to the launch in 1973 of the ‘Stop De Kindermoord’ (‘Stop the Child Murder’) pressure group along with the OPEC fuel crisis, the Dutch gradually took the decision to return to the bicycle and acknowledge that the car has its place but people come first. Nearly 40 years on and Britain is still struggling with this concept to its detriment. More on ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ can be found here, here and from this excellent film.
If the Famous Five went for a bike ride in today’s Britain, they would find a landscape ripe for adventures, but not necessarily children’s adventures. If they were actually allowed out in the first place on their own, there would still be the odd patchwork quilt of fields and woods to enjoy (but not to play in of course. They’ll only create trouble). Swallows, Sparrows & The International Space Station would see our pubescent peloton venturing down country lanes due to their Hi-Viz and helmets. The motorists won’t of course as they steam through at jolly impolite speeds. Eventually, sweaty and defeated at trying to have adventures in a Britain ruined by ‘progress’, they head home for lashings of Ginger Beer. Or Crabbie’s, probably.
Another contentious area where child and adult Worlds collide is that of helmet compulsion. Annette Brooke MP is leading the latest well-meaning but misguided charge, no doubt following on from Bradley Wiggins, who uses his bicycle to win major sporting events as opposed to buying some milk or getting a library book. Before we take a glance into this emotive side issue, I’ll just give you my ‘official’ stance.
I fully appreciate why people feel compelled to wear cycle helmets in today’s hostile British road environment. However we must strive to create conditions where helmets and protective clothing are seen as irrelevant as opposed to essential. If adults currently feel compelled not just to wear cycle helmets and high visibility clothing but also to put surveillance measures on their helmets in the form of cameras, then what hope is there for our children wishing to simply cycle to school? It is not really the most cordial invite to a mode of transport that should be everyday, safe, even a bit boring and not classified as an extreme sport.
However I have a confession to make; when I cycle with my two and a half-year old son on the Dutch Bike, I put a helmet on him. I do this not because of safety concerns but because I feel that I look like a bad parent if I don’t with scathing looks and comments (mainly from people who don’t cycle yet but do like writing letters to local newspapers due to anger management issues from not cycling). I don’t wear a helmet for the simple reason that when I used to wear one when commuting from Morden to Camden Town in London, it was like a subconscious cloak of invincibility and I put myself in road positions that were, at best daring. At worst, lethal. I’ve often observed since that people who wear a helmet ride as though they need a helmet. Without a helmet, I don’t put myself or any passengers in that danger in the first place. Also when off the bike, my son has received more bumps to the head than Laurel & Hardy in his short toddling career. I assume I’m a bad parent for not keeping the helmet on him at all times but curiously no-one seems to be having a serious debate on this.
I’m now going to give out a piece of information that I think has been lost in this debate but it always helps to remind ourselves.
Children don’t always do what you tell them because they are children.
Imagine that helmets were made compulsory for children under the age of, say, 16. One day my son will want to cycle to a local shop to buy sweets, just like his Dad used to years and years and years and years and years ago. He may realise that his cycle helmet is upstairs in his bedroom and he just can’t be bothered to get it as the shop is only 5 minutes ride away. Even if I made him put it on, there’s nothing to stop him taking it off again when out of sight because it doesn’t look cool (or whatever the word is these days). If you didn’t do anything naughty or without your parents knowledge when you were younger, then you are deluding yourself. So, he cycles off without one and because putting helmets on everything and hoping for the best allows the powers that be to ignore the real issues of road safety, he gets hit by a real issue in the form of a car. Not only would we have the emotional turmoil of an injured child (or worse) but also the legal and social ramifications of him not having a helmet on. This to me is needless insanity, especially allied to the fact that the real answers for keeping children (and indeed all ages) safer, are a simple ferry trip away.
There is of course excellent cycle training available in this country. I did so well in my cycling proficiency in the late 1970’s, I got a copy of the Highway Code as a prize. The bicycle is a very liberating experience for a child and Bikeability (as it is now known) is enjoying a large takeup today. However, a report was published in March this year that you probably haven’t seen. It was written by transport consultancy, Steer Davies Gleave, for the Department for Transport called Cycling to School
This is from the conclusions,
‘Overall this report shows the level of children cycling to school in the last five years has remained stable. There have been small increases in the actual numbers of secondary school age children cycling to school between 2006 and 2011 across the UK. However, this has been almost matched by a very small decline in the proportion of primary school children cycling to school.’
Where there were rises in Secondary Schools, there had been a concentrated efforts on cycle training in the Primary Schools that feed the Secondary Schools in question. There are of course all kinds of variables & factors to take in account when viewing the data. Generally however, I believe that a lot of excellent training is going to waste. We can train all the children we like to cycle on our current road system but if it looks dangerous (especially to the parents) or there is one close pass from a motorist then that, as they say, is that. The bike heads off to the shed to come out maybe at officially sanctioned events such as the Sky Rides or Boris Johnson’s latest elegant parlour trick to avoid addressing the real road safety issues, ‘Ride London‘ – the biggest irony being that although a safe traffic free environment is created, helmets and hi-viz are de rigueur.
Here is a film by Mark Wagenbuur of children cycling to school in Culemborg in The Netherlands. I just want to show this as it deftly addresses the issues touched on in this post; no safety equipment (even students occasionally giving friends a lift in on their rear racks – could you imagine that happening here?!), cycling as groups for greater social safety and also quality time to chat and share gossip. Above all decent infrastructure, that goes where people need it to go, combined with 30kph roads to create segregated routes (ie routes that could not be completed or would take longer by car).
We have created a nation that is still debating 20mph where people live, a nation still debating curtailing someone’s right to drive like an idiot around its own people, a nation still building cycle infrastructure that is often a dangerous insult whilst ignoring examples that work probably due to fear of cost, despite continuing to build ever more expensive and intimidating streetscapes, a nation that expects its young people to stick on a helmet, some hi-viz and hope for the best. I think that’s spineless, uncivilised and quite despicable.
Children will be children. It’s a pity that the adults are behaving even more childishly.