Well, Fancy That! No 2: Children will be Children

The Dutch even have bins like this by every school because they actually understand that children are lazy little sods…..sorry, I meant the future. That the children are our future. (Picture: David Hembrow – Go on his study tour and try this bin yourself – click on the picture for further details)

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 herehere 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.

Look at that. No lights, no Hi-Viz, no helmets and I bet they don’t have any plastic bags to clean up after Timmy the Dog….

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.

Even Evel Knievel paused for a moment to consider cycling around Guildford. 

Note, that like the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, or indeed CycleNation and CTC, I am not anti-helmet but anti-compulsion for cycling as transport. On this, all cycling groups stand united.

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.

 

 

Well, Fancy That! No 1: Nice Things Cost Money

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Well, Fancy That! No 1: Nice Things Cost Money

What happens when you invest consistently & wisely in people who know what they’re doing

It is a wonderful time for sports cycling in Great Britain; Bradley Wiggins has become the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France with Chris Froome enjoying an equally unprecedented second place. The hard-working men and women of Team GB are no strangers to success in Olympic events and so it has proved in London with medals on the road and the track with performances to give inspiration to all.

Wonders like this don’t happen by accident as other nations are already comfortably aware; This was never about ‘plucky British underdog spirit’. This was about the right talent, the right coaching staff giving the right strategies, confidence and belief and the right mechanics working on the right machinery. Above all, what we have been witnessing over the last few years is what consistent and focussed investment actually looks like by people who know what they are doing and care.

Norman Baker MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport) proudly trumpets the fact that last January he announced the Local Sustainable Transport Fund to the tune of £560 million (which has recently been increased to £600 million) as well as £15 million specifically for cycling infrastructure projects at railway stations to link communities and centres of economic growth. He has also recently announced a further £15 million cycle safety fund to help local authorities deal with high risk junctions.

These are undoubtedly large sums of money. I have no trouble with Norman Baker MP, nor do I doubt his overall commitment to cycling. However, I do have trouble with the fact that Local Authorities have been bidding for this money and are going to oversee the spending of this money. Put simply, the Government is giving sums of money for ‘Active Travel’ projects to people who largely haven’t a clue about the benefits of cycling as a mode of transport or don’t actually care about cycling as it gets in the way of more ‘serious’ modes of transport. Moreover, cycling design guidelines at local level are treated with the same professionalism and reverence as Dr Seuss, and The Netherlands or Denmark with their proven success are regrettably filled with foreigners so, apparently, nothing they do must ever be considered, let alone copied. As a result, we end up with what we’ve seen for many years; inconsistent and unfocused investment by people who don’t really know what they are doing or don’t care.

What happens when you invest sporadically and unwisely in people who don’t know what they’re doing and/or with Councillors who don’t care (Photo: Warrington Cycle Campaign’s ‘Facility of the Month’)

I don’t see this as a recipe for the same delirious success as Team GB.

To be fair, there are Local Authorities that are trying to ‘get it’ as far as cycling is concerned and are very proactive. Even trying to see things from a Dutch perspective like my neighbouring Authority of Brighton & Hove.

In a way, it is good that Local Authorities have had to bid for pockets of money. By tendering for funding, we get to see the projects that they have in mind and therefore some sort of benchmark for local active travel groups to monitor (hopefully, they would also have been involved in the consultation). The problem lies in the precedents already set by Local Authorities which are a bit lacking in qualityActually, most are appalling. Generally, the only time bicycle infrastructure works well in Britain is more by accident than by design; usually a converted pre-Beeching railway line or upgraded coastal path or promenade. Even then, because we never seem to be able to think in terms of network and linking stuff, people will often drive to it with their families if it offers the premise of inviting, quality traffic-free cycling.

The simple fact is that nice things cost money and, funnily enough, that includes cycle infrastructure. Why not pay more for a network based on principles of proven success such as The Netherlands and Denmark that people can and would actually use. It has to be better than our current sporadic and, by comparison to Mainland Europe, amateur looking attempts to solve a car-choked problem that has become too big to solve with pockets of cash dotted around Local Authorities that clearly need better guidance from Central Government on how to spend it.

This has to be bad because Jonny Foreigner thought of it.

If this country can even begin to consider schemes such as High Speed Rail, or an entirely new airport for London, then there is no reason why we can’t consider thinking big in terms of providing a consistent quality network for the bicycle with its excellent rate of return in terms of  jobs, transport, health & well-being, greater freedom and subjective safety – especially for more vulnerable sections of society, increased social safety and reduced emissions. If Local Authorities are going to be the agencies providing it (which I’m not actually against believe it or not), then the guidance and funding from central government has to also be high quality, strong and consistent. Nice things cost money, even for a mode of transport so simple, egalitarian and cheap.

Believe it or not, a decent bicycle network can be cheaper than a sodding great airport built in the path of migrating birds

Middle Age Men In Lycra – So What?

 

Freddie Mercury. A Man who knew how to rock in bib tights. Sort of.

 

In July, the Government published its National Travel Survey data. It confirmed that cycle use has increased to the highest level in decades. What was greeted with surprise was that the key area for growth was the highest income bracket. What I personally found surprising was that people found this surprising. The highest income bracket has always produced keen cyclists, some of whom have represented cycling interests in the Houses of Parliament. Intelligent, well paid people have long known that the velocipede is a civilized, no nonsense form of conveyance and that the simplest ideas are always the best.

At about the same time, Mintel, a market research firm published its own report (Bicycles in the UK 2010). It points out what cyclists and other handsome, intelligent people have known for years; that most adult cyclists are motorists too. This creates a problem for mainstream media and marketing companies. It makes it more difficult to compartmentalise ‘Cyclists’ & ‘Motorists’ as they are essentially one and the same.

However they were instantly thrown a lifeline; the report produced a new type of cyclist and even gave them an acronym. Step forward the ‘MAMIL’ or ‘Middle Aged Man In Lycra’. This is a cyclist in the 35-45 age bracket that may own…wait for it…. two cars!! They are more likely to read broadsheet papers, shop at Waitrose and have a household income of £50,000 per annum. They’re twice as likely to be male as female (which was a surprise to me as I had no idea that a woman could be a ‘Middle Aged Man In Lycra’ but there you go).

As if by magic the two agencies of cyclist hatred (BBC News and The Daily Mail) leapt onto this, in particular the suggestion that this upsurge in higher end bike sales is a “noughties version of a mid life crisis” and is the modern equivalent of buying a flashy sports car. Only they could put negative spin on a person buying a bicycle. Focussing on this group conveniently sidesteps the bigger story which is that more people are cycling generally.

In reality there are many factors at play; the explosion in the amount of charity bike rides and organised events such as ‘Sportive’ rides has probably helped fuel this surge along with better coverage of events such as the Tour de France and the Halfords City Centre race series, both shown on ITV4. The success of Team GB and the escapades of Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish cannot have gone unnoticed. Women now have incredible role models in Victoria Pendleton, Nicole Cooke and Shanaze Reade on the BMX track.

If middle aged affluent men want to spend thousands of pounds on a new bike for sporting pursuits then good for them and even better for the local bike shop they buy it from. I’d rather they did that then get a new set of golf clubs or donate the money to UKIP. Welcome to the family. Other cyclists may sneer but if it means more people out and about enjoying themselves on bicycles (even if just on a Sunday) then that means less badly driven sports cars on our roads and increased road awareness.

The report adds that consumers like cycling because it gives them ‘health and wellbeing, a sense of community and environment’. I would add ‘a chance to reflect that The Daily Mail is just a middle class tabloid equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan’.

It also states that cycling “lacks some of the less acknowledged selling points favoured by car drivers: personal safety, comfort, style, convenience and speed”. The bicycle provides all that if used safely and correctly. A Stannah Stair Lift  also provides all that if used safely and correctly but we’ll cover old age at a later date.