This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 144.
Establishing active travel habits early in life is good for our children and our society, writes Rosie Humphrey. Through a combination of training, campaigning and cycling ourselves and our children around Cambridge, we can inspire the next generation to cycle too.
The UK Government’s ambitions to double cycling levels aren’t making much progress. Despite Cycling UK’s comprehensive report on cycle safety last year, recent figures show that motor vehicles still account for around 98.7% of traffic and cycles just 1.3%. This is regrettable, because the benefits of cycling are well known. For the individual rider, it’s enjoyable, cheap, improves activity levels and burns food rather than fuel. For society, it reduces congestion, air pollution, greenhouse gases and the costs of poor health. It makes sense to promote cycling and other forms of active, sustainable transport so that they become the norm for people of all ages.
Building cycling confidence
At the start of a new school year, focusing on the school journey is an obvious beginning. It’s usually short and is part of children’s daily lives, so it’s a great way to establish an active travel habit early in life. Peak-time traffic levels would also benefit from children cycling to and from school, as car travel for education in England contributes significantly to traffic levels: according to the most recent National Travel Survey, it was responsible for about 30% of trips between 8 and 9am.
On the whole, Cambridge looks relatively good on cycling statistics. At 36.9%, it has the highest proportion of adults cycling at least three times a week of all places surveyed in England and around 30% of its children cycle to school. But when we look at school-age children across England, the evidence is disappointing: only around 3% of 5- to 10-year-olds travel to and from school by bike; at secondary school age, this rises to only 4%.
A barrier to children cycling is parents not having the time, ability or confidence to cycle with them
In general, schools are aware that active travel is something to encourage. Many schools in Cambridge offer Bikeability training to their pupils. Bikeability is the current cycling proficiency course for gaining practical skills and understanding how to cycle on today’s roads. The three levels of training it offers cover everything from preparing for your first journey to riding complex routes and dealing with challenging traffic situations. The courses are taught by professional National Standard Instructors.
For children, the course focuses on preparing to ride (fitting a helmet, choosing appropriate clothing and troubleshooting for their bike) and ensuring that they carry out appropriate observations, select the right road position, communicate well with other road users, and understand priorities. All the teaching and learning is carried out in real road situations and interacting with other road users, so that children are equipped with the ability and confidence to cycle to school.
Benjamin Smith, who is the Partnerships Manager for The Bikeability Trust, has expressed concern that a key barrier to children cycling is parents not having the time, ability or confidence to cycle with them and in some cases, not allowing their children to do it in the first place. Cycling UK has carried out significant research to ascertain why people choose not to cycle and fear of injury tops their list of reasons. Managing fear is always a challenge, as we tend to be conservative when it comes to risk and don’t necessarily have all the relevant information to make a rational decision. But, if adult opinion is one of the limitations on children cycling, then we need to educate ourselves about this: various studies show that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the injury risks by between 13:1 and 415:1. The figure most often quoted is 20:1, which reflects the life years gained due to the benefits of cycling versus the life years lost through injuries. Furthermore, Cycling UK has compiled evidence from over 100 English local authorities, making both national and international comparisons. It found that it appears to be less risky to cycle in places where there are higher levels of cycle commuting. In other words, there’s safety in numbers: the more people cycle, the safer it is for each individual cyclist. The effect is the same for pedestrians. This is good news for Cambridge, with its relatively numerous pedal pushers.
If we want the next generation to move in more sustainable ways, we need to inspire this ourselves. We can promote more, better and safer cycling through training in schools, such as that offered by The Bikeability Trust; we can support campaigns which prioritise cycling, especially those which focus on child cycling such as ‘School Streets’; we can cycle ourselves and teach our children that cycling to school is a good way to start.
Find out more about Bikeability through its Cambridgeshire training provider, Outspoken Training: outspokentraining.co.uk
Explore ways to campaign for School Streets at schoolstreets.org
University of Cambridge Primary School
We asked the University of Cambridge Primary School Travel Plan Coordinator, Katie Glenister, and its Parent Travel Committee, about travel to and from the new school.
1) What do you do to encourage children to cycle to and from school?
UCPS has a travel committee made up of parent volunteers, as well as a volunteer teacher representative who liaises between the committee and the school, e.g. for events and purchases. Recent national events that the school has participated in include the Big Pedal and Bike to School week. Other events that have been organised by the travel committee include Bikeability training, a secondhand bike sale, demonstrations of cargo bikes for parents and Dr Bike sessions open to the school community. As part of the curriculum, active travel is taught through assemblies and lessons at least termly, or half-termly at some times of the year, and covers areas such as road safety, bike maintenance, cycle safety and healthy living.
2) What are the barriers which limit children cycling to your school?
As our school is in Eddington – a developing area – our current cohort travel from all over Cambridge rather than being from a fixed catchment area. There are some children who live fairly far away from the school so it is too far for them to cycle safely. As a committee, major concerns have been raised with us about children cycling on main roads to get to school, particularly Huntingdon Road. Nevertheless, some parents have developed a cycling pool in their area and cycle as a group to school.
3) What plans do you have to promote more, better and safer cycling to and from your school?
There is another parent group, Eddington and Girton Safer Cycling Campaign (see page 38), which is trying to work with both the council and the North West Development group to get safer cycle and pedestrian routes in the locality. Another parent has been talking to the Darwin Green developers about getting the cycle and footpath entrance on Cambridge Road Impington (which leads to Whitehouse Lane) made more accessible for bikes. We plan to take part in future events such as the Big Pedal and hopefully arrange more Bikeability training for younger children (Key Stage 1, aged 5-7) as it is currently only offered as part of the curriculum for older pupils (Key Stage 2, aged 7-11).
Histon and Impington
Families in Histon and Impington sampled an impromptu ‘School Street’ along the notorious Station Road. The recently formed Histon and Impington Healthy Streets group collaborated with Extinction Rebellion to reclaim the street for a mass walk, cycle and scoot. Activists blocked motor vehicles from turning into the street for ten minutes in the morning on Thursday 18 July. Timed for the movement between Junior and Infant school drop-offs, the event saw around 60 participants take to the street, free from the close passes and pavement driving that normally blight the area. The action prompted heated debate on local Facebook groups, but was generally welcomed by those out on the day. It is hoped this will show the community what is possible by prioritising walking and cycling. One parent noted it was the first time his son had ridden that part of the school run independently, having previously considered it too dangerous to ride unhitched.