Opinion: Parents, we need to talk about the school run: this is a climate emergency

This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 144.

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Earlier this year we were all swept away by the hundreds of thousands of school children who went on strike for climate change. The School Strike 4 Climate movement, started by Greta Thunberg, inspired many people into climate change activism. Even the British government seems to have put climate change back on the agenda, after a ten-year hiatus, with their recent pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Outside the public domain, many families are switching to predominantly vegetarian diets, recycling more than ever and banning single-use wet wipes from the house. But are we doing enough?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a Special Report in September 2018 which warned that we have only 12 years to limit climate breakdown. Given that transport is responsible for approximately 20% of carbon emissions, it is crucial that we change how we make our everyday journeys. One large source of traffic in and around Cambridge is the school run. The vast difference in rush hour traffic between school term and non-term time seems to indicate that driving is still perceived, particularly by those who live outside the city, as the easiest way to get children to inner-city schools. However, we are living in a climate emergency, as announced by the Cambridge City Council in February 2019, and big lifestyle changes are required. It is the parents’ turn to inspire their children with their sustainable transport choices – perhaps it is time for a ‘Parents Cycling 4 Climate’ movement?

One reason many families use cars in Cambridge is because they live outside the city and cycling all that way seems daunting, but bike technology is hot on drivers’ wheels. E-bikes make even long commutes from outside Cambridge feasible for many. I have recently been so inspired by my parents who have returned to cycling at the ages of 82 and 64. They now make most of their journeys into Cambridge, a round trip of at least 16 miles, by bike. Their transition from mainly car-based journeys to bicycles was made possible by e-bikes which can increase one’s average speed and really help with those hills. E-bikes are expensive (and only road-legal for over-13s), but they are becoming more affordable and more accessible with lighter models and folding versions entering the market. My parents’ commitment to sustainable transport has forced me to up my game; before I often chose to drive half the journey to Cambridge from our village and cycle the second half, but now I always try to cycle the whole ten miles to the Camcycle office.

My parents’ commitment to sustainable transport has forced me to up my game: before I often chose to drive half the journey to Cambridge from our village, but now I always try to cycle the whole ten miles.

Another reason parents opt for cars rather than cycles is that cars have lots of space for carrying children and all their belongings, but when it comes to carrying a heavy load, a cargo bikes offers a sustainable solution. Cargo bikes are increasingly being used in Cambridge by families. Every day I pass the same young family commuting from Cambridge to Barton Primary School in a cargo bike. I kept wondering how mum/dad was getting the bike up the hill and then I realised it was an e-cargo bike! E-cargo bikes really do offer a viable alternative to a car; you can do anything, from taking your children to school to dropping off shopping for an elderly relative. If you are interested in trying out a cargo bike, come along to Camcycle’s Cargo Carnival on Saturday 21 September and try out the myriad of cargo options. You can also enter the CamcycleQuest prize draw and try to win a £900 cargo e-conversion from Electric Bike Sales. Cycle innovation which first liberated people in 1817 is now liberating many more from car dependence and making it possible to do the school run, get to work and pick up groceries all on a bike.

Of course, a key barrier to cycle commuting is poor or non-existent cycling infrastructure. Many people are put off cycling, particularly into Cambridge from villages, by fragmented cycle paths, dangerous roads and poor road surface. Recently, there has been a significant improvement; for example, the newly widened Comberton-Barton cycle path. However, more improvement is required and the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) believes that it has part of the answer in their Greenways project. The GCP is aiming to establish a high-quality network of twelve separate routes into Cambridge from surrounding towns and villages. This network, consisting mostly of off-road cycle paths, will transform cycling into Cambridge and make it possible for people of all ages and abilities to get to school and work by bike. However, schemes like the Greenways project require a lot of local support because there is a risk of them being squeezed out by bigger infrastructure projects. Many people live outside but work and study in the city; we need to find more solutions, like the Greenways, which help people to travel into the city without adding to congestion and pollution.

If you weren’t convinced already, there are also huge individual and collective health benefits to cycling with your children to school. A 2017 article published in the BMJ showed that commuting regularly by bicycle reduced incidences of heart disease by 46% and cancer by 45%. My father, 82, recently suffered from heart failure and he has found cycling hugely beneficial for getting him active again and for his general wellbeing. Cycling has health benefits for people of all ages, including parents struggling to find time to fit in weekly exercise. Moreover, it is more enjoyable to commute by cycle than in a car and it is a great family bonding opportunity. The benefit of cycling for family health and wellbeing is presented beautifully in the film ‘MOTHERLOAD’, which we will be screening at our Cambridge Festival of Cycling Film Night on Saturday 28 September, if you want to find out more.

The Greenways network will transform cycling into Cambridge and make it possible for people of all ages and abilities to get to school and work by bike

Cambridge remains the cycling capital of the UK with 57.5% of adults cycling once a week and 30.6% of adults cycling five times a week (Department for Transport, 2019). However, we need to be more ambitious if we want to combat the climate emergency. So, parents, it is time to increase the cycling and reduce the driving. Inspire your children with your climate action and together inspire people across the country. Make a healthy choice for the planet, yourself and your children.

12 Years to limit climate change

11-16 Year olds cycling to school

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Trips made in the university city

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Beth Barker