Cycling in Britain is ‘too dangerous’ for children

Cycling in Britain is ‘too dangerous’ for children

Epsom Road, Leatherhead

Cycling in Britain is fraught with danger for kids. We need a rethink on road use, says Samantha Laurie

On a muddy school playing field in Twickenham, a group of boisterous 13 and 14 year olds are making tighter and tighter turns around a circuit of bollards. Over the months, instructor Jonathon Rowland from Turning Hub – a bike club run by local enthusiasts – has not only improved their skills, but has lit their interest in adventure cycling. Their chatter is full of bike polo, cycle cross and long rides to the Surrey Downs.

But as we turn to leave, the bikes go back in the lock-up. Not one of the participants has cycled to school. It’s not safe, shrugs Jonathon, gesturing at the road beyond the school gates, a snare of fast-moving traffic straying in and out of a narrow, painted cycle lane.

This is the rub. For all the surge of interest in cycling post-Olympics, Britain has the poorest level of utility cycling in Europe. Just 2% of kids bike to school – around three miles on average – despite the benefits for health, readiness to learn and traffic flow.

The reason is simple: safety. One glimpse at the menacing swirl of traffic outside Orleans Park Secondary School, and it’s clear that no amount of bike training could ever persuade parents that this is safe enough for their kids.

“Until you have kerbed, separate pathways, no one is going to let their child cycle to school,” argues David Hanson, Chief Executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS). “Painted lines on the road are not enough. It has to change. Sustrans [the sustainable transport charity] needs to shift its focus from opening up leisure routes to getting kids safely to school on bikes.”

Segregated cycleways are the apogee of cycle-friendly communities. They form the cornerstone of the Dutch system that carries 50% of kids to school by bike. But even in the Netherlands, it was not always so. In the 50s and 60s cycling was largely disregarded; cycle paths were removed to make way for more cars. As the death toll rose – especially for kids cycling to school – the outrage sparked a public campaign that would revolutionise urban planning.

Here, we have arrived at the same point as the Dutch four decades ago, with a mounting casualty toll – in Surrey it has doubled in three years – and a significant increase in deaths of teenage cyclists. Cities fit for Cycling, a campaign by The Times, has helped galvanize a £1 billion pledge over 10 years to build a safe cycle corridor through the capital. But how can safe routes to school become a priority for all?  

Firstly, says John Meudell, South East representative for cycling charity CTC, there should be a mandatory cycling assessment in relation to new transport projects. Incredibly, this is still not the case, and tales of cycle lanes added as an afterthought are legion – from woefully narrow (18 inch wide) cycle lanes intended to help schoolchildren navigate a busy Leatherhead roundabout to the initial plans for the redesign of Twickenham town centre. Now happily revised, these proposed ‘advisory’ cycle lanes to be shared with traffic at peak times.

Nor is it just the lack of cycling lanes, says Meudell, but the abysmal design of those already in place.

“We need a single manual for designing for cyclists, not a plethora of guidelines that no one bothers to read. We also need better training for engineers and an independent inspectorate of highways to stop local authorities building without inspection or control.”

Secondly, insists Meudell, 20 mph limits should be standard on all residential roads around schools. In Kingston borough, 89% of primaries have at least one gate on to a 20 mph zone (in Surrey it’s 5%), while resident-led action has cut traffic speed on one third of borough roads.

“The upper limit at which humans can interact with each other using eye contact is 22 mph,” explains 20’s Plenty For Us campaigner, Andrew Davies. “At that speed you change the feel of a road. There’s less pollution and noise, more freedom for kids to cycle and walk. It’s about building better places to live.”

As the Government issues more control to councils to decide about 20 mph zones, many – including Richmond – say that, if over half of a road’s residents so wish, they will impose a reduced speed limit.  Davies wants more towns and cities to apply a 20 mph limit throughout – an approach that has seen pedestrian casualties in Portsmouth slashed.

For all the efforts of clubs like Turning Hub, slower traffic and segregated pathways are key. We need a philosophical shift in our thinking about roads. Car usage has peaked: total annual miles driven is the same as a decade ago, with 40% of journeys two miles or less. Taking space away from cars to build a safe, separate infrastructure for bikes is no longer just fighting talk: it makes good planning sense. And the place to start is at the school gate.


  1. robertpedwards 15th January 2013 @ 3:14 pm

    Hi Samantha,

    I came across your article online (it’s doing the rounds of the cycle campaigning types!) and I thought I’d send you an email to congratulate you on a well-written, researched and balanced article.

    It’s rare that an article about bike riding gets the tone and facts as true as yours, and it was a pleasure to read.

    Only one thing I think I should point out – you say that the Dutch cycle infrastructure “carries 50% of kids to school by bike” whereas the true figure is actually a massive 89%! Obviously it varies from school to school – many have 100% rate, Amsterdam as a city has the lowest rate of 53% (a rate undreamt of in the UK!).

    I got the figures from here: – The author of that blog is well regarded and is known to do his research well, so I’m sure the numbers are accurate.

    My own blog is here, should you wish to read it –

    Anyway, thanks again for writing such a great article, and all the best for the future.

    Best regards,

  2. robertpedwards 15th January 2013 @ 3:15 pm

    Dear Ms Laurie,

    I read all the article in the Richmond magazine: very good . We had a close friend of my son, aged about 20 hit on the upper Richmond Rd who has a serious elbow joint injury.

    I try to avoid cycling since because the way the roads are managed:

    1. no safe lane for cyclists

    2. speeding of cars and motorbikes above the 30 mph. I agree with the introduction of a 20mph asap. Also we must teach cyclist how to drive in a safe mode: this teaching should be compulsory as the car-driving license

    3. all bicycles should have side mirrors to check who is coming behind you

    4. all residents of Richmond should get that 50% quota signing to get the 20 mph asap

    Let me know if I can help now that I am on the verge of retiring from my profession.

    Dr M.Simeoni M.D.

  3. robertpedwards 15th January 2013 @ 3:15 pm

    Hello Ms Laurie

    I thought I’d drop you a quick line to say how much I enjoyed, and agreed with, your article about cycling as featured in the January issue of The Richmond Magazine.

    I’d say you’ve pretty much hit all of the nails on the head, whether about 20 MPH zones or the need for better, ideally segregated, cycle infrastructure. I would love my 8 year old to be able to cycle to school but frankly it’s a risk I’m just not willing to take as even the back streets between Hampton and Fulwell are busy with cars on the school run hoping to avoid the congestion on Hampton Hill High Street – so rather than take the risk I’ve had to import a Dutch Bakfiets so that I can transport my two school aged daughters. Not the ideal scenario and it cost a small fortune but better than nothing!

    Hopefully we’ll start to see an attitudinal shift on behalf of the council as more prominence is given to the issue and cycling is seen less as a niche interest and more a mainstream activity for people of all ages

    Very Best Wishes

    Councillor Gareth Roberts (Hampton Ward)

  4. robertpedwards 15th January 2013 @ 3:16 pm

    Hi just a quick email to congratulation on a very good article in the Kingston Magazine. I thought it was well written, informative and spot on with the regard to the practicalities of cycling around here especially with children.

    Regards, Derek

  5. robertpedwards 15th January 2013 @ 3:17 pm

    Hi Sam

    Happy New Year!

    A few points to add to your good article.

    (1) Cycling is safe – the trouble is roads are poor and drivers are generally selfish idiots (they drive too fast and do not give others especially cyclists – sufficient room). I speak as a driver and cyclist. I know this is quite a pedantic point, but I think it is key.

    (2) Painted lines on the road are pointless I agree. We need separate cycle lanes where possible, and 15 mph speed limits (punitively enforced) and removal of motorised traffic from numerous town centre roads. But for me cycle lanes can never be the answer as they are generally not suitable for fast or long distance cycling, and cannot be retro-fitted into narrow / historic roads.

    (3) Cycle lanes are often not only narrow they are often placed in precisely the point you should not be (either too close to parked cars who could open doors, or too close to the kerb).

    (4) Reflective clothing. I used to cycle in London a lot and did not bother with reflective clothing as the street lighting is so extensive. But in Guildford reflective clothing is essential. Absolutely vital.

    I’m glad your article did not get sidetracked by the issue of helmets (I wear one, but it is to prevent pain not loss of life or serious injury). Young children certainly should at their parents request. They should definitely not be compulsory and have no part to play in the issue of safe cycling.

    It is a shame that the tagline and headline so strongly feature the words ‘misfortune, fraught and danger’ when the health benefits far outweigh the negatives.

    Take care


  6. robertpedwards 15th January 2013 @ 3:18 pm

    Hi Samantha,

    Great to read your supportive and informative article in the Jan. copy of the Elmbridge LifeStyle Magazine.

    I put a Tweet out on this and hopefully will get more interested parties reading the printed article.

    Unfortunately it’s not online yet but I presume soon via the website. When it is I shall provide a link via our website

    Unfortunately the Surrey CC recently declined some proposals which would have made it more autonomous for local boroughs to implement 20mph zones.

    Also the SCC Cabinet Member for Transport and Environment John Furey states in the interview below that SCC are opposed to 20mph zones because they don’t want congestion and want to get the economy going.

    I know in our committee we have agreed in principle to certain parts of Claygate being 20mph zones
    But how that translates in practice and how long it takes to implement remains to be seen.

    Kind Regards
    David Cowie
    Cycling Volunteer, Claygate Highways and Transportation Committee
    Twitter @claygatecycling

  7. robertpedwards 15th January 2013 @ 3:18 pm


    Happy new year.

    Thought you might like to know, your article was quoted online by Bike Biz, the UK bicycle industry magazine…

    Might make the print version in February as well.

    It was also quoted on the Richmond Cycling Campaign website…



  8. robertpedwards 15th January 2013 @ 3:19 pm


    We just saw this otherwise excellent piece:

    But of course are a little perplexed by David Hanson’s bizarre comments. We’ll write a letter in response highlighting all the work we do around schools but just wanted to check what the deadline/word count ought to be

    Many thanks,

  9. ‘Do not base policies about cycling on the views of existing committed cyclists’ | Bici a Milano 29th January 2013 @ 10:18 am

    [...] lady in Richmond, or the lady mostly confined to pavements on her trike, or the schoolchildren who love to ride their bikes, but never cycle to school. In many ways their views would be of far more relevance and importance than the well-meaning usual [...]

  10. Simon 30th January 2013 @ 2:59 pm

    What a bizarrely sensible article. Not the sort of thing I’d expect in a non-cycling specific magazine.

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter the * required information where indicated.