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.

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