Why we need more bikes with baby on board

I cycled the River Lea on Saturday, up from the Thames along the river bank to Hertford.  It's a pretty, if not somewhat bumpy, off-road ride through surprisingly rural pastures.  The sun was shining and the riverside path - part of which forms part of Route 1 of the National Cycle Network - was packed with Mums and Dads out with their kids having a cycling day in the sunshine.  What struck me was how many of these families had arrived by car, the car parks in the Lea Valley Regional Park were crammed with large family cars with cycle racks on the back.  What was stopping them from riding to the river, as oppose to driving there?  Why had an all off-road cycle route, as oppose to the actual road, become a cycling destination in itself?  Could it be that these parents thought that the roads were no place for their children, and that those who cycled on roads did it in spite of the prevailing road conditions, as oppose to because of them?


Last week I attended a public lecture at the LSE by former Lord Mayor of Copenhagen Ritt Bjerregaard.  She was speaking on how sustainabability and cities must go hand and hand into the future, and as former Mayor of one of the great cycling cities of the world I was keen to hear what advice she had for London to increase it's cycling levels.  She gave the usual cycle advocacy advice; provide cycle parking, build good quality cycle lanes etc etc...  However one of her points was really striking and a revelation to me: in order for a cycling city to grow, it must - she said - encourage what she called 'Cargo Bike Culture'.  She explained that in Copenhagen they found that once people settled down and had a family they would put the bicycle away and buy a car to transport their families around; an ultimately unsustainable behavioural pattern.  It was imperative, she explained, that families be allowed to embrace cycling and be given the infrastructure necessary to be able to safely transport their families around.  Ultimately, through engineering and good design, the roads and bike lanes can become somewhere that families feel safe enough to transport their children.  The kids, in turn, feel right at home on a bike and grow up to be the next generation of cycling citizens, as oppose to car-dependant-kids.  The family 4x4 stays at home ("Save it for the drive to your weekend house" said Ritt!) and cycle levels grow.  Less vehicular traffic means safer conditions for cyclists which therefore means more cyclists and so forth and so on...

In Copenhagen they even provide special parking spaces for these families and their cargo bikes.  The 'Cargo Bike Car' takes up one car parking space and splits to provide four secure cycle lockers for the bikes. (via Copenhagenize.com)

I've seen a number of families on two wheels around London over the past year.  There is a lady who I pass most days on the way to work who rides a Christiana cargo bike with her two children onboard, and I've also seen more child seats on the back of bikes appearing.  I applaud these individuals, and my heart lifts every time I see them.  Heck, there's even a little bit of Cargo Bike Culture going on in Chipping Sodbury, the rural Gloucestershire town I grew up in, according to the most excellent cycle blog Biking Brits

Yate Cycle Chic!
Photo courtesy of Biking Brits.

The most-excellent bike shop Velorution does a great job of making buying family-friendly bikes an easy task for all.  But those who do are a distinct minority.  Indeed, even the cycle infrastructure we have isn't geared up to them (can you image trying to get a Christiana or a Bullitt through those annoying motorbike barriers they have on Canals and segregrated cycle routes?)  And if I search in my heart I have to admit I'm not sure how confident I would feel taking small children onto the roads in their current condition, and I am sure most cyclists would think the same.  This, in itself, should tell us all we need to know about where we are going wrong with our present cycle advocacy policies.


I've asked before 'What's stopping women from cycling?', and that post prompted some great comment and debate, but perhaps more directly we should be asking ourselves honestly what is stopping families, and their children, from cycling and more importantly what is being done about it?


Anonymous said...

great post mark. for there to be mass cycling in the UK of course we need kids and families on bikes, and grans and grandads too. this is why we need to build proper 'dutch model' infrastructure.

i remember reading a statistic somewhere along the lines of 50% of people would like to cycle but are too afraid or similar, whihc just goes to show whats at stake here and where vehicular cycling is going wrong.

Keep up the great work on the blog! Jen

Mike said...

I've been cycling with 3 kids* on the bike in London for a couple of months now and whilst it's slow and heavy, it's awesome fun.

Ok, not so great when one of them decides to stuff toys down the back of your trousers and less great when someone simple HAS to overtake no matter how much you've glanced back, signalled, positioned yourself. And much less so when you follow a bike route to discover the motorbike chicanes you mentioned in the article.

But it's still awesome fun.

AND doing it is having an effect on other parents - I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked for details of the trailer when someone double takes as I haul twin babies out of it :)

Still don't own a car. It really winds up my suburban relatives no end.

*one on a rack seat, the other two in a trailer

Mark said...

Mike, you truly are a trail blazer! Whilst I'm not sure how I'd feel cycling with toys down my pants, I can certainly see the attraction in getting the whole family on two wheels; I hope others do follow your example.

People often ask me why I don't own a car, expecting a response along the lines of "cos I care about the environment" or "i'm green" or "it costs too much", when my answer is always "I don't own a car 'cos I don't need one". I firmly believe that most people drive more because they just don't question what they are doing cos, well, everyone else is doing it too. So I hope people who see you out and about A.) drive safely and give you plenty of room, and B.) maybe think about doing it themselves.

SteveL said...

I tow a kid to school on tagalong; last week we did Gospel Pass in wales. It is a good way to get to school -the risk points are (1) schools you pass en-route, (2) the school at the end and (3) other parents in a hurry. The sheer number of parents driving their kids to school creates the risk, what in Bristol Traffic is called the "Redland Mum" -someone prepared to kill other people ratehr than have thier child turn up late.

One troublespot is as the kids get bigger, getting them to ride their own bike safely. I'm not sure that the school run is safe. Weekends, the right routes, yes. But 08:20 to school? No -but the big hazard is the other parents

Mark said...

Hi Steve, it's really interesting that you highlight the primary danger to you when cycling with your kids as being other parents. You'd think the mutual understanding of how it feels to be protective of your child would mean they drive (and park) more considerately... seems it aint so.

I laughed at your Redland Mum reference, I know Bristol very well, and yes, I can well imagine the tail-backs of 4x4s outside Red Maids in the morning!

Patrick Carr said...

Bike Club, where I work, has just started up in London, with a new team member in post there: http://bikeclub.org.uk/contact-us/england/london/ She's like I am: really committed to helping young people and their families choose to cycle. There's a lot of percieved risk about taking children out on the roads, but I find that with one of my little ones in tow I get more room and more patience from drivers than when I'm alone. And my daughter practically bounces with joy when we cycle into school together.

Oh, and a quick shout-out for my host council Darlington, who've just taken an angle grinder to those irritating motorbike barrier thingys across the borough.

WestfieldWanderer said...

The statistic suggesting that 50% of drivers being "reluctant drivers" who would gladly use anything other than a car for many of their journeys comes from the book "Car Sick" by Lynn Sloman. It's figure that I well believe, because I'm one of that 50%, and I have a 50 mile daily car commute! I'd well recommend "Car Sick" as a good, well researched read, although be prepared for the habitual car dependents to greet Lynn's views with unthinking howls of derision!
The fact that so many people will transport themselves and their bikes by car to a traffic free path must be evidence enough that road design throughout the 20th Century has mitigated against any other form of transport than motor vehicles. Quite why the British have such a serious attitude problem against bikes when just a very short distance across the North Sea things are so very different, when the people there are so very like us... even our languages have the same origin...
When drivers continually whine about the cost of motoring, but continue to drive shows that driving is, in reality, still way too cheap. If driving costs were truly hurting they'd all be clamouring for a decent bike infrastructure so that they could drive less. (The irony there is that the roads would be quieter and thus ideal for...
Ah well.
By the way, Mark, I'm flattered that you've used my snap of the bikes and trailers...

Mark said...

@Patrick Hooray for Darlington, that's superb news! Built it and they will come and all that. The CTC's BikeClub is great in that it can help parents consider a transport option they'd have never though of before. I'll be sure to keep abreast of all their news and it's great to see they have an officer here in London.

@WestfieldWonderer Of course it was Car Sick, I couldn't remember where I'd read that stat, it's a superb book. Hell, if the author can live car-free in rurual Wales it just goes to show that anything is possible! I also find it strange that the general attitude towards cyclists in the UK is so very different to that of our neighbours. Maybe we need to start getting some more exchange visits going on?!


Sue 'sans' helmet said...

brilliant post, mark! must admit haven't seen too many christianias on australian roads but we can only hope that'll all change soon!

still waiting to hear from our roads and traffic authority as to whether they've granted me a helmet exemption - obviously a tricky matter, they've had it on their desks for 3 months now!!!!!

Frances Chaloner said...

I am the new Bike Club Officer for London:

I think cycle training is key in getting more familes to become confident enough to ride on the road to trails like the Lee Valley, rather than driving there with bikes.

TfL offer subsidised training to Londoners:

and family session can be booked with many Cycle Instructors in London:

Mark said...

Hi Frances, thanks for stopping by and giving your comment. It's great that BikeClub has set up in London *any* scheme to encourage more cycling by families is of course a great thing. I'm fully aware of the TfL and local borough subsidized and free training, but I do wonder, even with training, how many people would be prepared to put their families on the road? I think the answer is self evident: we used to have a billion cycle journeys a year here in the UK but people have been progressively scared off the road. We can have all the cycle training we like but it doesn't change the road conditions does it? I consider myself to be a reasonably advanced cyclist and motorist, but I would still have to think twice about cycling with kids in tow. Training is great, of course, but it's an effect, not the cause.

I'd be very interested to hear if you keep a tab on those families who do complete your scheme and training and see how many stick with it into the future after the initial take-up.

Good luck and all the best,


Andy in Germany said...

Great thoughts Mark. We're a cycling, car free family and I do ride on our comparatively safe German roads using a Bakfiets and Xtracycle for child transport. It's usually fine except for older men in big cars and 30something women communting. I don't know why.
We get all manner of comments about how it's not 'safe' to ride with kids on the road ("they might fall off") etc. Now they are learning to ride for themselves which has challenges. I tend to find that blocking drivers is the best approach, but a smile and a wave often diffuses any problems.

Anonymous said...

Another company dedicated to practical cycling is Really Useful Bikes near Bristol:

Cait said...

Hello there,

Cost. Basically. Well, for us, anyway. About six years ago my beloved bike cost me £120 second hand. My husband still hasn't got a bike, and we don't have a storage space for a large trailer bike.

I think there are a hell of alot cyclists who would love to have their own Christiana. My kids are 6 and 4, and could still take advantage of their awesome trailers but two grand? there's no chance.

So unfortunately, we're stuck with no family biking days out, and slowly getting my little girl through the post-stabilisers period.

I'd be very intereseted in a general readers poll as to whether everyone thinks those pull-along faux-bike things you can screw on to your bike for your kids to tag along behind with are safe or not. Although again, horribly expensive.

In short: :(

Adam said...

Just done a 22 mile weekend bike and camping trip from Hatfield to Hertford, staying at the camp site there, which you can get to by carrying on up the Lee valley and following it round to Hertford.

Ciiked breakfasts at the fabulous Serendipity Cafe this am (by Waitrose and better then the Starbucks next door!)

We even got a backpaker rate at the camp site for having no car. £2.40 refund!


Mark said...

Adam, that's just spooky! I was sitting by the river in front of Starbucks by the Serendipity Cafe at about 1PM this afternoon, trying to build my mileage up so cycled up to Hertford and then down to Cheshunt before giving in to the bumps and headwind and getting the train home. The Lea valley is beautiful isn't it?

Lady Vélo said...

Great post Mark :)
I saw lots of families cycling together in Berlin, and quite a few Christiana bikes too - they look pretty awesome & I bet the kids love it!

I've no kids of my own, but I can understand how lovely it would be to go cycling with children and feel safe doing it at the same time. I'd quite like to take my oldest nephew out for a cycle - he's in a rather green part of Chingford and as an adventure-enjoying 4 year old, I think he's love it... maybe one day I will...

Lady Vélo.

diaryboybob said...

As with everything, opinions about how safe bicycles are for carrying kids vary differently, just as the circumstances that inform that decision vary. Availability and access to a car free route, terrain, volume and type of traffic and ones own confidence in yourself and your bicycle all come into play. So for anyone person to say it’s a yes or a no is simplifying too much.
One thing is for sure, people need to be informed and people need to have choice, at ‘Really Useful Bikes’ we aim to do just that, with informal test ride area and options together that you will not find anywhere else.
With your Childs safety at stake, the decision to ‘risk’ him/her on a bicycle with you might be a difficult one, but with access to the bicycle options available, we hope its becoming an easier decision to make.
Rob Bushill