The subtle enslavement of parents

Idly thumbing through a local freesheet while on my coffee break this morning, I encountered a news article entitled ‘Dads Sentenced to a Year Behind The Wheel.’ It turned out to refer not to a curious punishment meted out by a whimsical magistrate, but to the fact that fathers apparently spend one whole year of their lives ferrying their children around, until they reach the age of 18 (when presumably they are using cars of their own).

This wasn’t, of course, a genuine news story, but a Halfords press release from some months back, that has only just filtered through to the Horsham Advertiser – the company in question conducts some research, and then presents it as a piece of news that local newspapers can swallow up, using as content to fill their pages, in exchange for a plug for the company that commissioned the research. Everybody wins. (This is similar to the method that results in spurious mathematical equations constantly appearing in the media as ‘news’ – a transparent attempt to get a company free publicity in exchange for paying a scientist to prostitute themselves).

The facts and figures contained within such an article should therefore, of course, by treated with some caution, but with that caveat, this research is rather revealing.

By the time his children are 18, the average Dad has spent the equivalent of a whole working year Taxi-ing his children around. In fact modern Dads spend more time ferrying kids than almost anything else they do – apart from work and sleep. That’s more time than they spend in the garden, on DIY and even in the pub. Dads clock up an average 25 miles a week on 2.33 journeys, taking their youngsters to school, sports and social events – or 2hrs 16mins driving. A fith (20%) of dads, however, admitted to undertaking a journey of over 100 miles and 7% over 200 miles… A dedicated one in eight (17%) of fathers do more than five trips a week. Over four in five (81%) give lifts to the children of friends and neighbours.

There then comes the inevitable, crowbarred-in soundbite from someone at Halfords -

Rory Carlin, Halfords Autocentres Marketing Director said: “We spend a lot of our time caring for family cars to help customers live their lives on the move.We can’t do anything about our kids’ increasingly hectic social lives or the rising cost of fuel, but we can help by making routine servicing, maintenance and tyres affordable and accessible. We’re working hard to bring down the cost of motoring because we understand that dedication comes at a cost, both in terms of the fuel used and wear and tear on the car itself.”

Fair enough. Probably a good idea to look after your car, if you’re spending that much time driving your children about.

But Rory Carlin misdiagnoses the problem. Fathers are not driving their children around because of their ‘increasingly hectic social lives.’ At a guess, I would suspect that children are making fewer trips to visit their friends than half-a-century ago – they’re probably spending a bit more time at home, contacting them via the interweb.

The problem is rather that when they come to make trips to visit friends, or to school, they are no longer making those trips by themselves. Parents either don’t trust their children to make journeys on foot or bike by themselves, or the children don’t want to. This is why fathers are – apparently – spending more time driving their children around than any other activity, except work and sleep.

Dutch fathers presumably have it a little easier; the average age at which Dutch children start cycling to school by themselves is eight (as David Arditti notes, this is a source of concern to the Dutch authorities – because it is considered too old). In Assen, 100% (to the best approximation) of children cycle to school. And it’s not just the school run that parents are spared from. Visiting friends in town; sleepovers; going to the park; playing football; these are all things that children can do by themselves. Dutch cities and towns are designed to allow children to make their own way about, in a subjectively safe environment. David Hembrow assured us, on our Embassy Field Trip, that children using bikes with stabilisers can, and do, cycle into the centre of Assen city, with their parents (although they often can’t cycle back – it is some distance for young children).

Go to the Netherlands, and you will see incredibly young children cycling around.

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These are children cycling home from two different primary schools, for lunch with their parents. They can do this because it’s easy.

Parents can also go shopping with their children, by bike – they don’t need to worry about packing them into cars (which was a serious concern voiced in the Understanding Walking and Cycling report) -

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Teenage girls don’t need a lift into town to go shopping either – they can hop on a bike, and go with their friends (the gentleman is not their father – he’s just someone they’re about to overtake) -

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The amount of time this independence must save their parents – both in leisure and work hours – is surely stupendous. We should be screaming this from the rooftops. Not only can our children be far more independent – which is good for their own well-being (as well as, tangentially, their health), but their parents no longer have to spend a vast proportion of their own time acting as a glorified taxi service. That means they have more time to relax, and also to be productive. There is a huge economic argument here. Parents can be working, instead of spending hours driving their children around (not to mention the savings that would result from the easing of the congestion caused by needless car journeys).

This isn’t some fantasy – the Netherlands is a country only just across the North Sea, one of nearest neighbours. Yet, for whatever reason, these kinds of solutions to our mobility problems are completely off the radar. I am firmly convinced that the great majority of this country’s citizens would leap at the idea of their children being able to go to school by themselves, or being able to visit their friends, by themselves; they just don’t know how it could be possible.

It’s up to us to show them how. And the Dutch tourist board.

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23 Responses to The subtle enslavement of parents

  1. Richard Mann says:

    To create these conditions, you need subjectively-safe “quiet” routes, that older kids can use on their own (especially from 11 when they go to secondary school), and that adults can use with younger children (until they’re ready to go solo).

    And you also need fast routes that adults can use to go about their lives when they’re not shepherding children.

    These are the two basic parts to creating a cycle culture: routes that work for with-children and without-children journeys.

    In an ideal world, you make all routes fast and safe (and this is what the Dutch have achieved in quite a lot of places), but if you are starting from scratch, it’s generally more practical to make separate quiet routes (by linking up back streets), and do the basic (cycle lanes) on the main roads.

    Why are traditional cycle routes (Sustrans / LCN / SRTS) only partially successful? Because they don’t work for adults. Why are cycle lanes only partially successful? Because they don’t work for children. Why does Oxford have near-Dutch levels of cycling in some parts of the city? Because that’s where we’ve done both.

    • dave42w says:

      Richard,

      You really are kidding yourself aren’t you.

      “Why does Oxford have near-Dutch levels of cycling in some parts of the city?”

      The Dutch have better than Oxford levels of Cycling over the whole country not just small parts of one city.

      13% of commuters cycle in Oxford compared to a number of Netherlands cities that are at about 50% of all journeys.

      You will say Ah but Oxford has lots of people using the bus – but lots and lots of these drive miles to get to a park and ride and then get the bus just to go into the city.

      I have cycled in both Netherlands and Oxford. There is no comparison for Children or Adults – Oxford might be good in the UK but is a million miles behind the Netherlands.

    • plastic99 says:

      In South Manchester we have direct routes which hardly anyone uses because they are crowded with cars and buses. Then occasionally we have the odd signed “quiet route” which scenically meanders around through parks and back streets, taking forever to get anywhere. No-one uses them either.

      It’s fairly obvious that direct safe cycle routes are needed, but you can’t get them without getting rid of something else, and no-one has the stomach to inconvenience the motorists. You wouldn’t need to close roads to cars, but at the very least you would have to get rid of some on-street parking.

      So despite the flat terrain and the easily cycle-able distances, the cars roll on and the cyclists are in a tiny fragile minority.

      Richard, do you think they have your two-part “strategy” in places like the Netherlands and Copenhagen? Of course they don’t. They just realise the value of cycling and the social cost of cars and prioritise accordingly.

  2. The Vole and I watched our neighbours over the school holidays. A car would leave with a child, several times per day and return empty within about 20 minutes It’s likely most of these trips were less than two miles. We’re on two bus routes and neighbour are healthy as far as I know. We never see the neighbours walk, cycle or take a bus…

  3. Don says:

    With a 5 and a 3 year old, I’ve resigned myself that I’m going to be doing these trips for a few years, at least until the girls are old enough to get about by themselves. However, I’ll be buggered if I’m going to waste petrol ferrying them about in a car. We’ve recently bought a Circe Helios tandem that does all the school runs and similar trips. If they don’t want to ride to their friends houses they can flippin well stay at home!

    I think ferrying children round everywhere by car is insane.

  4. @Don; quite agree! We manage very well here, with a mixture of child-carrying bikes, the very-popular NCN2 along the seafront, and a bit of illegal (why is it a criminal offence?) cycling on pavements where there just isn’t any alternative. We use the car occasionally, usually for journeys longer than 6 miles each way. But to school, shopping, town, friends, etc. it’s bikes every time :) Probably saving a few thousand pounds a year in diesel and wear-and-tear in the process, and not having problems with traffic jams or lack of parking!

  5. Richard has it completely wrong. He is pursuing the failed British “two track” solution to cycling. If “traditional cycle routes (Sustrans/LCN/SRTS)” don’t work for adults then they don’t work for children either. They fail for everybody because of poor design and implementation. Likewise if cycle lanes don’t work for children they fail for everybody.

    This is not what they do in the Netherlands. They use a “one track” approach. They build up to a standard that is safe enough for young children, and fast and efficient enough for commuting adults. This approach generates huge political support, because everybody benefits from this infrastructure, young and old – and nobody moans about unusable “crap” infrastructure.

    This is a vital lesson that needs to be learned in the UK. It’s actually “more practical” to do it properly.

    • Richard Mann says:

      Dave & Dave – there you go again, denigrating what’s probably the best that’s been achieved in the UK. It doesn’t really help anybody. It doesn’t even really help your cause – it just raises doubts as to the effectiveness of any intervention.

      The brutal reality is that “the full Dutch” is 5-10 times more expensive, and there just isn’t the politcal will to fund it. We need to pull together if we want them to do anything.

      • dave42w says:

        Richard,

        On the other hand fantasy claims also do not help anyone. By all means claim Oxford is the best in the UK (I am not convinced but it is certainly a front runner), however, claiming that it matches fully thought out and implemented infrastructure such as we see in the Netherlands and are seeing emerge in Copenhagen.

        After recent blog posts about infrastructure in Netherlands and Copenhagen maybe you could remind us how many cycle only bridges across the Thames have been built in Oxford?

      • Richard Mann says:

        I didn’t claim the infrastructure matches the Netherlands, merely that the level of cycling is “near-Dutch” in those parts of Oxford (mostly in North Oxford, but to a lesser extent in the West and South) where the dual network has most-thoroughly been implemented. “Near-Dutch” does not mean equal-to-Groningen!

        To be clear – cycle-to-work percentage is around 21% in the northern wards (bus use about 16% and walking about 14% – both much higher than Dutch norms), and their secondary school has about 50% cycling. These figures could certainly be improved, but they aren’t going to get massively better, whatever we do.

      • plastic99 says:

        Richard – I am put in mind of a great comment by Penelosa in Calgary recently – “Penalosa compared such half measures to a building a part of a soccer field one year, a little bit more the next, then cancelling the project in the third year because nobody is using it.”.

        I see your “dual network” very much as a half measure. If it has some success in some areas, great, but it runs the very real risk that, like our signed quiet routes, no-one will use it, and the petrol-heads will say, “You see, we created provision for cyclists and nobody used it. We won’t make that mistake again. Now where’s our bypass.”.

  6. disgruntled says:

    It’s a false economy to opt for the cheap solution if it doesn’t actually work. While I’m all for looking at what can be done realistically in the UK now, and not letting the best be the enemy of the good, if half measures are implemented and fail then we’ll end up with nothing more. So we have to choose our half measures carefully, based on the evidence of what works. The Dutch experiences seems to be that density and ‘thinking in routes not streets’ are key – really high quality provision (4m widths, bike priority) can come later when the will is there. However we do have to make sure that the routes are direct enough for adults and subjectively safe enough for kids. That means a complete rethink of how we handle junctions, in my opinion, as well as decent signage and segregation wherever practical. On-road lanes that lead to safe junctions (like green scramble junctions for bikes) are better than off-road tracks that give up 30 yds before a complicated junction, which is the usual approach in the UK. And traffic calming and cutting out rat runs in residential areas will not only make cycling safer for kids, it will make towns nicer altogether for everyone, so there has to be the political will for that.

  7. Mike Chalkley - Chair Bournemouth Cycling Forum says:

    The reason dutch style infrastructure isnt available in the UK is because nowhere is cycling prioritised at the expense of cars. All cycle provision has to fit in around the edges or across the fields. A few painted advisory (derisory) cycle lanes and some advanced stop lines that can’t even be reached once the traffic’s built up.

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  9. Mark says:

    Why is everybody looking to blame infrastructure?

    Having only spent a little time in the Netherlands it was very clear to see the difference and it wasn’t cycle lanes. It was culture.

    Because there are bikes everywhere and because people will usually choose the bike over the car there is a bike culture. Most people driving cars ride bikes as well. They understand and “think bike”.

    Look at the UK and we have a situation where the number of cars on the road grow each day and bikes are few and far between. So because the roads are so full of cars driven by drivers who see bikes as an inconvenience we have a car first culture.

    To get to a situation like the Netherlands, we would need to see people giving up their cars in huge numbers at the same time and this simply isn’t going to happen. The government have been trying to persuade people to give up their cars for years now. They have failed.

    Cycle lanes can help as they give people somewhere away from cars where they can feel safer but where our roads already have too many cars on them, there simply isn’t enough room for lots of bikes as well.

    • Richard Mann says:

      Mark – the culture can be changed, slowly, if it’s supported by some infrastructure (or at least, roads that aren’t too hostile). Oxford saw a significant growth in cycle commuting in the 70s as a result of simple painted bike lanes (it’s dropped off a bit since, because buses have got better, relatively). Cycling to secondary school has been growing as a result of the gradual spread of quiet routes. You’re right; it’s happened because people want it to happen. But they aren’t prepared to give up their cars overnight.

      • Mark says:

        I am not convinced but maybe that’s because I don’t live in a big city where the schools are just round the corner from where people live. Indeed our nearest comprehensive school is in the next town which is a 30 minute drive away.

        But I do live in a town where there is a higher than average number of cycle users and noticeably most of them are of the older generation (again you can see the cultural thing at work)

        You need to make potential cyclists feel safe. Telling them that cars are evil and that they need to wear crash helmets when they pop to the shops is probably more than enough of an excuse to many people.

        Seeing what is happening in our capital though is encouraging. Cycle ways, the Boris Bikes and so on. Here we are seeing a lot being done in a short time frame thus creating momentum.

        But most people don’t live in our capital

        I am not sure I have the answers and to be honest I am one of those road users for who a bike doesn’t work very well except as a leisure activity so maybe I am not the right person to ask but neither is the stereo typical cycle campaigner who rides an expensive bike, wears lots of lycra and has a helmet cam on his head just so he can post videos on Youtube of bad car drivers.

        We need to make this accessible to ordinary people who won’t spend a fortune on equipment. Make them feel safe and not be afraid of other road users. At the same time we do need to educate other those other road users who give no thought for anybody else.

        Perhaps we start with the children but to do that we need the parents to allow their kids on the roads in the first place.

        So round we go,.

    • Mark – the culture of which you speak is in large part created by the infrastructure that makes the bicycle (and walking) a pleasant and feasible choice. The culture doesn’t appear out of a vacuum. It’s the street environment and conditions which will make people opt for alternatives to the car for short journeys.

      • Mark says:

        I do not disagree on how we got here and a lot of this is self fulfilling.

        But we can’t undo it all and think that will fix the problem and I don’t think the odd bike lane here and there in a London suburb is enough to change this culture in my lifetime.

        As I said, in my town there are a higher than normal number of cyclists yet we don’t have many cycle lanes and none of them wear helmets. As a community bikes are accepted as just another road user but I see things every week that suggest this is going the way that the big cities have gone thus newer generations will again be scared to cycle the roads that their grandmothers do today.

        As I said, I don’t have the answers but I really wish I did

    • davidhembrow says:

      Mark: it’s very easy to get a false impression on a short visit, and I’m afraid that if you think that the Dutch have given up on cars to any great degree then you certainly have a false impression. There was a period when car ownership didn’t grow as fast in the Netherlands as in the UK, but before that period, the Dutch owned more cars per capita than British people, and ownership levels here now are not very different to the UK. People, including Dutch people, like cars. “Top Gear” is a popular TV programme in the Netherlands, and you can buy “Top Gear” magazine in the newsagents, translated into Dutch.

      Having said that, the infrastructure makes it unnecessary to have to use a car for all your journeys. Mark’s blog post captures this difference very well. If you don’t have to ferry your kids about by car, that frees up a huge amount of time. It’s also good for children to have freedom. This freedom is something that Dutch teenagers themselves recognize, and indeed it was one of the main topics of conversation when we visited a Dutch school as part of a recent study tour.

      • Mark says:

        David

        My thinking wasn’t so much that there were less cars but that there were more bike users. That most people driving the cars themselves either do still use bikes at times or have done in the past.

        After all a car user that cycles has a very different attitude to cyclists than a car user that doesn’t because he or she appreciates what it is like to be in traffic etc.

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