A recent news item from Epping should come as no surprise to anyone who understands the reasons why people don’t cycle in Britain.
A head teacher has moved to explain changes to plans for the first new school the district has seen built in years.
Parking provision for teachers at the £18 million St John’s School in Tower Road, Epping is expected to be increased from 44 to 76, while bike spaces for pupils are set to be quartered, falling from 322 to at least 80.
George Yerosimou, the school’s head teacher, said: “The plans were drawn up some years ago. What we’ve been looking at now is basically how many spaces are being used now by staff. The original number put in was not realistic. We have been promoting car sharing, but we’re a rural school and a lot of them live far away.
“On Bury Lane, where the new entrance to the school will be, there is no parking or pavements. We don’t want to upset the local residents by having too many cars outside. He added that the number of bike spaces planned far outstripped the number of pupils who currently cycled in.
He added: “The local area isn’t really conducive to children cycling – there are no cycle paths. Maybe it’s something the town and district councils can be looking at.”
The school is not to blame here. There is no point putting in 300 cycle parking spaces for pupils if only a tiny fraction of that number is actually prepared to cycle to school. It would be a waste of money. Simply putting in lots of cycle parking, and keeping car parking spaces to a minimum, will change nothing if the streets and roads surrounding the school are hostile and unpleasant to cycle on.
It is those roads and streets that are to blame for this situation, not the allocation of parking at the school itself. Access to the new school appears to be from twisty, narrow country lanes with a 40 mph speed limit; it is not surprising that local children and their parents are voting for the car as a way to get to this school. Putting in 300 cycle spaces will not address this basic problem.
This situation is just symptomatic of a broader scandal; namely, that Britain’s roads and streets are designed in a way that denies children their independence, and forces car dependency upon them.
We should remember that in a country a few hundred miles away across the North Sea, 40% of all trips made by children under the age of 17 are made by bicycle.
Dutch children have independence. They can cycle to school by themselves; they can visit friends by themselves; they can go shopping by themselves.
At a similar secondary school to the one in Epping – also recently built – Dutch teenagers arrive and leave by bike.
It should be obvious from the video why these teenagers in Groningen are cycling home from school. It’s not because of ‘culture’, or because it’s flat, or because they’ve received training, or any other spurious reason.
The environment is designed to facilitate cycling; to make it an easy, safe and obvious thing to do. Cycle tracks and paths connect the school to their homes directly, without interaction with motor traffic. Likewise there’s a huge amount of cycle parking, in use, at this secondary school in Assen -
The same is true for primary schools, like these ones in Assen.
Tiny children, as young as four or five, cycling completely independently.
And Dutch children don’t just cycle to school; they go on shopping trips in cities, by themselves.
They can do all these things because the environment has been made safe, both objectively and subjectively.
By contrast in Britain – where schools quite rightly don’t bother to build cycle parking on the sound assumption that very few children are even going to attempt to cycle to them – children are dependent on their parents to a staggering degree for their mobility needs. I wrote over a year ago about how this is not just deeply unfair on children, but also on their parents, who have to spend a considerable amount of their time chauffering their children. The average British father spends well over two hours a week on ferrying his offspring around.
Multiply the situation at this school in Epping across the entire country – add up all the unnecessary car trips that are being made to transport children which, if we had a sane transport policy, would be made by the children themselves on bicycles – and we have what amounts to a national scandal. Wasted time; extra wear and tear on our roads; less safety; worse public health; more congestion; blight; visual, aural and atmospheric pollution. It’s desperate.
And this is without even considering all the other groups who have been shunted off our streets by our iniquitous transport policies; people trapped in their homes, or forced into the use of motor vehicles. This includes my grandmother, who never passed a driving test, and continued to cycle – against all the odds – the half mile to her local shops well into her 80s, but has now been forced to abandon her independence because she cannot dismount from her bike quickly enough. She is now reliant on her friends and neighbours to bring her supplies and to ferry her around, because the road in her village is simply unsafe to cycle on, and doesn’t even have a pavement.
This is why many elderly people continue to drive, even when they themselves know they are not fit to do so, and probably don’t even enjoy the experience – because they have no alternative. Drive, or stay at home. Similarly disabled people, or those with poor mobility, are forced into car use simply because our street environment is poorly designed for their needs.
It doesn’t have to be this way; it is possible to design streets and transport networks that are inclusive and accessible to all.
What all this amounts to is that in Britain the needs of the most vulnerable – children, the infirm and the elderly – are ignored, or considered far below the needs of facilitating the flow of motor vehicles through our streets.
Our walking environment has been arranged around the prime objective of the flow of motor vehicles, while cycling has effectively been removed as a choice for the vast majority of the population. These policies are iniquitous, because they have disproportionately affected certain groups. Children have little or no independence; other groups are forced into car use, or are left to rely on others.
Sadly the impression I am getting from government is that nothing is going to change any time soon, especially with relation to cycling. Norman Baker, the minister with responsibility, recently presented this uplifting message -
If we reached Dutch levels I’d be ecstatic, but I can’t see us getting there. I went to to Leiden railway station and there were, I think, 13,000 bikes there that morning, which is just a different world from all other European countries. The Dutch have been fantastically successful. It is by and large flatter in Holland than it is in the UK, which is certainly an advantage, and it’s more compact, so there are differences.
What I can see is individual places in the country taking up cycling. I can see that now, with places like Cambridge. I think the message is getting out. The clear message we’re getting from the government, the enthusiasm local councils are displaying, means the renaissance of cycling, which was in decline for many years, is underway. A corner has been turned. We’re on the way back …
In other words, It would be great if we had the amount of cycling there is in the Netherlands, but we’re not going to get there. Maybe the ‘message will get out’, maybe it won’t.
Baker’s response is symptomatic of an astonishing ambivalence about cycling at the highest levels of government; an attitude that mass cycling will have to happen all by itself, and that when (if) it does happen, that’s the time the government might start to consider supporting and enabling it. There’s no vision.
The same wooly mindedness was apparent in the evidence given by health minister Anna Soubry to the Get Britain Cycling Inquiry this week. Once again, we had pleasant-sounding noises about how great cycling is, but an underlying message that cycling isn’t for everyone.
[Cycling] is just, often, a great way to travel. But I think we just have to accept the limitations of it. And I’ll just say that I never ever even considered taking one of my children on a bike. I lived in Nottingham for the vast majority of my life. Even though we have cycle lanes, you must be joking. I would not put a child on a bicycle in the city of Nottingham. I just don’t think I could have been that brave, or courageous. And the lanes weren’t extensive enough.
This message was repeated by Soubry later in her evidence -
I think that whenever we talk about cycling, we have to realise and appreciate the many concerns that people have about how safe you would be, and your children would be, on bicycles.
And I’m just thinking that, in a way… I used to make my daughters walk to school. It was very simple, I just refused to drive them there. And this is in the city of Nottingham. And in many ways I think I would have been more concerned about their safety if they had cycled to school, than walking to school. I’m not saying I’m right to feel that, but as a mum looking back, I think that would be right.
The message from Soubry here is that we should be realistic and appreciate that we won’t be able to persuade many people to cycle. Mums aren’t going to let their children cycle, and we should accept that. Mums aren’t going to be able to do their shopping by bike, and we should accept that as well.
This is the thrust of her ‘limitations’ argument; that the bicycle is a limited way of getting about, because it is no replacement for the safety, security and convenience of the car.
I think that if you want to lead the sort of lives that most people do, which is when you have to go and do supermarket runs, I’ve never understood how you’re going to do all that [by bike]… So I think you’ve got to look at its limitations as an alternative to public transport, or cars, and so on. So it has its limitations. But hey, what’s not to like.
The message that this should change – that we should make cycling just as safe and convenient as driving, if not more so – was completely absent.
Soubry also stated that ‘we’ve all got to make sure we do a lot more cycling'; a fairly meaningless platitude that presents cycling as something wholesome and good but doesn’t address the underlying reasons why the vast majority of the population won’t even bother.
The chair, Julian Huppert, thanked Soubry for her response, and then invited her onto the next Parliamentary Bike Ride. Soubry responded
No, I’d be very happy to, but I’m not going to. I’m just not going to do stunts.
She doesn’t mean ‘stunts’ in the acrobatic sense – she means a publicity stunt; the act of riding a bike with other parliamentarians is evidently seen by her as a gimmick. This much is clear from her response a moment later, when she described going to Leicester with Norman Baker on some official bicycle-promoting business (presumably this event)-
Norman did get on a bike. I refused to. I just have memories of a certain other public health minister – and you’re old enough to remember to whom I refer – doing too many stunts. I just think it can sometimes backfire.
David Arditti wrote after Soubry gave her evidence that
One gets the feeling Anna Soubry thinks cycling is about being sporty and healthy, not about convenience, inclusiveness & economic benefit
That’s exactly right; it would explain why Soubry thinks riding a bike is a gimmicky ‘stunt’, and why she was so enthusiastic about children doing cycling for sport at school, but so unenthusiastic about enabling children to cycle to school by themselves.
From her evidence, it is apparent that Soubry doesn’t have any understanding that cycling could ever be a mainstream mode of transport for the entire population. She doesn’t think it’s practical to use a bicycle for shopping; she doesn’t think children would be allowed to cycle by themselves by their parents; she didn’t have anything to say about the elderly cycling. She appears constrained by a fixed impression of what cycling is like in Britain now, and the kinds of people currently prepared to cycle; she had little or no awareness of the policies and planning decisions required to make cycling a possibility for all kinds of trips, and for those who don’t cycle.
I think that’s tremendously sad. We’re stuck in a hole, and this government doesn’t appear to have the vision or the willingness to dig us out of it. There will be plenty more schools installing more car parking spaces than bicycle parking spaces for the foreseeable future. Get used to it.