Britain’s exclusionary roads and streets

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.

Lower Bury Lane, the road to the new school in Epping

Lower Bury Lane, the road to the new school in Epping

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.

From Pucher & Buhler (eds.) City Cycling

From Pucher & Buhler (eds.) City Cycling

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 -

DSCN9181because children can cycle to the school in safety and comfort.

Screen shot 2013-02-27 at 14.53.29

The same is true for primary schools, like these ones in Assen.

DSCN9228

DSCN9225

DSCN9370

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.

DSCN9250

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.

DSCN9356DSCN0129

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.

This could be anywhere in Britain. An awful street environment for anyone not in a car, or not prepared to cycle with heavy motor traffic

This could be anywhere in Britain. An awful street environment for anyone not in a car, or not prepared to cycle with heavy motor traffic

South London again. Who is this road for? How has the space been allocated?

South London again. Who is this road for? How has the space been allocated?

Central London. Who is important here? What message does this street arrangement send out?

Central London. Who is important here? What message does this street arrangement send out?

Walk, cycle or drive? What message is this street sending out?

Walk, cycle or drive? What is this street telling you to do?

Only young men can cross the road here.

Only young men can cross the road here

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.

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33 Responses to Britain’s exclusionary roads and streets

  1. Ken Barker says:

    I find it hard to believe that Bury Lane will be the entrance to St. Johns School. In fact the school is local to the housing estate and should not create any problems for children to walk or cycle – by pavement cycling or, for those training to use residential streets, cycling on the road – to the school. If road improvements are needed as part of the school’s development, the authorities should include these as planning / highways condition.

    • Tim says:

      I contacted the head teacher concerned, who sent me a very gracious reply which mentioned “Another barrier is the school entrance nearest to the residential part of Epping will not be open until the housing development is completed two years into the future. I believe more students will be encouraged to cycle to school, once that entrance is open.”.

      So apparently there will be another entrance in due course, although two years seems a long time off.

  2. Paul M says:

    I agree with your conclusion (?) that to get beginners onto bikes will require a change in national government policy to build infrastructure, imposed on local authorities as a statutory obligation, just as already there an obligation to provide schools and hosehold waste management and – dare I say it – roads.

    But we didn’t get into the mess we are in now entirely due to government action or inaction. There are many others who share the blame in larger or smaller part. Housebuilders find it easier and/or more profitable to build on greenfield sites instead of brownfield in town centres, and to sprawl out the houses as tiny detached “executive” boxes, which stretch distances and make car travel more attractive. Car manufacturers sell implausible dreams of the open road, the glamour, the statement about you which is your car, because that sells more cars. The tax system, or road charging system if we had one, skews the cost of cars away from use and towards ownership – once you have beggared yourself to buy one, the marginal cost per mile is minuscule (really).

    The school is not entirely blameless in changing the numbers of car and cycle parking spaces. Perhaps it does reflect the reality on the ground, but they should be doing more to press the case for safe route to school so that teachers and pupils would have viable alternatives. Getting people to cycle instead of drive is, as Carlton Reid observed about Stevenage, not just about making cycling attractive but also about making driving unattractive. This school is doing precisely the reverse in its own small way.

    I guess at least it isn’t doing what the school in Mole Valley, Surrey recently did, and banning all arrivals on foot or bike and insisting on arrival by car!

  3. 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

    Actually, I get the impression that she thinks transport-cycling is low status.

  4. Erik says:

    Fantastic explanation! Groningen is a wonderful example. I lived in nearby Leeuwarden, and it too, is a template that can be easily used. It was certainly an amount of freedom not even the land of the free in which I live can provide.

  5. Cycleoptic says:

    I got the impression that Soubry hasn’t even read the NICE document from her own department.
    http://guidance.nice.org.uk/PH41. She also asked why a cycle route hadn’t been added to the Nottingham tram way, a project she did not want, but suggested the money be spent on the local A road. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10307724

  6. dgtherunner says:

    My youngest son’s school has just moved half a mile away onto a new housing estate. We were promised a direct path, well lit and wide enough to cycle etc. What we have got is a ‘temporary’ path built ‘as quickly and cheaply as possible’ it goes between barbed wire fence on the building site and a 2m high metal fence next to the railway, and we only got that because a few of us began shouting to councillors and the local paper. It is isolated, there are no street lights and it exits through a building site, The crossing patrol we had at the old school has been made redundant so children have to cross a bus route and negotiate all the cars going to the school without even a zebra crossing. There are 30 designated ‘parent parking’ spaces in the school car park and a large supermarket car park on the other side of the school. The number of cycle rack spaces has been reduced. The new estate is full of cycle paths, but the roads were not adopted so no one enforced them and they became on street parking places. Even now they have been adoped and double yellow lines painted there are still vans and cars parked in them. I am quite keen to cycle or at least walk to the new school but I know what signals are being sent to me as a parent. There is no way I would let him cycle by himself and indeed when I suggested to a council official that I wanted him to be able to cycle to school by himself she practically accused me of neglect.

  7. Fred Smith says:

    Unfortunately I think you are spot on in your analysis of our politicians, they see cycling a bit like some kind of volunteering activity, worthy but not something government should get involved in (and probably not something they’d do themselves).

    Until government makes some kind of effort to make the roads safe for bikes most people won’t cycle and it won’t be high on their agendas when they vote. Apart from emigrating, maybe the idea of cycling needs to be sold to non-cyclists so they ask for the chance? There are loads of great reasons to cycle, but it still seems like a long shot. Offers from superstar advertising strategists, or better ideas on a postcard please.

  8. Greg McNeill says:

    do teachers, who also often purloin large sections of playground for carparking, have to declare this perk on the income-tax returns and is it ever calculated within their salaries by the education authority?

    • Parking isn’t a taxable benefit, even if your employer reimburses you for parking at paid facilities. Which is odd, as everything else to do with ordinary commuting would be a benefit if the employer paid for it. Still, I don’t get charged for the showers or bike stands either.

  9. Those comments from Anna Soubry are awful.

    Yes, she clearly thinks cycling is ‘low status’ and as public health minister ought to be considering, you know, public health but the ‘stunt’ fear she refers to is worth examining.

    Just as ‘ministers for walking’ are afraid of being pictured next to John Cleese goose-stepping pix of ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ (this is a genuine phobia – Monty Python probably did a lot to suppress demand for walking facilities), so female health ministers now have a fear of being photographed near bicycles.

    This dates from 1995. Virginia Bottomley – perhaps most famous for having a name that can be anagrammed into ‘I’m an evil Tory bigot’ – was the Health Secretary that year and was splashed all over the newspapers in 1995s Bike Week.

    Press photographers sat her on a recumbent tandem and she dutifully displayed a fine set of legs within her skirt, hence the newspaper splashes. Her smiling face was juxtaposed against news of Tory hospital closures.

    • Thanks for that explanation, Carlton. I get the strong impression that many “professional” politicians are so über-trained in PR and spin doctoring that they have lost sight of why they are there in the first place – to change things for the better. It genuinely shocks me how grown ups who are paid to do this are unable to make the intellectual micro-leap from “kids can’t cycle safely” to “make routes to schools safe”. It’s not exactly rocket science.

  10. At present we cycle our two sons to school, because they are young enough to use tagalong / bike seat option. It makes me very cross that there is no safe bike route for them to get safely to school when they are old enough to ride solo.
    Your post is very timely for me, because at the weekend I introduced them to the concept that in some parts of the world, children cycle without the need for helmets, and are allowed to cycle to school without their parents. We spent ages looking a photos of cyclists and infrastructure in The Netherlands. They were totally amazed and excited – eyes wide open and exclaiming in joy.
    It was a difficult and sad moment explaining to a 4 year old and a 6 year old why here in the UK we don’t think cyclists are worth the investment.
    They very quickly saw the foolishness of placing the car at the centre of transport planning, and we had a good discussion about how cars make cycling dangerous, rather than cycling being dangerous in itself.
    How many parents have these discussions though? Can we dream that our children’s generation finally understand that cycling can be a mainstream transport option, as well as a sport?

  11. I loved reading this. The politicians are more or less a waste of time right now – but they are just ordinary people and they will come round sooner or later, once the penny has dropped in everyday conversations.

    The penny, to my mind, is that stark fact that a rearrangement of streets that moves the balance towards all those who are currently excluded will be both a moral and a practical advance. Current arrangements benefit nobody but, like the crush around a narrow exit following an emergency, that mutual benefit cannot be left to chance or good will. Someone has to get tough and make some changes compulsory. That toughness will be much easier once more people have heard the penny drop.

    Hence the need to keep on with excellent blogs like this and with local and national campaigning that matches the seriousness of our situation.

  12. Alex BB says:

    Hi All, I have just written to Anna Soubry asking her to put these comments quoted here in context by commenting on this blog. I also expressed my disappointment and dissatisfaction with the views expressed in the quotes. I am not one of her constituents so there is no need for her to respond to me. But I am sure if her staff got an number so personal e-mails the message would get through, perhaps CC your own MP so they have something they can raise with her. I would be grateful if anyone reading this who cares about these issues would be kind enough to do the same.

  13. Jenny says:

    Karen @Cycle Sprog – No one should be cycling without a helmet, regardless of how safe their cycling facilities are. It is a misconception that the helmet is there to protect against traffic – it is to protect your skull from injury in the case of any fall. I came off my bike last week, no traffic was involved and I hit my head on the kerb. My helmet saved me from serious injury – perhaps you could reconsider telling your children that in some parts of the world, there are people who don’t care about keeping their heads safe!

    • Interesting. I’ve hit my head while walking. Your logic suggests I should wear a helmet all the time when I’m walking too.

    • I’m really tall. I frequently hit my head hard on low doorways.

    • I hit my head on the way to the loo. Compulsory helmets as part of toilet training, please.

    • I can speak from bitter experiences of myself and my wife that it is most important to wear a helmet when cycling. Whilst no helmet cannot provide 100% protection, they do provide some. One can manage without a limb, but not without a brain.

      It is interesting that that Horse riders wear helmets, and so do motorcyclists, also when working on construction sites, so why not whilst cycling.

      Smug people might mock the idea of wearing a helmet until they themselves have a nasty crash, but if without a helmet then it is too late.

      • Again, why not while walking? Smug people might mock the idea, until they hit their head on a lamppost, or a sign, or a low ceiling or doorframe – then it is too late.

      • inge says:

        Hmmm, many car drivers seem to drive without a brain. As a Dutch person I can tell you it isn’t necessary to wear a helmet if you have an infrastructure that is safe for byciclists and pedestrians. And yes, accidents do happen. Did you know that some years ago a person died because someone committed suicide by jumping of a high building and squashed a pedestrian? Not kidding, it really happened. So, should I recommend everyone, really everyone to wear a helmet everywhere, anywhere.? Now you will think I’m one of those smug people. Well, maybe I am but people like you really anoy me ! You think riding a bike is the same as riding a motorcycle or a horse? The same speed or heigh, perhaps? Do you spend the same energy in fighting for a safer enviroment , safe cycle tracks for children, elderly and disabled people, well for everyone actually.? And not just on little stretches of the road but connected to an entire traffic system . That is what the U.K. needs, not this boring helmet debate!

  14. Greg McNeill says:

    I bumped mine two weeks ago in a swimming pool…

    • Smallpotato says:

      Swimming?!! People drown in pools! Compulsory lifevests in swimming pools please! And on the beach! Heck, you can drown in two inches of water, so compulsory lifevests when walking in the rain (you might faint and land facedown in a puddle of water, after all)

  15. Jenny – Sorry to hear about your accident and glad you didn’t suffer any lasting damage.
    The excellent post that I was commenting on is about the fact that far too many people (including children) do not have the opportunity to cycle safely.
    For most parents, it would make little difference if cycle helmets were suddenly welded onto everyone’s heads, or if aliens came and removed all cycle helmets from the face of the earth over night. If there is no safe route, parents cannot and will not allow their children to cycle.
    Parenting is all about making choices. At the end of my road is an office licence that sells fags and sweets – it would be easy for me to choose to smoke in front of my kids while they tuck into a pack of E numbers. Next door to the off licence is a chip shop so it’s easy for me to choose to give them chips for tea every day. I can choose to drive to my local garage, where there is a DVD library. Easy for me to choose to let my kids watch films all weekend.
    All I want is the choice to allow my kids to cycle about my local area safely. Is that really too much for a parent to ask?

  16. ianmac55 says:

    Not quite right at the beginning. In my experience, as a deputy headteacher of a large comprehensive, when we put in good quality, covered and secure bike spaces for pupils, many more of them cycled each day.

  17. David Bates says:

    Anna Soubry was quoted as saying:

    “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]… ”

    I’ve done supermarket runs for a family of 5 on the way back from work on my bike most days of the week. There are few things that won’t fit into a couple of decent sized panniers. Surely that’s not too difficult to understand?

    • I got this same argument from a councillor in Darlington 5 years ago at a cycling conference. He didn’t seem to realise that food shopping was possible using small town centre shops rather than an out of town supermarket. So failed to make the connection between cycling and High Street renewal. Ho hum.

      • Greg McNeill says:

        I would be prepared to bet that these same councillors claim expenses for meeting after meeting trying to discuss how to save or regenerate: ‘the high-street’. Mary Porter is late on her report to tell us how to save it and I am sure one of her biggest recommendations will be ‘free-carparking’. As in Holland the saviour of the high street is complex but will be in no small part down to the bicycle-pannier which will maintain the small shop as well as the high street mini-market. How about someone out there coming up with a graphic of a pannier and the legend – “this bag saves high streets.”

        In addition it will also save waistlines as obesity is in large part down to car use not as lack of exercise but by exponentially increasing the size of the shop – why would supermarkets encourage regular cycle-use for shopping when it reduces the trolley to a basket?

        (*a Saturday-rant, that was unexpected!*)

      • It is surprising how much shopping one can carry on a bike. We do most of our general shopping (including to supermarkets by bicycle.

        We have cycled in 14 different countries and the UK is by far the worst.

  18. Adam Edwards says:

    If you want a good positive example to show how a school can make cycling possible, see Stanborough School Welwyn Garden City. It has a branch cycle path off one of the two cycle paths from WGC to Hatfield. In consequence they have hundreds of kids cycling in every day. The road outside the school is speed bumped to really slow the traffic. It works! See the cycle path here: http://www.cyclestreets.net/journey/15817620/

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