The unexpected perils of riding to school

In the abstract, cycling to school is a lovely idea. There are about 8 million schoolchildren in England, and about 80 per cent of them live within easy cycling distance of their schools. According to a survey that was published the other week - National Cycle to School Week as it turns out, though I don't remember anybody mentioning it - one-third of children would quite fancy cycling to school if they were given the opportunity: if they all did it, we'd slash carbon emissions, traffic congestion and childhood obesity at a stroke. The same survey included the calculation that parents would save £520m a year if their children cycled instead of being driven.

I don't know the statistics on excuses for children not cycling to school: anecdotally, the answer seems to be fear of cars, which is perfectly understandable. In my experience, though, cars are the least of your worries. Two years ago, I bought my children bikes with the insurance money from the theft of a Brompton, and started getting them to cycle the mile and a quarter to their primary school every morning.

I could easily spend a whole column on the appallingly designed cycling facilities between here and school: cycle paths that feed the cyclist straight into traffic, a junction that crowds cycle lanes, a path that forces cyclists into an S-bend...

Once at school, we had a bike stand in the playground with room for half-a-dozen bikes - overcrowded on sunny days, with no cover on rainy days, and open to small children with inquisitive fingers at playtimes: the bikes came home with gears in need of adjustment, and a bell buggered beyond repair. I don't blame the school, by the way, which lacks money or space to offer much more.

Still, this wasn't the biggest problem: the biggest problem turned out to be other cyclists. One afternoon, a couple of weeks into the experiment, the children were riding home with the childminder. A cyclist who was busy talking on a mobile phone rode into the side of my seven-year-old daughter, damaging the bike and leaving her too scared to cycle to school for months to come.

For a while it was back into the car, until I hit on the idea of telling them that the car had broken down: by the time they'd cottoned on to the lie, they'd got used to the idea of going to school on a Xootr, a heavy-duty folding kick-scooter we mail-ordered from the United States. The Xootr is a pretty good bet: it has comparatively large wheels, much more stable than a micro-scooter on an irregular surface, a single powerful brake, and an all-metal construction that is reassuringly solid. On the down side, after 18 months ours is just about shaken to pieces.

This term, I've finally got No 2 child back on the bike to school; and it's terrific - she loves it, I don't find myself landed with a scooter to carry home (because at my age, you don't ride one of those things unless you've got a child handy to legitimise the loss of dignity), and I get to have a little outing on my own bike. But again - those bloody cyclists. They overtake when there's no room, they ring their bell and expect you to get out of the way, and they make absolutely no allowances for the fact that a child can't see as far or react as quickly.

The stupidest incident took place one morning last week, when daughter and I were doing a right turn, me first, and another cyclist, who was going straight ahead, decided to save a little time by cutting between us. It wasn't especially dangerous - just self-evidently selfish and unnecessary, the action of somebody who couldn't be bothered to slow down for somebody more vulnerable. It has left me rather depressed: two wheels good, I'd always thought. Today I'm not so sure.

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