Children and cycling: It's a wheel shame

Philip Thornton would love his children to cycle to school. But it's a risk he is simply not prepared to take
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I ride a bike and I have kids. So what could possibly make more sense than strapping one on to my bicycle, putting the other on his Raleigh and taking them to their schools before heading into work? Well to be frank, just about anything. I live in London and both my own experience, and my random observations of other parental cyclists, tells me that cycling in the capital with children is madness.

The attitude of other drivers, the layout of the roads and the lack of special provision make it an unappealing environment in which to transport or steward your most precious assets. Of course, it needn't be that way, but until we adopt more continental - or even more Stateside - attitudes that's the way it will stay for me.

My seven-year-old child goes to a school that is just a stone's throw from our home, so that's not a biking issue. If he wants to he can ride to school, although the fact that the two places are divided by a key "rat-run" into central London means that he can only ride on the pavement, and that is prone to pitfalls. On one occasion, he was biking along the pavement when the wife of the school caretaker rushed out in a hurry to catch a bus, tripped over him and ended up sprawled on the road with a cut face and covered in blood. He was mortified and he hasn't ridden in since.

So that leaves the one-mile journey to take my three-year-old to his nursery. It's a simple journey: one left turn, straight over a traffic light-controlled crossroads until a crafty left-turn draws you into the quiet back streets of Gospel Oak. I have done it a few times but the stress associated with competing with time-challenged commuters and taxi drivers is too much. Thankfully, there is a bike lane for some of the way but I can never forget that bike helmets would probably not be much of a defence against a 40-ton truck.

I sometimes see people on a bike with a child in a sort of mini tow-truck but have decided that, until proper lanes are installed, this is close to attempted manslaughter. In a potential road traffic accident, there is little the biker could do to ensure they got their precious treasure out of the way. I have a very good friend who used to bike two-plus miles uphill to take two successive children to their primary school. Every day I would see him cycling along the pavement on his sit-up-and-beg bike with his son/daughter balanced on the handlebars. Neither wore a helmet. I once plucked up the courage to take this up with him. A few days later I spotted them. He was wearing a helmet; she wasn't.

I break no new ground to say that the authorities could make life easier for cyclists of all descriptions - albeit at some cost to the taxpayer and the motorist. More than seven out of 10 Europeans think bicycles should benefit from preferential treatment compared to cars.

To my knowledge there is currently one kerbed cycle track in the London Borough of Camden. It is a joy to bike down, causes no problems for traffic and could be extended to other parts of the network. There are many other ideas, such as filter traffic lights for cyclists that would encourage people such as myself to cycle with children. Research for the European Commission found that half of schoolchildren said that their preferred method of transport to school would be by bike.

But there is a massive upside to having a growing child and a few bikes in the shed. I have got hold of an American contraption that you can strap on to the boot of your car that allows you to take a few bikes for a long-distance trip. I followed the instructions and headed off with two bikes and the then six- year-old to Whitewebbs Park in Enfield, north London. It was a complete joy to bike through the wood for a well-deserved fry-up at a café at the other end of the wood frequented by émigré Cockneys from the outer north London suburbs.

Being a parent should open up whole new possibilities for biking but, sadly, the streets of inner London currently make that impossible.

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