Join the chain gang

Very few children cycle to school because of fears about safety and lack of bike sheds. Steve McCormack reports on a campaign to change hearts and minds
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The Independent Online

It might be a little early to announce the end of the motor car, but a campaign to encourage more children to cycle to school has had dramatic effects in the past few weeks. Figures released this month by pressure groups working in schools show that habits can be changed quickly, and at a modest cost.

It might be a little early to announce the end of the motor car, but a campaign to encourage more children to cycle to school has had dramatic effects in the past few weeks. Figures released this month by pressure groups working in schools show that habits can be changed quickly, and at a modest cost.

The problem is all too obvious to anyone near a school entrance at the beginning or end of the day, as parents in cars jockey for position to get as close as possible to the gates. They double-park as a matter of routine, drive up on the kerb, ignore waiting restrictions and get in the way of the school bus. It's chaotic and dangerous.

Gallingly, many have only driven a mile or so from home, a distance much more suitable to be travelled on foot or, even better, on two wheels rather than four.

The arguments supporting cycling are numerous, and many come into the no-brainer category. It's healthier, often quicker than driving, arguably safer, certainly cheaper, and causes little or no congestion and zero pollution.

Despite this, more than four million families drive their children to school every day, often ridiculously short distances. But there's a fight-back under way. Two Wheels Good, Four Wheels Bad is the Orwellian sounding, but wholly benevolent, message from a number of organisations and interest groups who've come together to make cycling to school a more practical option, and, in so doing, persuade more children to resort to two wheels.

The campaign is co-ordinated by the organisation Sustrans, which pushes for a more sustainable use of transport, by encouraging more walking, cycling and use of buses and trains, and less use of private cars. It's supported and funded by the Bicycle Association, which represents manufacturers and retailers, and by the Departments of Transport and Education.

At the heart of the latest push is a pilot scheme called Bike It, which focuses on 40 schools across four different regions: Yorkshire; Bristol; Manchester and the East Midlands. In each area, a Bike It co-ordinator works with schools and local authorities to try to remove the barriers to, and emphasise the benefits of, cycling.

There's already been some remarkable success, none more impressive than that at Crossflatts Primary School in Bingley, West Yorkshire, where the number of pupils coming to school by bike has risen tenfold, from just four a few months ago to about 40.

A key figure in the transformation has been Isobel Roberts, a teacher of five- and six-year-olds and the officially designated School Cycling Champion, a position in which her most visible role is to lead by example. She cycles about half a mile to and from school every day, something she started last Easter as a "fitness thing", but has continued for wider reasons.

"I feel better and really look forward to the journeys," she says. "On my way home, it's a great way to unwind."

She's also been prominent in encouraging children to cycle, congratulating them when she sees a new bike appearing in the racks, and educating them about bonuses such as the safety benefits.

"If we can get these children used to riding bikes, it's been proved that they will be safer on the roads later in life when they start driving," she says.

Crossflatts School is close to a canal tow path, but until recently there was no link between the canal and the school site. The Bike It campaign identified this as a key obstacle, and, using a number of sources of public money - at a cost of £15,000 - built a new path from the school to the canal. It's now used by a large proportion of the children, with their parents, in the mornings and afternoons.

"What a lovely way to come to school," says the head teacher, Hilary Craven, who's been delighted at the overall effect the increased cycling has had on the atmosphere in the school. The surge in cycling also confirms suspicions that the children were champing at the bit to travel to school in the fresh air, rather than in the back of a car.

"There's more to see and less pollution along the cycle path," 10-year-old Bethany tells me, while James, 11, chimes: "It's faster and it makes me healthy and fitter for cricket," and Ricky, 10, just thought cycling was "safer and better".

There are two main factors behind parental resistance to the idea of cycling: is it safe and is there anywhere secure for the bike to be stored during the school day?

Numerous schools at present ban cycling because they say there's nowhere for the bikes to be kept. Clearly, unless there are racks or sheds on site, preferably in a place open to view, nothing will happen. The Bike It co-ordinators are helping schools find the local authority money available to solve the storage problem.

The safety issue is more difficult.

"It is the perception of the danger of riding that is stopping mums and dads from letting their kids cycle," says Phillip Darnton, the head of the National Cycling Strategy Board, and president of the Bicycle Association. A watertight statistical comparison between cycling and driving to school, he argues, does not exist, and it would be wrong to pretend that cyclists are never involved in accidents. He does, though, confidently stress one point: "The more people that cycle, the safer it gets. You do not see accidents rise proportionately."

And a key element of the Bike It campaign is to help identify routes to schools that avoid busy roads as much as possible. But the campaign has also come across what appears to be a disappearing awareness of cycling as even a potential means of transport in some communities.

"It's often that cycling is just forgotten," says Vicky Hill, the Bike It co-ordinator in Bingley. "Even in places where it's perfectly suitable for children to cycle to school, it just wasn't occurring."

Buoyed by the success of the pilots, the Sustrans' director of Safe Routes to Schools, Paul Osborne, has an ambitious aim - to raise the proportion of children who cycle to school from the minuscule level of one per cent, to at least 10 per cent, and maybe even 20.

"Those are the sorts of numbers to re-activate a cycling culture, which has just disappeared in some areas," he says.

Much of mainland Europe is way ahead of the UK. In Germany, 18 per cent of school students cycle to school, while in Denmark the figure is an impressive 50 per cent.

The age group that traditionally cycles most is 13-year-olds, teenagers who've achieved a degree of independence without having acquired too much self-consciousness of what is and what isn't "cool". So, secondary schools will also be key to the success of the project.

The Bike It co-ordinator based in Bristol is Katherine Rooney. She has established a bridgehead of enthusiasm at Ashton Park comprehensive in the city, where the bike sheds were largely empty before her intervention.

She became aware that one obstacle was a view among younger pupils that the sheds could be an intimidating place to go and where bicycles were prone to minor vandalism.

But after taking a series of new Year 7 groups (11-year-olds) to the bike sheds for mini-assemblies at the beginning of term, and bringing the pupils' concerns to the attention of senior staff, she was able to change hearts and minds.

"At the start of the week when I did this, there were no Year 7s cycling to school at all," she says. "But by the end of the week 21 of them had come to school on their bike for the first time."

The four pilots will run until the end of the school year, by which time the cycling culture should be firmly entrenched in the lives of the 40 targeted schools.

But continued funding for an expansion is still in doubt. It would be difficult, though, to find a cause that more neatly encapsulated so many public concerns and Government objectives: improving child and teenage health, and reducing congestion, pollution and road accidents.

And teachers will testify that kids who've had some physical exercise on their way to school are less likely to be fidgety or distracted when they arrive in the classroom.


1. Provide secure and safe storage for bikes on site

2. Identify and publicise safe routes to school

3. Involve and inform pupils and parents

4. Appoint a School Cycling Champion to extol the benefits of cycling and address any fears

5. Develop ways of providing cycle training, inside or outside the curriculum

Advice on funding and further information is available from your local school travel adviser (every LEA should have one) and from Sustrans (www.