Four pm on a busy road in Bedford and cars are sitting bumper to bumper. It's a scene played out in urban centres across England each morning and evening, as adults drive in and out of work, and children get ferried to and from school. One in five of these cars is doing trips of less than two miles.
Just off this main artery, which runs out towards the Bedford suburb of Biddenham, is St Gregory's RC Middle School. It is here that Jason Falconer is leading a group of seven young cyclists on the playground – and leading the fight against the gridlock at the end of the road.
Falconer is the Bike It officer for Bedford, Luton and St Albans and he is on the front line in the battle to get our children cycling. Every day he boards a train with his folding bicycle to visit schools in the three cities to promote cycling. This can involve anything from "Dr Bike" sessions, where he helps children service their bikes, to Bikeability classes – cycling proficiency for the 21st century (see box) – and even classroom lessons covering health, geography and history.
"I'm 37 now," says Falconer, "but when I was at school, cycling and walking were absolutely the norm. In fact, if one of your mates was dropped off in the car, especially at Year 7 in secondary school, you'd be like, 'aaaagh!' – they would be shamed because, why are they getting dropped off? Can't they make their own way around? But it's reversed a bit hasn't it?"
From being the norm a generation ago, cycling is now seen as a lost art. Less than 1 per cent of the distance travelled on British roads is done by bike, down from around a third in the 1940s and Fifties. On average, only 2 per cent of children cycle to school; some put the figure even lower.
But the rot is about to be stopped if the Government gets its way. In January this year, £140m was pledged by Ruth Kelly, Transport Secretary, to be channelled through the co-ordinating body Cycling England, over three years. Of this money, £55m will go towards cycling in schools. This will cover the costs of training cycling instructors up to the national standard; promoting sports partnership schemes such as Go-Ride, run by British Cycling; and paying the equivalent of £40 a child over three years for schools and local authorities to get children up to Bikeability Level 2, which says they are safe to use their bikes on the roads.
Cycling has of late been establishing more of a presence in the national transport budget. Since 2005, six UK towns have been showcasing what local authorities can do with funding (£500,000). Last week, 11 new demonstration towns were announced, including cycle-mad Cambridge and Falconer's home town of Blackpool, while Bristol was unveiled as Britain's first "cycling city". And, most importantly for schools, each new flagship town will get a Bike It officer, showing just how respected this scheme is.
"This has been a fantastically successful programme," says Phillip Darnton of Cycling England. Bike It schools have routinely been quadrupling the number of children regularly cycling to school. In Aylesbury, one of the previous wave of demonstration towns, the percentage of children cycling to Bike It schools increased from 3 per cent to 12 per cent in a year. Twelve per cent might not seem a lot, but Darnton is stoical.
"We're not talking about being able to get every school pupil cycling to school come rain or shine every day," he says. "But if we get just 20 children cycling in a school, it becomes an OK thing to do. It's about that critical mass. If we could get 5 per cent of trips to school done on bicycles we would have transformed the traffic in most cities."
Bike It is run by the sustainable transport charity Sustrans, which tries to help pupils overcome whatever it is that prevents them from cycling to school.
More often not, this is a combination of three things: concerns over bike parking, lack of knowledge about safe routes to school, and fears over road safety.
"Parents need to have their concerns addressed," says Falconer. "Children need to see how fun and easy it is to use the bike for school journeys. We don't go in and say, 'Right, you can go and ride on the nearest road available.' We very much look at the circumstances of the school, and always are looking for the best routes, the best paths."
To help in this, Falconer often teaches cycling-related lessons during school hours – all as part of the curriculum. He does map-reading sessions for geography where children find the best cycling routes to school – he's a trained orienteering coach. He does personal, social and health education (PSHE), in which he tests the heart rates of children, simulating driving, walking and cycling. He does design and technology where the class studies the bicycle. And he delivers history lessons, too, including on the Victorians and how the bicycle helped in the fight for women's suffrage.
All this helps to give children a grounding in cycling culture, not bike safety, pure and simple. "It makes you fit and if you fall off, you just get on again and laugh about it!" says Molly Robertson, 12, who is in Year 7 at St Gregory's. "In the future, people might not have a planet like ours is now – it'll be really warm and trees and plants will die. Cycling's good because it doesn't use any petrol or fossil fuels."
But however much the children get the message, the general consensus is that it's the parents who need convincing. How else can you explain Cycling England surveys that suggest that as many as half of nine to 12-year-olds would like to cycle to school, but nothing like that proportion actually do?
"I don't feel I'm fighting a losing battle, but I think there is a lot of ground to be won," says Barbara North, who is deputy head of St Gregory's and responsible for the healthy schools agenda. "I think that children take the example from the people that they're with most of the time – their families – and I think you would find very few of their families would actually go out cycling together."
It's here that Bike It can really make a difference and it offers Sustrans a unique forum to spread the word to parents and children. "Schools are a very important place to work because, at the school gates, you've got an opportunity to communicate with parents and kids at the same time," says Paul Osborne, director of school travel for Sustrans. "It's a captive audience."
The ultimate aim for Bike It schools is the creation of a sustainable cycling culture. But really, it comes down to simply getting children cycling to school.
"We say to parents and children, 'You could cycle to school,' and they say, 'Ah, but'," adds Darnton. "We wanted to remove all the 'Ah, buts' and that's what the Bike It officers do. And, hopefully, all that's left will be 'OK, go on then.'"
To find out more about the Bike It project, visit www.sustrans.org.uk/bikeit or call 0117 915 0100
Cycling Proficiency to Bikeability: the history of cycling in schools
Cycling organisations first began pressing for cycle training on the school curriculum in the 1930s. But it wasn't until 1958 that the National Cycling Proficiency Scheme was introduced by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA).
The programme was led by volunteers – teachers, policemen, road safety officers, pensioners – and taught bicycle control skills, largely in the playground, and largely by rote. The aim was to raise awareness of the Highway Code and highlight the dangers involved in cycling. In 1974, local authorities became responsible for cycle training for children. Some local authorities scrapped cycle training, others carried on with their own schemes, some stuck with a little bit of cycling proficiency.
By the millennium, cycling proficiency varied massively. Cycle Training UK led the review that produced, for the first time, a national standard. Bikeability is now the national standard scheme for the training of children on bikes.
Rather than warning of the dangers, Bikeablitiy aims to enourage cycling to school. It tries to teach children in real conditions about road positioning, communication and route planning. Level 1 deals with control – starting off, emergency stops and using gears; level 2 deals with simple road journeys; and level 3 is for roundabouts, multiple-lane roads and traffic lights.
It is taught by dedicated cycling instructors trained to a professional standard, such as Bike It officers.
It aims at a more practical, flexible style of teaching and encourages assertive behaviour on the roads.
Cycling England wants every child in England to have had the opportunity to do Bikeability to level 2 by 2012.