Thoughts about The Big Pedal

Sally, our Jesmond branch chair, writes about travelling to school by ‘alternative means’ and talks to a couple of other parents to find out what they think of the behaviour change initiative ‘The Big Pedal’.

Every year since my son started school we have taken part in The Big Pedal. This competition, run in North East schools by the council’s partner Sustrans, challenges families to walk, scoot or cycle to school for three weeks during the spring. This doesn’t mean that we change the way that we as a family travel to school – we already walk or cycle to school everyday.

Lots of people who normally drive to school take part in the event, but when it is over they go back to their cars.

Why is this?

I believe that it is because walking, scooting and cycling to school is at best hard work, and at worst dangerous. We live in what should be a quiet suburban area but it is car dominated and we have to cross many roads, squeezing between parked cars, where there are no crossing facilities. Cars are driven onto and off the pavement as my 7 year old and 4 year old run or cycle along. My son loves to ride his bike to school but it is difficult for him to do this on narrow pavements shared with other families walking the same way with buggies and young children.

I need to ride my bike to keep up with him and I certainly can’t cycle on the pavement – even if it is legitimate, there isn’t room – so both of us have to cycle on the road. You’d think that most people would see a mother and child on the road and would slow down and give them extra room. Sadly, too often they are not patient enough and will pass too fast and close given any opportunity. I have to spend much of the journey shouting instructions to my son to make sure that he doesn’t end up under a car.

The organisers of The Big Pedal put a lot of emphasis on parents being the agents of change. They say: “Parents are often bombarded with advice on keeping their children healthy and while they’re juggling family life with work life, the potential of the school run can easily be overlooked. When children live near to school, changing their journey can transform their health by incorporating a little exercise into their daily routines – before the school bell rings.”

So it is parental laziness that prevents them from cycling and walking to school? Or is it our roads and neighbourhoods that are not designed to enable active travel? I asked two other parents who do walk and cycle what they thought.

One Jesmond parent said:

“That patronising article makes my blood boil, yes I am desperate to go back to school with my son cycling but the traffic has gone worse since our lollipop people have been removed, driving parents behave unreasonably which would not be a problem (for us cyclists) if we had dedicated infrastructure such as cycle paths to cycle to school. Parents do want to cycle to school, but don’t want to risk their children’s lives. When the infrastructure is in place, we’ll be there en masse. Over to the council to show that they mean what they suggest – via Sustrans.”

And another, with children in a different school in another part of the city:

“We do do part of what the article [same link as above] says and regularly scoot to school, as do a lot of other families at our school… playing outside (like I used to do when I was a child) just isn’t safe for young children in my area with the traffic and scooting helps to compensate for this a bit. We also cycle if we are only taking one child to school, as it is possible with one child attached to an adult’s bike, so tandem, trailer bike, bike seat etc, if you use the back streets.

“With two children it is really difficult as then you have an adult with one child on the road trying to keep pace with an older child on the pavement which I find very difficult when you have to coordinate crossing side streets and junctions. A lot of junctions in my area, Gosforth, have very poor lines of sight due to parked cars etc., so cyclists have to inch forward to see if it is safe to turn, which is difficult with a heavy bike with a child on it… lots of drivers are really courteous when they see you walking or cycling with children, but some can be impatient, and I do see drivers on their mobiles or driving faster than the 20 mph limit (even though it isn’t really safer to drive faster than this as there are so many parked cars too). That really scares me as it just takes one driver… the people with the power to change this are the council (who can build cycleways) and the police (who can enforce better driving and parking), yet the emphasis is always on the parents.”

Some final thoughts

It is also worth noting that while The Big Pedal could have asked one of our many cycling celebrities to front the campaign, they have chosen Sharron Davies, a swimmer. Chris Boardman, Olympic gold medallist, parent and British Cycling policy adviser, recently spoke to the BBC about his daughter cycling, and his views are rather different.

He says “I won’t let my daughter ride the 300m it takes to get to our local cycling path. If my family lived just a few hundred miles away, in the Netherlands, things would be very different for my daughter. They have chosen to design physical activity into their daily lives. Half of all kids ride to school and nearly 30% of all journeys are made by bike. Their infrastructure has been designed to prioritise cycling and walking. Every busy road has a wide cycle lane. At junctions there is a separate phase so kids do not have to mix with traffic… It’s not rocket science. Like any mode of transport, if you invest in it and make it an attractive alternative, people will use it.” Source http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29848778

We are fortunate in Newcastle to live in one of the cities which has received money from the government’s Cycle City Ambition Fund. My son’s school is the focus of one of Sustran’s DIY streets projects in the area and we were hopeful that good changes would be made through this. Sadly it seems that Newcastle Council, and our local North Jesmond Councillors whose ward this is (and who, by the way, are all signed up to the Space for Cycling campaign so in theory be supportive of the re-allocation of road space for cycling), are not interested in making significant changes to our streets even if the result is to dramatically increase the safety and comfort of the many families who travel to the three schools on Tankerville Terrace.

They said ‘No’ to closing down the rat-run – apparently the street is a ‘pressure release valve’ which means that if there are problems elsewhere some of the traffic is expected to use this already very busy residential street. They said ‘No’ to trying out a temporary cycle lane on one side of the street, despite the support of the three schools, as this would mean the removal of some relatively little-used paid parking.

So are Newcastle council and Sustrans really serious about getting more people to leave their cars at home? Or are they just going to blame others when it doesn’t happen?

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Newcycling’s offical position is to see a protected cycleway on Tankerville Terrace; and we principally only support promotion initiatives if these are linked to road and route improvements for cycling and walking.

Photo 1 – Imagine yourself cycling (with children perhaps) and a driver turning into your path, as shown below. This is what parents are asked to subject themselves and their children too. Cyclist are asked to face unacceptable risks.

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Photo 2 – Imagine yourself cycling in this situation with a driver facing straight at you. It’s clear what is wrong – driving and cycling must be separated to avoid these conflict situations altogether.

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