Image from Get Cycling Disability
So why did these inspiring stories make me depressed?
Last Friday I watched part of the BBC’s “Children in Need” charity marathon. One of the many great stories was about a seriously disabled boy who had been helped by a specially adapted tricycle and there was a happy video of him out cycling with his pals. His family were thrilled that he was being physically active and enjoying the outdoors with other children.
Children in Need support several charities doing this work including Power Please Trust in Wolverhampton, Pedal Power in Cardiff, Tameside Titans in greater Manchester and Achieve Potentials in Hull. So why was I depressed by all this?
It’s simple. In Britain the great majority of children are denied the freedom to get out in the open air and have physical fun with their friends because our myopic, car-obsessed culture has created a traffic monster. Parents have become so scared that they will not let youngsters out on their own, they drive them to school even though the distance would be an easy walk or cycle ride.
If they want to use their shiny Christmas bikes it usually involves driving miles to an off-road leisure cycling trail on the occasional Sunday if the weather is OK. Those disabled kids with their adapted trikes are stuck in the same trap.
When I was a boy in the 1950s we used to run, cycle or scoot to the nearby park to dam the stream or play cowboys and indians, if we had more time we would walk about a mile up the road and head out across the moors or down into the woods. When I was seven I used to walk to the main road and catch the bus to school on my own and my mother was happy to send me to the local shops.
Most importantly I and my friends could go off mucking about for as long as we liked and our parents were perfectly relaxed. Some of my best memories are of wandering home from choir practice on a summer evening with a couple of friends, just messing about.
It’s a commonplace that most families in Britain today prefer their kids to stay safe at home, even though they understand very well that they need the social and physical growth that comes with “playing out”. Who can blame them with the torrent of traffic at the end of the street, especially now that the roads are just as jammed at weekends. What’s really sad is that other countries have solved this problem while our politicians are stuck in a 1960s timewarp.
UNICEF have a method of rating childrens’ wellbeing and consistently it shows that some countries are way ahead of the rest of us and the UK doesn’t do well. What is striking about this list is that the comparable countries at the top are also tend to have the best environment for cycling, where young people are free to travel around on their own by bike. The Netherlands is consistently at the top and it’s pretty clear that the physical and social freedom of children there is hugely ahead of most countries, with children from the age of seven or eight being able to go where they want, on their own.
I had a vivid illustration of this a few years back while cycling in the Dutch city of Delft during the morning rush hour. There’s a broad cycle track around the ancient city centre (of course you can ride through the city as well) and ahead of me were three kids on their way to school, a small boy and his bigger sisters. All three were tearing along at a terrific rate, showing their fitness, but the little boy in particular was taking advantage of every little side track and deviation to add interest to his route and pulling a few stunts as well.
In Britain this sort of high-spirited behaviour would probably be condemned as threatening to pedestrians, partly because kids have nowhere to muck about on their bikes away from pedestrians. Back in Sheffield around that time I remember seeing a mother shuttling her two kids to nursery, strapped in the back of the family car in front of individual video screens. In Delft those kids would have gone to nursery on the backs of their parent’s bikes. Habits start young.
If you want to see this in action have a look at the View from the Cycle Path blog or the Campaign for Childhood Freedom website, run by a British couple who moved to the Netherlands to give their children a better start in life. Here in Sheffield the local newspaper has published a great article by Matt Turner of Cycle Sheffield asking us all to reclaim childrens’ freedom.
There are a lot of debates about cycling, often polarising around conflict between adult cyclists and adult motorists, maybe it’s time to remember the huge number of young people who are being denied a proper childhood full of physical and social development while we squabble.