Let the Mothers ride!

Yesterday was Mother's Day here in the UK, and it got me to thinking about Mums who cycle, and Mums who don't.  There's something about societal pressures which, I think, mean that women who do cycle with their children are still seen as something of a conundrum.  Most people would agree that cycling - and more of it - are a good thing, but there's an association with taking your kid for a ride on the roads; an accusation (in some circles at least) that you are willfully putting your children in danger.  A friend of mine experienced this recently when she was shouted at by a total stranger at traffic lights on a quiet road in Hackney.  As her baby slumbered in the bike seat mounted on her bicycle handlebars, the stranger (a pedestrian) compelled her to literally "think of her children".  Of course, knowing you're in the right and that you're not the source of danger could help to compel you to strike out by bicycle with your children more, but the instant a vehicle comes just a little too close - either through malice or a momentary lapse of attention - all notions of "being in the right" go out the window and you'd be left only with concern for your most precious of cargoes.

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Needless to say I'm not a Mum so I wouldn't want to put words in to the mouths of women everywhere, but I imagine if - as a male cyclist - I sometimes feel a bit like a hard-done-by minority on our roads, then it's even harder for women, and Mums in particular.  Indeed, men make up some 79% of the UK's trips by bicycle and one of the first posts on ibikelondon, back on International Women's Day in 2010, asked "What's stopping women from cycling?"

Here in East London we are starting to see more Mums, children and older women on bicycles as bike use grows from being the sole domain of early adopters to a wider proportion of the population.  But Hackney is just one borough in the whole of London (about which all sorts of exotic ideas abound as to why it is a so-called "cycling paradise") - what about the rest of the city, and what about the rest of the UK?  Within the traditional family unit, men are still more likely to be the primary users of cars and stay-at-home Mums are more likely to be car-free during the day.  By rights (and as in the Netherlands and parts of Denmark) our streets should abound with Mums a-wheel - cycling to school, cycling to the shops, or cycling to meet with friends; but the converse is in fact true.  After the rush of morning commuter cyclists have passed, I imagine being a cycling Mum can be a somewhat solitary experience.

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We know that road danger and fear of danger is a primary obstacle to more cycling, and when you've got your children (or other people's children!) with you it must certainly be the biggest obstacle.  But not wanting to be the first to be seen to be riding with kids, or on "funny" bicycles (cargo bikes), and not having somewhere to store said bikes, and cost of said bikes must also play a role, and about which much more could be done.

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H.G Wells can rest easy; cycle tracks will abound in Utopia if the Mayor and TfL deliver on their bold and exciting ten year cycling strategy.  But it won't be enough to just build cycle tracks on the busiest of roads and make minor roads more accommodating of sharing with cyclists, to stand back when they're finished and hope for the best.  We're going to have to actively encourage people to consider bicycles, and show them that riding a bike can be a viable transport option for them; even if they have two, or three, or more children in tow.  Cargo bike culture will, I think, take even more encouragement.  But encourage we must; an architect friend of mine pointed out the imperative of getting more parents on bikes to me over coffee one day.  He said; "Pity the poor Soccer Mom - she is the ultimate victim of bad design.  Because in suburbia the spaces between A and B are so wide, and the roads between each are so big and fast and full of motorcars, there's no way she'll let her children ride a bike.  Thus, in order to preserve her offspring she is chained to Mum's taxi in order to give her kids the wholesome suburban life she had always dreamed of for them.  Soccer practice, ballet class, after-school club, even play dates at other houses - all must be done by car, with the kids in the back, as the roads grow ever busier, her personal time ever smaller, and all their waistlines wider."

Over the next ten years here in London I think the focus of the boroughs must be not just encouraging commuter cycling and helping TfL to deliver their routes across London, but also thinking about who is moving around their borough during the day, how they are going about these journeys, and how these journeys could be transferred to the bicycle.  It's going to be a lot of work, and will not be an easy task, but the reward for Mums and for families everywhere will be substantial. 

I've met Cycling Super Mums in Taiwan, the Netherlands, France and Denmark - there's nothing about the culture in these countries that make their mothers any less fearless or full of concern for their children than here in the UK.  But where conditions for safe cycling have prevailed, the mothers have followed...

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With recent announcements and cycling news we've started, finally, to move in the right direction, but more perseverance than even before is going to be needed to get to a stage where Mums jump on bikes without a second thought (much in the same way that they might jump in to a car, or on a train, or on a bus today).  The pay-off for families would be huge, of course, but the pay-off for the country as a whole would be even bigger.  With all the changes that are going to be needed at borough level, there's going to have to be an investment  not just by TfL and local authorities, but also by local communities.  If you're a mother who baulks at the idea of taking your kids on a bike in the city, or if you're a father who'd never allow your young family to navigate London atop a bicycle then you're going to have to get involved to help bring about this change yourself - the city that I think we'd probably all like to see just won't happen without the involvement and investment of families.  It may be an uphill ride at first, but it really is time to liberate Mums.  And change, just like charity, begins at home.

Update; 11.30AM 11th March.  There's been a flurry of Twitter activity following up on this blog!  DeadDogBlog has written about her exasperation with being a Mum on a bike, proclaiming that she can't win, and CityExile proudly points out how fabulous her Mum looks on her bike, whilst Richard from TransportParadise thinks that Oxford has cracked itMy experience of Oxford begs to differ, but I'm certainly interested to see what we can learn from the city of dreaming spires.

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14 comments:

Creaky said...

I was thinking about family cycling the other week - that it feels like something to remark on is an indication of the scale of the problem. My blog on it if you're interested:

http://www.codgertation.co.uk/from-a-bygone-era/

Paul M said...

I bought Mrs M a “Dutch” bike (actually German, but you know what I mean) for her birthday a while ago. It lies languishing in the garden shed.

Why? The reasons are quite complex, certainly more than just the perceived danger issue, in fact where we live you couldn’t get a lot quieter routes to the principal places of interest ie shops, friends’ houses, railway station. The topography is a little challenging in places, but by and large you could cycle around most of the town and only have to get off and push up hill for a hundred yards or so here and there. Weather isn’t really it either – we have two spaniels and they have to be walked, every day, whatever the weather, so she is fully kitted out with warm, waterproof clothing. Or laziness – Mrs M could give a Royal Marine Commando a run for his money on “yomping” over the local hills.

There is an element of self-consciousness – do I look ridiculous like this? – and some nervousness about riding at speed, even on a quiet country lane.

Most of it though is I think that it is just too damn easy to use the car. Clearly, the simplicity of the car as an alternative will vary from place to place. It is not going to be all that simple in Hackney, but in Haslemere, with little congestion and relatively easily found parking, there are not really many obstacles. The car is warm and dry, it is safe (or feels it anyway, inside that steel box). You don’t have to interact with people around you. It is quicker – if you can locate a parking space without difficulty and almost instantly, as you can in a small market town on a normal day. You can listen to the radio as you drive.

I don’t hold with the notion that all people need to get them cycling is encouragement, or training. Once conditions are perceptively and actually safer, so such encouragement is no longer (arguably) irresponsible, we will still need not only to encourage cycling, but discourage driving. One very obvious incentive to driving is the availability of parking – car parking simply makes for more traffic congestion – and for this reason I have been joining in a battle at home against a strident lobby group which, in essence, wants to preserve totally unregulated street parking despite the adverse impact this has on the people who actually have to live with it. But in a dense inner city environment there is so much more that can be done. 20mph limits may not encourage more cycling, but arguably they make driving less attractive because relative journey times are impacted. Permeability measures to prevent rat-running, and to force cars to make a roundabout journey where pedestrians and cyclists can make a straight A-B line, also add to the general message to leave your car at home. All of these measures, and more, are used to good effect in the Netherlands and Denmark in addition to cycle tracks. People there don’t actually own fewer cars than we do, they just leave them parked more of the time (which incidentally means that they tend to keep them longer – about 7-8 years on average in Netherlands/Denmark, compared with under 6 in the UK).

We can do the same things, and it appears that one London Borough – Hackney – has been quietly doing that for some time. As Vincent Stops relates in his new blog (http://cycleandwalkhackney.blogspot.co.uk) . No doubt sceptics (hopefully not cynics) will say that it isn’t that great so far, but it is way ahead of other boroughs or most other UK cities. Just take a look at Westminster, surely the worst inner London borough for cycle or pedestrian conditions, with a warren of one-way streets which are impermeable to bicycles, converted into narrow shooting galleries where fast traffic races through narrow spaces past long lines of parked cars. (There it is, parking, again). If we removed all the on-street parking in places like Westminster, retaining the one-way system but using the old parking space for a separated two-way cycle path, now we would be getting somewhere!

ibikelondon said...

Thanks @Creaky for your insights, your blog is really interesting and I think you're quite right that if we, as cyclists, think seeing a family out and about biking is quite unusual then we most certainly have a lot of counter-marketing to do.

@Paul M - your comments are a treat, as always, I really appreciate the time you take to contribute here. I think you are mostly right about your wife's situation and I'm sure she can't be the only one who has a beautiful bicycle tucked away in a forlorn corner of the garage. I think the element of self-conspicuousness is a stronger deterrent (other than fear of traffic and all the rest etc) than is given credit. Where there are very few cyclists it is a really big leap to deliberately make yourself a minority and be the first within your community to be seen "out there" on a bike.

As for conditions on the ground and the subjective experience of cycling that it can create, these I think are well documented. As I mention at the conclusion of my post it is going to take an army of angry Mums to bring about the change that is necessary (that's not to say it can't be done of course, but goodness me we have our work cut out!) As for Westminster, that particular rotten cycling borough is launching its new (its first!) walking and cycling strategy tomorrow night no less (see previous post) - is Westminster ready to unwind its impenetrable cat's cradle of one way streets and create a cyclist's paradise? We shall see.

Anonymous said...

My experience as a cycling father with a bakfiets in the UK was that it would only take one nasty incident on a route for me to discount it, and try to find an alternative. That's all it was - nothing complex, just straightforwards danger. Now the kiddies are a bit older if there's no protected route, I won't attempt the journey by bike. I've cycled around France, Holland, Japan without any bother, but many UK motorists are exceptionally awful twunts, and I wouldn't trust them near children.

Andrea Casalotti said...

Maybe it is because you are in an office all day and you haven't noticed, but London has several hundred mothers who own a cargobike.

Most of them will tell you "I don't know how I can do without".

As a Christiania Dad for ten years with three children, I can assure you that it is one of the best ways to enrich their lives.

ibikelondon said...

@Anonymous I do wonder if, when there are kids in tow, it only takes a little bit of a near-miss to put one off, and understandably so. I think we're probably much more likely to tolerate that kind of peril when it is just us bandying about on our bikes than we are if we've got kids with us.

@Andreas Of course, I should have come to you first before writing this post! If anyone has a good idea for who is out riding cargo bikes in London it's definitely you. :o) Do you have any ideas as to what need to be done to get even more Mums on board,or to get existing Mums in to campaigning for better conditions (in between the school run and all the other demands in their undoubtedly already busy lives?)?

Andrea Casalotti said...

Here is an article with a picture of a typical London Christiania mum:

http://christianiabikesuk.com/2012/12/03/suburban-dream/

The overwhelming reaction when people see a parent taking the children on a tricycle is approval, "What a brilliant idea!"

Why don't we see more parents using them? I would say a. social acceptance and b. fear of theft

In areas, like Shepherd's Bush, where we have sold many, they are becoming common place and more families are buying them.

Christine Jones (Carter) said...

When I lived in London 2000-2005 I was hit by a car turning right, he didn't stop and I had 5 stitches in my head, a broken collar bone and multiple broken ribs. I lost my job because it didn't come with any security and I'd only been there a month. With a couple of weeks painful recovery, I was back looking for work. I couldn't afford to use public transport and was back on my bike with a few repairs within about 6 weeks of the accident. In the following 5 years in London I was hit several times by cars turning left (I just dove onto the pavement and survived to cycle on), twice by Cement Mixers. I don't drive, I hate tubes and buses so I chose to cycle about 100 miles a week around London. I'd sometimes leave home at 6.30am and not get home again until midnight with panniers full of food and changes of clothes. I'm a mum now and have moved to the Fens, not Cambridge and hopefully this summer I will be the first in Ely to be riding a Cargo Bike around the streets as my 6 year old can't always ride his bike and he's getting too big for the trailer. I understand how some women feel safer in a car but every week a young mum gets pulled out of a ditch in an upturned car round here. Driving is terrifying out here and I am committed to getting them to put paths along side the Fen Roads between the villages - it's flat and they are only a couple of miles apart. Families could cycle to school or into Ely. At present the school buses are a hot bed of bullying and germs. So many mums would prefer their kids could ride the couple of miles between their village and the one where their school is.
There's a long way to go but I'm absolutely clear, bike is best, especially for young, old and disabled.

Kathryn said...

Thanks for this post - made me smile. I'm a mum of two and we love cycling. I use a 2nd hand Christiania cargo trike daily (love the fact you called it a "funny" bike) for almost all our local trips when we're not on foot. So handy for the school run on wet days or when transporting tired children, shopping trips (you can get an awful lot of groceries in it - the only problem is that the children start munching before you get home as they can reach the bags!) and lots of other errands. We're not in London (instead in Sussex) and as far as I know we are the only one in our town. Yes I know I'm odd, but I'm willing to be different as I just LOVE cycling so much! My children love it too. I wish I had a quid every time a passer-by or motorist points as us and smiles and a fiver for every time someone calls out "I wish we had one of those" or "Good on you" or "Now THAT's how life should be". I'd be rich.
I'm convinced that drivers are more considerate to me when I'm on the 3 wheeled trike with children inside than when on a 2 wheeled bike - people are always letting the trike go first at junctions and are more willing to accept my primary road positioning. I see myself as a vehicle, just a bit smaller than those big metal boxes around. It's my excuse to eat cake :)

Karen @CycleSprog said...

It's great someone is writing seriously about this topic - thanks! Your post covers many of the challenges facing parents (both Mum's and Dad's) who are responsible for ferrying their kids around day in day out.
Several observations from a Mum of two:
1) cycling with your children is very different to cycling alone. When I've got my boys on board I avoid main roads and will push the bike across junctions I'd cycle across when I'm alone (yes - I'd like not to have to, but that's the reality we live in). I have to cycle a lot slower due to the weight, and our journeys are very much an enjoyable experience, rather than a pure commute to get from home to school as quickly as possible.

2) My personal experience (like Kathryn) is that a lot of drivers (not all) react differently when they see me cycling with my boys - we currently use a front seat and tagalong combo, and before that had a trailer. Generally drivers give me more space, wait until a safer point to overtake or wave me on at junctions. This isn't all drivers, but I'm always shocked when I do get the time to ride my road bike, and find the traffic behaves much more aggressively towards me. This is based on suburban riding in a northern town, not Central London.

3) Family cycling is very much alive and well on off road routes on summer weekends - both in London and outside of London. Our local Sustrans route is packed with families on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and I couldn't move for kids riding their bikes in Kensington Gardens when we visited London on a lovely autumn weekend last year!

4) The press, both general and cycling, is almost exclusively focused on male cyclists. There is very little information out there for parents who already cycle with their families, and even less for those (especially Mums) who would like to start cycling.

Because of this last point, my husband and I have started a website called Cycle Sprog - www.cyclesprog.co.uk - to try and pass on useful information to other parents. We're just building up our advice pages (there's a long way to go!) but it's a great feeling when we hear we've encouraged someone to start cycling with their child.

Ultimately though, if cycling is going to become a transport choice for parents, rather than something that's done away from traffic at weekends, there is a need to ensure that parents and their kids can safely and easily cycle where they need to go. That would involve thousands of schemes to make local journey's (esp to school) safe across towns, villages and suburbs, as well as the high profile schemes in city centres or the long distance off road paths, which seem to get all the attention at the moment.

Emma Copson said...

I cant really add more than what has already been said.

I am just glad people are talking about it.

unless we fight for better infrastructure, it will only ever be the brave and the few that cycle whatsoever, let alone with their off spring.

I cant help think of the point your friend made about soccermom. Most of my friends are helicopter parents, taking them dropping them off, picking them up dropping somewhere else. Their whole life is spent behind the wheel ferrying children around just to give them some sort of childhood, rather than being able to kick them out of the front door to play in the street. consequently we are finding that these children who are driven everywhere have very little roadsense and then when they are expected to get to secondary school independently, they struggle.

http://mancbikemummy.blogspot.co.uk

kailey firmin said...

Hi there!

Due to my car blowing up we have decided that bike is the best way for us as a family!
I have just brought a bsp motherbike (due in a few days) with a front and back seat for my two boys 4yrs and 1yrs.
I live in Hampshire and a little worried as I have always used a trailer before however makes the school run nealy impossible as I can't get near enough to the gate without help!
So for the Dutch motherbike is perfect but the response to it is not the same as I feel! But that filled with danger! I am hoping to help change the views of the locals to a more excepting and less aggressive type! But only time will tell!
Thank you for the boost from this article to make me want to stick with it!!

Bernie said...

Whilst I certainly appreciate the argument that cycling with children could putting them in harm's way there is also the counter point to consider that cycling without children puts their mum in harm's way. And children need their mum.

Hence, in both scenarios children are liable to get badly hurt.

Adam said...

Great blog post.

Before we had a son last year my wife and I used to get around by tandem. She had tried using a single bike a couple of times, but she found the roads around us were too intimidating on her own, whereas when we used the tandem drivers generally gave us a bit more space.

The big problem we had with the tandem though was that all the truly traffic free routes in the area are unusable because they have anti-motorbike obstacles, which make the routes unusable for anything other than a standard bike. (I'm thinking especially of the Fallowfield Loop in Manchester, which Sustrans have done a good job of crippling with these obstacles every half-mile or so.)

Now that we've had a baby a cargo bike should be perfect - except that it too would be impossible to use on the Fallowfield loop and other local cycle routes. It's very frustrating.