Josie Dew - why we love cycling to school
Josie Dew - why we love cycling to school
For many parents the school run is a bind and a bore. For many of these school run parents it means sitting in a daily traffic jam getting nowhere fast. In this sort of sealed-in environment tempers can fray, children can explode.
I’ve now been doing the school run every day by bike for over 7 years. It’s one of the highlights of my day. I’m outside, on my bike, with my small assortment of off-spring. My eldest daughter Molly started school 2 days after her 4th birthday in September 2010 and we travelled there and back by bicycle. And we continued in the same vein, though with different bikes, adaptations and contraptions, for the next 7 years.
School run fun
For the first few weeks of the school run Molly went in a bike trailer (a Burley d’Lite), but she soon progressed onto a tag-along (a one-wheeled bike with a long trunk-of-a-tube that attached to the seat pillar of my bike allowing Molly to simultaneously pedal and be towed), a FollowMe (a sturdy cycle hitch which joined her bike to my bike meaning that she could ride her own bike on the quieter stretches then hitch up to me for the busier bits). As she got older Molly mostly just rode her own bike (an Islabikes Cnoc) - though if the weather was icy or snowy or biblical rain I put her in the big bulbous bathtub-of-a-box on my Nihola cargo-carrying trike. As time progressed and I gave birth to 2 more potential cyclists a Circe Helios tandem (pulling a trailer with younger offspring) joined my fleet of school run bikes as did a Circe Helios Triplet (with 2 girls pedalling and the youngest, Jack, in the trailer). On several occasions we even did it by wheelbarrow.
To here, there and beyond
The school is a small village primary school 2.5 miles from home which meant Molly cycled 5 miles a day or 25 miles a week on the school run. If we went cycling after school to visit a friend or Gran and Grandad then this added quite a few more miles to her weekly school run total. I kept a note of the miles that Molly cycled to school and back which amounted to 7470 – or the equivalent of cycling from home to South Africa or home to Singapore or from Panama to Tierra Del Fuego.
As I had to cycle home again after dropping Molly off at school before riding to school again in the afternoon I cycled twice as far – the equivalent of riding from home to Australia and back – although when I added in the extra journeys I rode to drop and pick-up my younger daughter and son from a pre-school at the village hall, or to do various other school-based activities it amounted to the equivalent of cycling (or pedalo-ing over the wet bits) around the circumference of Earth at the equator - 25,000 miles.
If during Molly’s 7 years at primary school we hadn’t cycled there we would have driven in our old banger of a camper van – my first (and only) vehicle which I bought when Molly was 1 and which is still in operational order. I would have covered a weekly distance on the school run of 50 miles, plus all the added extra miles of visiting school friends etc. Taking into account the expense of fuel, insurance, tax and maintenance for the camper to cover this school run distance it would have cost £30 per week or £120 per month or £1200 per school year. So just by cycling to school and back for 7 years we saved £8,400. £8,400 can buy a lot of spare inner tubes. Luckily I’ve rarely had a puncture on the school run (mostly only in hedge-cutting season when tractors fire lethal spikes of hawthorn as sharp as tacks all over the road) but with the saved £8,400 we could have bought around 2800 inner tubes to keep us happily riding in pneumatic comfort for several life times over.
To cycle or not to cycle
There are a hundred children at our village primary school and in the 7-and-a-bit years that I’ve been cycling there and back we have been the only ones who cycle to school year round in all weathers. Occasionally a child has turned up on their bikes with a parent, but sadly it’s always short lived. "I would love to do it", some of the parents say to me, "but the roads are too dangerous." (This is often said by a parent driving too fast through the lanes while on their phone with their children in the vehicle, which makes them 4 times more likely to have a crash).
"But if you cycle," I say, "you’re making the roads safer for all of us and then more people might cycle which makes it even safer!"
Others say they would cycle if they could but they have to drive on to work. I’m self-employed and work from home so for me it’s easy.
Some children see us turning up on our bike everyday and say to me: "Don’t you have a car?", when I reply that I have a camper van they ask "Why don’t you drive then?". I always say "Because cycling to school is much more fun than sitting in a car!’
Cycling my merry mob to school takes time and effort. I have a camper van parked out the front and it would be much easier (though no quicker in journey time taking into account the queue of traffic waiting up at the school) to just throw my brood half-dressed into the van and motor off. But I don’t do it because it’s against my principals! I don’t want to be another vehicle on the roads for a distance that is so easy to cover by bike (I only drive once a week at most for a journey with children that I can’t do by bike due to distance, a traffic-clogged A-road and a time constraint to be there). I cycle to school because it’s fun, it’s free and I want my children to do some exercise and get fresh air before being shut up in a usually stuffy, window-closed school.
I cycle to school because it’s fun, it’s free and I want my children to do some exercise and get fresh air before being shut up in a usually stuffy, window-closed school.
Josie Dew, Cycling UK's Vice President
State primary schools don’t do much sport. Ours do PE once a week and if it’s raining they are not allowed outside, (you’ve got to be careful with rain - children might dissolve). I want my children to have fresh air and exercise every day. It’s good for them. Cycling to school gives them rosy cheeks and blows away the cobwebs. It clears their heads and lightens their moods. I think the health and happy-making benefits of cycling to school far outweigh the risks.
Then and now
Molly recently started at secondary school (she travels there by bus along a busy A-road) but the cycling school run continues with Daisy (7) and Jack (4). As I’ve lived in this village all my life (that is, apart from the years I’ve spent cycling around the world), I know all the roads and narrow lanes and dips and bends and drain covers well. When I was Daisy’s age I was cycling most of the lanes around here by myself. When I was 11 I rode to secondary school and back every day in all weathers – 10 miles there, 10 miles back plus often an added 20 or more miles for fun.
I live in a valley and the roads around here in my younger years were quiet and rural (most farms were still real farms and I would invariably come across a herd of cows ambling up the lane to get milked and when a vehicle did come along it tended to pass slowly and carefully and with respect. Not so today! Vehicles are much bigger and wider and faster (since the seventies, cars are on average a foot wider and a ton heavier) and more often than not drivers are rushing and racing and talking and texting on their mobile phones and have little patience for cyclists – even very young ones at that.
That’s not to say there aren’t any good drivers - there are plenty who pass slowly giving as much space between them and us as possible. And they often wave and toot-toot at our cycling road train (which with the Circe Triplet plus trailer is 14-foot long – as long as a Range Rover). But far too many drivers don’t drive, they charge, often splashing us with dirty water from puddles and mud from verges as they steam past. Then there are those who seem to think nothing about overtaking on blind corners or slowing for horses and speeding up for us. Arghhhh! It’s very frustrating! So much so that I have on occasion tracked down drivers who are particularly dangerous and thoughtless. Sometimes the police have got involved with surprisingly positive results.
Going round the bend
One morning a woman in a big Toyota Landcruiser 4x4 overtook my trike-like long-vehicle on a blind bend on the opposite side of the road, driving on the right as if she was in France, and then, just as she was alongside, seemed very surprised when she found a car coming directly towards her. In her panic to get out of the way of the car she swerved towards me, missing me by the breadth of a brake cable and forcing the other car to veer up onto the verge before coming to a complete standstill. As for Mrs Landcruiser: she just revved off up the road in a cloud of diesel. But I knew where she lived. I had never talked to her before as she had recently moved to the village but I had often witnessed her driving around the lanes like a banshee possessed. Now, I thought, was a good opportunity to introduce myself!
Pre-children I would most likely have just fired off a barrage of colourful lingo in her wake and let the incident go. But if there’s something that pushes my heckles up to bursting point it’s drivers who show complete disregard for the safety of a child on a bike. I knew Mrs Landcruiser would probably hate me forever for tackling her on her driving but if it saved my children or the life of another cyclist and made her think twice about overtaking bikes on bends then it was worth it. So I rode directly to her house, trotted up her crunchy gravel drive with a yappy dog attacking my heels and knocked on the door. When she answered she didn’t look too pleased to see me.
"Morning!" I said cheerfully as it’s important to keep the pleasantries pleasant at the start. "I’m the cyclist you nearly knocked off when trying to overtake near the school half an hour ago. I’ve just come to say please don’t overtake cyclists on blind corners!"
"It was perfectly safe" she said curtly.
"No it wasn’t" I replied. "You nearly hit me and you forced the oncoming car off the road!"
"Well, there was nowhere else for me to go!" she said.
"But you’ve got brakes!" I said. You could have slowed up behind me and then overtaken me about 4 seconds later when you could see if it was all clear around the bend.’
Then she slammed the door in my face. But, she never overtook me again on a corner. And she always passed a lot more carefully. We’ve never spoken since and for a long time she looked as if she hated me with an almost scary intensity – especially when I gave her a cheery wave as she drove. Yes, yes I know how to annoy, but you’ve got to try and break an icy glare somehow. Good news! In the last couple of years her frostiness has thawed and whenever she drives towards me she waves to me and I wave to her. So a sort of road-peace has been reached.
From fraught to fun
The build-up to the school run can be a bit fraught and a race against time – chasing after children who don’t want to get dressed, getting a sturdy breakfast down them, grabbing lunch boxes and reading folders and show-and-tells and, in the case of having a young one, breastfeeding and nappy-changing. Then there’s the putting on of all the cycling paraphernalia. The helmets, the gloves the coats, the hi-viz jackets and, in rainy or very muddy conditions, the waterproof trousers and wellies. Wintry weather takes even longer as extra pairs of socks and coats are needed, plus neck warmers and balaclavas . And if I have 'live' cargo in the trailer or trike box they need a hot water bottle and blankets to warm their cockles.
Once we’ve finally piled out of the door riding off on the bikes is suddenly calming and lovely. We have sing-songs and silly rhymes, learn spellings and times tables, or just sit in lovely silence as we cycle along. We see amazing skies and interesting animals and insects and birds – from deer to owls, kingfishers to snakes, badgers to buzzards, frogs to red kites. We experience a wild assortment of weather - sun, snow, wind, hail, rain, gales. Every so often one of my mob will emit the occasional observance of nature: "looks like rain, Mummy", "bit windy", "nice clouds", "lots of slugs on the road this morning" and of course "sheep!".
Keen to ride
Getting children up and ready for school in the mornings is not the easiest thing in the world - they can all charge off in different directions from the one you want them in; you put clothes on the younger ones, they pull them off again; one sibling may attack another sibling then the other joins in and it’s like a scene out of The Beano (WHAM! BASH! CRASH! WALLOP! WAAAHH!). Then after breakfast (hefty 3-course affairs - being a cyclist I believe in food that fuels) I have to pin the rowdy herd down and steer them towards the door for multiple dressing. Then there are the bikes and trikes and cycling contraptions to un-tether from the shed. It all takes an enormous amount of time, energy and effort so to do it every day, so it helps to be keen on bikes.
Many of the children at school tell me they would love to cycle there and back if they could. They love the various bikes and trikes and weird machines that I turn up on. They think they are ‘cool’. They think Daisy and Jack are ‘cool’ for coming to school on these weird and wonderful contraptions. I give children rides in them (and on them) around the playground and they hoot and cackle with laughter. I take Daisy and Jack’s playmates home on bikes and trikes and tandems for playdates and they love them. I take my cargo trike to school fairs to give rides to children which raises money for school. With the money I’ve raised for the school from giving bike talks and bike rides I buy balance bikes and cycle-training and sports equipment for the children. I love seeing children on bikes or charging about outside. Often I dream about the lanes being full of children and parents cycling to school and beyond. I want bikes not cars on the roads. But I can’t change the lives and jobs of parents when they don’t want to change them themselves. I live in England, a country not famous for its cycling infrastructure. In the Netherlands most school children cycle to school. Here, in comparison, practically none do. We need the Netherlands cycling culture plonked on top of us. We need politicians with bike heads. We need motorists to change their mindset from seeing a cyclist as a nuisance to something you drive past with consideration and respect. Like they do in Holland.
Meanwhile, the more of us who cycle, the safer it gets.