Little signs of hope: family cycling in East London
"There's a baby in there, right? Stop cycling with your baby in that f**king chair!" he shouted out the window of his sports car as I cycled (actually without a baby on this occasion) down a quiet street on my way home from work a few weeks ago.
I've been sworn at a few times over the years for cycling. "F**king weirdo" was another nice one I had whilst on my way to work one morning in suburban Birmingham. Just because cycling was a bit, err, unusual from what I can gather (either that or my fluorescent tabard!). I didn't quite catch which expletive I inspired from another motorist who sped across my path at some traffic lights one day. Apparently enraged at even the slighted suggestion that I might want exercise my right of way at the junction. I felt wronged for the rest of my journey - I almost wished I had jumped a red light to justify such as outburst!
My experience a few weeks back reminded me of two things. Firstly that cycling with a family in tow is rare. I cycle around in my East London bubble feeling like I'm quite normal (for my cycling behaviour at least!). I frequently see other cyclists with rear mounted child bike seats like ours. I'd say there are usually 5 or 6 families at our childrens' nursery using them most days - more than 10%. Increasingly I'm seeing a range of other set ups for more than one child. Pics of three of the bikes I've spotted recently are below - one day I'll get a picture of the semi-recumbant tandem with an extra rear-mounted seat (!) that I've seen on my way to work a few times. It makes sense really. Apparently I live in the place with the most people regularly cycling to work in the country…people who are also referred to as the 'three-wheeled buggy brigade'. Plenty of cyclists, plenty of small children and hey presto a burgeoning family cycling scene.
Secondly the outburst reminded me that, actually, cycling in London, particularly with a family is far from ideal. However offensive the comment from the sports car driver, it was motivated by concern for my child's safety - arguably an understandable reaction. Plenty of people, particularly those from outside London who haven't become accustomed to the hoards of commuting cyclists, look aghast at the idea of cycling in London without children in tow. There are plenty of places I won't cycle with my children. I didn't, for example, take our bike trailer on a theatre trip a few weeks back, despite an annoying part closure of our local train line, because I didn't know the route well enough to be comfortable that it was safe.
But I still have hope. Cycling is becoming more normal, less weirdo-like behaviour. Yes, we need more space for family cycling in cities and yes, some people are always going to think this is crazy idea. But I take hope from seeing lots of families enjoying cycling around the streets of Hackney. I take hope from seeing lots of people experimenting with different family bikes, and I'm sure inspiring others to do the same. I get quite a lot of interest in our bike trailer from other parents and saw someone with the same model taking what appeared to be an inaugural spin around or local park the other day. And I take hope from the local cycle routes that I love. There are some great routes from my home to parks, to fun activities for kids and to shopping destinations all through quiet streets and off-road cycle paths. Without these family friendly cycle routes I would not have been lucky enough to spend most of last summer cycling around listening to my children singing songs in a trailer behind me.
Family cycling in London, and other cities, can work if we get out of the mind set of thinking it's crazy. We need to start helping people find routes that do work for families and create a lot more so we can safely explore a bit further afield! I guess I should play my part in that by finding time to blog a bit more!
Recent Saharan dust (and…ahem…transport pollution) debacle reminds me of the hopeless lack of ambition our government seems to have when it comes to rethinking how we get about our cities and protecting the health of a generation of children. I have to take hope that people can lead where the government is failing to and show that there is another way.
If you're unhappy that the government thinks 2025 is an appropriate date to meet EU air quality standards in London you can send a message to the government via 38 degrees campaigning website.
You could also add your voice to Healthy Air UK campaign and support the brilliant London Cycle Campaign as they keep the pressure on government to create more #spaceforcycling.