Header photo: Rachel Keatinge
Four years ago, on the eve of my son’s second birthday, I started this blog to document my crash landing into parenthood and thank those who helped me survive the impact.
Our tiny premature baby has grown and thrived and, although cycling isn’t everything*, he learned to pedal just after his third birthday, cycle toured the Netherlands before he was four and was mansplaining adequate breaking technique to me at five. He has distributed hundreds of Pedal on Parliament leaflets, handed #walkcyclevote postcards over the least receptive looking people in two elections campaigns and been my inspiration to keep campaigning when it felt like we were getting nowhere.
The world has been chaotic, confusing and often downright depressing over the last few years. But throughout that there has also been joy, learning, growth and excitement too. Here’s just a few of things I’ve discovered with my son over the last four years:
Cycling is child’s play
Want to get me raging? Just tell me about a great initiative that makes children more active but don’t follow it up with a comment about the most sensible and sustainable method of enabling everyone to meet physical activity guidelines. We design our towns and cities so many children need to be transported by car – to school, to friends and after-school activities – rather than enable independent mobility and then wonder why our children are inactive, obese and unhappy. In the Netherlands they aren’t content with enabling their offspring to gad around on bikes like it’s normal, they even built their communities to prioritise play. Thankfully there are now some people linking active travel and childhood freedom in the UK, supporting the re-prioritisation of our streets towards what we all really value – our families. Temporary street play initiatives are helping communities see that car dominance is having a detrimental effect – on children, health and air quality – and that another vision for our communities is possible, one where everyone, particularly children, can thrive.
Sharing sucks and size matters
‘Share nicely’ must be one of the most overused phrases in early parenthood, but it’s at least one that my son paid attention to and he’s now an excellent sharer as long as he doesn’t want whatever it is that much.
When it comes to road space I’m really not into the sharing thing so much myself anymore. I realised in early pregnancy that soft bodies and large metal objects don’t mix well and stopped cycling. You can ‘encourage’ mutual respect, ‘educate’ drivers until they can recite the Highway Code and dress every child in Scotland in flashing high-visibility vests but none of that will prevent a ‘momentary lapse of concentration‘ which seems to affect drivers on a daily basis. Let’s have segregated cycling infrastructure networks in our towns and cities – as well as keeping us safely away from motorised traffic, it would enable modal shift, create places that people want to be, reduce air pollution and mean we can all eat more cake.
I’ve told my son that no-one likes a moaner, so I’m just offering some friendly feedback here to the designers of cycle paths based on our ‘user experience’ of this NCN route in East Lothian where we live. Sometimes ‘useable’ but imperfect is acceptable, but if a five year old is making judgy comments about your infrastructure then you have seriously under performed.
Excellent is possible and we’re seeing more local authorities take the plunge and start to design streets for people in towns and cities across Scotland. Often city schemes get the attention, but I’d like to give a high-five to whoever worked this magic in one of Scotland’s smallest local authority areas, Clackmannanshire, enabling us to cycle for miles on safe, separated paths, discovering a corner of our own country we’d never seen before.
Use the Mummy Measuring Tool
A number of highly respected cycle campaigners carry measuring apparatus with them to assess by how much our cycling infrastructure fails to meet the mark. This is great as it gives something objective to work with, but the only question that matters to me is simply ‘is this safe for my child?’. If our planners brought their own children to work we might start to get what the Dutch and Danish have already, because until we have infrastructure that most parents feel safe using with their children we won’t see the modal shift our Governments want.
Yes, we’ve learnt a lot over the last four years, not least that we need to stop campaigning for ‘cycling’ and engage people in a conversation about where they want to live, work, bring up families and grow old. When we start to talk about what we want we can perhaps stop building communities in a way that deliver what we don’t want – congestion, air pollution and inactivity.
With the new investment in active travel I have hope that my son’s cycle campaigning career will be short, and that his children will be able to walk and cycle safely whenever and wherever they choose – because we decided to really make Scotland the best place to grow up and put our families first.
“If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people” Enrique Peñalosa
*Cycling is everything, but my husband looks at me strangely when I say it out loud.