Bike-khana -  Warrnambool Primary School 
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Photo: MONIQUE  PATTERSON

Skills base: children receiving cycling tuition at school in Victoria. Photo: Monique Patterson

A few weeks ago I was chatting with a few others about “the good old days” of riding bikes when we were kids.

Most of us recalled a time when cycling to school, unescorted, was nothing unusual, and our schools had well-used bike sheds.

This independence would often spill into afternoon adventures. Riding around to a friend’s house, exploring unfamiliar streets, finding an area of open land and building ramps for Evel Knievel stunt attempts.

Lydia Ho and her two children Arki 6 and Ren 4 . Lydia rides with her son to school each day.
Pic Nick Moir 30 jan 2013

Safe conduit: A family on the cycle way on Sydney's Bourke Street. Photo: Nick Moir

It was fun and occasionally risky, and certainly involved a fair bit of falling off.

There was even the time when some of us thwarted those bank robbers, led by a girl with curly red hair. Oh wait … that was BMX Bandits.

Still, most of us had bicycles in our lives in a way that doesn’t seem to exist as much today.

I don’t have kids, but am the proud uncle of a boy and a girl who mostly walk to their nearby primary school. Some of their schoolmates do ride bicycles, but they are a minute percentage of the total.

It’s an oft-touted statistic that bicycle sales have outnumbered car sales in Australia every year for the past decade. A significant percentage of these would be bikes for young ‘uns – especially as Christmas nears.

But I can’t say I notice much evidence of these sales on our car-dominated streets. I see a lot of children riding in parks and other safe areas – which is great – and I wonder how many of them have arrived by car, with the bike in the back.

Since that bout of reminiscing, I’ve been asking a lot of people what they see as the barriers to children and cycling. Here are some of the responses:

Greater distances: In times past, most kids just went to their local school, and not as many went to private schools, a schoolteacher (and keen cyclist) told me. There is greater choice and competition, and more people drive their kids significant distances to preferred schools.

Discouragement: I’ve heard inspirational tales of schools that encourage cycling. I’ve also heard of schools that refuse to provide places to put bikes, don't want parents to organise supervised bike groups, and send out newsletters saying it’s too dangerous for children to ride.

Stranger danger: We live in a more fearful society, and parents like to keep closer tabs on their offspring.

Busy lives: Children these days have lots of after-school activities – sports, dance classes, music, etc – often requiring bulky equipment and wide-ranging travel.

Helmets: Many teenagers don’t like them. They’re daggy and mess up hairstyles – for boys as well as girls. In almost all other nations, this doesn’t have to be an issue, but it is in the land that pioneered helmet laws.

Entertainment options: Why ride a bike when you can play video games? Maybe the Wii has replaced “whee!”

But I’d say the greatest concern is that our roads aren’t safe. There are too many speeding, distracted, careless motorists.

If so many adults are fearful of commuter cycling, is it any wonder we’re even more reluctant to trust our children to the road?

Of course, children can ride on the footpath, but they still have to cross roads. And in Victoria and NSW, by law, they have to get off the pavement as soon as they turn 12 – just when they could be starting to enjoy greater freedom. 

An even greater irony is that the area around a school is often one of the most dangerous places for a cyclist of any age, as distracted drivers jockey in 4WDs to spot and scoop up children.

So what will it take to get more kids cycling more often? Dedicated infrastructure is the ideal, but not every child can have a bike path leading seamlessly from their front door to their every destination.

The Netherlands is, of course, the Shangri-La of world cycling – mesmerise yourself with this time-lapse video of children arriving at school, or marvel at the mounds of bikes in this park.

But most people don’t realise that the Dutch freedom from car dominance was a hard-won battle fought in the 70s – and that child safety was used as a compellingly emotive argument.

But that’d never work outside Europe, right? We love and need our cars too much in Australia. Well, they do in the US, too, but this video from Portland, Oregon suggests there are ways to tackle the problem.

Lower speed limits in suburbs; "bike train" supervised groups; improved infrastructure; safety education for young riders; creating a culture of calm and tolerance.

Improvements that would surely benefit all residents, not just the kids getting to school.

Do you think it’s safe for children to ride bikes in your suburb? What measures can be taken to make cycling safer for children?

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