A chance to get on our bikes for the school run


We have a cycle-to-work scheme – now it’s time to encourage a cycle-to-school culture to give kids exercise and unclog traffic

MY FIVE-YEAR-OLD son gets lots of smiles as he pedals his small bike around Dublin. He is a dogged cyclist, his little legs pumping to turn the small wheels and keep pace with his older brother.

This week he cycled to a sports camp. Just once. We glided in dappled sunlight along the smooth, dedicated bike path on Dublin’s Grand Canal.

But at a pedestrian crossing with a green man lighting, a driver reversed slowly into the flow of people. The car stopped when I slapped it so hard that my palm stung for several minutes afterwards.

I’m sure the driver got a fright. He waved an apologetic hand. I think he was reversing in an attempt to nudge forwards again out of the way of the crossing. The slap was the only way to alert him that the lights had changed and two small people were trying to cross the road behind the raised boot of his car. Shouting would have achieved nothing over the din of the traffic.

This isn’t a story of them and us, cyclists versus drivers. Like most cyclists, I’m also a driver. In a few weeks, commuters will bemoan the return of school traffic. The mum-and-dad taxis will be back dropping children to school gates, clogging the streets, adding to the stress of driving. The success of the cycle-to-work scheme has seen thousands of commuters switch to bicycles for short trips to college or work. Dublin is slowly becoming a more cycle-able city for adults. However, we’ve yet to instigate a cycle-to-school culture.

The dedicated cycle path along Dublin’s Grand Canal is the perfect learning ground for children to cycle safely on. They are separated from traffic, and they can learn the rules of good road use and how to get around a busy city.

I watched a young man show the path to a boy for the first time this week. “Look at this. We have all this space to ourselves,” the man said enthusiastically as he started to teach the boy how to stop at the lights and cycle without wobbling.

Yet there are hazards at every junction where people meet traffic along the cycle path. Drivers who go nose-to-tail with the car ahead frequently get stuck on the crossing points when the lights turn red. There are no yellow boxes to try to keep these crossings clear.

Thousands of parents are driving children to sports camps at this time of year. These are long, tedious and expensive hours crawling a few miles in an attempt to keep our children active. This week, a study of global inactivity published in the Lancet to coincide with the London Olympics found that 53 per cent of Irish men and women are classed as inactive. In other words, they are not taking 30 minutes of moderate activity (such as a brisk walk) five days a week. The gender breakdown for Ireland shows that while 48 per cent of men are inactive, a massive 58 per cent of women are not getting enough exercise.

The real time bomb in the research is a figure of 80 per cent of 13 to 15-year-olds worldwide who don’t get the minimum recommended hour of moderate exercise a day. A study by the DCU School of Health and Human Performance of 5,000 Irish children published last year found that only 14 per cent of them were meeting the criteria for physical activity. That’s an 86 per cent level of inactivity among our children.

Outside organised sports activities, a daily walk or cycle to school can give a child their minimum level of exercise. Reclaiming streets and footpaths for children could reduce traffic congestion and pollution, and teach children independence and road skills. The benefits are huge. But without safe, walkable and cycle-able routes, it will continue to feel safer to strap children into booster seats and go nose-to-tail into the traffic, a regime that’s doing them, and us, no favours in the long run.