Cycling: the next generation
Barely 2 per cent of Irish children are cycling to school, but some organisations and schools are encouraging more bike usage through cycling lessons, example and pester power
Plenty of Irish children have bicycles but only a handful use them to make the trip to school. Photograph: Getty Images
One or two in every hundred children cycle to school in Ireland. It’s an astonishingly low figure by any comparisons. And, when it comes to secondary school, the figures don’t improve. In fact, statistics show that more girls drive to their secondary schools in Ireland than cycle.
Plenty of children own bikes and use them for cycling around their local streets or housing estates, or bring them on holidays. But why aren’t they using them as a mode of transport that’s cheap, environmentally friendly and physically healthy?
Mike McKillen, a veteran cycling campaigner, says we have lost two generations of cyclists in this country. “There aren’t enough parents teaching children to cycle properly in Ireland. Road-traffic engineers favoured moving vehicles rapidly and en masse, which increased traffic capacity and speed, leaving the roads hostile to cyclists,” he says.
“The percentage of children who are driven to school for distances under two kilometres is huge. You won’t find that in Europe where most children walk or cycle to school. Sociologically, we are making huge mistakes here,” says McKillen.
In Germany, 14 per cent of children cycle to school. In Holland, 49 per cent of children go to school by bicycle. The European Cyclist Federation points to a culture in northern European countries that almost always finds the motorist at fault – and legally responsible for damages – if a crash involves a child cyclist.
In cities with high numbers of adult cyclists, children are much more likely to cycle to school, adding to the overall “liveability” for all citizens.
The problem here is that most parents are genuinely scared to let their children out on main roads to cycle to school, shops and other local amenities.
In urban areas, traffic congestion is a reality that is hard to ignore. In rural areas, the speed of cars on national and regional roads is frightening for cyclists and pedestrians alike. The lack of joined-up cycle lanes, high speeds on national routes through towns, and narrow country roads make for unpredictable dangers for young cyclists.
Dr Ciaran Simms, a lecturer in engineering at Trinity College Dublin, cycles with his six-year-old daughter to school and then continues on to work on his bike. “We are doing our children a disservice by saying it is too dangerous to cycle. The statistics don’t show that it’s more dangerous than ever before. It’s actually the reverse, and the more people that cycle, the safer it becomes.”
What Simms is referring to is the reduced number of fatalities of cyclists in Ireland, particularly in Dublin, where the Port Tunnel and 30km/ph speed limits in the city centre have improved conditions for cyclists somewhat.
Simms believes that cycling lessons are the best way to get more children on their bikes, even if their parents don’t cycle. He also thinks that children under 10 should be allowed to cycle on footpaths.
“I don’t agree with adults cycling on footpaths but small children should be allowed to cycle on footpaths in a manner that’s considerate to pedestrians. Children should be taught to cycle responsibly and respectfully, and giving way to pedestrians on footpaths is part of that,” he says.
Since 2008, the An Taisce Green Schools programme has been offering cycling training to children in primary schools throughout Ireland in conjunction with local authorities with funding from the Department of Transport.