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

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.

“We are trying to get people to feel safer on their journey to school, and training is necessary to give parents and children confidence to come to school by bike,” says Jane Hackett, national manager of the Green Schools Travel Programme. As part of the training, students learn the rules of the road and how to use their bicycle efficiently, which includes keeping tyres pumped up and understanding gears and brakes.

“Initially, there was a huge resistance because we were going outside the school gates to influence parents, and 60 per cent of schools didn’t have footpaths, not to mention cycle lanes,” says Hackett.

“But that resistance is starting to break down with the wider culture of walking and cycling in the last few years. You really need adults in a community to support a programme like this, and some of [those who were our] biggest detractors are now our greatest advocates.”

Craughwell National School in Co Galway has had cycling training for its pupils. “The modern child is protected and the major initial concerns from parents were about their safety. We found that children who could cycle weren’t competent to cycle on the road, and the training taught them how to stop safely and maintain a straight cycling path,” says principal Dara Mannion.

The school of 300 pupils now has about 20 pupils – mainly from 5th and 6th class – who cycle to school every day. “We find that cycling gives children confidence in other areas. They might tidy their rooms and help in the garden, and they can cycle to soccer or athletics training now, too,” he adds.

The Holy Family National School in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo also included cycling training in its sustainable-transport programme. “We found that we had to progress towards cycling when encouraging people from their cars. First, they might become involved in park and stride, then they might walk all the way to school and then consider cycling,” says John Cawley, green school co-ordinator at the Holy Family National School.

Maria Flynn is the chairperson of the Parents’ Association at the school. “Parents in general are delighted with a big uptake in cycling this year. The teachers say the children are more alert and attentive having got exercise and fresh air before class. The push towards walking and cycling to school is vital for the safety of our children, as speed and cars parking on footpaths is an ongoing issue.”

The 50km/ph speed limit through Tubbercurry remains a problem. “A lot of traffic passes the school at 40 miles per hour,” says Cawley. “In parts of Scotland, there are special 20m/ph speed limits with signs which light up at school opening and closing times. The slogan there is ‘twenty is plenty’. Lower speed limits would help,” he says.

The children at Tubbercurry National School record the numbers who cycle or walk to school each day, and the current sixth classers will cycle up to the secondary school in the town this month, to give them confidence to continue cycling as teenagers.

“We find the children who cycle are fitter and hardier,” says Cawley. “We depend a lot on pester power to get more children on bikes.”