Cycling struggles, 8

Domestic cycling system

The previous cycling struggles have all in different ways demonstrated the victory of anti-cycling structures over people’s everyday travel decisions. But I hope they’ve also shown people’s agency too – that although it’s difficult to cycle in urban Britain today, people do nonetheless manage to do so. People, in other words, can and do exercise (cycling) agency in the face of hostile (anti-cycling) structures. Such agency is perhaps at its highest in this cycling story; I show how not just individuals but whole families can embrace a cycling lifestyle, and move around regularly by bike. These are families for whom the bicycle forms an important means of everyday transport for every family member. It’s a story which demonstrates that even here, even now, families do cycle in urban Britain.

I encountered two such families during fieldwork for the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, and merge their stories here. Obviously such ‘cycling families’ are exceptional; so whilst on the one hand their existence gives us hope, on the other that they’re exceptional proves the rule – that it’s much too difficult regularly and routinely to cycle ordinary journeys across urban Britain today. There are similarities between the families: both are white, middle-class, educated, and could be characterised as ‘alternative’ or ‘green’; both comprise two parents who work, and two school-aged children, a boy and girl. But there are differences between them too: they live in different cities; one family owns a car that’s used for longer journeys and/or when cycling is too difficult, but all family members tend to cycle daily, whilst the other family has no car (though both parents can drive) and uses trains for longer journeys, but – mainly because of a residential location proximate to key destinations – walking not cycling is the main means of day-to-day travel.

8. A family cycling story

All four parents have long experience of cycling. In one family, the mother, Sashi, comes from a cycling family. She commutes three days a week by bike and train. The father, Kyle, cycles to work. His past commutes have been as long as 14 miles each way, but his current commute – which he’s been doing for ten years – is around three miles each way. He also uses his bike during the working day. Both Sashi and Kyle ride whatever the weather, including snow, and are confident road cyclists. Like most regular cyclists, Kyle says “I don’t mind riding in traffic, though I’d prefer it if there was none.” In the other family, Doug and Sara have never owned a car. They’re both keen cyclists, for leisure and holidays as well as utility. Cycling forms part of an alternative lifestyle. When asked why they don’t have a car Sara says:

“I don’t really feel the need for one, I wouldn’t want to spend the money on one, I don’t particularly like driving. And I think I’d probably become lazy if we got a car. I’d probably stop using my bike so much. And I can’t imagine it being so easy to get the kids to cycle if we had a car sat outside.”

In both families a lot of shopping’s done by bike. The parents have bikes with front and rear racks, capable of holding four panniers which provide enough capacity to do a sizeable shop. Doug does a big weekly supermarket shop by bike, supplemented by small shops as necessary:

“It was easier when the kids were little and we had a cycle trailer which I could load up”, he says. “These days I fill the panniers, and also take a rucksack for light stuff like cereals and bread. People are always amazed at how much stuff I can carry – it’s a big topic of check-out conversation!”

Family-friendly utility bike

Children’s cycling in a cycling family

With cycling parents, all four children learnt to ride before starting school, have been on bike rides and cycling holidays for as long as they can remember, and have been taught to ride competently and confidently on the road. Part of families in which cycling has been normalised, they take cycling for granted. This makes them different from most of their friends, but perhaps because three of them at least are still relatively young, that doesn’t seem to be a problem; cycling’s simply something they do.

As cyclists themselves none of the parents is naïve about the cycling situation, and they think long and hard about giving their children more cycling freedom. Only Sashi and Kyle’s son, Ray, who is 15, is allowed to ride on roads unaccompanied. Sara and Doug’s son, Ben, who’s 11, is currently allowed to ride alone only under specific conditions, though Sara thinks he’s almost at the point where they’ll let him ride with less constraint. “I’ll feel a bit worried when he goes off by himself”, she says, “but we know he’s a good rider.The problem is we can’t be sure how other road users will treat him. But then that applies when I’m riding too.”

These parents understand, but resist, the sentiments of other parents we met during our fieldwork, parents such as Brian from Leeds who, when talking about his two teenage children who had cycled occasionally when they were young, said:

“Neither child ever asked to cycle to school, so we never had to sort that out. And from my own point of view I was really pleased that they didn’t want to, because I find cycling around here incredibly dangerous … I was quite pleased that they never particularly wanted to cycle, I never encouraged them cycling, and eventually neither of them cycled … it just sorted of fizzled out.”

Brian is in the majority of parents who’d prefer their children, on the whole and given present conditions, not to cycle. But the parents in the cycling families value cycling in general, and the independence it can give their children in particular. Kyle says: “We don’t really believe in molly-coddling them; that’s not good for their independence, for their own selves.”

Of the four children Ray is the only one who rides regularly to school. He rides a hard-tail mountain bike with wide knobbly tyres. His Dad thinks his touring bike would be more appropriate, but it’s not, I suspect, nearly so cool.

Ray may not always choose to use his most appropriate bike, but the machines used by these families have been fully equipped, with mudguards, racks, lights and, often, kick-stands and mirrors; they’re fit for purpose. The children’s bikes are not the cheap, heavy machines typically given to British children, but good quality lightweights; the three youngest children ride Islabikes, a British manufacturer whose mission is to produce decent but affordable bikes for children.

Children's Islabike

Tania is in her final year of primary school. She sometimes walks, sometimes runs, and sometimes cycles to school, either on her own bike or on the back of a tandem. If she makes the trip on foot she does so solo, but if by bike she’s accompanied. She’s the least enthusiastic cyclist in her family, and, says Kyle, “can get a bit moan-y at times” In the other family Ben and Frances also walk to school. Frances walks the ten minute trip to the nearby primary school, Ben about twenty minutes to a secondary school slightly further away; both walk with friends. When they were younger Sara would walk with them, but if Doug was taking them he’d encourage them to go by bike. He says:

“I always used to cycle with the kids, because it was a chance to get them cycling as much as anything else. On the bikes we’d go a slightly longer, but also slightly nicer route which didn’t include any really nasty bits. But Sara walked it because cycling took longer probably – to get the bikes out of the shed, then cycle, then lock them up at school – than it does to walk.”

It’s worth noting that the mobilities of the car-less family are sometimes enabled by the cars of others. This is particularly the case with the children, who in order to participate in child-oriented social life such as birthday parties and trips out with friends’ families, quite often jump in their friends’ parents’ cars. This is not because those journeys necessarily require a car, but because the car has become for everybody else the default option, such that in order to be sociable you must ‘jump in’ too.

The kids travel by car much more often than we [Doug and her] do”, says Sara. “We try to resist their getting lifts to things which are only a few minutes’ walk away, but I have to admit it’s also very handy sometimes to have our kids taken places by other parents rather than have to do a cycling trip.”

Even these cycling families – and particularly the children – would cycle more of their journeys were cycling conditions to improve. As Doug says, “if we lived in the Netherlands, or even Germany, Ben and Frances would have full independence by now, I’d be happy for them to travel around town by bike alone. But not here, not yet anyway”.

Cycling system at the micro-level

From micro cycling system to macro anti-cycling system

These cycling families have created a cycling-friendly world at the micro-level. They’ve assembled domestic cycling systems – effective storage for many bicycles and their multiple accessories, libraries of maps, and wardrobes of appropriate clothes. And for now the parents’ own pro-cycling psychologies remain intact, and they have successfully (though of course children always moan!) instilled them in the next generation. So cycling feels normal, until you step outside. The normalisation of cycling at the domestic level is challenged and undermined out on the streets, at every level (social, cultural, infrastructural, political) beyond the household.

Concern for their children’s welfare leads to parental concern with cycling conditions and route choice. Car free routes are strongly favoured, big junctions and dangerous driving are key anxieties. I accompany Ray on his journey to school of around two and a half miles, which takes about 15 minutes. His route is busy with rush-hour traffic and involves negotiating some big junctions, but Ray’s a strong and competent rider, and has gradually adjusted to such difficult riding as he’s grown older and gained experience. At one point on our journey a car turns right across his path; we’re travelling faster than the motorised traffic and the offending driver simply hasn’t anticipated or seen us (a reasonably common experience in UK rush-hour riding, unfortunately). Ray has his wits about him, brakes hard, and his back wheel goes into the air; if he’d not seen the car or not braked so hard, he’d have gone over its bonnet. Ray seems fairly calm following the experience; he says they’re reasonably common. He gets angry, he tells me, at how drivers act as if cyclists aren’t there, but seems to see that as inevitable, a fact of life.

The parents have many stories to tell of altercations with motorists whilst cycling with their children, though they also prefer not to dwell on them – to do so would function as an impediment rather than affordance to continued family cycling. They keep riding, and keep their children riding, out of sheer conviction it’s the right thing to do, and a refusal to let prevailing conditions see them sacrifice cherished values and pastimes.


As I said at the start, such cycling families are exceptional. With things as they are, they will only ever form a tiny minority of families, for whom cycling is most probably part of a vaguely counter-cultural lifestyle. Both sets of parents have imposed cycling on their children. This is not an accusation; it’s no different to how most parents impose (sedentary, unsustainable and, I’d argue, civility-destroying) car use on theirs. However, car-based kids are in synch with broader culture in a way which cycling kids are not; if you travel by car your (parents’) transport choices are continuously validated by the world as it is. In contrast, the children here live within a pro-cycling bubble which risks being punctured by contact with the anti-cycling world.

Leaving it to the most pro-cycling parents to instil cycling in their kids is no way to produce cycling in the next generation, nor to build a cycling culture. Yes, these families prove cycling can be done, but they’re going against the grain. In effect, the whole family is holding out against a broader culture designed to make them take the car. We can’t leave the work of building a cycling culture to individuals (and families) alone. Without broader, deeper structural affordances to movement by bike, cycling will remain in a marginal, unsustainable place.

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6 Responses to “Cycling struggles, 8”

  1. Michael Frearson Says:

    Funny to see what feels normal to us described as exceptional, but I suppose cycling in Cambridge (where we live) is more normal than elsewhere. Our three children were all cycling on the road at an early age, and our eldest (now 12) cycles independently two miles to school everyday in all weather, as do several of his Year 8 class mates.

    The sheer number of everyday cyclists in Cambridge probably does affect other road users’ behaviour towards us, but cycling conditions here are still far from ideal. And these conditions do lead to the sorts of anti-cycling attitudes you have reported in your other cycling families even here in Cambridge. The perception that roads are dangerous, combined with minimal knowledge of how to cycle most effectively in these conditions, has a real impact on parents’ confidence in everyday family cycling involving children. Bikeability does give children in school years 5 and 6 the skills and confidence they need to get about town effectively by bicycle, but it is no guarantee that parents will change their cycling attitudes and behaviour, and parental cycling attitudes and behaviours have more influence on children’s cycling.

    Many adults in Cambridge are prepared to take their chances on bikes in traffic, but they are reluctant to put their children there. More guidance is needed on effective everyday cycling for all, including families and younger children. Without it we risk losing another generation to cycling.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting Michael, and great to hear that your three children are all cycling.

      I agree with all that you say, but would add that as well as ‘more guidance on effective everyday cycling for all’ we also – and I think more importantly – need more space for everyday cycling for all. I’d argue that we need much more cycling space anyway, but this needs is much greater when it comes to children’s cycling, for various reasons:

      first, partly in order to teach children how to ride, and partly just for them to be able to travel, they need initially to be accompanied, and accompanied cycling requires more space than does solo cycling;

      second, even when they become competent riders, children’s cycling is – ideally (from their own perspectives) – likely to remain sociable (one reason kids so like walking to school is so that they can hang out together, and the same should apply to cycling);

      and third, in a cycle-friendly society it should be as easy as four or five people (including children) to travel together by bike as it is for that number of people currently to travel together by car, but you and I – and anybody who has tried it in the kinds of conditions which prevail across the UK – know that it’s not. Much of the (limited and inadequate) support which is currently offered to cycling is (implicitly and perhaps inadvertently) primarily towards solitary cycling, and this completely fails to recognise that travel is very often a collective and sociable activity.

      So I’d say it’s definitely NOT just about more training (in my (sociological – sorry about that!) terms, ‘increasing agency’), but also about making and civilising space (‘improving structure’).

      Thanks again, and best wishes


  2. John the Monkey Says:

    Both my children have done Bikeability with school – I’d not let them ride to school as things are now, having ridden part of the route with my daughter, and seen the astonishing disregard for our welfare displayed by drivers.

    I’m no shrinking violet either – I commute daily in and out of Manchester by bike.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Cheers John.

      Probably because I’ve got two of my own and so these issues are very ‘live’ for me, children’s cycling (or lack of, for very good reason) is the thing I probably feel most angry about. Personally I think Bikeability has a bit of a problem in potentially raising expectations (of children cycling) which can’t possibly be met (because prevailing conditions are so hostile to children’s cycling). I know in its defence people will say that we’ve got to at least teach kids to ride, and give them the basic capacity to cope with today’s conditions; but I think a clear danger is that by training children to cycle we’re complicit in a fundamentally flawed model of cycling promotion – one which puts the onus on the individual to cope with atrocious conditions – rather than more zealously pursuing an alternative model – one seeking fundamentally to transform those atrocious conditions (which would then change the ways in which people need to cycle, and so the requirements of cycle training, although cycle training would still of course be necessary).

      We’re teaching our children to more effectively fit into a crap system, rather than change the system, and this reinforces, rather than challenges, the status quo, which we know is f….d.

      Ho hum. More work to do! Keep cycling (and finding good places for your kids to ride – one day I hope they’ll be able to ride pretty much anywhere they like).
      Thanks for chipping in – much appreciated.
      Best wishes

      • mcfrearson Says:

        Lots more work to do, much of it attitudinal. Involving children really matters (c.f. Increasing cyclists’ agency, demonstrating more positive attitudes towards cycling, exercising cyclists’ rights to use shared road space responsibly, will all contribute to more cycling now and increase demand for better cycling facilities in the future. Keeping bicycles off the road, not sharing road space responsibly, stopping children from cycling, will not. The actual risk of cyclists being killed or seriously injured remains far lower than the perceived risk. Adult perceptions of road safety present a major barrier to children cycling. Ask any child!

  3. Cycling Struggles – a summary | Thinking About Cycling Says:

    […] cycling in cities (Cycling Struggles, 8) is a margin of a margin. Cycling alone is difficult enough; encouraging children to cycle, and […]

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