Skills for Sustainability

Sustainability isn’t simply a concept; it’s more importantly a practice, or set of practices, one of which is cycling. And sustainability won’t just happen; it must be taught. If we don’t teach children to cycle many simply won’t learn. Raised by car-dependent people in a car-based society, they’ll be more likely to perpetuate than to challenge and change that society.

Cycling is a practice of sustainability. Teach a child to ride a bicycle and we teach her how to make an effective contribution to a different future, a sustainable planet.

A society serious about making cycling the normal mode of short-distance travel must teach cycling. The best place to teach cycling is in schools. That way every child learns how to ride; just as important, it sends a clear signal that cycling is serious – taken seriously by government and to be taken seriously by citizens.

The Department for Education is currently consulting on reform of the school curriculum. With cycling’s profile riding high, this provides an excellent opportunity to push cycling onto the curriculum, so every child learns how to cycle.

Bobby and Flo approaching junction

Would this be putting the cart before the horse, encouraging all children to cycle before conditions are made more conducive to cycling?

Everyday cycling needs to become systematically embedded in society. That includes giving everyone the capacity to cycle through teaching everyone how to do it – How should a bike be set up? Why and how do you change gear? What’s the best position to take at junctions? How can you interpret what other people around you are likely to do? How do you decide which route is best for cycling?

Of course cycle training must occur alongside infrastructural changes that make cycling easier. We know the current cycling environment is badly deficient and we know many ways it could and should be made better. Such improvements in actual cycling conditions are necessary but they don’t preclude (and quite possibly in some respects depend upon) improvements in cycling skills and confidence.

Wherever they cycle, under whatever kinds of conditions, people need to know how to ride safely, sensibly and confidently. And as with most things in life, it’s better to learn at an early age and from experienced and thoughtful teachers than it is to muddle through (picking up bad habits) by yourself.

Teaching people how to ride makes them more likely to ride; and more cyclists are a civilising force on the urban environment and could pave the way for less experienced cyclists who might currently be too timid to give cycling a go. More cyclists will also give cycling a stronger voice for further changes. So teaching cycling is an essential part, if not the only part, of making cycling genuinely ‘for all’.

Motoring organisations such as The Automobile Association (AA) and IAM (Institute of Advanced Motorists) – as well of course as the various cycling organisations – support the push for cycle training’s inclusion on the National Curriculum, a push being led by the Association of Bikeability Schemes (TABS). If you want to see and/or use TABS’ submission to the Department for Education’s consultation, which closes on 16th April, go here.

You can email your response to:

Bobby & Flo riding in line

Shifting away from short-distance travel by car and towards sustainability assumes that today’s children will incorporate cycling into their lives and across their lives, instigating a long-term trend towards urban space governed less by cars and more by bikes. But with cycling literacy still so low and so few cycling parents around to help, this new orientation to cycling won’t just happen. It must be manufactured; children must be given the resources to ride from someplace outside the home. This is surely what education’s all about – to change the world for the better, not merely reproduce it as it inadequately is?

I love it that my kids cycle; but they’ll be much more likely to keep cycling if other kids cycle too. And if all kids cycle they’ll keep one another cycling, and together they’ll build cycling as a mainstream activity, create a society organised more around cycling, and contribute to a sustainable future. I know this, you know this, but does the Department for Education know this? Possibly not, unless we tell them.

Tags: ,

12 Responses to “Skills for Sustainability”

  1. Getting Bikeability on the National School curriculum – CONSULTATION | The Association of Bikeability Schemes Says:

    […] Thanks due to Dave Horton for his support in his latest blog post: […]

  2. Gary Pearce Says:

    With an increasing number of school places needed ( how about making it a requirement of any new or existing school enlargement to incorporate a proper segregated cycle network around it. Much better than planning extra car parking for 4×4’s.

  3. psychobikeology Says:

    Ah – what you’re taking about here is building mental infratructure.

  4. Tim Says:

    My four year old daughter and I cycle together to her school every day. We’re fortunate that most of the journey takes us through a park, and it’s convenient because I can then carry on to my work by bike.

    Like most kids who get the opportunity she loves to ride her bike and she’s proud of being able to ride without stabilisers.

    But I feel a sense of apprehensiveness and guilt that I’m teaching her a skill that she won’t get to use in safety, and that I’m instilling a love of cycling only to see see it replaced with frustration when she’s too old to be accepted on the pavements – how old is that? – but the roads are too hostile. I’m conscious that younger cyclists are less visible and take more risks and often have more accidents accordingly.

    I’m a big fan of cycling but the lack of safe places to cycle is the main cause of my misgivings when it comes to encouraging my kids to ride bikes and there’s very little I can do personally to change it.

    I don’t know how long it will take for safer infrastructure to appear, if it ever does. But I know roughly how long it will be before my children will want to ride on it, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be there in time.

    Perhaps I should do a Hembrow? Abandon the extended family, learn the new language, and head off to the Netherlands…

    • Dave Horton Says:

      I agree with you Tim. But that’s partly why I think getting cycle training onto the school curriculum is so important – like re-designing our cities (and elsewhere) to accommodate cycling for all, it’d be a large-scale, structural response. From my personal perspective, I’m interested to see how as my kids get older we seem as a car-free family to be doing less cycling and more walking as our main means of everyday travel; despite our kids having learnt to be good, competent cyclists we’re not welcome as a cycling family in the world outside. I occasionally contemplate our moving to the Netherlands; but then figure that if we all did that then the UK would never have hope of getting to where they are there! (And besides, hills are fun, and so is struggle more generally, isn’t it, if only a bit?!!)

      • Tim Says:

        I’ll be honest. On balance I’m tending to agree with Manc Bike Mummy on this one.

        Sure, cycling training and education has its place, but its very much secondary. Infrastructure which allows cycling to feel safely and pleasant (and therefore convenient) will make a huge difference with or without the training – many parents will take matters into their own hands as they already do. Most kids learn to ride a bike. But training without infrastructure is a clear waste of everyone’s time and effort, and at worst may just be a justification for a money-earner and a distraction from the real issue.

  5. Kim (@kim_harding) Says:

    Having been both a driving instructor and a cycling instructor, I don’t see cycle training as a solution to our current problem. We need safer roads first, rather than trying to give out kids hostile environment training.

    The cycle training that is currently done is in primary schools and some primary schools have seen increase in the number of children cycling to school (especially in schools with small catchments). The problem is by the time the children reach the age of 12 most of them have stopped cycling. So it is not a lack of training that is causing a barrier, just safe roads to cycle on.

    The hardest to reach group of children, from a cycling perspective is, teenage girls. As the Darlington experience showed it is not because they don’t want to cycle, it is because the roads are too hostile for them to cycle. If you give them the space to ride side by side, so that they can chat, they will quite happily ride.

    The real problem is selfish adults in cars, who won’t change their behaviour which is the real problem.

  6. Farnie (@farnie) Says:

    Plus one to everything Kim and Tim said. It’s a white elephant at best and jobs for the boys at worst. Tim, thanks for the link to the blog. It was what had been written here that prompted me to write it.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Kim, Tim and Farnie, for your comments.

      On the whole, I agree with you all- both my head (via shed loads of research) and my heart (as the father of young-ish children, and a long-term, regular cyclist myself) say that cycle training is not the answer to getting Britain cycling, and I would argue against anyone who thought that it was. There are clearly more important changes which need to happen.

      But, but, but … there is more that needs to be said here, isn’t there (otherwise we risk falling into a zealotry which denies the benefits of anything other than major infrastructural change)? So things which I would want to say include:

      1) The changes required to get Britain cycling are systemic. Training everyone how to cycle is a key part of the systemic change required. So why waste an opportunity (which is all that this is, and a slim one at that) to get the National Curriculum changed so all kids learn to cycle? Everyone knows this isn’t the *only* change required; but it’d be a pretty good improvement on the status quo. Social and political change is unpredictable and can come from the most unlikely of places – what might happen if cycling became part of the National Curriculum? The answer is surely that ‘we don’t know’; which makes it worth a punt.

      2) The changes required to get Britain cycling probably need to command consensus amongst the cycling lobby if they are to have a chance of being more widely understood and taken up. I am being politically strategic to some extent here (and there is of course a questionable ethics to that), but why undermine the efforts of ‘your own side’? I’ll be honest here – I decided to write this blog post in order to challenge my own position, which I felt was in danger of getting a bit too entrenched. I don’t want to become an ‘infrastructure is the one and only way’ advocate, because: i) that’s boring; ii) it denies the systematic character of the changes required and the multiplicity of inter-connecting pathways to get us there; iii) advocates of cycle training are good people with whom I want to be friends!

      3) You and I are interested in democratising cycling, yes? We believe that radically improved conditions for cycling, including dedicated space for cycling along big and busy roads, is part of that, yeah? But how can we not believe, then, that giving people the basic skills to cycle is not also part of democratising cycling? You will tell me, I’m fairly sure, that there’s a ‘right order’ here; but I doubt it. I want everything at once, and given that’s highly unlikely, I’ll take them in whatever order they come, and work as hard as I’m able to make sure I capitalise on what changes do occur (so, for example, if all my daughter’s mates are suddenly required to learn how to cycle, I’ll make damn sure I’m talking to their parents, checking they’ve got reasonably functioning bikes and the right equipment, and I’ll make sure to organise a ride or two to get them out into the nearby countryside). I’m certainly not going to sit here saying ‘no’ to those changes which don’t seem quite right, and only say ‘yes’ to those which are on the top of my list!

      I’ll stop there though I’ve more I want to say. I think this conversation is important, strategically at least (and probably more). So please, respond if you feel inclined!
      Thanks all for reading and commenting.
      Very best wishes

      • Tim Says:

        > what might happen if cycling became part of the National Curriculum

        In the absence of decent infrastructure my concern would be that kids would become proficient and enthused about cycling only to become frustrated and put off when they discover they have nowhere to practice their new skills in safety.

        Or – worst case scenario – more kids get hurt. Much is often made of this study where it appears that cyclists are far less likely to be the cause of accidents they are involved in than people assume. Peter Walker has referred to it in the Guardian several times.

        But if the graphs and the police reports are to be believed this only appears to be really true for older cyclists. It seems that younger cyclists are either more reckless or less skilled and therefore more at risk, and for me that’s the dichotomy of teaching them and encouraging them to ride bikes.

        My point is that you’re right, we don’t know what might happen, but playing devil’s advocate, it might potentially be a negative outcome. Even if no real harm is done it could be a distraction and a waste of money.

        – slight change of topic.

        I’ve heard it said that teaching Dutch cycling differs from British cycling. More about merging with other cyclists and less about wearing helmets, looking out for car doors and looking out for maniac drivers overtaking with inches to spare. Wouldn’t it be nice to have to teach cyclists the Dutch kind.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        All fair points Tim, with which I agree. I guess a key thing here is what we see as the context in which the call for cycling to become part of the National Curriculum is being made. My impression (tell me if I’m wrong) is that you, Kim and Farnie are seeing it as a bit of a zero-sum game; cycling’s inclusion in the National Curriculum – *if nothing else changes* – will lead to increased expectations of children’s cycling in an environment which is wholly antithetical to such cycling. In contrast I see this call as further evidence that ambitions for cycling are changing, and so as ‘just’ one more part of the jigsaw which – when finished – will be ‘cycling as normal’.

        Isn’t the demand that every child should be taught to cycle really just as ambitious as the demand that every child should be able to cycle, and aren’t the two demands intimately connected?

        Of course, the tenor and content of cycle training should and would shift according to the dominant conditions for cycling. But there must be some universals of cycle training: how to set up your bike; how to safely mount and dismount; how to position yourself appropriately; respect for other people, whether moving in the same way or in other ways. And I’d be fairly sure that if every child was required to learn to cycle, then new spaces for cycling advocacy – within but also outside of schools – would open up (and potentially, a new pro-cycling constituency created and mobilised).

        I’m not disagreeing with anything you’ve said; just seeing whether together we can find new, unexpected routes forward ..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: