The Cambridge Evening News today has a story about a fourteen year old secondary school student who has missed school for six months and whose parents are now moving house because the council insisted that he travel to a school 7 miles ( 11 km ) away. This, according to the paper, is a "nightmare journey". His father said the daily trip "including a taxi ride to the nearest bus stop, an hour-long bus journey and a 15-minute walk to the school" was too much. It apparently took 75 minutes all added together.
Earlier in the year there was another story about school transport near Cambridge. In this case about children being expected to make their own way to a secondary school which is less than 3 miles (4.5 km) from their home. There were protests from parents when the council suggested that children should make this journey by walking or cycling instead of by taking a school bus.
I have some sympathies. While the distances in both cases are short, I know the area and I wouldn't want my children going that way either.
The path shown is on the route which the second lot that I link to would have to take. It is little over a metre wide, and that's for bidirectional use by bicycles as well as for pedestrians. The road alongside, with no separation from the path at all, has a 60 mph (100 km/h) speed limit.
I put the yellow lines on the photo to illustrate a problem caused by inadequate lighting. Instead of proper lights which illuminate the path from above, feeble solar powered LEDs have been put into the surface of the path where the yellow dots are. If, after dark, you ride between the lights, they encourage you to ride as if the dropped kerbs line up. Soon after the installation of these lights, I rode along there on a moonless night and... had my first crash in many years when I hit that kerb ! The other problem with such lighting is that it hides anything else that might be on the path - such as the width restriction (yes, it gets narrower) caused by a bridge a bit further along, branches that might have dropped onto the path and which could get get stuck in your wheels etc. (I should point out that after many complaints, additional LEDs have been installed near junctions. However, they still don't light the path).
For all of what is wrong with this, this is in many ways the good bit. When it reaches the outskirts of Cambridge the path disappears and children are expected to "share the road" with cars.
School cycle journeys become a problem in the UK because the facilities that children are expected to use are simply not good enough. There is no consideration of subjective safety, and it would seem no consideration of any other kind of safety either ! It's hardly surprising that British cyclists worry about segregated cycle provision, and generally prefer to ride on the road even with the 100 km/h traffic, when this is what cycling provision tends to look like in the UK. It's also hardly surprising that only 1-2% of journeys in the UK are by bike, because the majority of the population will never find such conditions to be acceptable.
And here ?
As ever, the Netherlands does it rather better. Cycle paths here are wide, smooth, well lit and go places in an efficient way. All the villages around Assen are joined to the city by decent quality cycle paths. Here is a part of one of them:
The cycle path is wide and smooth. There is a separate pedestrian path. There are proper lights which illuminate the path. The junctions have lights which give priority to cyclists. The road is quite separate from the cycle path. What's more, on this stretch the road is a through route only for buses, and is otherwise used only for access by residents. There are no fears about letting one's children cycle here, and the result is that they do.
At the school my daughter attends in Assen, all the children arrive by bike, including those who live 20 km (12.5 miles) away. This has many advantages. One of our recent visitors commented "I've not seen a single fat child." Also, parents don't have to provide a "taxi" service.
Come on Britain, build the infrastructure ! If the infrastructure had been there for the boy in the story he could easily have got to school in under half an hour on his bike.
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The less positive stuff What not to do if you want a cycling "revolution" - Long list of interventions and policies which are not helpful. Copy the best examples from the Netherlands - a short list summarising the above. Important to copy the best examples, not just anything "Dutch". Bear in mind that the Netherlands is not perfect. Shared Space - this much hyped idea simply does not work well. It disenfranchises the vulnerable and claims of safety are exaggerated. Don't confuse the concept with far more successful nearly car free streets. Shared Use Paths designed to be used by pedestrians and cyclists together. These rarely work well because the two user groups are too different and it leads to conflicts. They are not built in the Netherlands (but cycle access to pedestrianized zones is good). Strict (or presumed) liability - If you think this is an important part of why people cycle in the Netherlands then it is probably not what you think it is. Helmets - one of several ways of scaremongering about the supposed dangers of what is actually a very safe means of transport
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A cyclist in a cycling family living in the capital of the cycling province of the world's greatest cycling country.
I was born in the UK, lived for over 8 years in New Zealand and have lived in the Netherlands since 2007.
I organise cycling infrastructure study tours, run an online bicycle shop, arrange cycling holidays and write a popular blog about cycling.
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