A cycle-path through a residential area in Assen followed by a crossing which is safe for all to use
Teenagers in one corner of a park in Groningen. It was a sunny afternoon, so thousands of people had ridden their bikes to different corners of this and other parks. It's similar if you cycle to the beach.
In this video there's not so much cycling as walking. 6000 people, mostly from primary schools around Assen, take part each year in the local Avondvierdaagse. Participants walk 10 km each day on four consecutive evenings. Because of the number of people taking part they often cause a little disruption on roads and cycle-paths in and around the city, but this isn't the sort of thing that any reasonable person would complain about.
Most, if not all, towns in the Netherlands have an event like this, modelled after the internationally famous Nijmegse Vierdaagse. The Nijmegen event attracts an amazing 45000 participants who each walk a minimum of 50 km per day (reduced to 40 km per day for people under 20 or over 50 years old) for four days in order to earn their medal.
Why are children important ?
Why do I concentrate so much on young cyclists ? That's easy to answer. Today's children are the only possible source of tomorrow's adult cyclists and children are a common interest of the whole population. Children love to cycle and cycling is a transport mode which can offer children a greater degree of freedom and affordability than anything else that is open to them.
If we don't "get them when they're young", i.e. at the age when the affordability and freedom offer a unique combination then we must instead try to convince older people to take up cycling when they've already formed a habit of travelling by other means and when they can more easily afford other means.
|Under 18s in The Netherlands make a huge proportion of their|
journeys by bike. 0.8 journeys per day for under 12s, 1.7
journeys per day for 12 to 16 year olds. Adults cycle less but
even over 75s make an average of one trip every three days.
Promoting cycling for everyday journeys is not the same as promoting it as a sport. As others have noted before, sports like swimming or playing tennis are worthy but they are of no use to travel to school or to visit friends. But cycling requires something that other "sports" do not. While any road design will suffice in order to transport people to a swimming pool or tennis court, those same roads very possibly will not suffice so far as making cycling attractive and accessible enough that people who are not cycling enthusiasts will see riding a bike as something for them. To achieve a high modal share amongst young children and teenagers requires our streets and cycle-paths to be so subjectively safe that not only do children feel safe, but that all their parents expect them to be safe as well. This is how the point is reached where children are given the freedom to travel independently.
|Adult obesity in OECD countries. Can|
they be compared directly ? As some
are "self-reported", methodologies
clearly vary between countries.
As for what proportion of children are obese, that's difficult to judge. Some figures put this as high as 7% of the total, which would mean you'd expect to see two obese children in each classroom. Is this true ? I don't actually know as I don't work in a school and I've never studied this. It seems high, though. To my eyes there are obviously fewer really large people here than in the UK and that's despite our province, Drenthe, being worse than average for The Netherlands as a whole. I am given to wonder whether differences in methodology of reporting obesity might mean that little can be learned from the comparison of figures which come from different countries. I've seen the same thing with cycling modal share figures, which are almost never gathered in the same way in different countries. In fact, there are often several different conflicting figures available for modal share even for the same town.
Dutch children have the same taste for overly fatty food and soft drinks as those who live elsewhere. However, unlike children elsewhere, the great majority of Dutch children walk or cycle to school. It doesn't stop with getting to school, though. School trips are by bike too (including regular weekly trips to play sports) and children make trips to go shopping, visit friends or buy fast food by bike as well. Without the cycling habit (12 to 16 year olds each make an average of about 1.7 trips by bike each day), it is very likely that obesity would be a bigger problem here than it is.
|UNICEF Index of child|
well-being. High cycling
countries in orange.
In my view, adults owe the next generation the best start in life and the best future we can possibly provide them. If children can cycle then they already have a head start. The freedom of Dutch children is a good part of what makes this country score so well on the UNICEF index.
However, we could also do what is required to enable mass cycling purely for selfish reasons. Let's pretend for a moment that we're not bothered at all about children. Just for the next few paragraphs, think only of the adults...
Dutch doctors find that cycling helps to treat many ills amongst adults. Dutch companies gain a competitive advantage due to their cycling employees. The tax payer gains because when all the costs and benefits are worked out, it's cheaper to build high quality cycle facilities than not to build them. Motorists benefit because more cycling results in fewer traffic jams.
The advantages of cycling keep on adding up, but in order to reap these rewards it is necessary to build infrastructure which offers everyone a very high degree of both safety and convenience.
If we're to achieve mass cycling amongst adults we have to enable it for children so that the pattern is established and can continue through their entire life. Not only is cycling good for physical health, but also for mental health. Happy and healthy children have a better chance of becoming happy and healthy adults.
|Teenagers ride home three abreast from their school 17 km away while young children riding a shorter distance in the opposite direction are overtaken by racing cyclists. All these people, and myself as well, need the same infrastructure i.e. that which is easy to understand and offers direct and safe journeys. This consistent high quality experience can be achieved where there are cycle-paths and where there are not. Why aim for anything less ?|