Friday 23 August 2013

The Campaign for Childhood Freedom. This is your "stop the child murder" moment (see what happens when Londoners have children)

Earlier today I wrote a blog post about how Londoners use cars for exactly the same journeys as the Dutch use bikes. However, there was more than just that in Transport for London's data and at least one thing which I thought much more important: How people behave when they have children.

What happens when Londoners have children ?
UNICEF Index of child
well-being. High cycling
countries in orange.
TfL say that "Car trip rates are consistently around 50 per cent higher amongst residents of households with at least one child than those living in childless households across all income bands. Averaged across all income bands, adults in households with children make 0.93 car driver trips a day on average, compared to 0.58 car driver trips per person in households without children."

They go on to say that "Parents of pre-school and primary school aged children have the highest car driver trip rates, and young adult households by far the lowest car driver trip rates."

It may be difficult for campaigners to see why, but this is evidence, as if we needed it, that Londoners care about their children. Being cocooned in a car is bad for children, but parents in London see see driving as the least bad option to try to keep their children safe.

It's not just London, it's everywhere
Parents across the world are united by a desire for their children to be safe. Every parent wants the best for their children, however while Dutch children benefit from an environment in which their parents can give them great freedom and which UNICEF says gives them the best wellbeing of any children, their British counterparts are rate second from bottom (only the USA is worse) in well-being, have less freedom than in the past and are cocooned in their parents' cars because of fear for their safety. This isn't only bad for the development of children but also for parents who have the added stress and expense of having to work as unpaid taxi drivers.

Children across most of the world share the same problems of lack of independence and this is a large part of the reason for the obesity 'epidemic' which leads to many calls or action. Nearly half of Britain's children are not getting the bare minimum of daily exercise needed for good health. It's similar in many other countries. Sadly, the solutions proposed often do not include the idea of allowing children the freedom that they crave because people can't see how that can be achieved.

Very young child cycling home from school on a normal
day in Assen. When she's a few years older she'll do it
without her Mum. Who doesn't want such freedom for
their children ? (this photo was not taken in a park but
in a very typical modern Dutch residential area)
I do not criticise parents in London or elsewhere because they want to keep their children safe. I also cannot criticise them for attempting to do so by driving them to their destinations in the family car rather than allowing their children to make their own way on a bicycle. Parents who do this are sacrificing their own time to benefit their children. Driving their children is an act of love.

The harm caused to children as a result of this is not the result of decisions made by individual parents who have no choice but to react to their environment so much as it is the inevitable result of decades of road design which has made cycling and also walking less than desirable, even on many residential streets.

Where's Boris ?
In London the fault lies with Transport for London and the buck stops with Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who for all his flannel about cycling has done almost nothing at all to make it possible for the majority of the population, and particularly for children, to travel independently instead of having to rely on their parents.

Events on closed roads demonstrate how popular cycling could be in London if only people felt safe to ride their bikes. But people do not feel safe and they will not cycle until they do. The standard of infrastructure in London is so poor than even most adults do not cycle now. Just 2% of journeys are by bike. In order for children to be able to cycle, the infrastructure needs to be far better as not only do The degree of subjective safety required to encourage parents to allow their children to have freedom.

A month has now passed since we invited Boris Johnson and other London politicians to come and see what it is that makes it possible for Dutch people to cycle as much as they do and to see for himself how Dutch children benefit from their freedom.

Since we sent our invitation, Boris Johnson has got himself into the paper again, this time cycling in Australia. Australias has similar problems with childhood obesity and lack of children's independence and social development to those of the UK. But what good is this doing for Britain ? How does this help the children of London, the UK, or Australia for that matter ?

Campaigners. It's time for effective action !
There's an opportunity for cycling campaigners if they wish to take it.

The rear window of our somewhat old
car displays a faded sticker left over
from a previous ineffective attempt
to improve conditions by asking for
"space for cycling"
Forget about ineffective campaigning for things like "space for cycling" (it may as well be "help the shoplifters" so far as the general public are concerned). Stop antagonizing people by talking about controversial but not particularly important issues like strict liability. Stop expending effort in debating the pros and cons of a single street in London which has been inadequately transformed for the second time. None of this is going to make cycling into an everyday experience for the whole population.

By concentrating on these details you are missing the big picture.

We moved here so that our children could have the same
advantages as do Dutch children. It's not something everyone
can do. We have campaigned for children from the start on
this blog. This is what "Go Dutch" should have been about!
Sadly, that campaign in London was derailed from the start.
This photo is of our children, now adults, on holiday in the
Netherlands next to the "cycling lesson" statue in Groningen
Cycling should be for everyone
Campaigners are partly to blame for the UK's disastrous last forty years because they've consistently failed to focus on the issues that really matter and have instead concentrated only on what existing cyclists needed to continue as a minority. Partly as a result of this emphasis, cyclists certainly are a minority now. By allowing themselves to be pigeon-holed as "the cyclists", and by setting their own standards so low, campaigners made it easier for government to get away with decades of under-investment in cycling infrastructure which could have benefited everyone.

Slowly, but oh so surely, the policies of successive governments have led to Britain's parents believing they have no choice but to transport their children by car. Parents want only the best for their children, but their choices are limited by the environment. This is why both walking and cycling to school have declined while driving to school has risen.

Parents are doing the best they can for their children, but while they keep their children safe from being killed in collisions on the streets by transporting them by car, those same cars will still kill them just as surely if they lead to a sedentary lifestyle and the resulting health issues.

This is your "Stop The Child Murder" moment. The best issue to campaign on now in the UK is the same issue as the Dutch campaigned on forty years ago: The safety and health of all the nation's children.

The Campaign for Childhood Freedom
A good slogan is needed for a campaign which is focused around children. "Stop The Child Murder" worked because it was emotive and was something that the whole population could get behind. The Campaign for Childhood Freedom also seeks the widest possible support. The health of future generations is vitally important, everyday exercise is vital to improving the health of children, and the best way of achieving this is to make it possible for every child to be active in their daily life and have a degree of freedom and independence similar to that which Dutch children benefit from.

For how many adults is the memory of their first bicycle also a memory of the freedom and independence which it provided ?

Children don't have driving licenses. If they are not to be cocooned in motor vehicles then there is a choice of travelling no further than walking distance or of experiencing the vastly greater degree of freedom which a bicycle provides.

To enable today's children to have the same experiences as their parents and grandparents requires a change to the infrastructure so that they are safe. Cycling infrastructure must be of a quality that you would let a five year old use it and it must go everywhere. Not only to school, but to beaches, parks, city centres and anywhere else that children might want to go.

There's no need to alienate the audience with anti-car policies. The Dutch don't. However, streets around schools certainly should not be dominated by cars
It doesn't only help children
Infrastructure of the quality required truly to enable children to cycle in safety works best for everyone. That includes older people who mostly don't cycle at all in other countries and those who like to ride at speed.

Read more about what the freedom of Dutch children, the problems facing British children or my previous posts about campaigning for children. Also see how Dutch children get to school.

Whatever you might think about the merits of campaigning for children, they're the only possible source of tomorrow's adult cyclists. Infrastructure which is good enough that parents find it safe for their children is good enough for confident and fast adult cyclists as well. We all have the same need for direct, convenient routes and safety. The Netherlands has been easily the most successful nation at encouraging cycling. See examples of what works well in The Netherlands and consider taking a study tour to learn more.


highwayman said...

"Healthy Children;

Successful Children;

Bicycling Children.

Give 'em a road to call their own."

PS: Looking forward to see you in person within a few days.

Martin said...

Hello David,

first of all, THANK YOU for this blog. It is an absolute eye-opener of what is possible.
I fully support your vision, that a traditional campaigning leads nowhere. Getting on board parents and others who would love to give their children more independence, but are afraid of doing so for obvious reasons should work (if not, then I will really despair).

Now, for the slogan. Here are my few pennies (hopefully not too aggressive; English is not my first language, so please bear with me)

Stop stealing streets from children!

Stop robbing the children!

Stop the childhood robbery!

Koen said...

"Give the children their space"

Anonymous said...

A poster with a choked urban motorway on one side, with children looking nervously from the sideline, against a dutch-style cyclepath with lots of happy children cycling: "The road to their future - you choose."

And again, pictures of anxious looking children in a dark room faces lit by a video screen, as against a similar photo of families cycling together on lovely paths: "Their future - you choose"

You could run a whole series of "Their future - you choose" scenarios.

Doug Culnane said...

Another great post David,

How about:

"Stop the fat child abuse".

That should get some attention...

Doug Culnane said...

"Free the fat kids."

Koen said...

@Paul Milne:I like your idea!