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 have also shown people’s agency too – that although it is 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 personally encountered two such families during fieldwork for the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, and merge their stories here. I assume it goes without saying that 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 is much too difficult regularly and routinely to cycle ordinary journeys across urban Britain today.
There are similarities between the families portrayed here: both are white, middle-class, educated, and might be characterised as ‘alternative’ or ‘green’; both comprise two parents who work, and two school-aged children, a boy and girl. But there are of course differences between them too: they live in different cities; one family owns a car which is used for longer journeys and/or when cycling is just 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 the 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. In the past his 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 are both keen cyclists, for leisure and holidays as well as for 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 is 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, which is 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!”
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. As part of families in which cycling has been normalised, they all 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 which they do.
As cyclists themselves none of the parents is naïve about the cycling situation, and 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 big majority of parents who’d prefer their children, on the whole and given present conditions, not to cycle.
But the parents in these 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’ve been carefully chosen to be 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.
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”.
From micro cycling system to macro anti-cycling system
These cycling families have created a cycling-friendly world at the micro-level. They have assembled domestic cycling systems – effective storage for many bicycles and their multiple accessories, libraries full of maps, and wardrobes full of appropriate clothes. And for now the parents’ own pro-cycling psychologies remain reasonably intact, and they have successfully (though of course children always moan!) instilled them in the next generation.
Cycling feels pretty 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 particular parental concerns 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 is 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 all the other vehicles and the offending driver simply hasn’t anticipated or seen us (a reasonably common experience in UK rush-hour riding, unfortunately). Ray brakes hard, and his back wheel goes up in the air. It’s a good job he has his wits about him. If he’d not seen the car and/or if he’d not braked so hard, he’d have gone over its bonnet.
It’s hard to be sure but 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 he 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 that 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 outset, cycling families such as those represented here 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 continuously 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 that 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 cannot leave the work of building a cycling culture to individuals (and families) alone. Without broader and deeper structural affordances to movement by bike, cycling will remain in a marginal, unsustainable place.