When I was 13 years-old, my daughter’s age, I would ride my bike to school when it was nice out. If memory serves, it was ten or twelve miles if we went the long (paved) way, and eight if we took the shortcut and used dirt roads. The only trick was the shortcut required we ride on the side of an exceptionally busy 55 mph paved road for a mile. We didn’t like that and the paved option led us right to the back entrance of our middle school (seventh grade). At just 13, I had freedom. Today, we live just five miles from my daughter’s school, on roads much less dangerous that those I rode to school on, yet she’s never once ridden a bike to school.
Jamie Beach at Bike Radar recently wrote a report that looked at how they do things in the Netherlands, where Dutch kids regularly ride their bikes to school and according to studies, their kids are vastly happier than those of the US, UK, and Germany. I’ll let Jamie take it from there:
But humour me here, let’s look at all the benefits we’d enjoy IF we could somehow take all those cars off the road and away from schools…
First, there would be far less congestion and traffic fumes, particularly around schools. If you live in a city, you’re probably familiar with that nasty taste in the back of your throat that indicates air quality is not what it should be. The World Health Organisation says it’s a mass killer, responsible for over 3m preventable deaths worldwide annually due to heart disease, asthma and lung cancer. In fact, the EU’s five most prosperous economies (Germany, France, the UK, Spain and Italy) all fail the WHO’s recommended limits for air pollution.
Second, parents would insist on better cycling infrastructure. I know, it’s scary to think that our children would be out there, battling road traffic. But we can accompany them ourselves, and teach them how to navigate crossings. This seems to be the Dutch approach, a cycling culture that’s passed down from parent to child. Of course, if you live next to a motorway or freeway then maybe there’s just no way your child can safely cycle to school, and the school bus could be a better option. But for most of us, segregated cycle lanes would be an excellent option.
Third, kids would get more exercise – which has been proven by scientists to improve concentration and cognitive mapping in the developing brain. A 2012 Danish study found that kids who cycled or walked to school, rather than being driven, performed measurably better on tasks demanding concentration. A separate US study has found that children growing up in traffic-heavy neighbourhoods have a much more negative attitude towards their environment, and a weaker ability to accurately map it.
As mentioned above, it will also give children that crucial sense of independence, essential to life happiness. These things do matter. If young people feel they can ride to school, go visit friends when they want, or just get out and explore their neighbourhood, they’ll be happier, and parents will feel less like chauffeurs.
Let’s not forget, either, that cycling is a useful life skill – just as Dutch parents cycle everywhere themselves, it would be great if more adults in Britain, the US and Australia got on their bikes. It frustrates me just how car-dependent we’ve become here in the UK, sold on the promise of convenience and thrills, when the reality is our roads are absurdly clogged and road rage abounds. And the solution isn’t bigger roads, that’s a very short-term answer to the problem.
Finally, it’s so much cheaper to cycle everywhere; just think of all the money we’d save on petrol and public transport. Sure, the weather’s sometimes against us, and there could be hills to deal with, but both can be tackled with a bit of determination and the right gear. As the authors of my book on Dutch kids found out, it’s important to foster a bit of resilience and grit – this is often cited as a key factor in happiness later in life.
I like his thinking – and equally interesting as his points, if my kids rode to school and home, they’d be quicker, by as much as 40 minutes each way, than if they take the bus.
What if there was a massive influx of cyclists on our roads? All of a sudden, bam! Tomorrow there’s a 40% increase in cyclists. Politicians were actually pressured into adding that nice 2′ shoulder (which, in turn, makes the roads last longer because the bigger trucks aren’t constantly riding right on the edge of the road/lane).
I do know one thing for certain, I never got a bike smile on the couch: