Stored away on my phone is a brief video showing the day, a few years ago, when my son first learned to ride a pedal bike – more precisely, the moment he gained sufficient confidence for me to stop hovering and record the historic event for posterity.
Looking back at the footage, what struck me was the meandering route he plotted. But this wasn’t beginner’s wobbling – it was a deliberate decision to cycle through as many puddles as possible, thus creating the biggest possible splashes.
It is an illuminating experience to cycle with a young child. You relearn the sheer joy of travelling fast and effortlessly under your own power; the exhilaration of freewheeling down a hill; and of course the vital importance of a good rear-wheel skid.
James Holloway, an instructor who often teaches young children, says he gets huge satisfaction from watching them master cycling for the first time.
“As soon as that sense of them balancing the bike by themselves clicks, their enjoyment is exponential,” he says. “What I have to teach is very, very basic and simple – they’re doing the work themselves. And when it clicks you don’t think about it again. You just go.”
But what Holloway also sees is that for many of his charges, their opportunity to use this newly won skill is extremely limited in everyday life.
“The children that I know who do end up cycling regularly tend to have pro-cycling parents who ride themselves and want their children to participate,” he says. “It all comes down to a very family level. There’s not any sense there’s any wider responsibility from society to help children cycle safely.”
This is borne out by statistics. Slightly under 3% of pupils aged five to 16 cycle to school, according to the official national travel survey, with more than a third going by car.
In countries where decades of investment in bike routes has made cycling safer and more everyday, the reverse is true. Almost 40% of Dutch children go to and from school by bike.
In Denmark’s second city of Odense, which has over the decades built 350 miles of bike lanes, a claimed 81% of pupils go to school by bike. The official advice is that those aged six or over should be able to manage the ride alone.
For British parents – where 94% of primary schoolchildren are escorted to school – this must seem like a different world.
There are many consequences, particularly the long-term effect on public health in a country where nearly a third of children are overweight or obese. Public health experts see cycling for transport as an ideal way to keep young people active, particularly for teenage girls, who can be resistant to organised sport.
There are wider social factors at play, not least the narrowed social horizons faced by children unable to travel any distance without a parental chauffeur, if the family even owns a car.
Worries about children losing their freedom of roam are not new. In 1990, the maverick British architect and campaigner Mayer Hillman investigated why, in an era when the rate of child traffic deaths had fallen massively, the government was still running a road safety campaign aimed at young people called, “One false move and you’re dead.”
By replicating surveys from two decades before about how often children were allowed to walk and cycle unsupervised, Hillman found this had plummeted. It was not an era of greater safety for children, he concluded; it was one of greater confinement to the home. “The good old days of reminiscence and the good new days depicted by the accident statistics are reconciled by the loss of children’s freedom,” he wrote.
More recent studies have found children who cycle or walk to school tend to have significantly more “mobility licence” to get about during other parts of their lives, for example seeing friends.
Why are UK children so restricted? The obvious answer is that the roads are far less safe for cycling than those in countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany.
But there is more to it, notably cultural and official attitudes which suggest children should be actively discouraged from getting about by bike.
At the more extreme end is the example of a school in Portsmouth which sought to ban an 11-year-old boy from riding the one-mile trip from his house, despite almost all of this being on cycle paths.
More notorious still was a 2010 case when a school in south London threatened to report a family to social services for letting their children, aged five and eight, cycle to classes unsupervised using the pavement.
Victoria Hazael, from the campaign group Cycling UK, says it is more common for schools to discourage bike use tacitly.
“It might be through letters to parents, or an anti-cycling statement at assembly,” she says. “They might say pupils can’t bring their bicycles on to school grounds, or they won’t provide cycle parking. That creates a culture where you wouldn’t even think to cycle to school because it would be just a real hassle.
“Sometimes schools will say, ‘The problem we’ve got at our school is that there are just too many cars at the school gate.’ They don’t join up the fact that if they encouraged cycling that would be less of a problem.”
Some schools are exceptions, such as a secondary in Suffolk where years of effort means 60% of pupils now ride in. But this remains relatively rare, and for most young people in Britain, cycling remains something done in parks, or else on pavements or the occasional traffic-free cycle route, not an everyday pleasure and means of mobility.
Hazael notes statistics showing a rise in the proportion of English children cycling to school from 2.2% in 2015 to 2.9% last year, possibly grounds for hope. But, as she says, the absolute numbers of cyclists surveyed are so small it doesn’t take many people to boost the percentages.
It is a depressing situation when you consider the huge and instant joy riding a bike can bring to almost every child, even those many might think would be excluded.
Isabelle Clement runs a charity which helps people with disabilities ride bikes, or – as their impairment might necessitate – trikes, arm-powered cycles or various types of tandem.
Wheels for Wellbeing regularly helps children, often helping them gain vital independence. For example, Clement notes, children with cerebral palsy can often manage a school commute by trike which would be impossible for them to walk.
Sometimes, she says, the biggest impact can be felt by children with very severe and complex impairments.
“They often tend to do very little in terms of outdoor activity or experiencing speed,” Clement says.
“They might not be able to move themselves, or could be quite closed in their own world, but when you get them on the front of a wheelchair tandem and moving through space at speed you really see transformation. It energises the mind and body, and it does the same however profound the impairment.
“Cycling reaches parts that nothing else does. You can’t really explain it, it’s really visceral.”