Earlier this week the BBC web site featured a rather curious article in which olympic gold medal winner Chris Boardman confessed that he would not allow his daughter to cycle on British roads; or more precisely the 300 meters of road connecting his home to the off road coastal cycle path.
The article begins with his recalling how bikes and cycling have always been a part of his life. Boardman recalls the joy of his Raleigh Chopper before moving seamlessly into his lament of our hugely under resourced cycling infrastructure.
Early on in the article Boardman draws a neat comparison between this under investment and our decades of very significant investment in motorways, rail and airports, noting that in each case successive governments worked on the simple premiss ‘if you build it they’ll come’.
At first glance it is difficult not to endorse this article and the argument Boardman is presenting. His logic appears clear; Boardman loves his daughter, he recognises that roads are perceived to be unsafe and so he is logically unwilling to place his daughter in harms way.
Who would or could disagree with that?
There is however an assumption implicit to Boardman’s article which I, a mere urban commuter, find deeply problematic.
The detail of Boardman’s argument is not concerned with the difference between perception and reality which he recognises to be very significant, but with his repeated appeal for at least a £10 per head investment in cycling infrastructure. At this point the logical flow of his argument appears problematic.
Boardman’s daughter is 8 not 12, not 14, not 16, but 8. I am therefore assuming that he wouldn’t actually allow his 8 year old daughter to be alone on the aforementioned off road cycle network alone for a whole host of other reasons.
It therefore follows that Boardman is in fact describing an unwillingness to cycle with his daughter on British roads and that feels to me like a very different issue.
I have two sons and I love them dearly it is because I love them that I have encouraged both boys to ride with me on the road from long before they were 8 years old. It was not always easy, drivers were often inconsiderate but I was able to provide my boys with a level of protection just by being with them. What I now have is an 12 year old who confidently cycles three miles to school every day and through some of Birmingham’s worst roads. He is fit and healthy, he understands issues of environmental degradation and chooses to do his bit. He is insulted by any suggestion of the school bus!
Cycling together not only instills in our kids a sense of normative behavior but also teaches them good strong road sense; they will do as we do, not as we say.
Why would you want your kids not to experience that?
Will there come a point at which Miss Boardman aged 12, 15 or 17 will suddenly have the skills to ride confidently and safely on British roads. I doubt it. Where will she have acquired them from?
What then will change?
Her Father’s love for her is unlikely to change, so what will change?
Answer; very little.
I’d go as far as to say that not to ride with your kids on the road is morally reckless, it enforces a miss perception of their safety and hinders their development without good cause, not to mention its implicit reinforcement of the message that roads belong to cars.
Chris writes as if he has in mind a clear Utopia. One day he’ll wake up and draw back the curtains of his West Kirby home only to discover that every road has a segregated cycle lane.
In the words of my mentor “Good luck with that!”
There is of course an alternative logic to that which is implicit to Boardman’s argument; it is evidenced in cultural renaissance the world over; ‘Get on with it and they’ll follow’. The Manchester Music Revival of the late 80’s and 90’s did not happen because Manchester City Council had invested millions in schools of music, it happened in spite of chronic under investment in the arts and was largely due to the will and imagination of people as brilliant as Anthony Wilson and Ian Curtis.
Before someone pulls the ‘Dutch card’, lets remember that what actually prompted the Dutch cycling revolution was an oil crisis, infrastructure, brilliant though it is, came much later.
Is all of this to say that the government should not be spending at least £10 per head on cycling infrastructure?
Governments and Councils should invest but we the ordinary plebs should not wait for that investment before we both encourage and enable mass change, that would be to make the future of something as transformative as cycling beholden to something as consistently unreliable as political will. You leave your future in some one else’s hands if you like but I’d rather not.