By Allison Phillips
Girls from Friary Girl’s National School, Dundalk cycling to school on the two-way cycle lane. Source: Green-Schools
I’m sure you can hear it, every time you leave the house for a walk within your 2km radius, it’s quiet. Before the Covid-19 changes, the humming sounds of urban life were a constant ringing in our ears. Traffic engines, building sites, and the noise generated by the sheer numbers of people moving around.
The past few weeks have been difficult for everyone, but many are grateful for the chance to at least pursue some exercise every day. Walking along the road now you might now take heed of the loud rush of car tyres on the tarmac or the hum of an engine, things we notice now as we expect our roads to be quiet.
As you pass people on your walk, within the 2km, keeping your distance, you might step into the road. Normally, the road is a domain that is dangerous and crowded with vehicles flying by. But now, instead of listening out for a 2-tonne vehicle coming your way, you might instead listen out for the gentle swish of bike tyres and clicking of the chain or the ring of a bike bell.
These days, the quiet passing of a bike is accompanied by chatting and laughter from parents and children enjoying the quieter, safer road environment. As the weeks in this coronavirus shutdown rumble on, bikes of all shapes and sizes are emerging from sheds, back gardens, and online shops.
Baby bikes are pushed along by parents walking, balance bikes are weaving along the footpath. From the helmeted head bobbling along in the back seat on a bike, to a new bike with stabilisers and a unicorn helmet; young and old, we are starting to fall back in love with cycling.
Watching parents cycling with their children on the road for the first time can be a worrying experience, particularly for parents as they face heavy traffic. In these strange times, however, these family outings can bring joy as new adventures are undertaken and memories are made.
Cycling on the road can be a freeing experience for both parents and children, however, there are a few things to consider before setting off. As with any time a child is cycling, the bike should be in good working order; both brakes should be working properly, the saddle at hip height or a little lower for nervous cyclists, and the chain rust and debris-free and greased.
Bike helmets are essential for children and lights, too. Source: Green-Schools
A helmet for children is a vital part of the cycling and that’s the advice we always give at Green-Schools. Helmets need to be properly fitted to a child’s head each time before they set off. With a bell and both front (white) and rear (red) lights, the bike is ready for the road.
Basic cycle skills
Before road cycling with a child, it is important to consider the child’s abilities and skill level. Some things to practise in a safe and protected environment are starting and stopping, steering and signalling.
It is important to remind yourself and the child which of the brake levers are responsible for the front and the back brakes; always pulling the back brake first to reduce risk of injury.
If the child has mastered basic cycle skills, you can start discussing on-road cycling including road positioning while cycling together and rules of the road such as intersections and traffic lights, if applicable.
Some children may have received cycle training at school through the Cycle Right programme. As Cycle Right is the national cycling standard, we at Green-Schools provide grants to schools who are currently working on or have completed the Green-Schools Travel theme.
Travel Officers who work directly with schools also provide basic cycle and scooter skills for Scoot to School Week in March and Bike Week in June. In addition to skills for children, we offer cycling skills to adults in the ‘Get in Gear’ course. The cycling course aims to instil confidence and the skills needed for parents and teachers cycling with children.
Mother and son cycling on the road in Co. Mayo Source: Green-Schools
If a child is cycling their own bike with one adult, the child should be at the front with the adult following behind at about a bike and a half distance and slightly out from the child. This positioning allows the adult a good view of the child, allows for direction giving, and provides better visibility of the cycling pair from behind.
If the child is just starting out on the road and is nervous, cycling beside them (two abreast) is a simple way to create a barrier between them and the noisy, potentially scary traffic. By taking the width of the lane, cars will be forced to pass the child at a safe distance.
Although cycling two abreast is completely legal in Ireland, some other road users may lose patience quickly if passing is not possible. In this case, if safe to do so, it may be less stressful for the child and yourself to pull off to the side and allow the other road user to pass. Giving the direction to do this can only be done safely if the adult is either behind or next to the child.
Before taking to the road
On-road cycling environments can take many forms, some of which are; physically segregated cycle track, advisory (a dashed line) or mandatory (solid line) cycle lanes along a road, normally low traffic roads, cycleway (road on for cyclists), combined traffic lanes and unmarked lanes.
Some of these road conditions might strike fear in a parent’s mind as we would normally expect fast-moving, heavy traffic. However, some of these roads, such as segregated cycle tracks, low traffic roads and cycleways, are good options for adults and children to start cycling together.
For your first few on-road cycling adventures make sure you are choosing a route that is easy, flat and has relatively few intersections or potential hazards. Before setting off on your journey ensure that the child will listen and respond to your directions, you might explain that this is very important as you will be making sure they are safe.
Also, assess the child’s direction skills, do they know their right from left? It’s important to stay consistent and use words the child understands, if you call out for the child to ‘keep in’ but haven’t discussed what this means, the direction may confuse the child resulting in mis-manoeuvring.
Students from St. Colman’s College, Claremorris, Co. Mayo practise on-road cycle safety skills Source: Green-Schools
At this point when you are feeling confident about the basics, you may decide to give the child a few jobs such as signalling and calling out ‘stopping’ when they have decided to stop. By calling out that they are stopping, there will be less abrupt stops for the adult and the child will feel empowered by being able to call out a direction.
If the child is struggling in this new cycling environment, comfort and reassure them and if you need to, allow them to cycle on the footpath. While cycling on the footpath is the least preferred option, cycling infrastructure in many parts of Ireland has not caught up to cycling demand, and children will feel safer on the footpath.
If this is the case, the adult can cycle along on the road setting a good example for the child for when they are ready to venture on to the road. Chat about the experience when you get back home and celebrate the child’s effort. It may take time before both the child and adult are confident on the road.
Cycling demand during a pandemic
Many people may now ask why it has taken a worldwide pandemic for us to remember that roads are for people, not just for 2-tonne vehicles? Cities around the world such as Berlin, Paris, Milan, Calgary, Denver, among many others have started to reallocate space and infrastructure to cyclists and pedestrians.
If we are to return to fairer and safer communities post Covid-19 we need to consider what we really need from our roads and start now by reallocating space to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim of the Green-Schools Travel theme is to increase the number of students walking, cycling, scooting, using public transport or carpooling on the way to school.
Getting to school in this way is not only good for children’s bodies and minds but also good for their planet and our communities. When children get out of the car, they get to experience the world around them, learn about their local community, interact with their friends and get to spend more time with their parents in a stress-free environment.
In addition, fewer cars on our roads mean less congestion, less air pollution, less noise and safer streets – who doesn’t want a future like that?
Allison Phillips is a Cycling Development Officer with Green-Schools. The Green-Schools Travel programme is funded by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and supported by the National Transport Authority. Stay up to date with information on Green-Schools, cycling with children and weekly at-home activities and videos at www.greenschoolsireland.org.