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Let the Mothers Ride!

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Yesterday was Mother's Day here in the UK, and it got me to thinking about Mums who cycle, and Mums who don't.  There's something about societal pressures which, I think, mean that women who do cycle with their children are still seen as something of a conundrum. 
Most people would agree that cycling - and more of it - is a good thing, but there's an association with taking your kid for a ride on the roads; an accusation (in some circles at least) that you are willfully putting your children in danger.  A friend of mine experienced this recently when she was shouted at by a total stranger at traffic lights on a quiet road in Hackney.  As her baby slumbered in the bike seat mounted on her bicycle handlebars, the stranger (a pedestrian) compelled her to literally "think of her children".  Of course, knowing you're in the right and that you're not the source of danger could help to compel you to strike out by bicycle with your children more, but the instant a vehicle comes just a little too close - either through malice or a momentary lapse of attention - all notions of "being in the right" go out the window and you'd be left only with concern for your most precious of cargoes.


Needless to say I'm not a Mum so I wouldn't want to put words in to the mouths of women everywhere, but I imagine if - as a male cyclist - I sometimes feel a bit like a hard-done-by minority on our roads, then it's even harder for women, and Mums in particular.  Indeed, men make up some 79% of the UK's trips by bicycle and one of the first posts on ibikelondon, back on International Women's Day in 2010, asked "What's stopping women from cycling?"

Here in East London we are starting to see more Mums, children and older women on bicycles as bike use grows from being the sole domain of early adopters to a wider proportion of the population.  But Hackney is just one borough in the whole of London (about which all sorts of exotic ideas abound as to why it is a so-called "cycling paradise") - what about the rest of the city, and what about the rest of the UK?  Within the traditional family unit, men are still more likely to be the primary users of cars and stay-at-home Mums are more likely to be car-free during the day.  By rights (and as in the Netherlands and parts of Denmark) our streets should abound with Mums a-wheel - cycling to school, cycling to the shops, or cycling to meet with friends; but the converse is in fact true.  After the rush of morning commuter cyclists have passed, I imagine being a cycling Mum can be a somewhat solitary experience.


We know that road danger and fear of danger is a primary obstacle to more cycling, and when you've got your children (or other people's children!) with you it must certainly be the biggest obstacle.  But not wanting to be the first to be seen to be riding with kids, or on "funny" bicycles (cargo bikes), and not having somewhere to store said bikes, and cost of said bikes must also play a role, and about which much more could be done.


H.G Wells can rest easy; cycle tracks will abound in Utopia if the Mayor and TfL deliver on their bold and exciting ten year cycling strategy.  But it won't be enough to just build cycle tracks on the busiest of roads and make minor roads more accommodating of sharing with cyclists, to stand back when they're finished and hope for the best.  We're going to have to actively encourage people to consider bicycles, and show them that riding a bike can be a viable transport option for them; even if they have two, or three, or more children in tow.  Cargo bike culture will, I think, take even more encouragement.  But encourage we must; an architect friend of mine pointed out the imperative of getting more parents on bikes to me over coffee one day.  He said; "Pity the poor Soccer Mom - she is the ultimate victim of bad design.  Because in suburbia the spaces between A and B are so wide, and the roads between each are so big and fast and full of motorcars, there's no way she'll let her children ride a bike.  Thus, in order to preserve her offspring she is chained to Mum's taxi in order to give her kids the wholesome suburban life she had always dreamed of for them.  Soccer practice, ballet class, after-school club, even play dates at other houses - all must be done by car, with the kids in the back, as the roads grow ever busier, her personal time ever smaller, and all their waistlines wider."

Over the next ten years here in London I think the focus of the boroughs must be not just encouraging commuter cycling and helping TfL to deliver their routes across London, but also thinking about who is moving around their borough during the day, how they are going about these journeys, and how these journeys could be transferred to the bicycle.  It's going to be a lot of work, and will not be an easy task, but the reward for Mums and for families everywhere will be substantial. 

I've met Cycling Super Mums in Taiwan, the Netherlands, France and Denmark - there's nothing about the culture in these countries that make their mothers any less fearless or full of concern for their children than here in the UK.  But where conditions for safe cycling have prevailed, the mothers have followed...


With recent announcements and cycling news we've started, finally, to move in the right direction, but more perseverance than even before is going to be needed to get to a stage where Mums jump on bikes without a second thought (much in the same way that they might jump in to a car, or on a train, or on a bus today).  The pay-off for families would be huge, of course, but the pay-off for the country as a whole would be even bigger.  With all the changes that are going to be needed at borough level, there's going to have to be an investment  not just by TfL and local authorities, but also by local communities.  If you're a mother who baulks at the idea of taking your kids on a bike in the city, or if you're a father who'd never allow your young family to navigate London atop a bicycle then you're going to have to get involved to help bring about this change yourself - the city that I think we'd probably all like to see just won't happen without the involvement and investment of families.  It may be an uphill ride at first, but it really is time to liberate Mums.  And change, just like charity, begins at home.

Update; 11.30AM 11th March.  There's been a flurry of Twitter activity following up on this blog!  DeadDogBlog has written about her exasperation with being a Mum on a bike, proclaiming that she can't win, and CityExile proudly points out how fabulous her Mum looks on her bike, whilst Richard from TransportParadise thinks that Oxford has cracked itMy experience of Oxford begs to differ, but I'm certainly interested to see what we can learn from the city of dreaming spires.
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