Mon 16 Jul 2018 13.40 BST
Cycling makes children confident and fit. It’s a national scandal that so few have a skill that is as basic as reading
Just 3% of British pupils aged five to 16 cycle to school, according to a recent study. Photograph: Cyklistforbundet
I would sit on our front doorstep watching in awe as my brother did wheelies on his BMX, whizzing up and down our cul-de-sac with his friends – with me looking on enviously, but never asking to have a go.
It was just not the done thing. Growing up in a Pakistani household in inner-city Birmingham I had never seen any of my female peers cycling. It’s not something that I discussed with my parents; they weren’t against it, but they never encouraged it either. It was ingrained that perching atop a saddle in a salwaar kameez (traditional Pakistani dress) was un-ladylike. So I never learned.
But then at the age of 17 I suddenly found myself living in rural Cambridgeshire, with the nearest bus stop to get to college more than a mile away – it was time to get on my bike. A boyfriend decided he would teach me, and I spent weekend after weekend in a disused quarry, wobbling up and down a dirt track. There were falls into stinging nettles, tumbles over handlebars, and a complete inability to ride in a straight line. But eventually – admittedly with little finesse – I was able to stay on.
Fast forward almost 18 years, and last week saw me cycling just over 13 miles into work for the first time, on canal towpaths, over motorway bridges, and along a busy main road into Manchester city centre. I was a sweaty, nervous wreck by the time I sat at my desk, but I had done it.
I often wish that I had been taught how to ride a bike as a child, because I carry around an added anxiety whenever I saddle up. There are many consequences of not learning early on in life: you miss out on the freedom that it affords you, the health benefits, the expansion of social horizons. So recent research that more than a third of British primary school children have never been taught how to cycle is worrying. The traditional pursuit is said to be in decline as time-pressed parents are not taking their youngsters to parks. The study, by the charity Keep Britain Tidy, suggests the outdoor skills traditionally learned by children could be dying out.
Earlier this year, seeing my four-year-old son going from a precarious wobble to an exhilarating freewheel on his pedal bike was wonderful. His little face lit up with the sheer joy of travelling under his own steam. Laura Hales, from the campaign group Cycling UK, says children are being failed. Almost a third of children are overweight or obese in this country. “School-age children need to be doing at least an hour of vigorous physical activity every day, and ideally significantly more – and we are seriously failing. One of the easiest ways to get children to exercise is through what we call active travel, through cycling and walking, because you can do it on your way to school.”
For Hales the situation is becoming desperate, and she calls for a complete cultural shift that would allow children to use their bikes on a daily basis within their communities. “This is the fattest generation of kids that we have ever had, and the problems it is storing up for them when they get older is really frightening. We shouldn’t just blame the parents. We as a society need to take more responsibility, stop using our cars, and change the way our roads are built to encourage more cycling and walking. Only then will things begin to really change.”
While we lag behind many countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany – recent statistics revealed that just 3% of British pupils aged five to 16 cycle to school – there is change in the pipeline.
In Greater Manchester a thousand miles of safe cycling and walking routes are to be created after a campaign by the Olympic gold medallist Chris Boardman. The network – named Beelines, in homage to Manchester’s civic symbol of the worker bee – includes 75 miles of Dutch-style segregated lanes, and will be the largest joined-up network in the UK. A Beeline sign, as Boardman’s mantra has it, would indicate that “a competent 12-year-old” – the proxy he uses to indicate a vulnerable road user – would be safe.