Kids love bikes: here’s why

Cycling is a life-enhancer. It’s a balancing act, a mode of transport, a tool for exploratory play, and a form of exercise, all in the same eco-friendly package. Pumping those pedals is good for the heart, yet it’s not a chore. It’s fun. For kids, learning to ride a bike is a key rite of passage. A bike is independent transport for a child, no longer just a passenger. A bike is wings.

Cycling extends children’s geographical mind-maps. Trips that would be boring to walk, or too far, are simple, easy and fun to cycle.

Cycling is an intensely social activity for children. If given free rein, bikes can enable kids to travel reasonable distances away from home, solidifying friendships, getting them up close and personal with non-adult places. Cycling also has its risks, an attraction in its own right for many children. Bikes can be fast, much faster than running. As a parent you might be afraid of such unhindered speed, worrying about the consequences of impacts.

Children do hurt themselves on bikes. This is no reason to curtail cycling or treat it as a ‘weekend activity’, under adult supervision only. Most injuries are slight and every knock is a learning experience.

Kids want to speed downhill. Kids want to build ramps and jump off the end, imagining themselves to be rocket powered. Taking calculated risks – especially rocket powered ones – is all part of growing up.

According to independent research agency SHEU (which started life as the Schools Health Education Unit), cycling is the most popular sport-related activity for children in the UK, beating football into a cocked hat. 45 percent of boys aged 11 to 12 and 36 percent of girls cycle at least weekly outside school hours (SHEU 2004).

While only 1 percent of primary school children and 2 percent of secondary school children cycle to school (Department for Transport 2004), 30 percent want to do so, says survey after survey done by the route-building charity Sustrans. There’s huge demand from children to cycle. By and large they don’t want to get to school in ‘mum’s taxi’, they want to use shanks’ pony, or their bikes. Cycling to school is a physical journey but it’s also a friendly one. Kids like meeting their mates on the way to school. Being dropped off or picked up in a car, rules out this out-of-school, kid-centric part of the day.

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Stranger danger, fear of traffic and “I’m driving there anyway, on the way to work” are the usual reasons for taking kids to school in the car. (Sheer distance can be another, crossing cities to get to ‘good’ schools is normal nowadays, although ‘proximity’ to schools is rising up the Government’s hierarchy of what makes education tick). Wanting to protect your child is an obvious imperative but giving them independence, letting them fly, allowing them to make their own mistakes, judge risks by themselves, including road risks, is better that shuttling them to and from school in a fun-free, reality-distorting, air-conditioned capsule.

Want your kids to do well at school? Let them cycle. Teachers report that children who bike to school are more alert, more receptive to learning. A report in Pediatric Exercise Science found that schools that offer intensive physical activity programmes see positive effects on academic performance, even when time for physical education is taken from academic learning. Benefits included increased concentration, reduced disruptive behaviours and improved mathematics and literacy scores. In 2002, the Department of Education in California showed a direct link between fitness levels and academic scores in English and Maths. Those in the fittest category had scores on average twice those of the least fit.

Cycling is a brilliant form of exercise; it’s green, clean, quiet and quick. Cycling reduces pollution, congestion, and, ironically, road danger. The more people who cycle, the safer it becomes for all cyclists. This is because drivers are forced to slow down when there’s a ‘critical mass’ of cyclists, and because more cyclists means their presence is more expected by drivers.

Sustrans long ago recognised the way to traffic calm whole areas was to concentrate on schools. Few people complain about safety measures, and cycle paths, being installed close to schools. But there are lots of schools. Join them all up with traffic calming (this can take many years) and, hey presto, living conditions become better for everybody, not just school children.

Bizarrely, a parliamentary report on traffic calming measures outside schools applauded such moves but suggested lower speed limits should only apply during term times, as though children only need ‘protected’ when going to and from school, rather than year round.

Higher levels of cycling can improve transport choice, civilise cities, and produce a healthier population. (With nicer legs).

One of the biggest and best studies about the health benefits of cycling was carried out by the Copenhagen Center for Prospective Population Studies. Over a number of years, researchers studied 13,375 women and 17,265 men aged 20-93. Many died during the study period and their ages were logged. Those who regularly cycled were found to live longer.

Report author Lars Bo Andersen, of the Institute for Exercise and Sport Sciences in Copenhagen, said:

“The major findings of this large-scale epidemiological study were that in both sexes and in all age groups…those who used the bicycle as transportation…experienced a lower mortality rate even after adjustment for leisure time physical activity…Those who did not cycle to work experienced a 39 percent higher mortality rate than those who did.”

According to Sharp – the UK’s National Forum for Coronary Heart Disease Prevention – regular cyclists typically enjoy a fitness level equivalent to being 10 years younger. (10 year olds may be confused by that).

Forty percent of the deaths in England from coronary heart disease, stroke and colon cancer, among over 16 year olds, can be attributed to a lack of regular physical exercise. This equates to 60,000 deaths a year.

And the rising levels of childhood obesity – a subject rarely off the TV news – can be countered by cycling. Biking burns blubber.

Only one in forty 11-year-olds meets the national target of an hour of physical exercise a day. A University of Bath study of 5,595 children found that 95 percent of boys, and 99.6 percent of girls, didn’t exercise for an hour or more per day.

The children were fitted with small exercise monitoring devices for a week. Children in the study averaged just 17 minutes of moderate exercise, and two minutes of vigorous exercise a day.

Steve Shaffelberg of the British Heart Foundation said:

“We are all becoming expert at engineering physical activity out of our daily lives. In the last 20 years school car journeys have more than doubled, with just 1 percent cycling. The killer combination of far too little physical activity together blended with a diet heavy with soft drinks and snacks is driving rising rates of obesity among British children, and threatening their health.”

We’re living in a society where, for the first time in history, parents are expected to outlive their children. That’s the obesity time bomb. And it’s crazy. Cycling isn’t a panacea, but it’s one part of the fix, especially for the school journey. Kids who cycle to school are more likely to cycle at the weekends and on into adulthood, adding years to their lives.

And cycling to school rather than being driven (sometimes pitifully short distances) makes it safer for other kids. It cuts down on the double parking and driver frustration now commonplace outside British schools.

Road transport is responsible for 22 percent of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Bikes are part of the solution, not part of the problem. They don’t emit deadly pollutants, they don’t slurp fossil fuels. You could even argue that our dependence on oil has caused – and will continue to cause – many wars, a source of friction that we exacerbate for our children by being overly dependent on our cars.

You need a family hatchback to fetch the weekly shopping? Fit a bike trailer or extend your bike with an cargo-carrying add-on. Bikes can carry enormous amounts of stuff. Kids’ bikes, too. Dutch children need to carry just as much schoolwork as British kids but they manage to do this because their bikes are practical, fitted with proper racks.

Many families have ditched their cars – or at least got rid of the second car – by equipping themselves with practical transportation bikes. This might be a step too far for you. Now, that is. With cities starting to restrict cars, the future could be one where pedal power comes to the fore. Get ahead of the trend.

One of the key criticisms of Sustrans from sustainability wonks is that building a National Cycle Network of 13,000+ miles sounds good in theory but, in reality, families don’t cycle from home to a cute traffic-free cyclepath, they drive there, bikes hung off the back of the car.

This is a reasonable criticism, although hardly the fault of Sustrans. Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s going to take a long time to make inner-city bike routes into cyclepaths almost as pleasant to use as the Tissington Trail.

Anything that gets people on bikes has got to be a good thing. Once kids – and parents, and grandparents – are hooked, it’s far easier to introduce lifestyle changes such as cycling to work, cycling to school, cycling to the shops.

Edinburgh Bicycle, a chain of cooperatively owned bike shops in Scotland and northern England, has a wonderful tagline, used on promotional materials: “The Revolution Will Not Be Motorised.”

Solar powered cars might be more environmentally sustainable but will not reduce congestion.

Mechanical engineers might develop motor vehicles that are super fuel-efficient but these efficiency gains will not be sufficient to maintain current levels of car mobility. We can’t tarmac the rest of the UK. Enough is enough.

Cycling is part of the zeitgeist and today’s children – more eco-aware than we ever were – will grow up in a world where the theory of ‘Peak Oil‘ becomes mainstream. This theory posits that no major new discoveries of oil will be made and we’re now burning through what’s left.

Global oil reserves and alternative energy sources will not support continued growth in fuel demand. Oil discovery and production rates will not be able to cater for the increasing demands of motorised transportation. At some point, every vehicle with an infernal combustion engine will grind to a halt. The lemming-like intertwined future of gridlock and oil depletion mean cycling in cities is going to grow in size and importance.

Children are more aware than most adults that fuel consumption at current levels is causing irreversible climate change through increased carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. But even if the solar powered car scenario of above came about, the finite amount of room on our island and the fact that even the most eco of cars can still knock down and kill, will mean that our children’s future is one where car use will be reduced. Will HAVE to be reduced. ‘Smart’ cars will be fitted with GPS tracking devices and speed limiters. The ‘freedom’ to drive will be curtailed. Because it’s not free, there’s a cost to society.

City planners will be charged with creating living spaces where cars no longer have priority. Motor vehicle traffic on urban streets will be forcefully slowed down to speeds more compatible with walking and cycling.

You might start out as a ‘weekend warrior’, riding your bike around Rutland Water with your kids, paying the fat fee to leave your people carrier in the car park, but you’ll quickly come to appreciate that cycling offers many benefits to society, and you don’t have to drive everywhere to be ultra-mobile. As the Chinese proverb says, a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.

Be warned, cycling is addictive. It’s planet-friendly, it’s efficient and it’s a whole heap of fun. By cycling as a family you’re ‘doing your bit’. Being a car passenger is passive. Kids don’t get much of a kick out of driving everywhere – they’re famously bored by it.

If your kids aren’t old enough to pedal by themselves, there are loads of options for bringing them along for the ride – from childseats to trailers.

A cycle-crazy teen might not want to be seen cycling with parents, but at least the sport can help maintain some common ground that would otherwise be lost a lot earlier. And when they do get to that rebellious stage, you’ll still be fit enough – just – to challenge them to a race.

Taking your kids on cycling holidays is adventuring they’ll love. Camp, too, and you’ll realise that carrying lots is possible yet you’re still able to get along at a fair old lick for mile after mile. Cycle touring with kids can start with tots in a trailer and extend right through to teens. Older children will enjoy disappearing ahead of their parents, scuttling backwards and forwards, increasing their mileage and the fun factor at the same time.

Whether it’s done fast or slow, cycling as a family encourages togetherness, bonding by bike. It’s quality time and you’re equipping your kids with a skill and a means of transport they’ll love for the rest of their lives.