This past Saturday saw a rather lovely “first” happen as I got my first proper ride with Nelle on the WeeRide as myself, Isaac (16) and Charlotte (11) took a ride over to my parents in Croydon as the rest of the family drove over – our car *only* having 7 seats and friends staying over meant we were a few seats short!
This is a journey I’ve often done myself and as a regular and quite capable cyclist it’s a trip I barely give a second thought too – there are a few routes I can choose depending on what kinda mood I’m in and how energetic I feel. For the large part, the routes I’d cycle is pretty much unchanged from what I’d use if driving however that all changes once you start considering a suitable route to use with 2 of your own who can’t quite match your normal cruising speed or quite have the same confidence on the road around high volumes of motor traffic.
After a bit of deliberation, I decided it would be best to try following the signed cycle network route to Croydon. I’d take up the lead position, Charlotte would ride 2nd and Isaac would act as a rear marker as he has a bit more experience riding on the road. I had a vague idea where it headed but as this is one of the original cycle networks it is notorious for sending riders down quiet back roads (good – means generally speaking traffic levels are very low) but does require you to keep your eyes peeled for directions as it’s rather winding (bad – we only had 1 missed turn, thankfully called out by Isaac). As it turned out we only really had a couple of awkward moments on the whole 3-4 mile journey where we had to cross busier roads which involved trying to find a suitable gap in traffic for me & my co-riders. At each one, I’d explain what we needed to do as we waited, either to head straight over or do a bit of a zig zag so if we did get separated we’d soon be back as one group and it went fairly well.
Eventually, after about 40mins we ended up turning up in what the network considers “Croydon” as the little blue signs vanished. This turned out to be about 1/4 mile up London Road from West Croydon. At this point I used my local knowledge to plan a route towards East Croydon station, again trying to avoid busy roads, but that was all dashed when I noticed (new?) signs stating that North End – the main pedestrianised shopping street in Croydon – was actually a shared use area so we could cycle through there! The slower pace set by the younger riders meant this was ideal and we deftly negotiated the hordes on Saturday shoppers. The final part to join up to East Croydon did involve using a slightly busier road but as it was only a very short stretch and turns into a bus/taxi/cycle only section past the station it wasn’t a huge issue. I just needed to wait briefly as I made it through a set of lights the other 2 riders didn’t 🙂
The return journey in the evening again saw me giving some consideration to routeing that isn’t always needed when driving. I had the advantage this time of knowing where the other route ran so managed to use the route towards Thornton Heath from East Croydon – my only gripe being a lack of signage to turn you right onto Dingwall Road if headed over the railway bridge however once on that section. It’s a fair traffic free route and using some other local knowledge I was able to connect us back up to our morning route once we got to the end of the “Thornton Heath” leg and the rest was fairly straight forward.
The experience did highlight a few things for me which I believe shows why cycling as a family like this isn’t as widespread as it ultimately needs to be if we want to tackle both rising pollution and obesity levels through promoting active travel.
Firstly the whole “ordeal” of planning a route. It’s not until you want to ride somewhere with less able cyclists that I realise how much I take for granted my own abilities to cope with regular roads. Trying to work out the “least busy” route isn’t quite as easy as it seems! In some ways, it was actually useful being on a different bike to my usual commute and carrying Nelle as it meant I was riding slower and could under-gear so I travelled at a speed that Charlotte and Isaac could match. We also come up with an impromptu system to let me know if I’d got a little ahead as Charlotte would ding her bell twice 🙂 This did also again show me it’s possible to cycle in regular clothing and NOT get all hot and sweaty as I was barely even exerting myself – fantastic for the ride over as it meant I could chat with Nelle, who due to the design of the WeeRide, was neatly snuggled between my arms (note to self – take coat and gloves for the small passengers, wind chill is a thing!)
Secondly, and partially related to the prior point, is that the lack of provision on routes that would be the most logical and direct ways to travel often don’t “feel” viable. It’s pretty much just a few advisory cycle lanes! The provisions provided on the cycle networks (from what I can remember) worked OK for use on regular bikes but I suspect some of the contra flow lanes would present a problem if you should have a cargo trike as they tend to be wider than your average traditional bike meaning that some of the entry points might be too narrow to accommodate them.
The tricky part is how do we fix this? For starters, it can involve simple steps such as simply showing those cyclists you meet on the roads whilst driving some courtesy – don’t tailgate them and wait until it’s safe to pass. When you do pass try to leave as much room as possible, you don’t know if that rider will need to swerve for something you’ve not seen from inside your car. Don’t try to squeeze passed at “pinch points” such as at traffic islands or on narrow roads with oncoming traffic, a few seconds delay won’t kill you but your impatience could seriously injure or kill them. This makes cycling a lot more pleasant and a lot less stressful for the rider, who is ultimately just someone trying to get to their destination in one piece – just like you 🙂
To see a proper uplift in cycling numbers and more families out cycling is going to take some fairly large environmental changes, thankfully the Dutch have a 40-year head start on us in the UK so we can borrow design cues from there to help here. Segregated lanes on the busiest roads and traffic reduction on residential roads that stops rat-running are just 2 techniques used by them to create roads that not only feel safe, but are safer for everyone by either removing conflict entirely or reducing the potential for harm when it can’t be avoided.
TfL’s “Healthy Streets” initiative looks like it could go some way to implementing some of this, with a focus on switching peoples travel mode from private car to public transport, bike or walking however it’s still in the VERY early stages at the moment. The segregated lanes in London have shown that where safe infrastruture is provided it is used, we just need this message to get through to transport planners in local councils!