Busy roads return: are we already forgetting lessons learned from COVID-19?

By Karen Gee, founder and editor of family cycling website Cycle Sprog

As with everything that has unfolded in the past 14 months, there have been highs and lows in the world of family cycling.

The highs have been wonderful, and we can only hope that they lead to a generation of children growing up loving cycling. The moment the Prime Minister announced cycling was allowed during the initial lockdown, sales of kids’ bikes went through the roof.

The sun shone, the roads were quiet, and many families realised for the first time just how much fun can be had by getting everyone outside riding their bikes.

Parents who had not previously had the time were able to teach their kids how to pedal, while those with younger children discovered the joys of bike seats, trailers and tagalongs. Many families even invested in cargo bikes, determined to reduce their reliance on public transport or motor vehicles, with reasons ranging from COVID safety and the environment to physical and mental wellbeing or family finances.

Kids who love to race their bikes signed up for Zwift, entering the ever-expanding world of virtual cycling. Visitors to the Cycle Sprog website skyrocketed, and soon the main question being asked wasn’t: “Which is the best bike for my child?” but: “Help! Where can I find a bike for my child?”

Membership of family cycling advice forums doubled almost overnight, as everyone wanted to know the best way to cycle with their children. Groups selling second-hand kids bikes came into their own as stock of new bikes dried up, and used bikes started changing hands for almost as much as new ones.

Suddenly, families were cycling for the first time and discovering new routes from their own homes. With this came the realisation that it can be quicker, easier and more fun to cycle places without having to get into the car. There were a few months when everyone was agreed that more kids and families on bikes was a wonderful thing, and that they really must carry on cycling more once all of this was over.

Boris Johnson even announced a “bold vision for cycling and walking” and it felt that we were on the cusp of a golden age. Things have moved on since those heady days. The joy of lockdown easing brought with it a return to busy roads. We are now faced with the possibility that as COVID-19 rates fall, cycling levels plummet too.

It would be such a shame for cycling to become a distant memory – but how do we ensure it is not just something people tell their grandkids they did during the COVID-19 pandemic? Access to bikes and other family cycling equipment is going to be crucial. Every kids’ bike retailer and manufacturer I’ve spoken to this year is saying the same thing – they just don’t have enough stock to meet demand. All are increasing their orders, but everyone is waiting on delivery and some are talking about 2023.

Meanwhile, kids are going to keep growing so we can expect to see a continuing reliance on the second-hand market. Finance and long-term lease options that allow the cost of kids bikes to be spread also help families struggling with the financial fallout of the pandemic. The supply issues caused by the pandemic plus the added costs brought about by Brexit have also pushed prices up. The added financial and administrative burdens are being felt hardest by smaller businesses, who make up a vital part of the family cycling landscape.

But they also mean that many kids bikes are costing significantly more now than 14 months ago. This further increases the inequality between those affluent families whose income did not nosedive in the past year and those hit hardest by the financial fallout of the pandemic. The former can afford a new bike for their child whilst struggling families find themselves priced out of a sellers’ market and unable to meet the financial credit checks to lease a bike.

Kids’ bike recycling and refurbishing schemes plus the growing network of local family cycling lending libraries will continue to play an important part in keeping families cycling. There are also considerations about access to cycle skills training plus bike security and storage (certain housing types make it easier to securely store bikes and family cycling equipment).

We desperately need to see more role models from all communities cycling, both for the school run and for pleasure. Plus, families need good quality advice on how to get out there riding with children of all ages. Retailers can help with this by understanding the range of equipment needed to cycle with smaller children and providing advice on how to fit it to a parent’s bike.

All this is crucial, but when I recently asked readers of Cycle Sprog what they most need help with, many of the answers were about finding safe routes to ride with their children, away from fast-moving and close passing traffic. Despite the promised new golden age of cycling that Gear Change and the Cycle Infrastructure Design – Local Transport Note 1/20 heralded, there has been precious little evidence of this on the ground, especially outside the major cities.

Some neighbourhoods that have been lucky enough to get funding via the 2020 Active Travel Fund have become battlegrounds between motorists and cyclists. Progressive councils who have embraced the concept of School Streets fill their social media feeds with pictures of children walking, cycling and scooting to school.

Elsewhere, schools have had to close their bike sheds due to social distancing protocols, and there was the well-publicised removal of temporary bike lanes on Kensington High Street and Upper Shoreham Road leaving children unable to cycle safely to school.

As each month passes, it feels more like a postcode lottery as to which families can carry on cycling. With funding for infrastructure determined by potential usage levels, urban areas usually triumph over smaller towns and rural areas. Within the urban areas, battle lines are drawn between those living in areas with LTNs and School Streets and those outside.

Obviously, the real solution is to take the Dutch approach and build well-designed infrastructure everywhere, but that seems an unlikely outcome in the short term. While we wait, the focus must remain on providing access to good quality kids bikes and family cycling equipment for all, advice for families on how and where to cycle and the ongoing campaigns to make our streets safer for everyone to cycle.

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