23 May 2016

5 things you need to know before cycling with your kids

Please forgive the clickbaity-title.  I've been thinking about this post for a while, and got inspired by a discussion on the Family Cycling facebook group.  On the one hand, I think we're probably just lucky - our kids rarely whine that they're tired (refueling usually helps) and really seem to enjoy going places by bike.  But, a bit a parental strategy helps.  If you're going to cycle regularly or any distances, you'll end up on the roads at least some of the time. These are my tips for happy family cycling: 

1.  Accept that it will be stressful  Yes, riding bikes is fun and good for you and a speedy way to get around, but riding on roads with your kids is incredibly stressful. It helps if you have two adults. It also helps to keep on quiet roads as much as possible.  Around Edinburgh we can easily ride 10 miles in all directions with 90% on off-road paths, but even then the remaining 10% is exhausting.  On the plus side,  your kids will grow amazingly in confidence and skills.

2. Don't try this until you can trust your kids to listen to you and do what you say. This is a pretty big caveat. You do have to have kids who stay (mostly) tuned in, and alert to your instructions.  It helps if they know their left and their right too (this also goes for parents...).  You also need to be sure that everyone understands the rules.  We had a disaster once when riding with friends whose son wasn't all that confident.  I started through an intersection that I've taken my kids through dozens of times.  I made eye contact (think Paddington stare) with a car that was indictating to turn across us.  I told the kids - behind me - to go as well.  I was shielding them from the car, but moving.  Then my friend, bringing up the rear told the kids to 'watch out for the car'. So the non-confident child braked and froze in the intersection, my daughter ran into him and came off in the junction, and I cycled off, not knowing what had happened.  There are two lessons here: (1) I shouldn't have tried to go through the intersection. We should have got off and walked. Or, I should have stopped my bike and blocked the turning car. (2) Make sure that kids know that only STOP means stop, and that you have to keep going when there are other cyclists behind you.

3. Always keep the kids in front of you This is the one big rule that I frequently want to shout at parents I see on the roads.  You need to be able to see your kids.  Yes, this can mean that they're riding in front of car doors and other obstacles.  You don't want them too far in front.  But you need to be behind them and, if possible,  a little to the right (for those of us who drive on the left).  The ideal situation is two experienced/adult riders, with the most confident bringing up the back, but that's not always possible.  So, remember, kids in front, but it's your job to tell them to 'start slowing down' / change gears/ get ready to go because the light's changing etc.

4. Have a get-out clause, but don't let them know! if they're small start by taking your normal bike-seat, tandem or trailer along as well.  That way if it's too much, you can still bungee their bike on and take them back home.  Trailgators accomplish this too. But the real trick is not to let them know that the tow home is an option.  So, make the trailer look really full of picnic blankets or siblings or whatever and don't offer 'do you want to get in and ride home' unless you have to.  If you don't mention it, they may not twig.  We've done this with both our kids and never had to use the emergency escape route.  With our first, we just assumed she'd get in the trailer on the way back after pedalling 2.5 miles to Duddingston Loch on a 10" wheel bike.  But nope, she rode all the way home too.  With our second, we were a bit savvier.  We didn't bother with the trailer, but we did take the tandem and bungees.  After a couple of months we left the tandem at home and all rode 'normal' bikes.  Another clever wheeze is to always plan rides that intersect with train lines, at least for the first few months - we've only bailed once, when we'd badly underestimated the weather and had a very cold toddler, and then my daughter wiped out (she was looking at the Forth Bridge and went off the path...).  Luckily we were near Dalmeny Station, so we abandoned our planned ride, jumped on a train (thanks to an understanding guard) and went happily home.  

5.  Peer pressure is the best: Organize a ride with some friends and your kids will be amazed to find they've cycled 10 or 15 miles easily in a day.  Seriously though, not only will they think if he can do it, so can I, but they'll also ride twice as fast with a friend their age as with you.

Finally, to combine all these things -- go somewhere fun, but have a back up plan, and some rewards.  My daughter managed over 25miles on a 20" bike when she was 7 - it was also the 3yo's first long ride as stoker on the tandem.  We had an incentive that we were meeting friends for a cool event out at East Fortune (the National Museum of Flight), and that we could easily get the train home. It was a fabulous ride, much longer than we'd have done if we hadn't known there were train stations all the way along.  We also took the child seat and knew that we could always put the 7yo on the tandem and the toddler in the bike seat if we needed to.  We had a great ride, a fun train ride home, and then dinner at our favourite restaurant as a treat.

09 May 2016

Operation Souped-up Islabike a success!

Following on from my previous post, all about chainsets and gear-ratios and other things I don't really understand, I'm delighted to report that our attempt to retro-fit a larger chainset to the Islabike has been an unqualified success. 

We were lucky enough to find a 36T chainwheel, with cranks exactly the same length as his current ones, in the magic drawers of the Bike Station. In fact, so lucky, that we didn't realise we'd found them.  Our co-conspirator (who unlike me actually understands things like cranks and chain sets) bought it for another refitting job he's doing, thinking it was a 32, but realized later that it was just the right size.   

On Sunday, we he disassembled the Islabike, attached the new chainset and off we went. A definite improvement - noticeable, but not so much that it affected his ability get started or to climb. And hugely better on the flats.  He still rides it a bit like a bmx, but there's a lot less spinning and coasting.  

Which makes me wonder if Islabikes and Frog might want to consider marketing some 'longer distance' bikes, or at least an option of buying your bike with a 32, 36, or 40 chainset?   Or even just having these parts available to order? 

If our lad found the bike undergeared within 6 months of fitting on it, and riding distances of between 10 and 20 miles, then surely there must be other folk out there in the market for such adaptations?  

08 May 2016

How to choose a kids bike...or why it's not just about wheel size

When we go cycling en famille, we are quite often all on 20" wheels - an Islabike Beinn small, currently ridden by my 5yo; my Dahon Helios folder; and our Circe Helios tandem.  But there is a huge disparity to our pedalling rate. The little guy's legs go around and around, even when the rest of us are coasting.  We noticed this when our daughter rode the same bike, especially when we started doing longer rides.  But with the 5yo desperate to keep up with his big sister, he's more often out of the saddle, than in it. 
(Although unusually for us, in this picture the two leading cyclists are on 24" and 700cc wheels)

Which is okay for short rides, but pretty tiring when he's doing a decent 15 miles around Edinburgh's old railway paths, which tend to be pretty flat.

What we discovered when we discussed this apparent paradox, is that contrary to general opinion, wheelsize and the number of gears on your bike really don't make much difference. It's crank lengths, and, perhaps more importantly, gear ratios, that we should be worried about.  

Kids bikes are geared low to make it easy for them to start pedalling, go up hills, etc.  So my guy can sprint up hill, but struggles to keep a steady pace on the flats, because he 'spins out'.  I wondered if any other comparable kids bikes had higher gearing, but that data required some digging, and I thought I'd share my findings*:

This suggests that Frogs have higher gearing on their first bikes than Islabikes do (my kids just rode generic second-hands at this stage, so I can't compare).  But, when you get to geared bikes for 5-6yos, there's not much difference. 

I'm intrigued though by the Frog 58, which with a 34T chainwheel looks like a much better 'next bike' for my 5yo than the Beinn 20 large, or the Luath 24.  His sister rode the Beinn 20 small until she was 8, but I have the feeling he might be moving up sooner than that.  

However, we've also got an expert bike consultant involved who's looking into retrofitting a bigger chainset to the Beinn, if we can just find one with small enough cranks.

*important caveat - I just pulled this data off the websites; please let me know if you spot anything wrong!  I've not included all their makes - I'm particularly interested in the 5-6yo demographic. Obviously, none of this should be taken as any sort of endorsement of either islabikes or frogs.I've not dug out data on kids bikes other than Islabikes and Frogs because their bikes are the smallest weights and their brakes are designed for small hands, and my kids both have tiny hands. 

25 April 2016

Normalising cycling...Cycling Normally...

What's your favourite part of Pedal on Parliament?

For a lot of folk it's the quirky bikes - the velomobiles, tall bikes and unicycles; for others it's the adapted bikes - tandems for partially sighted stokers, hand-powered cycles, recumbents, and side-by-side trikes;  most people comment on the kids - on their own wee bikes sometimes still with stabilizers attached; in box-bikes; tag-alongs,  and tandems;  while for others it's the cyclists in 'normal' clothes -particularly beautifully represented by Alison Johnstone this year, but also (perhaps less beautifully) by many others of us wearing jeans and t-shirts, or other combinations of 'normal' clothes.

But the people who I love to see - and who I always try to thank for coming - is the one group that gets flak:   the club cyclists in full matching lycra.

Every year after POP we get comments saying too much lycra, too many helmets, too much hi-viz.   And I'd love it if people didn't feel the need to wear all that kit for a short ride (although some of those 'roadies' have been cycling for 4-5 hours by the time they reach the meadows).  But the reality is that most folk don't feel welcome on the roads, and they don't trust drivers to not see them.

Hi-viz and helmets are indicators of where we've gone wrong as a cycling nation.  The clubbyness of our 'cycling culture' is a defensive reaction to out-group stereotypes, rather like teenage goths or punks 30 years ago.  Telling these folk to 'dress normally' without changing the environment that makes them feel like outcasts, is as much use as a well-meaning mother asking their kids  'dress normally please' when going to visit grandparents.

But the real reason I love seeing the roadies is because there is a tendency to suggest that cycle infrastructure is something needed by 'less confident cyclists like women and children' (as a draft document produced by Edinburgh Council put it recently).  And this shapes assumptions about the type of infra and how it is understood.

Infrastructure for 'women and children' is a fringe benefit, a nice thing to have, but not 'essential' like infrastructure for road-hauliers and important business-people getting to their offices.  And so, infrastructure is designed for leisure use, or to take kids to schools and parks.   But 'real' spending is reserved for dualling roads and building bridges.

We know that there is a compelling economic case to be made for investment in proper cycle infrastructure - great rates of return, with benefits for local businesses and the economy as a whole.

But in order to get that sort of infrastructure built we need to send the message that everyone - not just me and my kids - will benefit from investment.  And that is why I love seeing the roadies there - because they send a signal that even those die-hard road-warriors want and need better road design.

We need to design cycling into all of our roads - urban and rural, quiet and busy - so that cycling really does become something that everyone can do, in all sorts of clothes.

20 February 2016

The good, the bad, and the ugly of Edinburgh's dual network

A big chunk of Edinburgh's Active Travel Action Plan covers the creation of a 'family network'  now renamed 'quiet routes':

The map is here thanks to Chris Hill for the direct link.
There's been a lot of criticism of this approach, which is predicated on the assumption that fast, aggressive cyclists will stay on the roads and less confident cyclists will take 'quiet ways'.  This is of course a false assumption - 'confident' cyclists are just at much as risk from a bus that fails to indicate before changing lanes,  a driver who overtakes too closely, or a left hook SMIDSY.  Good infrastructure will be used by all, as we're seeing in London.

But I've defended Edinburgh's dual network approach because it was based around linking up our existing, yet fragmented off-road network - mostly based on old railway paths, parks, and the canal. While it would have been nice to start off by redesigning the big arterial roads that feed commuters into the city, the pragmatist in me valued the decision to prioritize linking up the existing well-used off road segments.

The first major bit of this work has been the Meadows-Innocent path - which is roundabout, indirect, and somewhat too narrow, especially if you ride a tandem.  But my kids love using it, and if I tell them we're going that way, I get a big cheer.   So last week, when cycling the two miles to the Commie Pool with both kids several times, it made sense to go that way.  The first quarter of the journey is pretty nerve-wracking, but once we get to the meadows we're on segregated paths and very quiet back streets (the sort we almost never meet a car on).   Except that the pool is a few hundred metres past the entrance to the railway path.  And that means that we need to make a right hand turn uphill across 4 lanes of fast-moving traffic - to get to one of the city's biggest sports venues.  It's also right next to the main halls of residence for the University of Edinburgh.  Getting back is just as bad.  Traffic flows steadily out of Holyrood Park, and turning across it at rush hour is fraught with stress.  There is a two stage pelican crossing, but it is almost exactly in between our exit and entrance from this short stretch of road - marked by the two red x's on the picture to the right.

Of course, we could get off and walk, although manoeuvring kids and bikes along pavements and through a narrow central island with railings and pedestrians is not one of my favourite things to do.  But it's frustrating to get so close and then encounter the deeply unpleasant, car dominated void that is Holyrood Park Rd.

Maybe the network will be extended.  But to my mind, this example shows up the very real limitations of the 'fill in the gaps' method of cycle planning.  Once the Canal-to-Meadows section is built, we'll have a protected route pretty much from our front door to 200 metres from the pool, but the last few yards will continue to be unpleasant and dangerous.   I've blogged before about how 'car-friendly' the pool is, but this really rubs it in.

The crazy thing is, despite the new infra being roundabout, narrow and indirect, it is a huge improvement on the route we used to use daily taking a toddler to nursery in a bike-seat.    But it makes the continued gaps all the more obvious.

22 September 2015

Living car-free in Scotland?

We've lived in the UK for over 20 years, and in Scotland for 12, without needing a car.  It helps that Oxford and Edinburgh have both proved cycle and walking friendly, and both have excellent bus systems too.  Even since we've had kids, we've not regretted not having a car in the city.  Just this summer, with an 8yo and a 4yo we managed expeditions by train and bike to Tantallon and Dirleton Castles, and their associated beaches.  It's great for the kids to have the experience of getting places under their own steam, and really seeing the countryside.  Plus it tires them out, so they sleep soundly at night :)

But half-term poses new challenges.  It's not that we can't cycle 40km easily in a day as a family, with the 8yo on her own bike, and the 4yo on the tandem.  And we're pretty adept at carrying supplies in panniers.  But a lot of places that we'd like to go require a train trip first -- like the off-road route from Glasgow to Loch Lomond.  The problem is that Scotrail only lets you book 2 bikes per train. And it won't take tandems at all (even 'compact' ones like ours).   So, while an ideal scenario would be to borrow a second tandem, load them up and take the train to Pitlochry, or up the West Highland way, we can't do that.  Even if we just took one tandem, we'd still have 3 bikes, which is also not allowed.  And as Alison Johnstone wrote earlier, just getting 2 bikes on some trains can be a challenge.

Supposedly, guards can use their discretion and let extra bikes on, but when travelling with kids, that's really not an option - you need to know that you'll all be able to get on trains, and arrive at a decent hour, not gamble on a friendly guard.   A few years ago, we got stuck on the platform at Longniddry with a toddler at dusk because the guard wouldn't let us on an otherwise empty train, because 2 bikes had boarded at an earlier station.  It didn't matter that the train was full of empty carriages, this particular woman was determined to show us that we didn't count and physically prevented us from boarding.  We had to wait another hour, as it got dark and cold. It spoiled a lovely day out watching the geese at Aberlady bay.   So, no, I won't be trusting to the good will of the guards when venturing further afield.

What's frustrating about this is that Abellio, the new franchise holder promotes itself as 'cycle friendly' and the Scottish government wants to promote 'cycle tourism'.  But I guess that's just for young fit couples, and single adventurous cyclists.  Not for families that would rather do without the hassles of car ownership.

Well, we've given in.  There is now a British license-holder in our family, and we'll be joining the car club as soon as we can.  But if the franchise terms for other lines and orders for new trains could contemplate some flexible seating into which bikes could go, or having multiple cars with bike carriage, then there would be so many more options for families like ours.

for more info:  http://www.spokes.org.uk/2015/07/new-glasgow-edinburgh-trains/


I ended in a bit of a twitter-slanging-match this morning.  With Stella Creasy of all people.  I've rather admired her style and approach to politics - she seemed to really want to bring an energetic, campaigning politics back into the Labour Party.  But I was disappointed by this tweet, which excerpted parts of a newsletter from her, which seemed very negative - portraying the Walthamstow 'miniholland' project as being about cyclists versus 'everyone else'.

Disappointed by @stellacreasy’s latest newsletter which echoes #miniholland concerns of a noisy pro-car minority http://t.co/WMiPfijqWM
22/09/2015 08:32

In our subsequent exchange, she kept emphasising how she was trying to 'balance' the competing needs.*  Which reminded me of how affirmative action campaigns for women are too often critiqued for not being 'balanced', and how often 'balance' is promoted by the status quo as a reason for keeping the status quo, as in this fun tweet that came in about the same time: 

"We have got to be very careful not to do things at a speed which will make male candidates feel that the cards are stacked against them."
22/09/2015 09:16   [
which links to this article. ]

Stella Creasy said that my comparison was 'silly'.  But is it?  surely our current infrastructure is built with cars and drivers as their primary concern?  

So here's my top examples of our transport infrastructure privileging cars, rather than active travel:

  • Tarmac is continuous across junctions, but pavements stop
  • Driveways and entrances to car parks always have dropped kerbs, but not pedestrian crossings
  • 'Green wave' traffic lights that turn green for cars, but give cyclists red after red
  • Wide corner radiuses that make it easy for cars to turn, but widen the crossings making it difficult for pedestrians to cross
  • Push buttons on toucans - do you ever see drivers having to get out and push a button? 
  • Dummy 'push buttons' on pelican crossings that are actually controlled automatically from junctions
  • Half of most roadways taken up with parked cars 
  • Road signs and parking meters on pavements, not on roadways, even though they deal with car regulations 
It's time to redress the balance - which is why we should all get behind the mini-holland schemes, and similar schemes elsewhere in the country. If criticism is needed, let's make it constrictive criticism, and not hide behind excuses of 'balance'. 

*  To be clear - she didn't use the word 'balance' - that is my reading of her various tweets and newsletter.  But she did say my comparison was "silly". 

20 March 2015

The uncertainty principle

My last post was about how problematic uncertainty is in cycle infrastructure.  It's since occurred to me that the problem isn't uncertainty itself, but uncertainty for the more vulnerable.

Good cycle infra, as seen in Holland, Denmark, etc reduces uncertainty - cyclists have their own safe spaces, as do pedestrians and cars.  But even the Dutch have some spaces where uncertainty is permitted - such as the bike streets that identify cars as visitors, and make it clear that the space is intended for cyclists and pedestrians.  Likewise, streets with no centre line and bike lanes on either side - a UK can be seen here and a study by TfL here .   But crucially here, the uncertainty is on the part of the car drivers, as the least vulnerable users. 

Edinburgh is trialling this system on a road on the outskirts of the city.  It's not perfect - the road speed is too high, and the bike lanes are not going to be colored. But it does introduce uncertainty for the car driver, rather than the cyclist. 

By contrast, the paths leading to North Meadow Walk have given the uncertainty to the pedestrians, as discussed in my last blogpost, and as @fountainbridge shows in this mockup:  
Cyclists have lots of signs telling them what to do and how to behave, but pedestrians have nothing.  Anyone who knows about Scottish law will know that pedestrians have full rights to use both the paths marked in green and in pink, but the signals being sent to them say differently.  So uncertainty is created.  

This is the exact opposite of the basic principles discussed above -- the heavier, more dangerous form of transport should be made to feel like a 'guest', not the most vulnerable. 

Until we put this principle at the heart of our infrastructure, we're getting it wrong.  We'll continue to foster resentment and hostility between cyclists and pedestrians, and discourage the take-up of active travel that our policies claim to promote.