Three years ago, I posed the rhetorical question "Do the British love their children too?" This week, I received an answer in the form of a note which said "For my children in Bristol. Thank you for your work."
In the 1970s, the Dutch reacted to increased danger on the streets by calling for change to make their children safer while preserving their ability to make independent journeys.
In other nations, children have in large part been removed from the streets. They no longer make journeys in an independent manner. For instance, in Britain, newspapers report such things as that a teenage boy can't make a journey of 11 km on his own while in the Netherlands this sort of distance, and much longer distances, are quite routinely ridden by many teenagers every day to get to school, even in winter.
A retrospective glance shows that the Dutch did something extraordinary in the 1970s. With mass support, the future of the country was changed. If this had not happened then the Netherlands could be a very different place now.
This was pure luck. The Dutch care for their children, of course, but they do not care for them any more than parents in other nations do. What happened in the Netherlands was that the right people supported the right campaign at the right time. With the right support for the right campaign, similar things could just as easily happen in other countries.
The power and compassion of parents is significant. Cycling campaigners sometimes scoff at ill-conceived "safety" campaigns to force children to wear fluorescent clothing and helmets, however such safety campaigns represent a lot of passion. They come from parents who are not happy with the conditions under which their children live. Change is wanted, and these parents are active in fighting for it. The effort is often misdirected into ineffective campaigns, and far too much seems to benefit the producers of fluorescent clothing and helmets rather than actually changing things. Meanwhile, the rate of walking and cycling amongst children continues to drop in the UK.
If this energy could be redirected into a campaign to really make conditions on the streets better, then the UK, and other nations, could very easily achieve what the Dutch have achieved, and quite possibly much more. By including parents and children in a campaign, it can achieve mass support which goes well beyond a campaign focussed on "cyclists".
Unfortunately, many adult cycling campaigners continue to treat child cyclists as something different to themselves. It has become common in the UK to call for a two speed approach with a double network. Campaigners want on-road facilities for themselves (the "fast cyclists") while also asking for off-road infrastructure to cater for "slow cyclists". This approach is wrong. For a start, it loses the support of many people because it sounds rather like "cyclists" are greedy. It sounds like a request from a greedy person who wants both to have their cake and also to eat it. However, its the biggest problem is that it is doomed to failure by the low expectations embedded right into the demands being made: Off-road infrastructure is expected to be inconvenient for experienced cyclists, while on-road infrastructure is expected to be unsafe for the inexperienced.
There is no logic behind this strange dichotomous approach. Infrastructure which isn't convenient enough for experienced "fast" cyclists also isn't convenient for "slow" cyclists. Infrastructure which isn't safe enough for inexperienced cyclists also isn't pleasant for the experienced. The two speed approach introduces a divide between two groups of people who need not be divided. It gives no clear route for progression from one set of infrastructure to the other, nor a clear reason why there should be a progression and it helps to keep "cyclists" as an out-group separated from the rest of society.
It is possible to design infrastructure which works equally well for everyone. That is the gold standard. It is what the Dutch did and this blog is filled with examples (see links on the right). Don't ask for less.
For real progress in cycling, campaigners need to start to "think of the children". However, children should be thought of not as small people to be condescending towards, but as the rightful heirs of our future transport network. Today's child cyclists are tomorrow's adult cyclists. It is by working with today's concerned parents, by understanding that their concerns are valid and need to be addressed, that tomorrow's adult and child cyclists will best be catered for.
Not only do other countries have a chance of improving conditions for cyclists, but by the same means they could also improve their own positions in the UNICEF index of child well-being. Is this not something that every country should aspire to ?
There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Whatever problems may appear to stand in the way, the Dutch have a forty year head-start which should always serve as a reference.