Viewpoint: 'Why I won't let my eight-year-old cycle on the road'

Cyclists in London Image copyright afp/Getty Images

Better funding and following the example of other European countries would make people more willing to get on our bikes, says Chris Boardman, policy adviser at British Cycling.

Bicycles have been a part of my life since I was in single figures. My Raleigh Chopper was more than just a toy, it was independence, a tool that expanded my horizons and allowed me to explore new territories.

Years later, I used a very different machine to win an Olympic gold medal, world titles and lead the Tour de France. Bikes have always been a part of my life and, like all parents, I'd love them to be part of my children's lives too, but I have a problem. I won't let my daughter ride the 300m it takes to get to our local cycling path.

Where I live, the coastal village of West Kirby, we have a wonderful cycling and walking path. It's traffic-free and runs more than 10 miles along the length of the Wirral Peninsula - perfect for families to spend time together.

Image copyright ALAMY

This local asset starts just moments from my front door and yet, despite my love of the bicycle and that I know cycling is statistically safe, I won't let my eight-year-old daughter ride on the road. And that is tragic.

That's because even though I know that she is statistically more likely to have an accident in our bathroom at home rather than on the road, cycling just doesn't feel safe. It's a purely emotional response rather than a logical one - and that's what most parents base their decisions on.

And it's not just me. Parents across the country think the same, which is why just 1% of kids ride to school. Earlier this year, Lord Coe said that today's children could be the first to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents due to a lack of physical activity. This is not only bad for individuals, it is bad for the economy, costing the country £20bn a year.

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Image caption People in Brussels riding through the street as part of car-free Sunday

If my family lived just a few hundred miles away, in the Netherlands, things would be very different for my daughter. They have chosen to design physical activity into their daily lives. Half of all kids ride to school and nearly 30% of all journeys are made by bike. Their infrastructure has been designed to prioritise cycling and walking. Every busy road has a wide cycle lane. At junctions there is a separate phase so kids do not have to mix with traffic. And when they reach their school, there are enough bike racks to go round.

It's not rocket science. Like any mode of transport, if you invest in it and make it an attractive alternative, people will use it. We did this with motorways in the 1960s, with airports in the 1970s, and rail in the 1990s - we can do the same with bikes.

Re-cycled from the Magazine

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We asked why there was conflict between drivers and cyclists? (May 2013)

Anna Holligan examined why cycling is so popular in the Netherlands (August 2013)

Ellen Otzen discovered Copenhagen's piles of parked bicycles (October 2014)

We currently invest about £2 per person in cycling from our national transport budget of £13 billion. To put this into context, to fund a cycling programme for the whole country for a year would take the same amount of money as it's costing to refurbish just one London Underground Station.

Cycling can be a large part of the solution to the congestion, pollution, environmental and health problems facing us all. The case for cycling is supported by economists, the NHS and business specialists, yet despite the fact we are drowning in supporting evidence, we are still waiting for a major political party to make a concrete, long-term commitment to cycling, to pledge at least £10 per person to change the way we travel.

This isn't just a solution that will benefit children, it will benefit people of all ages - parents and even grandparents.

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Image caption The PM is a keen cyclist - but do his plans for cycling go far enough?

Germany, Denmark, France, Holland, Austria, Switzerland have all seen the part cycling can play in tackling these problems and have invested heavily in cycling. Now, at least one in 10 trips are made by bike.

We are not only being left behind by our European neighbours - even in the car-centric US, cycling is being prioritised. In New York City they have just passed a law to reduce the speed limit to 25mph - principally to reduce casualties and increase levels of cycling. They now have hundreds of miles of bike lanes and an amazingly successful bike hire scheme.

Next year the Tour de France will be starting in Utrecht in the Netherlands. I urge you to watch this video of a typical rush-hour scene there. Nearly everyone is cycling - an accessible means of transport which does not discriminate by age or income. This is what smart investment can achieve.

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The government has just launched its draft Cycling Delivery Plan to deliver the prime minister's ambition to achieve a "cycling revolution" in the UK. It's a lofty statement and sadly not reflected in either the underwhelming targets or the meagre un-targeted funding the document alludes to. I doubt it would be possible to find a single independent expert who'll endorse the document as being able to achieve the prime minister's aims.

His laudable and logical goal will only be achieved with long-term commitment, and a proportion of existing transport funds - equal to that being spent by our European neighbours - dedicated to cycling. As a parent and a cyclist himself, I would expect David Cameron to be putting this right.

We have made something that should be simple very complicated. It boils down to a single question: "Are we creating the place that I want to live? Where I want my kids to live?" And that's the acid test, the yardstick by which our infrastructure decisions should be made.

Two-thirds of people tell British Cycling they would cycle more if they felt safer on the road. The potential is there, poised to pedal, just waiting to be given a safe place to do it and my daughter, Agatha, is at the front of the queue.

Chris Boardman will be appearing on BBC Breakfast on Monday 3 November in the first in a series of films about cycling.

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