Guest post by Sylvia Gauthereau
The first time I rode a bicycle on a proper road was liberating – finally I was doing something that only grown up, or bigger kids did. I remember the wind on my face and through my hair, the excitement of riding faster, the fast passing landscape, the country lanes and the scent of the flowers bordering the roads.
I remember my brother laughing and my father smiling, looking at me full of pride at my progress. I remember stopping by a field when a hill got too much, walking my bike a little and collapsing on a bed of wheat. My body tired and slightly sore but with that rewarding and forgiving type of fatigue. In those days riding a bicycle, for me, was mostly enjoyed during the holidays, on quiet countryside lanes where traffic was less manic than in the Parisian suburbs where I grew up.
As time passed, like most, I became a car owner – it felt like a natural part of growing up. I used the car mostly commuting between home, work and university and for the occasional going out further out of the city. I also had a bicycle which I would use on strike days. But it was scary, as I wasn’t a regular cyclist and traffic in Paris, at the time, was not really friendly for non-car users. I moved to London and left the car behind.
Introducing the cargo bike
Years later, I started a family and we were often on foot, walking everywhere and using public transport or cycling occasionally with a bike seat. Then, I had my second child and as time for school was looming I had to think of logistics, especially since like many other families we were not offered a place in our local school. Once again, I did consider a car but it would not have fully met my commuting needs which combined going from home to nursey, school then work in central London and back in time. Public transport would have meant spending four hours daily in buses and tube. I researched alternative ways after meeting one family who had a short two-wheeler Bakfiets. They introduced me to the amazing world of a bike with a purpose. A cargo bike was the only solution which appeared suitable to me and my family’s needs.
We tried various models and settled for a Christiania trike. My children by that time were 4 and 1 so the light model was perfect. They instantly liked it. The fact that there was a dedicated space just for them, a hood that would shelter them from the elements or alternatively becoming their little ‘house’. The fact I was so close to them and that we could keep chatting as we rode along was very appealing to us all. I felt reassured by the presence of belts, similar to those found on pushchairs. The Christiania has been around for over 30 years and is widely use for the specific purpose of carrying children in Denmark. As soon as we started riding it, it felt very natural and fitted perfectly to our life.
The school run was as rushed as usual but as soon as you hit the road, the feeling of freedom of movement and the self-reliance was unbelievable. Beyond the school run, we could go to the park as normal, without the hassle of a packed bus; go for a picnic, without having to carry a large basket, rug and all the other stuff that parents are plagued with when they go anywhere with kids. Do the weekly grocery shopping run was a breeze without heavy bags cutting through my arms, or the stress of it all when you have little ones in tow. Going anywhere within reasonable distance, was possible. Nor more waiting for a bus, no more wasting time in a traffic jams on a packed bus. Even getting lost wasn’t as daunting, it became an adventure. I so wished I had one before when my children were even younger.
At present, the school run is via a very busy road – the A5 – from Cricklewood to Maida Vale. This is not the most pleasant route but it is direct and bus lanes provide a rather wide path to ride, which is handy for a cargo bike. Leaving between 7:55 and 8:00 we manage to avoid the heavy traffic on Cricklewood Broadway and Kilburn High Road. My main concern is the poor state of the road with its gigantic potholes, death-trapped damaged manhole covers and random mini waves of solid tarmac, forcing me to swerve around them constantly.
I have been riding a cargo bike in London for over four years now and based on my experience I would be unable to generalise bad mannered-road users as I have encountered as many instances of careless driving behaviours from drivers of vans, taxis, buses, cars, trucks, and from pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists as I have of considerate and respectful ones. Some is down to a sense of entitlement others simply down to poor driving skills. The general trend I could perhaps draw, however would be around schools, where drivers seem to believe it is okay to stop anywhere – even on cycle lanes on a roundabout to drop their kids off/pick up. Drivers parked on cycle lanes when there is space further on also are a nuisance. How lazy can you be? Pedestrians crossing wherever they feel like it without looking or cars systematically parked on double yellow lines (outside their shop) is also really annoying. On Kilburn High Road, there is this butcher who daily parks two vans and a couple of trolleys just opposite an island. This results in traffic having to squeeze in an already tight space. Further along, an estate agent also regularly has a couple of cars parked on double yellow lanes. Why can’t these see people that this one selfish single act impacts on all road users?
The worst experience I had was a van cutting right in front of me without indicating and then shouting: “You are going to kill these kids” in front of my children. The best was another van driver taking my defence when someone thought appropriate to shout abuse at me whilst attempting a dangerous overtake. I can’t understand why some drivers would voluntarily choose to take their cars to sit in a traffic jam for 20mn daily and at the same time get enraged because I am a bit slow going up a hill. This surely is double standards? There is a distinctive feeling coming from those road users that a cyclist is not as an equal road user as a driver and that we have no right to be on the road. Which is weird to me. I also cycle on my own bike, I can see that there is different response to the type of bicycle you ride.
The most common reaction we get, however is a smile and a big thumb up. Cargo bikes make people – across all road users, across all age groups – smile. So many people told me they wished they had one when their children were younger. It solves so many problems at once!
My two daughters are now keen cyclists with a greater road awareness than perhaps children who would have been ferried around by car only. However, I do not take them on the road often as I fear the infrastructure it is still not to the level it should to allow safe children cycling. And I don’t want them to learn to cycle on pavements. So we go to the park or around the quieter streets where we live. I used to think that segregated lanes weren’t necessary as by definition a cyclist can chose where to go, freely going here or there. It was the plus side of the graft you put in, pedalling and braving the sometimes rough British weather. But now I think these would be the best outcome for all as a shared space would be clearly established and regulated. It is sad that as a society, we cannot rely of people sharing simply based on common sense and mutual interest.
I just love riding with my kids so close in the box, whilst they are chatting, singing or playing. We sometimes catch a laugh from people around us, get an earful of the music they are listening in their car or a smell of what they are having for dinner; we stop whenever we see something interesting to investigate. Riding a bicycle is a very organic and sensorial experience but at the same time it is very simple really. It brings back these feeling of riding like a kid, make me and my children happy. This bike has changed my life and my family’s life. It is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life and I would encourage anyone to try.