When I first moved to the UK nine years ago, I was surprised to realise after a few close encounters that motorists had more rights than pedestrians or cyclists. I came here from Munich, Germany, but I grew up in the United States, in Oregon. Both of those places, despite geography and language differences, were very similar in that pedestrians, cyclists and children, especially, were given greater consideration.
It took me some time, even as a life-long cyclist, to feel comfortable enough to ride my bike in traffic. I even began to wear a helmet, for fear of being pushed off the road. Despite all this, I did commute to work on my bike. Fast-forward eight years and I’ve moved to Bristol, had a child and wanted to create more opportunities for outdoor activities for me and my young son to participate in. It seemed like there were plenty of groups and stay and plays to attend, but most of them cost money and were indoors.
Last autumn, I attended a few playing out sessions on another road in Easton – my East Bristol neighbourhood – and thought it was a brilliant idea. My little boy really enjoyed scooting around, without the constriction of a small strip of pavement bordered by cars and garden walls. In the winter, a neighbour and I began the formal process to organise weekly playing out sessions on our road. The consultation began in January, so it was mid-March when we actually started our Friday afternoon sessions. In the meantime, inspired by an initiative which started in Oregon, I set up East Bristol Kidical Mass family cycling group with Wellspring Healthy Living Centre. I figured that there would be other mothers, like me, who waited ages to put their kids on the back (or front) of their bicycles, worrying about being wobbly or otherwise unstable. As soon as I started cycling with Felix (he was two) on my bike, I wished I’d done it sooner. I felt a sense of freedom from the buggy and the car. And I feel so much more comfortable riding a bicycle around the narrow streets of Easton than driving a car. We applied for and received funding from Bristol City Council’s Local Sustainable Transport Fund. The funding allowed us to buy bike seats and trailers for toddlers and a Dutch Cargo Bike. Offering regular dates for people to go on bike rides, and try out kit seemed like a good way to nudge some of my friends and neighbours who hadn’t got back on the bike since having kids. To confidently lead these family rides, I attended a ride leader course given by Lifecycle, an organisation which trains cyclists, instructors, and ride leaders. This training and reading the book Cyclecraft, underlined the importance, and the right, that a cyclist has to ride in the centre of the lane. I found myself moving from the edge of the road into the middle of the lane, making more eye contact with drivers and others on the road. Since I completed this training, and training to become a cycle instructor, I am much more confident riding my bicycle, despite all of the cars.
A number of kids on our road have learned to ride their bicycles during playing out. Even though I’m quite comfortable cycling on the road now, most of the parents on my road have limited their children to riding their bikes to traffic-free environments – which are few and far between in Easton. Even though I encourage people to cycle on the road, I understand the need to have spaces where learning can happen in a low stress, car-free area. Playing out sessions have been a perfect environment to get the confidence and skills to use in the real world.
We’ve met with some objections to the idea of children using this space in this way – surprisingly from some residents who have children and/or grandchildren. Of course there have been the motorists that were merely annoyed that they couldn’t cut through quickly, but we have also had support from some behind the wheel too. And we’ve had help stewarding from people who don’t have children. Generally, there has been a lot more positive feedback, even from unexpected sources (e.g. the DPD delivery driver) than negativity. Most people are really pleased to see kids out playing, just like they did.