During those long pandemic days, when we had nowhere to go and nowhere to be, my kids and I used to hit the road on our bikes. We would head out on a brand new cycle lane that popped up on a high-traffic road in Shoreham-by-Sea, where we live, as part of government measures to help more people walk and cycle during the pandemic. We would nip to the shops, down to the river or to the local library, and weekend activities were interspersed with quick rides. At the height of the Covid restrictions, taking off spontaneously as a family offered us a sense of freedom that felt liberating.
I had never considered allowing my two children, now aged 12 and nine, to ride on the roads before this cycle lane popped up in September 2020, neatly sheltering cyclists from the fast-moving flow of traffic that is a constant on our surrounding roads. To state the obvious, it was the cars that put me off before. If your child is weaving in and out of traffic, one momentary lapse in judgment could be fatal. But the pandemic sparked a shift for us, towards a more sustainable lifestyle. It felt safe to set off on your bike, and the cycle lane became a living, breathing thread of community that stitched nearby towns together.
So when West Sussex county council ripped it out just two months later, citing opposition to the cycleway and complaints about increased traffic congestion, it felt deeply personal. From one day to the next, my children stopped using their bikes, and their budding freedom vanished too. Another mother, who had started sending her daughter to school along the cycle lane, was back in her car again. However responsible a cyclist she felt she was, she could no longer trust that her daughter would be safe.
Cycling in this community seems to have become a scapegoat for a wider cultural resistance to change. When the cycle lane was first installed, we found tacks on the road, designed to puncture our tyres. The aggression families like mine have faced from motorists for quite simply wanting to share space has been, frankly, scary.
Since it’s been removed, a lot of us feel even more unsafe than before. You feel the resentment from certain drivers as they accelerate past you, and you’re constantly questioning whether they have seen you. The irony is that the cycle lane allowed us to coexist peacefully.
I have always cycled to get around places I’ve lived – in London, Japan and now Shoreham-by-Sea. And despite the dangers, I continue to use my bike to ride the 10 minutes to work in a local SEN (special educational needs) school. I often joke that by doing so I take my life into my own hands, but in reality I think about giving up cycling all the time.
When I get on my bike in the morning, I know I have to be in a certain mindset to be safe – psyched up and confident. If I’m having a hard day, or lacking emotional energy, I leave the bike at home. I’m fortunate to have this choice, but many others have no other way to get to school. Local transport options are woeful, and the price of petrol makes it prohibitively expensive to run a car.
It’s no coincidence that the cycling boom that seemed to promise so much during the pandemic, has now died back. Cycle lanes across the country funded by central government have suffered a similar fate to ours, and the proportion of adults in England who say they cycle at least once a month has fallen to 13.1%, the lowest figure since records began in 2015-16.
Getting a taste of what a less car-centric future could look like has left me wondering who our roads are really for. We spend so much time telling our children to get out into nature, but there’s nothing to support them to do that. My kids are too scared to cycle now. Isn’t that sad?
September 3, 2022 at 01:55PM Karen Murphy