Cycling to school: dog crap and toxic air won’t put us off


18.10.18 at 9:40 am

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My Mate David Cycling to school - a child on a bike


It’s October, so we’re back into the swing of things with the school run – or rather cycle. Our son rarely goes anywhere if it isn’t on two wheels. In fact, this week he was groaning about having to go in the car one day (grocery shopping logistics) and walk the next (the weather).

The recent 60mph gusts throwing trampolines over garden walls and into the street didn’t phase him. Hurricane? Pah. Perhaps he’d heard about the benefits of riding into the wind detailed in last month’sThe Draft? Or he’d watch The Incredibles one too many times. Still, if there is any five-year-old that could handle a bike in those conditions, it’s him.

The bike he learned to ride on was made of steel, or something heavier (I was tempted to put it on the turbo to maximise my resistance training). It cost £3 in the local charity shop. And he absolutely loved it. He loves cycling. He is the boy still wearing his helmet as he disappears into the school building each day and it’s still on top of his head as he walks out – sometimes I wonder if he actually takes it off at all.

He can be a little too cock-sure of himself, though. He ghosts past the local secondary school, downhill at a rate of knots, with just one hand on the bars, glancing around in the hope that the BMX bandits at the end of our road will notice. I’d rather he focused on avoiding the dog crap on the pavements.

My caution stems not only from a dislike of picking the turd out of his tyres, but a childhood accident involving a ramp and the loss of a front tooth. I still remember, 32 years on, the moment Jemma (at number 37) knocked on our door in the minutes after the crash and smiled: “We found David’s tooth on the road.”

Little did I know at the time, this meant the doctor could just sew it back in. My dad passed out during the procedure (this is the same man that drilled through his thumbnail to “relieve pressure” as it swelled up following an incident with a hammer).

But other than an opportunity to mock my father for years to come, the whole thing proved fairly pointless as the tooth blackened quickly and I ended up with a false one.

Given that our son’s teeth are falling out and the resident tooth fairy doles out £1 for each of them, perhaps he sees an upside to falling off and knocking a few more out?

But dog poo and dental damage are the least of our worries when we cycle to school with our kids. Air pollution is now the biggie, with many a school run or cycle now reportedly “toxic”.

According to research by Unicef UK and Queen Mary University of London, children are exposed to more than 60% of their daily air pollution intake during the school run and when at school. The study focused on black carbon – a form of particulate matter that can “penetrate deep into the lungs” and enter the bloodstream and “potentially the brain”. I’m no expert but this doesn’t sound like it’s good for a growing kid.

As one mum/campaigner said: “It’s hard not to worry that living where we live, near to a busy main road, and going to school where [our son] does may have affected his lungs. Moving house to a less polluted area is very expensive and is not a solution that everyone who is experiencing poor air quality can afford.”

Of course, those who have the bucks to live in bucolic surroundings are the ones driving their 4x4s into towns on the school run. Oh, the irony.

But yet more maddening is the laissez faire attitude taken by politicians to all this. The government keeps missing its targets on clean air, whilst its plans to tackle the problem have been deemed “unlawful” by the high court – which in layman’s terms is, “they’re crap”.

But this doesn’t mean we should all stop cycling to school. Far from it. In fact, a study last year by the Universities of Cambridge and East Anglia found that the health benefits of walking and cycling outweigh the negative effects on health of air pollution, even in cities with high levels of air pollution.

One of the experts involved, Dr Marko Tainio, said that in London health benefits of active travel always outweigh the risk from pollution. Even in Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world – with pollution levels ten times those in London – people would need to cycle over five hours per week before the pollution risks outweigh the health benefits.

That’s good news for the school run/cycle/walkers among us (and I fully appreciate there are those that have to drive to school). But with every newspaper article that tells us our air stinks and our children are at risk, I wonder how many parents think: better be on the safe side, so let’s drive. You’ll miss the dog poo and are unlikely to knock out any teeth, however a car certainly isn’t protection from pollution.

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