City centre streets. Perfect for children on their own bicycles, if the city is truly planned for cycling. Cargo bikes shouldn’t be required.

Something which people who visit Assen often notice is the lack of cargo-bikes. Somehow an expectation has grown up that cargo bikes are the way of transporting children by bicycle. Actually, children have their own legs and really should be able to use them to transport themselves as soon as they have the ability to ride a bicycle. This of course is only possible if the infrastructure is very very good, and over most of this city that is indeed the case. It wasn’t always like this, but motor vehicles were removed from the centre several years ago and that left behind conditions where everyone is safe.

The photos below were taken within ten minutes a little after three o’clock on an afternoon a couple of weeks ago:

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All ages and abilities served by one type of infrastructure. The youngest daughter in this family rides on the front of Mum’s bike while her slightly older sister rides her own bike. They’re heading directly towards the city centre. Directly towards the same streets as shown in the following photos. It’s not unusual to see children this young cycling to the city centre. A comprehensive grid of very high quality infrastructure makes this possible.
The city centre streets are used by bicycle by people of all ages. The woman in the centre has more experience, but lots of experience isn't required to be safe here. The youngsters on the right are already able to make their way through the city without an adult to accompany them.
The city centre streets are used by bicycle by people of all ages. The woman in the centre has more experience, but lots of experience isn’t required to be safe here. The youngsters on the right are already able to make their way through the city without an adult to accompany them.
Of course some children are accompanied by parents. These two are heading towards a large square in the middle of the city which was once a car-park.
Of course some children are accompanied by parents. These two are heading towards a large square in the middle of the city which was once a car-park.
The youngest child sits on Dad's bike while her older sister rides her own bike.
The youngest child sits on Dad’s bike while her older sister rides her own bike.
Mother and son.
Mother and son.
Young teenagers have complete independence. This group rode through together. Presumably the lessons for the day had ended.
Young teenagers have complete independence. This group rode through together. Presumably the lessons for the day had ended.
Another mother and son. The mother's bike has a fold down child-seat on the back, which is possibly used sometimes for a younger sibling.
Another mother and son. The mother’s bike has a fold down child-seat on the back, which is possibly used sometimes for a younger sibling.
They're all moving in the same direction, but they're not all looking in the same direction. Cycling is very social in the city centre. People are always looking out for their friends and family. A lot of smiles, a lot of waves.
They’re all moving in the same direction, but they’re not all looking in the same direction. Cycling is very social in the city centre. People are always looking out for their friends and family. A lot of smiles, a lot of waves.
More youngsters riding home from school together. The city centre streets make a good route to many locations.
More youngsters riding home from school together. The city centre streets make a good route to many locations.
Teenagers attending secondary school (age 12 upwards) are likely to have further to travel.
Teenagers attending secondary school (age 12 upwards) are likely to have further to travel.
Eating while cycling and riding no hands. These are comparatively safe things to do when there are no cars on city centre streets.
Eating while cycling and riding no hands. These are comparatively safe things to do when there are no cars on city centre streets.
Mum indicates a right turn. The children also will turn up onto the forgiving sloped kerb.
Mum indicates a right turn. The children also will turn up onto the forgiving sloped kerb.
Teens again, riding sociably side by side.
Teens again, riding sociably side by side.
Very young children ride on the back of their parents' bikes. But those who cycle on their own bike are often also very young.
Very young children ride on the back of their parents’ bikes. But those who cycle on their own bike are often also very young.
Red dots show the locations which feature in the photos above. Traffic lights are no longer needed because through traffic has been removed. The car park no longer exists.
Red dots show the locations which feature in the photos above. Traffic lights are no longer needed because through traffic has been removed. The car park no longer exists.

Where have the cars gone?

The photos above show very typical views of the centre of Assen in 2014. Many other Dutch cities look similar. However, it wasn’t always like this.

In the 1970s, the number of children being killed on the roads reached a peak. Cycling was in decline in the Netherlands at that time.

Assen, like other cities, was full of motor vehicles. Cars, buses and trucks dominated the city centre streets. Cyclists who remained on these streets were under pressure. The situation was much like that of many cities now. There was “no space for cycling infrastructure” and car parks were full.

If Assen had continued on the path which the city was on, it’s unlikely that people would cycle so much in the city as they do now.

Pedestrian zone. Cycling allowed on given routes. Note generous delivery times.
Pedestrian zone.
Cycling allowed
on given routes.
Note generous
delivery times.

The problems in the centre of the city were turned around by a second revolution which returned old streets which pre-date motor vehicles to people rather than allowing the problems due to allowing motor vehicles to dominate them to grow.

The city centre area is now a large pedestrian zone. What looks like a road in all the photos above (except the first one) is actually a stripe through the pedestrian zone on which cycling is permitted. Signage at each entrance to the pedestrian zone points out this status.

Cycling and walking are the most popular means of transport for shoppers in Assen and these are the modes which are best catered for in the city centre.

What about parents?

In many places, people who didn’t bother with a car before they had children find that they need one once they have children. Of course it is in many ways better if people switch to using cargo bikes to carry their children rather than using a car, however the experience of the children themselves is not so different if they’re transported by a parent with a bicycle rather than being transported by a parent with a car.

When our children were young we still lived in the UK. The streets were not safe enough for them to ride their own bikes so we used this Ken Rogers trike with child seats. It worked well, but we wouldn't have needed it in Assen.
When our children were young we still lived in the UK. The streets were not safe enough for them to ride their own bikes so we used this Ken Rogers trike with child seats. It worked well, but we wouldn’t have needed it in Assen.

A high percentage of parents using cargo bikes to transport their children is better than having the same parents driving cars, but while a growing number of cargo bikes might indicate a growing confidence amongst parents it should be seen as a step in the right direction but not as an end in itself.

There are quite a lot of cargo bikes in Assen. They're used for many other reasons than to transport children.
There are quite a lot of cargo bikes in Assen. They’re used for many other reasons than to transport children.

Why not cargo bikes? 

So long as they’re used for carrying cargo, there’s nothing wrong with cargo-bikes at all. There’s also nothing wrong with them for carrying small children.

It is only when cargo bikes are seen as a solution for carrying children who are old enough to ride their own bikes (i.e. 4+) that this indicates a problem. The problem is not with the bikes or their riders but with the environment for cycling.

If parents don’t think that the local cycling infrastructure is sufficiently safe for their children to have control over their own movement then this indicates that the infrastructure is sub-standard. Children should have conditions safe enough that they can have control over their own movement and not have to rely upon their parents for lifts, either by bike or by car.

Where the cycling infrastructure is very good, cargo bikes are relatively rare and mostly used for carrying cargo. It’s better for parents and for children if children can be given thefreedom to control their own movement.

Mother of three in Groningen
Mother of three in Groningen

I’m not criticizing anyone for using a cargo bike to transport their children. People who do this in difficult environments should be applauded for making a positive choice which isnot always rewarded by society. We made a similar choice when we lived in the UK and our children were small. We first used a tricycle and later moved on to trailerbikes (also uncommon in the Netherlands for the same reason). It was not always easy to do this because other parents could be quite critical and drivers were sometimes quite aggressive around our children.

It’s not always so good as this in the Netherlands
Cities across the Netherlands vary in how easy it is foreveryone to ride bicycles. For instance:

The Netherlands is still far and away the most successful country on earth at encouraging people to cycle, and at encouraging people to let their children cycle, but you should never assume that this country always gets everything right.

A truly high cycling modal share requires that everyone should be able to cycle everywhere. That is what true mass cycling is all about.

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