Fionola Meredith: Why children and cycling don't mix on our heaving, car-thronged city streets
What parent in their right mind would allow their child to dice with Belfast traffic, asks Fionola Meredith
Children are small, precious and vulnerable, so why on earth would you stick two wheels under them and haul them along a main road with cars and lorries whizzing past their ears? Sounds utterly insane, doesn't it? Yet that's exactly what I saw a woman doing this week in Belfast.
There she was, blithely cycling along, with a bright blue trailer attached to the back of her bike, and two pre-schoolers (helmet-less) peeping out from inside it.
It's far from the first time I've witnessed something like this: these trailers are getting popular, and now that spring is here and the weather is warming up, there will be many more of them on view.
The other variety of kid-carrier is the kind often seen on the streets of Amsterdam, where the children sit in a kind of elongated box in the front part of the bike.
That's fine and dandy in Amsterdam, where bikes, not cars, rule the roads, and cycle lanes are wide, safe, constantly-used thoroughfares. It's grand fun in the park too, or on a specially designed greenway.
But it's mindless lunacy on the streets of car-thronged Belfast, where cycle lanes are either non-existent or have a habit of abruptly disappearing, depositing cyclists in the thick of heavy traffic.
Cycling has become a kind of officially sanctioned religion: a marker of social and environmental virtue to which we are all supposed to aspire.
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Cycling evangelists urge us to ditch the dirty, wicked gas-guzzling car, and travel to work or school the clean, green way.
It's good for the community and for your health - except, of course, if you end up squashed beneath the wheels of a lorry.
I bet that mother I saw cycling along with her kids in the trailer, virtually unprotected at vehicle exhaust level, breathing in the toxic fumes, thought she was doing something beneficial for herself and her family. Isn't that what we're always being told to do - get on our bikes?
In its guide to child trailers, Cycling UK reassuringly points to the fact that most trailers come with a large warning flag, and that the trailers themselves are large, reflective, brightly coloured pieces of kit attached to the adult's bike.
All of this adds up, it claims, to "a total vehicle presence about the same as a small car". Cycling UK advises adult cyclists towing kids to ride even further out from the kerb than they would if cycling alone.
I'm no expert in physics, but I can grasp the basic principle of mass times acceleration, and I believe that reassurance is seriously misplaced here. What chance does a child have, sitting in one of these crazy carts, if it's hit by a fast-moving vehicle weighing a couple of tonnes?
Drivers get distracted all the time, not least by their mobile phones. A flag bobbing on the back of a trailer isn't going to help if the driver hasn't even noticed that it's there in the first place.
And the "total vehicle presence" of a bike with a kids' trailer attached is self-evidently not equivalent to that of a car. It may take up a similar amount of space on the road, but beyond that it's like comparing a unicyle with a tank.
Phyllis Agran, of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is an expert in child safety who has written about the healthy benefits of getting on your bike. But even she has warned of the dangers of road cycling with young children, describing it as "extremely risky".
"I personally would not ride a bike with a child in it on the street," she has stated.
"I would be very frightened that someone texting, someone on a cell phone, someone not coming to a full stop, someone distracted, someone cutting into my lane would kill me and my child."
For similar reasons, I'm also deeply uncomfortable about schemes to encourage children to cycle to school. Learning about bike skills, properly fitted helmets and high-visibility clothing is important information for later life, but what parent in their right mind would allow their primary school child to dice with city traffic to get to school?
We must start being honest about the dangers of cycling, particularly for children, instead of just mouthing the expected mantras about its benefits. Reducing car use in order to cut emissions is less important than keeping children physically safe.
The time to urge kids - and adults - to get on their bikes is when we have a city that's fit for cycling purpose. And right now, we don't.