Saddle up: how Brighton's bike train is greening the notorious school run

Brighton Bike Train
Brighton's pioneering Bike Train
Come Friday morning and a group of kids and their parents converge to begin Brighton's Bike train cycle to school. Could this be the beginning of the great two-wheeled school run revolution? Jan Goodey reports

Getting a child on a bike anywhere in the world, but especially in China, India or the US, is surely up there with a vegan/vegetarian diet as a lifestyle choice which is the future when it comes to combating climate change.

Do both, as was the case in India and China a decade ago before the huge spike in car-ownership and meat-eating, and you make a difference and really go against the counter-intuitive nostrum: the vegetarian, 4X4 driver has higher CO2 levels than the cycling, meat-eater.

And of course cycling encourages a slower, more reflective attitude, and results in less of a drain on NHS resources with leaner bodies and stronger hearts.

In Brighton, kids are being encouraged to saddle up in the UK's first schools Bike Train. Each Friday morning at 8.30am a group of parents and their offspring meet up with their bikes and a lead sound system affair (speakers attached to handlebars) outside the Seven Dials Post Office.

They then cycle the short route - less than a mile - to Davigdor Infants school. No great shakes you might think but it's an important first step and it's growing. Two months in, and already there's a pilot scheme to three secondary schools (Patcham, Dorothy Stringer, Varndean) where take up is encouraging and the plan, to have daily rides come September.

Kids on bikes

Talking to, Ben Saylor, 15, of Patcham High School, riding his black BMX on one of the rides, he said: 'I've been riding to school on my own for two or three months. Me and my mates are always on our bikes. This [Bike Train] is different, it's motivating it should get more kids from school involved I reckon.'

Despite hurtling along at a fair clip, Megan Burtenshaw, 15, also of Patcham High, said: 'This is a one off for me - I'm well tired! I had to come in from Moulsecoomb [an added two miles]. I cycle about once a week. I did enjoy it though, today.'

Brendan Haworth, coordinates the Davigdor ride: 'I got to thinking there are quite a few children and parents who cycle to school, it'd be nice if we could cycle together. There are some children and parents that cycle further than they need just to join in.

'We have around six adults and maybe eight children, sometimes a few more.They think it's great fun, maybe even a bit crazy. They like the music too!If demand increases we'll do it more frequently.'

Brighton's busy roads

The Bike Train concept came about 18 months ago when cycling enthusiast, Duncan Blinkhorn, fed up with pollution and inconsiderate drivers blocking cycle lanes on Brighton's busy A270 Lewes Road, decided to take over one traffic lane each morning with a group of cyclists journeying from the Level to Brighton and Sussex Universities - a trip of around 3.5 miles.

This is one of the city's worst roads in terms of pollution and regularly breaks EU emission guidelines; a road where only 1,000 (a measly 2 per cent) of the 50,000 journeys made each day are by bike. It's also the road where cyclist and teacher, Jo Walters, was killed in July with lack of adequate cycle path a contributory factor. So he couldn't have picked a better target and by having this visible daily presence the aim is to improve cycling provision and increase cycling to 5,000 journeys a day (10 per cent) by 2013.

'Bike Train is about challenging the way we view and use roadspace. The message to fellow and would-be cyclists is "you're welcome here, come join the party". As an assertive and collective presence, we offer high visibility and a buffer against the often hostile and threatening environment of rush-hour traffic.'

How that works in practice is that the group of between four to 20 cycle two abreast in a lane of traffic keeping the cycling lane clear for those in more of a rush. The lead bike has a sound system playing upbeat Motown and such like while the rear is brought up by a cyclist attached to a massive Bike Train road sign.

Each ride is assigned two stewards and there's a policy of allowing buses in and out of stops. In fact the whole approach is non-confrontational, so if White Van Man gestures out the window with the oft heard ‘get in the fuckin cycle lane' or equally terse ‘I pay road tax, you don't' fists aren't raised in exchange, but smiles and waves instead.

Culture shift

And to this day there have been no injuries or bust-ups! Where did the peaceable pastime originate? Possibly in Sydney, Australia and there are Bike Trains in Italy and one other (monthly) ride in Staveley, Cumbria.

Returning to the new departure of school rides, Blinkhorn reckons that the Bike Train will bridge an important gap: 'Huge efforts have been devoted to cycle training in schools, yet few children feel able to cycle to school as a result because the roads just aren't considered safe enough. Bike train could help in that respect and help us achieve the shift in transport culture that we need if we're going to arrive at a low-carbon future. The daily school run by car accounts for around a third of rush-hour traffic.'

To counter that more than 500 journeys with roughly 400 different cyclists have taken part in the main Lewes Road Bike Train so far. Feedback from some of those is instructive:

Temujen Gunawardena: 'Bike Train for schools and colleges is vital. The barriers to riding are much greater for younger and less experienced riders, and Bike Train can offer them inspiration - big ideas about how to change the way we live.'

Paul Schrock: 'This is such a good idea! Acting on ideas like this is how we're going to solve our social and climate related problems.... not by waiting for the people in power to act... we need more good ideas like this... and soon!'

Liz Adams: 'This is a great idea! Speaking as someone who just got hit by a car on my way home!'

Alison Freeman: 'I felt a sense of community and connection because many of the pedestrians cheered us and waved. Indeed the bike journey that can often feel like a stressful negotiation with traffic and time, turned into a leisurely opportunity to chat with other cyclists, take in more of the scenery and feel safer as cars were more wary of our presence.'

As well as building on these numbers and sentiments, the Bike Train is linking up with red letter days. Last November more than 100 cyclists went to Lewes Bonfire and back. A Springwatch event this June saw a shuttle service to Stanmer Park and future dates include rides to the opening of the new Falmer Stadium on 6 Aug and the Apple Day at Stanmer Park on 25 Sept.

To get involved:

Jan Goodey is a freelance journalist and keen cycler

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