Getting Families Cycling: a Key to Achieving Urban Health and Resilience

Over a billion children live in cities worldwide, cared for by a large portion of the adult urban population. Despite their prevalence, our public spaces and transportation systems too often exclude their needs.
Getting Families Cycling: a Key to Achieving Urban Health and Resilience
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Urban communities around the world are facing a dual crisis of increasingly sedentary populations and climate change. The way most of us move in our cities contributes negatively to both. A shift away from car-centric planning, policies, and habits and towards more active travel could help shape healthier, climate-friendly urban societies. In order for this to succeed, however, the mobility of families needs to be at the centre of the conversation. Families have different, and more pronounced needs when it comes to cycling. They can act as a barometer for the inclusivity of cycling planning and policies.

Globally, traffic is the number one source of air pollution, and transportation more broadly is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. Car crashes are also the leading cause of death for children and young people 5–29 years of age. Simultaneously, current global estimates show that 23% of adults and 81% of adolescents do not exercise enough, and as countries develop economically, changes in transport habits can contribute to making people more sedentary due to the decreasing role and popularity of walking and cycling.

Family cycling in Copenhagen. Photo: Lucas Snaije

Cycling is an effective tool against climate change, especially when it is used to replace short trips in the city. Research from the Oxford Transport Unit found that lifecycle CO₂ emissions drop by 14% per additional cycling trip and by 62% for each avoided car trip. Cycling also has multiple health benefits. Daily use helps meet World Health Organization recommendations for physical activity, reduces the risk of obesity and improves overall fitness. In addition, it supports mental health and well-being, especially for young children and adolescents. When a city reduces car dependency and invests in active travel infrastructure, it also becomes safer for all users.  

More on the Forum Network: Stepping up to the challenge: Why physical activity is good for your health, for healthcare systems and the environment by  and 

Exercise improves cognitive functioning and sleep quality, prevents falls, relieves stress, and reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety. It is a win-win-win for individuals, healthcare systems and the environment. And yet, Europeans don’t move enough. What can be done to step up to this challenge?

Families are very important in the context of active mobility and cycling promotion because of the sheer population percentage they represent. Over a billion children live in cities worldwide, cared for by a large portion of the adult urban population. Despite their prevalence, our public spaces and transportation systems too often exclude their needs. Such oversight makes caregiving difficult and unsafe, threatening children’s ability to thrive in play, learning, and proper development. If the right conditions are provided, cycling could play an important role in supporting healthier, safer, and cleaner urban environments for families.

BYCS, a small Amsterdam-based non-profit organisation that supports community-led urban change through cycling worldwide, has embraced this family-oriented approach, and through our work, we have gained some valuable lessons.

Cycling education workshop with mothers and their children in Mexico City. Photo: Bicitekas

Firstly, parents need to be considered as a specific target group. Parents and caregivers have a very specific set of barriers to cycling, related to the mobility of care, which includes all travel resulting from home and caring responsibilities. Because the mobility of care is most often carried out by women due to an unequal division of household labour, ensuring that families can cycle is profoundly connected to the experiences of women cycling and reducing the gender gap in cycling. Taking into greater consideration some of the barriers of parents to start cycling thus has multiple social and environmental objectives.

Even when a city is developing cycling lanes, they are often not protected, too narrow to ride next to a child, disconnected by dangerous intersections, and located in areas of the city where families do not spend time 

These barriers are manifold and prevent many families from benefiting from using the bicycle as a cheap, energy efficient, healthy and flexible tool for daily transportation. For example, even if they know how to cycle, parents often fear that carrying a child and other items, such as groceries, on a bicycle will be too physically difficult or uncomfortable, especially when dealing with hills, poor roads or extreme weather. They also feel the lack of safety more acutely when riding with children. This is due to absence of bicycle-friendly infrastructure and in some contexts, cultural norms and fear of harassment. Additionally, even when a city is developing cycling lanes, they are often not protected, too narrow to ride next to a child, disconnected by dangerous intersections, and located in areas of the city where families do not spend time, such as main arteries going towards urban business centres.

Lastly, access to proper equipment, such as cargo bikes, personal or shared bicycles with baby seats, and child-sized bicycles can be too expensive or hard to purchase. These are just a few barriers that require a diverse set of infrastructural, promotional, educational, and financial accessibility initiatives to ensure all parents can integrate cycling into their daily lives. Our latest report, published in collaboration with the Bernard van Leer Foundation, explores this issue in further detail, through literature and findings from pilot programs that took place in 2022 in Mexico, Turkey and India.

START programme with toddlers in the Netherlands. Photo: Groeifiets

When it comes to children, it is important to start ingraining a cycling culture at the earliest age. Children that grow up riding their bikes to their schools are able to better concentrate in school, and have a higher likelihood to continue cycling. Several studies also show that cycling to school enables young people to meet the WHO recommendations for daily physical activity to a greater extent, reduces the risk of obesity, improves overall body fitness, and also strengthens positive effects on mental health and mental well-being.

Our research has shown that even between 0-3 years, cycling can improve motor skills and healthy childhood development. Programs like START, where in partnership with child-care centres and bike-lease companies, children gain access to a lease-bicycle and collectively learn to cycle independently through play, are an important first step that can get toddlers on bikes at an early age. Similar initiatives, such as the Cycling Games, have been carried out with toddlers in Denmark, but also in Ecuador and Chile.

Cycling Games in a school in Quito. Photo: Amanda Padilla

As children grow up, integrating their perspectives in city planning and cycling policy is also essential. One such response is the Bicycle Heroes program, a campaign that challenges 8-12-year-old children to think about the bicycle as a means of transport, and come up with creative solutions to address problems they encounter while cycling. Its intentions are to enable more children to cycle safely and independently while integrating their perspective in urban planning and policy. We have held this campaign in Dutch cities like Amsterdam and the Hague, but also in Rome, Dublin, and Lisbon. Children think creatively and can come up with ideas for more playful, sustainable, and inclusive cities that adults often overlook. In Lisbon for example, programme participants focused on the fact that many schoolchildren want to cycle to school but feel intimidated about the idea of riding alone. Similar to the viral Bicibus in Barcelona, this idea had kids riding together, chaperoned by parents, and making multiple ‘stops’ along a planned route where kids could join the ride.

These initiatives show how an approach to encouraging families to cycle can yield important social and environmental benefits. Focusing on the needs of children and those who care for them makes a city better for everyone, and there are many creative solutions to further engage with families and shape more inclusive and welcoming cycling cultures. A city where families can cycle safely and comfortably is a healthy, and climate-resilient city. 

A participatory design Bicycle Heroes workshop in Lisbon. Photo: Bicicultura.

More about BYCS:

We are an Amsterdam-based global NGO guided by the belief that bicycles transform cities and cities transform the world. We envision an urban future in which half of city trips are by bicycle by the end of the decade. To help achieve this we nurture, strengthen, and scale community-led cycling initiatives globally, striving towards this bold vision that we call 50×30. 

To learn more, read the OECD report: Step Up! Tackling the Burden of Insufficient Physical Activity in Europe

This report calls on policy makers to step up the policy response to increase physical activity. Being physically active is one of the most important things people can do to improve their physical and mental health. It helps prevent a range of non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, and improves mental health and cognitive functioning, among other benefits. Nevertheless, too many Europeans are physically inactive.

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Go to the profile of Herman de Leeuw
3 months ago

Fully subscribe to the health benefits of cycling. I just wonder whether there is any research on the benefits of changing traffic priority rules and on diversification of maximum speed in cities and whether these help peopel to adopt cycling.  In the Netherlands, for instance, cyclists were long considered "slow traffic" which meant that cyclists always had to yield way to "fast traffic" (cars, vans, motorcycles) when finding one another on "equal tracks". Some time ago, this changed in cities. Cyclists are now considered equal to "fast traffic", meaning that cars that come from the left (in the Netherlands) have to give way to cyclists. In addition, maximum speeds inside cities nowadays may vary from 30 kilometres per hour to 50 kilometers per hour, with the 30 km/ph mostly found in pedestrian areas that still allow cars, or in back alleys and quieter streets in living quarters.