Life on bikes

Hello! Bonjour! Guten Tag!

My four year old has a gift for starting conversations with everyone. No one he does this to seems to mind, but my inner British person cringes a little whenever he bypasses Proper Social Protocols and does something completely unsanctioned like talk to a stranger on a train.

To bring him a little bit more in line with normal behaviour I have taught him an acceptable opening sentence. “Hello-my-name-is-Sebastian-what’s-your-name?” tends to come out in one breath, sometimes so fast that it has to be repeated, but at least the proper introductions have taken place before he starts demanding to know what the person did that morning or similar.

We recently went to France and it transpires that “Bonjour-je-m’appelle-Sebastian-comment-t’appelles-tu” also works perfectly well for making friends, even if that’s all the French you know. Kids in general often surprise me with how effectively they communicate even if there isn’t a shared language. I suppose it shouldn’t be that unexpected – after all, we all start off with all of our communication being non verbal. One year olds can perfectly well make themselves understood through a combination of noises, gestures and facial expressions.

🇧🇪 🇫🇷 🇩🇪 …

From the outset, Kidical Mass Reading has had a good representation from multi-lingual families. Many European countries are rather more advanced than the UK is in terms of cycling infrastructure. When people have grown up knowing the impact of good cycling infrastructure campaigning for the same here seems to be an easy sell. The predominant emotion that I’ve heard from them around this is sadness that they aren’t yet able to offer their children the same freedoms and independence that they enjoyed so much themselves.

Our boys’ first “Kidical Mass friends” were the children of one of the other organising families, two wonderful girls who are very similar ages to our kids. The family is German, and late last year an opportunity came up for them to relocate to Bonn (which is much closer to their extended families) which they (sadly for us) took. Unfortunately (for us) they seem to be very happy there and show no signs of coming back, so when my other half’s work took him that way recently over half term we took the opportunity to go out with him and visit them.

The kids hadn’t seen each other for about six months, and we wondered on the way over how long it would take them to rediscover the friendship they’d had before. The answer was that within twenty seconds of reuniting they were halfway up a tree together. Kidical Mass friends really are the best friends.

We enjoyed hearing all about their Kidical Mass experience in Bonn – a very well attended affair, with hundreds of riders and police marshals closing down junctions for the ride to pass through. We were a bit envious, but at least we could boast about our Father Christmas ride (their rides don’t run through Winter).

The cycling infrastructure in Bonn is much more advanced than it is here – my husband’s observation having been there a few times for work is that you can cycle in the direction you want to go and mostly it just works. Meanwhile, here in Reading, our route planning sometimes involves Google street view. Still, our friends were able to point out plenty of things that could use some improvement – I guess a cycle campaigner’s work is never done. 

If you too would like to help campaign for better cycling infrastructure in Reading (and possibly make some new friends whilst you’re at it) please do join us for our next rides on 20th April.

Life on bikes

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

My Dad likes to play the long game. I don’t remember this, but I know (because he tells me at least once a year) that the first thing he said to me after I was born was, “In eighteen years you are going to leave home, and I promise that both you and I are going to be ready for it.”

I’d like to think that I’m a bit better at living in the moment than my Dad is, but I understand the sentiment and why he thought it was important enough to say to a newborn. It is our job as parents to help children grow into competent adults, and that’s not something that happens overnight when they turn eighteen. Freedom needs to be given to them gradually, in baby steps, as they are ready for it.


Our kids had a small milestone recently. They are seven and four, and I asked them if they wanted to go out together without a grown up to post their letters to their friends. The post box is a two minute walk away. We live on a quiet street, with footpaths connecting the houses and a small communal garden. Cars are relegated to a road around the edge, away from the houses, and there is no through traffic. After agreeing some ground rules (hold hands, the older one is in charge of deciding when it’s safe to cross the road, look both ways, don’t run) they decided they were up to the challenge. They came back having safely completed their mission and absolutely delighted with themselves.

The space we live in shapes how we live. We know many of our neighbours because we see them heading out on errands, gardening, or walking their dogs, and the boys stop to ask questions. Where are you going? What are you planting? Can I stroke your dog? The space is pleasant to be in, and peaceful, and encourages conversation. It won’t be long until the boys can go out and play in the communal area without me hovering next to them.

🧒 🚙 🚚 🚗 🚙 🚗 🚐 🚗

One of our Kidical Mass friends lived on a side road off Oxford Road, and her experience of life outside the front door could not have been more different. There are cars parked down both sides of the street, often blocking the pavement. There is nowhere to encourage neighbours to linger and socialise, and nowhere for children to play. The traffic on the main road is fast, and there aren’t traffic free alternatives. (In unrelated news, she’s recently moved).

How many years does an environment like that add to the point when a child can have some freedom and independence? Measures to bring down the speed and volume of traffic in residential areas would make a huge difference to the safety and quality of life of our kids.

On 20th April Kidical Mass Reading and Wokingham will both be running rides. These tie in with two very important action events, an international Kidical Mass one and the UK based Safe Streets Now. We want to raise our voices to make a clear statement. Our kids deserve safe bike infrastructure. They deserve safe streets. Allowing them to experience independence when they are ready for it should be a priority.

If you agree with us, do come and join us for a ride.


Five (Bike) Things I Love About Forbury Gardens

As a campaigning group, we work to draw attention to areas of Reading where improvements to cycling infrastructure are needed. However, I think it’s also important to notice where cycling infrastructure works well. Here, therefore, is my list of things I love about Forbury Gardens.

1. Bike Specific Infrastructure

A proper bike lane

Approaching Forbury Gardens from the South, after crossing Forbury Road, cyclists find themselves for a short stretch in their own specific path. In most of Reading cyclists are either expected to mix with motor vehicles (with a painted line to protect us, if we’re lucky), or to share space with pedestrians (with a painted line to suggest that we take half the path each, if we’re lucky) which substantially reduces the speed at which we can safely travel. Here the bike path runs along side the pedestrian path, but, crucially, at a different height to it. It makes a big difference, and I’m glad the new bike lane on Shinfield Road has been built this way too.

2. Low Motor Traffic Levels

Cars are definitely permitted on the roads around Forbury Gardens – there’s parking and you see the odd one driving around – but for whatever reason (presumably the combination of one way streets/bollards/bus only zones) it isn’t an area that gets used as a rat run and the traffic that comes through tends to move at a sensible speed and observe give way lines. I think I see more buses than cars here, and the low traffic levels mean that it’s one of the few places (outside of Kidical Mass) where cars are allowed that we’ve let our children ride their own bikes.

3. The Amazing Bollard Placement

3 bollards being not equidistant

Presumably contributing to those low traffic levels are the bollards under the Abbey Archway. Every time I come through these they make me happy. The central one isn’t quite central, which means that one of the gaps is bigger. My cargo bike is (slightly) wider than a standard bike, and I can slip through easily without worrying. It’s a great example of how accessibility improvements can help multiple groups of people – wheelchair users, families with pushchairs and unusual bicycles can all benefit. I’m really glad someone put a bit of thought in when installing the bollards here.

4. Accessible Cycle Parking

Speaking of accessibility, I love that there is bike parking right by Forbury Gardens, and that the pavement is profiled such that I can walk round to it without having to push my bike over a kerb. I can do that, if I need to, but with two kids on the back it can get pretty heavy! So I really notice here that the bike parking is easy to navigate.

5. Kidical Mass Memories

All of our early Kidical Mass rides finished at Forbury Gardens, and some of them still do. We’ve ridden to climate festival and children’s festival events there (two causes very well aligned with Kidical Mass goals). I’ve eaten some excellent cake in that garden, and seen kids visit with Santa (and have their bike given a tune up by his elf). When I’m in the gardens it brings back lovely memories of seeing the kids run and play together.

If you too would like to come and make memories with us, please join us for our next ride on 20th April. We’d love to see you.

Life on bikes

Proportionate policing please

Back in November, one of our number messaged in the Kidical Mass WhatsApp group (where all the cool kids hang out) to say that they had been surprised to find a strong police presence outside Caversham library that morning. Five officers had been present. It’s great to see officers out in the community, and he asked them if they were there for a particular reason. They said they had been sent there because of complaints about cyclists riding on the pavement and ignoring red lights.

Now, I will be clear that I do think everyone including cyclists should follow the rules of the road. And, as a pedestrian, I understand the frustrations around having cyclists whizz past you on pavements that aren’t shared paths (though, as a mother, I’m not going to judge another family who decide that their small children are safer riding on the pavement than on the road).

However, do you know what else happened in Caversham in that same spot in December? A crash involving six cars and a van, in which five people were injured. The consequences when people in control of fast, hard, heavy chunks of metal are reckless on the roads are far, far worse than they are for cyclists. Despite the fact that cyclists and pedestrians are often forced to share the same spaces, between 2012 and 2021 98% of pedestrians who were killed or seriously injured in a collision were injured by a motor vehicle rather than a bicycle.

I do think it’s antisocial when riders of illegally overpowered e-bikes (often working for delivery companies) whizz through pedestrian spaces at inhuman speeds. I know that many of these riders are in very precarious situations, and that the delivery companies make it very difficult to make a decent hourly rate. To get paid, riders take more risks in order to take on more jobs.

It’s like that age old ethical conundrum: riding what’s effectively a small motorbike antisocially is wrong, but if you have a choice between that and watching your family starve, which is the greater evil? For me the blame here lies squarely with the delivery companies who are happy to incentivise these behaviours and then hide their head in the sand about the consequences whilst raking in the profits. And, mostly, I think those riders endanger themselves rather than others.

Do you know what else makes pavements and bike paths difficult to navigate? When cars are parked on/in them. This forces pedestrians and cyclists (often young ones) out into traffic they shouldn’t be having to navigate. It can block routes entirely for wheelchair users and make life very difficult for families with pushchairs. Those cars often aren’t just there momentarily when passing through, they can be an almost permanent hazard (e.g. on the shared use path alongside Henley Road).

I’ve tried reporting pavement parking in Reading. The council has a website where you can submit photos but when I’ve tried it for the Henley Road bike lane I’ve got a (very quick) form response letting me know that the council have no power to enforce anything there, and the police have no resources. However, it seems the police have managed to find resources to conduct an operation to seize a few souped-up e-bikes in the town centre.

I know there are some really good people in policing – I love seeing some of them out on their bikes and we were delighted with the pair who joined our ride from the cycle festival in September. They aren’t the ones making the decisions about where their time is spent.

In a world where policing resources are so limited, can we not focus traffic enforcement on vehicles that do the most harm? We have an election coming up for the local Police and Crime Commissioner, who has the power to set the priorities for road safety enforcement. If you’d like to see a change, make sure you let the candidates know that what’s important to you and use your vote on 2nd May.


Blake’s firsts

When you have a child, you have all these dreams and expectations for them, even if you don’t realise that. The moment they’ll take their first step, their first word, their first bath, their first breath.

In my case there was definitely this idea of that first bike ride, that first mountain we’d climb together. I’d grown up cycling, being dragged up mountains and orienteering, so it seemed perfectly reasonable my son would have those ‘delights’ too. (Admittedly at age 7 falling into a patch of briars while orienteering didn’t feel that delightful.)

So, having a baby at 28 weeks and 3 days wasn’t something I expected. Nor was Blake having a significant brain bleed and being told by the consultant he’d have disabilities.

Blakey had lots of firsts I never expected – the first time he breathed without a machine, the first time I could hold him, the first time he could drink milk rather than via feeding tube. But one thing I was adamant about was that no matter what the scale of his disabilities were, he would have his first rides, his first mountains.

After months in hospital, we moved up to Scotland and in with my parents. I can’t recommend living with retirees while on mat leave enough, especially when those grandparents cycle.

‘Umpah’ and I lashed a car seat into a double trailer, negotiated with Nana that we’d wait until it stopped snowing to use it, and conducted numerous field trials with a brave toy soldier to check safety.  

The month Blakey and I started cycling, we had a permanent marshal cycling behind the trailer to make sure we were safe (Umpah). And just like that, Blakey was cycling.

We joined a Mums on Bikes social ride, more for me to meet other parents than to get confidence cycling, and a whole new world opened up to us. I couldn’t weave through traffic like I used to. I often couldn’t fit down narrow bike lanes that would get me to assisted stop boxes. We got as much aggression from drivers, if not more, when we cycled. I was in contact with other women who cycled, I was part of a community of people who also used their bike to get around.

That first year we cycled hundreds of miles together, and I realised that the rage, the risk, the violence I’d normalised over the years wasn’t good enough for my child.  Blake had more firsts I’d never dreamed of — the angry men who drove after both of us beeping and swearing, the first close pass, and sadly the 2nd, 3rd etc, the first time he heard Mummy called a bitch and a cunt because she dared to take her bike on a road with him.

I met other women who thought the same and Kidical Mass Inverness became a thing. We raised the profile of cycling for all cyclists, spoke to councillors and inspired groups across the UK to set their own rides up. Blake went from a trailer to a seat on my bike, and Umpah was still there, fewer people swore at us. We were making a difference.

Then suddenly he was 15 months, or 1 depending on how you count it, and it was time to return to paid work. I’m a Product Manager when I’m not being a Mum or cyclist activist. We came back down south, his Dad became part of our lives and we instigated Kidical Mass Reading. We’d had all of those 1sts I’d been told would probably not happen (including trips up mountains on my back 🙂 )

And it wasn’t safe for us again, we got harassed on Oxford Road, close passes, verbal abuse and the council had no idea why it mattered that cycle routes were inclusive. I was scared again, I was scared that my desire for a future for my child with clean air, streets he could play on, a habitable future would cause us another stay in hospital.

I met the Smart’s and we set up Kidical Mass Reading, next came Samuel, Blake’s Dad got into cycling, Jeroen joined, Dr Bike became an important person in my life — and once again my cycling campaigning started making a difference. But more than that, it gave us a community.

He’s now 3, he did his first bike ride on his own at Reading University in Jan, and his 2nd in Reading town centre in Feb, and to say I am a proud Mama would be an understatement: I’ve made everyone at work, social media and friends watch that video of Blake balance biking his way around a 4km safe route. I’m so proud of my tiny balance biker who finished the ride beaming and so proud of himself.

It wasn’t just me cheering him on, it was the whole group, it was every marshal keeping him safe. It was the other preschoolers he very proudly announced he was cycling to. I’m not sure I imagined one of his firsts being a group ride, but I’m so pleased I could make that happen for him. I’ve promised him I’ll make the roads safe for him — a big promise, I know. But I really hope that in a few years’ time, other kids won’t have firsts of adults swearing at them just because they’re on a bike.

Why am I writing this? I guess because these firsts were firsts that I never imagined when I found out I was pregnant, and then never dreamed would be possible after his start. Because I’m a proud Mum, who is in awe of her balance biker, who is demanding he gets a pedal bike like the other kids. Because cycle campaigning gave me a community I never dreamed of, in 2 countries, which I’m so glad to have in my life. And because we need to make sure that we give our kids better.