We all know that cycling is a fun form of exercise that helps kids become more confident and independent. But you might not have realised that it can also be a brilliant way of getting to school. You just need to know how to go about it in the right way.
Cycling to school is not without its challenges. For the children and the grown-ups! Parents find all sorts of questions going through their mind. What is the safest route? What are the potential hazards? Is the bike roadworthy? How can I prepare my child for the bike ride to school? We know that safety is your priority when it comes to your kids, so we've put together some top tips and handy hints to put your mind at ease.
Please bear in mind that the age at which children are allowed to ride their bikes on the road without adult supervision varies from country to country – as do the rules that need to be followed.
In Austria, children have to be 12 (or 9 if they've passed their bike test) before they can cycle on a road or cycle path without being accompanied by an adult.
Make sure you check the current regulations in your country before letting your child loose on their bike on their own.
1. Finding the right route
When deciding whether or not to let your child ride their bike to school, the first thing you'll need to consider is the area and the route from your house to the school gate.
Don't automatically assume that the shortest route is the safest. You may find that your child gets a bit overwhelmed by busy main roads and hills to start with. We would recommend going for a quieter route with as few junctions and crossings as possible. It is well worth taking a slight detour if it means that the school run is safer and more relaxed. If your child does have to face the challenge of busy crossings and junctions, encourage them to get off their bike and push it over the pedestrian crossings.
Top tip: Lots of councils and schools work on ways to make the journey to school safer. This includes planning out safe routes mapping out the area around a school and highlighting potential hazards.
- UK: Find safe walking or cycling routes to your child's school
- Germany: bast School route planning
- Austria: School route mapping
- Switzerland: School+Velo
2. Reducing car use around schools
The area immediately outside a school needs to be made as safe as possible. As a parent, you have the right to urge the school or local council to take precautionary measures to keep kids safe when they are cycling (or walking) to school. For example, traffic-calming measures near schools can have a huge impact on safety. And every parent has the power to make schools a safer environment. After all, if more children travel to school on foot or on a bike or scooter, the number of cars around the school will drop drastically and that can only make the school run safer. “Unfortunately, lots of parents still drop their kids off at school in the car without realising that’s often the worst thing they can do,” says traffic expert Werner Palfinger from pro-cycling organisation Radlobby Klosterneuburg. “More needs to be done to spread the word that cars ultimately put children in more danger around schools.”
3. Performing safety checks and keeping bikes in perfect working order
The golden rule of cycling – on the school run and always – is that your child's bike must always be in perfect working order. In this video tutorial, our mechanic Tim talks about cleaning and maintenance to help you take proper care of your child's bike.
The best way to make sure your child's bike is safe for them to ride is to check it over every so often and take it for regular services. That way, you'll be able to confirm in no time that all the components are working perfectly and the bike is good to go.
4. Going on practice runs
Make sure your child can recognise the main road signs they come across on their route to school – like stop and give way – and tell them what they mean. As a general rule, you should prepare your child for the challenges of cycling on the road from a young age and allow them to build up experience as soon as possible. They need to be able to identify potential hazards – like hidden exits, car doors opening and kerbs – and know how to respond. Read this blog post for more on spotting potential hazards and considering traffic from a child's point of view.
Keep practising the journey to and from school with your child until they are confident they can tackle it on their own. Make sure you always look at the route through your child's eyes, remembering that their view will be more restricted than yours because they are seated in a lower position. Stick as close as possible to your child to start with, so you are never too far away to tell them what to do. It's also really important that you allow enough time, so your child doesn't end up feeling stressed or under pressure.
"When children are riding a bike on the road, there's a lot going on. They need to be able to process everything going on around them, distinguish between left and right and get to grips with the route. That's all on top of being able to ride their bike safely in the first place. And don't forget that children often get distracted too. That's why it's so important to help your child practice what to do in different scenarios over and over again until they can respond instinctively," says specialist Palfinger from Radlobby. "It all depends on their age, of course. Parents of little children need to be by their side at all times but will find that their children can manage the journey to school on their own once they've left primary school – provided they've had all the relevant practice and preparation."
5. Perfecting riding technique
Work with your child in a safe space to practice what they need to do in certain situations. When riding on the road, it is crucial that your child has mastered the following:
- Braking with the utmost precision so that their bike comes to a stop before obstacles, crossings and other hazards
- Giving clear hand signals when turning left and right
- Communicating with other road users by making eye contact
- Looking over their shoulder before turning (to check that no vehicles are overtaking)
- Giving way and crossing open junctions – ideally pushing rather than riding their bike over
Fun little games to practice riding technique can be a great way of teaching your child how to react in specific situations on their bike. If you're in need of a little inspiration, check out our list of fun drills here.
6. Wearing a helmet and using accessories
Your child needs a helmet that fits them perfectly before they can go anywhere on their bike. Helmets are a legal requirement in many countries, including Austria, where kids have to wear one up to the age of 12. Not sure which size helmet to order for your child? This video should help you with that.
It's obvious that children are smaller than adults, but don't forget that they end up seated in a lower position than us too. When you consider the fact that the nights start drawing in and the weather begins to turn when the new school year starts too, it should come as no surprise that you need to make sure your child is as visible as possible.
- Bright and reflective clothing works a treat. Why not give our FLARE Reflective Vest a go for added visibility?
- In low-light conditions, it can be a good idea to top up the legally required bike lights with safety reflectors or reflective stickers like our GLAM Reflective Stickers on your child's helmet, school bag and clothes.
In many countries, bikes legally have to be fitted with a bell, which can provide your child with an easy way of drawing attention to themselves if needed.
7. Carrying school bags safely
If your child is going to be riding their bike to school a lot, a bike basket or rack with tension straps for securing bags could be a worthwhile investment. The extra weight of a school bag worn on your child's back is likely to make it harder for them to cycle – depending on other factors like their muscle power, motor skills and sense of balance. However, we are well aware that lots of schoolkids do still decide to wear their bag on their back. Make sure they do so safely by following our tips:
- Practice: Your child should practice turning and braking whilst carrying a full school bag on a dry run. This will give you a chance to check that your child can steer properly and keep their balance.
- Shoulder straps: Your child should always carry their bag on both shoulders and tighten the straps to stop it swinging about and making them lose their balance. The ideal school bag would also have chest and waist straps to keep it even more secure.
- Weight distribution: Make sure your child packs their school bag properly. They need to place heavy things like books right at the back where possible.
- Weight: Encourage your child to only pack things they really need. It's sometimes possible to leave laptops and heavy books at school rather than lugging them about.
You can read more about carrying school bags on a bike here.
Make sure that all accessories are securely attached to the bike. There should be no chance of any straps getting caught in the spokes – the same goes for long hair, scarves and shoelaces.
8. Avoiding school run no-nos
- Loud music: There's no law against listening to music through headphones when cycling and yet doing so will no doubt distract your child and make them less aware of what's going on around them. If they turn the volume up loud, they may not be able to hear cars or emergency vehicles on the road. This could put them (and others) in danger and ultimately mean that they are not able to follow the rules of the road to the letter.
- Mobile phones: Cars and bikes are no place for mobile phones. If your child tries to use theirs whilst cycling, they will be distracted and may not respond to a hazard on the road quickly enough. In Austria, your child will have to pay a fine if they're caught using a mobile phone at the same time as riding a bike.
- Bikes left unlocked: Leaving a bike unlocked at school is just asking for trouble. Your child should always use a good-quality lock to keep their bike safe – even if they are just popping into the shop on the way to school. If you still need to buy your child a proper lock, take a look at our LOKKI Bike Lock, which is made of hardened steel and provides protection at security level 8.
- Careless cycling: Cyclists need to respect other cyclists on the road. Tailgating, jostling and poorly timed overtaking are all very much frowned upon!
- Cycling side by side: We know that kids always have an awful lot to chat about. That's why you often see two young cyclists riding next to each other on their way to or from school. It's important to note, however, that the rules on this vary by country. In Germany and Switzerland, for example, cyclists can only ride side by side if they are not obstructing traffic in the process. Meanwhile, in Austria, you can only cycle next to somebody else on cycle paths and cycleways, down residential streets and in shared spaces.