Listening to Bikeability Scotland voices

26 June 2024    

A year of trying to understand Bikeability Scotland by talking to kids about cycle training, riding bikes and what it means to them by Marketing and Communications Manager, Sonia Mullineux.

It started in April 2023 with a 20-minute cycle ride from the shadow of V&A Dundee to Eastern Primary School in Broughty Ferry. I arrived under blue skies with a laptop, a microphone, and an aim of wanting to understand Bikeability Scotland better.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. I knew for example, that Eastern Primary has been delivering on-road cycle training since 2013, that the school has a downloadable Safer Routes to School leaflet prominently displayed on its website, and that it is positioned close to Dundee’s first major separated cycle route from Broughty Ferry to Monifieth (then under construction, now completed). I also checked the Cycling Open Data Portal to see if the nearest cycle counter to the school could provide a picture of cycling in the local area.

These all felt important to me, but I’m not 11, and to really understand the impact and perception of cycle training and bikes in general, I had to put this information to one side and just listen. 

As adults we know that cycle training fulfils a list of admirable benefits. It is a fun and practical way to keep active that can contribute to a child’s emotional, social, and physical wellbeing, education and attainment, hazard perception and awareness, and self-confidence. This is the way that we frame Bikeability Scotland for partners, funders, teachers and parents but as adults it is easy to lose sight of what it means to the participants themselves, the children.

Over the past year, as well as Broughty Ferry, I have visited primary schools in Livingston, Barrhead, Minnigaff, Drylaw, and Govanhill. I have listened to the thoughts and aspirations of  a group of pupils from each who had all recently completed Bikeability Scotland Level 2 on-road cycle training, and I have started to think about it a little bit differently.

Conversations naturally started with a discussion of the training with Harry from Livingston providing the most succinct summary:

"I thought we would just be doing different games or different activities on the bikes. It was more like what you would actually do on the road or in real life, teaching you those skills that you actually need. And I think that’s what we really did when we did Bikeability." - Harry

Having the training broken down and dissected by each pupil revealed two major themes. Firstly, the difference between knowing how to ride a bike and knowing how to travel safely by bike. One commonly repeated myth about cycling is that a bike is a toy and not a viable form of transport. That this perception has filtered through to children is not surprising. What was surprising was how quickly the training repositioned cycling in the eyes of the children, and how the concept of being safe when making a journey by bike became the focus.

“It just helped me get better at it and it showed me how to bike safer. I used to just go without signalling or doing anything. I didn’t even know what it was until we did it.” - Abdoulie

“I was thinking that this is serious stuff, but if you listen to the teachers and then you train, when you get older, you know how to ride a bike. The roundabouts and the signals are the things I used to do wrong.” - Daniel

“When I first started cycling before Bikeability I thought, I can cycle. But I never realised that there’s all these different parts to it with Bikeability.” - Kennedi

The second topic that formed part of each conversation was an initial feeling of nervousness and trepidation. Not of being on a bike or being able to correctly remember road positioning or signalling, but of being on the road with traffic. Again, given what we know from Cycling Scotland’s ‘Attitudes and Behaviours Towards Cycling in Scotland’, not feeling safe on roads is one of the major barriers that stops people choosing a bike for their journey.

“You practise learning the rules of going on the road. I thought that it was going to be very scary because I go to Queen’s Park on a bike path, but I don’t really go on the road.” - Andrei

“I thought it was just going to be inside the school. My friend said to me that we’re gonna go outside. I thought he was joking. When we first went, I was really scared.” - Luca

“When we went onto the road for the first time it was quite nerve-wracking with there actually being real cars coming and going.” - Maeci

“It surprised me when we went on the road because there weren’t a lot of cars, but I don’t know if my mum would let me go on the road by myself.” - Rocco

My assumption, prior to talking to the children was that this apprehension would be a barrier to progress but as I listened, I started to understand that it is more about opportunity and confidence. Bikeability Scotland cycle training gives the children the opportunity to take a bike onto a road while providing the skills and support needed to feel confident that they belong there. The significance of this cannot be overstated, and the ease with which they move from one state to another is astonishing. Or maybe it isn’t if you are 11.

“It made me feel more confident on my bike and more confident on the roads. Everywhere that I go with my bike, I know what to do and where to go.” - Issy

“I learnt it all pretty quickly. I knew what I was doing and how to do it. It made me confident.” - Isla

“I really wanted to do more of it because it made me feel confident about myself cycling. So now when I cycle to school, I always cycle on the road.” - Summer

As we talked, the conversation naturally moved away from the training and onto topics such as how riding a bike made them feel. I know how it makes me feel but my feelings are informed by a different time and place. When I learnt to ride, the roads were much quieter, especially in residential areas. When Mason described how riding a bike alone was the only time he has free to think about things, I was transported back to my childhood self, and the fresh air and release referenced by Jorgi, Jessica and Isla made me realise that the fundamental freedoms that cycling offers never really change.

“I feel like every other time I get a chance to just be by myself somebody just comes over and then starts chatting to me. But when you’re going around on the bike you just have all the thoughts. It’s good.” - Mason

“It lets you be free. It lets you think about problems that aren’t that important, and it’s also really fun.” - Jorgi

“I like how the wind is blowing in your hair and all that. It is just like freedom.” - Jessica

“You get to feel the breeze and you hear and see the things around you.” - Isla

I visited my final school, St Bride’s Primary in Govanhill, Glasgow on a wet and cold morning in January 2024. I arrived looking like a drowned rat. The kids weren’t surprised that I’d cycled, they just felt I should have been better prepared, it is Scotland after all.

Since visiting St Bride’s, I have had time to reflect and there is one thing that has stayed with me: the idea of expanded horizons. It is as if Bikeability Scotland training opens one of those pop out snakes in a can. Once released, you can’t force it back in. The training taps into their imagination, their desire for independence, and their need for adventure. It was a privilege to have been given the opportunity to listen to them and to be inspired by them.

“I’ve been to Neilston and back and Paisley and back. We started riding and then eventually ended up there. The furthest that I’ve cycled is probably past Neilston. I don’t know what the place is, but it was quite far away”. - Max

“I just like to ride locally. I haven’t really got an idea of anything outside the local area, but I would like to cycle in the towns near here.” - Isla

“I would like to cycle somewhere with my friends on my own because you can have a blether with your friends, but at the same time you’re on your own, experiencing things on your own.” - Jorgi

“I think I would just like to go further and explore. Find new places and meet new people. I Just like getting out in the open. You can really see where you are going and the landscape that you’re living in.” - Harry

“I’d like to cycle as an achievement, a really far distance, like a milestone. Maybe to a different country. I’ve cycled 12 miles before.” - Luis

About the programme

Bikeability Scotland, the national cycle training programme for school children, is proven to increase road safety awareness in young people , equipping them with the skills and confidence to make everyday trips by bike more safely. 

The programme is free for pupils and is funded by Cycling Scotland, the national cycling charity, through grant funding from Transport Scotland. Last year more than 60,000 children took part in Bikeability Scotland training, a 20% increase in participation from the previous year.

More information, including which schools are currently offering the training, along with more guidance and support for schools, parents, instructors and local authorities, can be found on the Bikeability Scotland website.