Cycling to the school gates

Pieter Oonk and daughter Julianna
Pieter Oonk and daughter Julianna

Hidden outside official statistics are the families transporting their young children by bicycle to crèches and schools in Dublin, discovers Cian Ginty

Using anything but the car is nearly unthinkable for many parents of the 61% of children driven to Irish primary schools in 2011. But while the latest Census shows a record number of car-going students, the Central Statistics Office doesn’t record the transport of children under five.'s reader-funded journalism won't survive without your help. With over 762,000 views so-far this year, it's not just "avid cyclists" who read this website, but, if you want it to keep going, more support is needed from readers like you. Now, back to the article...

“Although I prefer cycling in my hometown of Amsterdam, I do enjoy cycling in Dublin, especially with my daughter on her seat on the front of the bike,” says Pieter Oonk, father of three-year-old Julianna. He works at a north-side based software firm and drops Julianna off at pre-school on his way to work every morning from Dublin 4.

“The five minute detour is worth every minute. Sometimes we have a chat about what she’ll be doing at school that day or what she would like to do in the afternoon,” he says.

Halfway across the city in Dublin 12, Jill Jordan and her husband, Mark, cycle their two boys to crèche. For Jill, the time saved by cycling their 11-month-old and three year old, is a big factor.

Read our overview of child carrying options: Click on the image above

“For us, the commute time is a massive plus. I can’t park at work, and my only other option would be to walk 20 minutes pushing a buggy and herding the three-year-old on his scooter as far as crèche then go and wait for an infrequent bus that gets stuck in traffic and walk another 15 minutes to the office at the other end,” she says.

“If I want to see my kids at all at either side of the working day, cycling is by far the quickest way for me to get around – eight minutes to crèche, drop off, 15 minutes to work. I’ve timed it,” Jill adds.

Jill also wants to set a positive example. “I want them to see their parents being active as much as possible and not sitting in traffic giving out.”

In Santry, Mike McHugh brings Eimear, five, to primary school most days, and 2-year-old Cormac to crèche twice a week. “There are a couple of reasons”, he says when asked why he cycles his children around. “Spending time with them; they love it; it makes commuting easier; and it helps to spread the child-rearing load.”

He adds: “I’m sure there are other reasons, like getting the children used to cycling on roads, and exposed to cycling, and my personal fitness, but they’re not really top priority.”

“It takes about 10 to 12 minutes to get from the house to the school,” says Mike, a fair-weather cyclist who finds his trips are not without their obstacles. He says: “The one disadvantage to the route is that I have to cross over the M1. I find the Santry-Coolock roundabout very badly laid out, so I don’t use it when I’ve got a child on the back. Instead I’ll use what the council calls a ‘path of desire’ between Ballyshannon Road and Oscar Traynor Road – it’s a muck and stone path with a lot of broken glass, but I’ve only gotten one puncture and it’s safer.”

Mike says he started cycling with the children “as soon as they could hold their heads up.”

The answer to “how soon?” differs from child to child. Advice for average bicycle seats varies but generally ranges from six months to a year – the important thing is that the child is able to support their own head.

Jill says her two children started around 10 months and waiting to put the second one on the bike was a time-consuming pain.
She says: “When I went back to work, until Teddy got to 10 months and was nice and sturdy, one of us would drive both to crèche, drive home, then cycle on to work.”

Astrid Fitzpatrick, a Lucan-based Dutch cycling mother who runs, says that one of her children has been on bikes from seven months but a ballpark timescale is the nine month mark.

School run 5b (1)
Jill Jordan and her husband, Mark, and their two boys

“I tell people the baby has to be able to sit up by him or herself and be able to support the weight of its head – plus helmet – for the length of the journey,” she says. “In the beginning you don’t bring your baby on hour long cycles. Take a 20 minute spin and slowly build it up.”

She says: “I do always warn not to put babies too young [onto a bike] as with the state of Irish roads, with potholes and uneven surfaces, the bouncing around is not good for a child too young.”

When asked about helmets, Astrid’s advice is to do it right if you’re using one on a child. “Wear the helmet straight over the eyebrows…it needs to be tight enough to not move around but not so tight it gives a headache.”

There’s a range of options of seats and trailers to suit different needs and choices (see panel, right for details).

Many cargo bicycles are designed to hold car baby seats, allowing babies to be put on bikes nearly as quickly as into a car. Astrid says the Dutch advice is two months but she recommends four months due our road surfaces.

But as well as the price tag, cargo bike size can be an issue. Although two-wheeled versions are no wider than their handlebars, they are long, and can take up some space.

“We use one front and one rear seat,” says Jill. “I love the front one for really little kids. You have your arms around them in a manner of speaking, you can see them, chat to them and point out the sights and hear them.”

She adds: “The front one we have switches easily from bike to bike so when we just had one kid the dropping off parent would leave it in crèche and whoever did pick up could stick it on their bike in the evening. When I was pregnant with Teddy, I had to switch Dominic to a rear seat on my bike though – I couldn’t wedge my bump in behind the front mounted seat!”

child sign

Doesn’t it rain a lot in Dublin? “Yes, but not as often as you’d think,” says Jill. “It’s very showery, so you can go out on a rainy day and never get wet during your time out and about.”Pieter Oonk says his daughter started off using a handlebar-mounted seat, then went to a rear seat, and is now back at the front. “Julianna has her own saddle/seat that is mounted on the crossbar which means it’s easier to talk and look at the same things together. I also think it gives her a very good sense of the attention and anticipation that cycling requires which will hopefully help her confidence when she’s riding her own bike,” he says.

“We would bring the older fella in lighter rain. There’s great kids’ rain gear on sale in Lidl a couple of times a year so we’ve that in various sizes, but not for Teddy yet. Since we’ve started cycling with him, there’s been some terrible days so we’ve used the car then. My husband can drive on to work if he wants to, but I can’t, so it’s rain, hail or shine for me,” she says.

Pieter brings his daughter on the bike every day, whatever the weather. “Except for the very worst downpours, I always bring her by bike. It’s only a few minutes away so we don’t really use rain gear,” he says.

“It does rain often in Ireland but not very heavy and mostly not for very long so it doesn’t bother me too much. I have an emergency fold up rain jacket that I bring with me for sudden downpours but I rarely use it.”

Pieter says the one thing that bothers him about the rain is the reaction of other road users. “Car drivers in Ireland seem to do the opposite of what you’d expect – they start to drive faster and brake more suddenly,” he says.

Do children like bicycle commuting? Pieter says his daughter enjoys their bike rides: “Julianna loves going on the bike. Whenever we need to go somewhere at the weekend and I ask whether she’d prefer to go on foot or by bike, 90% of the time, she’ll suggest the bike. Keeping her entertained is not difficult at all – there is enough to see.”

Mike agrees, saying: “Yup, they both really enjoy it, and there’s no problem keeping them strapped in, helmeted, and entertained. The only difficulty is talking to each other [because of] wind noise.”

Jill says her older son Dominic really likes going on the bike. “In fact it was by his request that we started cycling the two of them – he kept asking us when he was going to go to playschool on the bike again,” she says. “Teddy seems to still be sussing it out, he looks around loads, and he’s certainly never been upset on the bike. I think it’s just normal to them very quickly.”

Originally published in the Summer 2013 edition of the Cycling in Dublin newspaper, which can be viewed or downloaded here

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