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spires from Carfax

the transport geography of early childhood

Walking with Helen to the Cowley Rd Tesco yesterday made me think back on how her development and changes in transport modes have affected our experience of Oxford's geography. (I wish I had GPS data, so I could generate some maps illustrating changes in trip length and direction over time.)

In Helen's first year and a half my most common destination with her, on my Wednesdays off and on weekends, was that Tesco, where I used to do much of the household shopping, using the stroller to carry it. Our route took us through the churchyard of Ss Mary and John, which was always the nicest part of the walk: we would stop and look out for squirrels, and once Helen started walking a bit I would take her out of the stroller here so she could walk through. This period also saw regular visits to the Restore Cafe (sometimes with Fiona and Kat) and the Manzil Way playground. Sometimes we took buses into town, where our most common destinations were the central library and the Modern Art Oxford cafe and places like Debenhams and Marks+Spencers, which had cafes and good baby-changing facilities. And since Helen napped in the stroller and had no regular bedtime routine as such, I even took her along to gamelan a few times, having dinner in G+D's on St Aldates beforehand (where we used to meet Trevor).

As Helen started nursery at ten months, became comfortably bike-mobile sometime around one, began walking a bit later, and developed a regular mid-day nap (following the nursery practice), our destinations changed. Shopping with the bike plus toddler was less practical than with the stroller plus baby, so that mostly moved to a combination of online orders and Camilla doing big runs to the large ring-road stores with the car. We also did regular stroller-less trips to the local Coop corner store, some four hundred metres away, with Helen gradually walking more and more of the distance. With nowhere to nap without the stroller, trips into town were now restricted to half-days, and taking Helen to gamelan became impractical once she developed regular night-time routines. From around a year and a half the meetups with other parents, which had been for adult socialising and logistics, started to morph into playdates. Her first friends outside nursery were Leila, Immi, Frieda, Rachel, and Parker — from our NCT group with additions, but constrained by the timing of days off and of second rounds of maternity leave. Common destinations now included the Botanic Gardens, Florence Park, and people's houses.

From 2y3m Helen refused to go into the stroller and shortly afterwards she dropped her nap. Getting around now involved cycling and a combination of walking and being carried, until at about three I pretty much stopped carrying her. Our regular destinations in town continued to be the library (temporarily relocated) and Modern Art Oxford (where some of the staff recognise us). We also visited the various bookshops regularly and my office (where the child-height-friendly toilet and the water cooler machine are big attractions). And Helen began to really enjoy playing with her friends, so visiting people became more important, with trips to Northampton and Brackley (by car) to meet up with Lucy and Rachel, to Lye Valley to visit Nadia and Frieda, to Florence Park to meet Ilana and Parker or Kat and Immi, and so forth.

The next year will see further changes. We've lost all our regular Wednesday companions now, returning to work from maternity leave or taking up new jobs (though I could try to shift my and Helen's day off to a Monday or Friday, which are the days people more commonly have off). Helen is a solid walker now and going on walks in the countryside (mostly reached by car) is a real option (I will write more about this in a separate post). And Camilla is working from home, which means I'm doing more of the nursery dropoffs and pickups. Another big change is that Helen increasingly has a role in deciding where we go, rather than having those decisions entirely made for her.

Camilla's rear bike seat may just last out the next year, but I at least am likely to need a tag-along or alternative to replace my relatively small front/centre-mounted WeeRide. Then in a year will come the big move from nursery to school, most likely to our local primary, which is a five minute walk away. And at some point we are going to hit what I think of as "the cycling gap", when Helen will be too big for a bike seat or tag-along and too small for safe cycling on her own on most few routes -- a gap which might last half a decade, given Oxford's lack of cycling infrastructure. (I will almost certainly write more about this, too.)

Note (a few weeks later): Helen and I walked down to Temple Cowley this afternoon, to visit Matalan and then the library, and on the way back we stopped in Florence Park for an icecream. That's only 2.5 miles or so, but it's still a trip I would normally do by bicycle now without thinking about it. (In this case I wanted to get Helen some exercise.) On foot everything is just further apart, and suddenly East Oxford isn't a single "point" anymore (everything between the Plain and Cowley Rd and Between Towns Rd and the river is basically so close to us on a bicycle that there's no distinction of distance within the area).


  1. An interesting account, as always. Have you considered scooting? I mean for Helen, but there's no reason, apart from it being unconventional, that you couldn't scoot alongside. Otherwise it's a matter of your running alongside, or continuously calling out for her not to go too fast. Children's scooters are quite easy to take on buses, which can be useful when going into town. Sol, now 7y2m, has been cycling from his house just off East Avenue to his school in Meadow Lane for about a year now. He is always accompanied but has developed quite a good sense of road safety. When I'm with him on my own bike, I assess whether he can ride on the quieter roads with me or stay on the pavement, and I always remind him (although he claims to know without reminding) to take extra care at junctions.

    Comment by Diyan — September 2016
  2. I think the reason I don't think about scooting as a transport option is that I never used a scooter myself, so it just doesn't spring to mind. Also, she's such a good walker most of the time - and doesn't slow us down much - that it doesn't seem like it would really help. But Helen did recently get a scooter, so we may end up using that for some local trips.

    Comment by danny — September 2016

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