Real Cyclists and Real Problems

12 January 2014

Pavement cycling is, rightly, a contentious issue. But are we seeing the problems or just the symptoms?

Naming and shaming

I noticed a conversation on Twitter which happened to include a user I’d not seen in a conversation before: @shameoncyclists. Rightly or wrongly, I took the name to be fairly pejorative, so I went to take a look.

(Now, before I continue, I’d like to be clear: I’m not intending to directly have a go at @shameoncyclists. I do think they’ve made a clumsy start to things, but that’s hardly unusual and they do seem to be making some slightly awkward attempts to resolve their language. But I do want to use their comments as a vignette of the point I want to make. Right. Let’s carry on.)

The account is raising the issue of pavement cycling. Now, I know there are people who don’t think cycling is a Real Problem, but I certainly agree it is. There’s a shared path on my route to work which I regularly use on a bike and which I’ve frequently used on foot. There have been occasions on foot when I’ve been more than a little apprehensive of someone on a bicycle I could hear approaching from behind, and I’m a 14 stone bloke who can move (but which way?) fairly quickly; I would hate to be in the midst of people on bicycles if I was an 80-year-old lady with a shopping basket, an arthritic hip and dodgy hearing. If you ride bikes and dismiss the issue, then consider how you feel as you hear a car approaching from behind: is this the one with your number on it?

It’s a problem.

Real Cyclists

Now, @shameoncyclists raised a little ire with some tired generalisations, for example that “real cyclists (ones that wear helmets, hi-vis clothing and use lights) wouldn’t ride on pavements unless necessary”.

The thing is, it may or may not be obvious, but this binary view of types of people gets in the way of understanding the problem (as is true of so many issues about which the public become agitated and the media become mischievously excited). @shameoncyclists’ choice of terminology for the Not Real Cyclists is “Muppets”. And while at a simplistic level it’s understandable that people demonise others for this activity, it’s essentially a sign of not wanting to look at why people do it. And without understanding that, any attempt to fix the problem is doomed to failure.

Spot the Real Cyclist

Here are two people on bikes. One, clothed in everyday trousers and coat, is an unknown lady shamed on Twitter by @shameoncyclists; whilst the other, clothed in lycra and a helmet, is… well, it’s me, actually.


Now, this is obviously just one pair of people, but if we took photos of everyone cycling on the road and everyone cycling on the pavement, we’d certainly see a pattern: the people with all the gear would be more prominent in the road group, and much less so in the pavement group.

So, if we can agree (as we should) that pavement cycling is not desirable, we can look at that and see that people who have all the gear tend to be rather more likely to ride on the road, where they legally should be. The nature of the supposed group of “Real Cyclists” therefore often triggers a load of backpedalling from people who talk about “cyclists on the pavement”.

But, really, this is all the wrong way round.

You see, looking at that picture of me, I think by @shameoncyclists’ categorisation I’d be a “Real Cyclist”. You can recognise a real cyclist by their gear, right?

But, the thing is—and don’t tell anyone—I ride on the pavement.

Real pavement cyclists

Yes, I ride on the pavement. I do it in only one set of circumstances: when I’m riding into town with my four-year-old to go to the shops. There’s a traffic-free shared path for much of the way, which is ideal for us, but it doesn’t actually connect with that many houses, so we have to get to it from our house somehow. I’m not taking a four-year-old on a busy road under his own steam, so the pavement it is. And although that’s strictly illegal, it’s deemed to be fine by Home Office guidelines—in fact, by those guidelines, it would be fine even without my son. (See page 3 of this House of Commons briefing paper.)

And the fact that I have those two (in fact more) “modes” of cycling lends the lie to this idea that pavement cycling is a simple matter of Real Cyclists and Muppets. If @shameoncyclists is going to cleanly divide the two, as their tweets suggest they want to, they’re going to have to cleave me in half to hope that I’ve got Real Cyclist blood running down one side and Muppet blood down the other.

No, my reason for riding on the pavement is not that I am a Muppet. It’s my son.

The need for speed

When I’m on my own, on a fast bike like the one above, as a fit and confident bloke who’s not carrying any shopping and is happy to sweat buckets, I can happily shift along the flat at 20mph. I can look around, I can assert my position on the road, I can be in control as much as it’s possible to be. I can’t prevent someone driving into me, but I can position myself so as to discourage them from attempting many common dangerous manoeuvres. And I have thick enough skin to ignore the occasional aggression that people exhibit when they have to lift their right foot for a few seconds. Broadly speaking: I can do enough to make me feel sufficiently safe.

When I’m with my son, however, it’s very different. We’re doing maybe 7mph on the flat, he’s wobbling a bit, he struggles up hills, I’m having to look for twice as many risks in all sorts of areas, I don’t have physical control over him, and—much as I would hate to be in a collision myself—I would be absolutely devastated if he was to be struck by a car, so my level of acceptable risk is far lower.

So, we ride on the pavement. We give way to everyone, we thank everyone who moves to let us pass, I teach him to be cautious around people, and—rewardingly—it’s all smiles and good cheer from everyone when you’re with a kid.

Now, somewhere in between me and my son lies a very vague, very subjective threshold.

That threshold is nothing to do with being a Real Cyclist or a Muppet. It is where you move from choosing the road to choosing the pavement. You need speed, confidence, alertness, competence and an acceptance of greater risk to yourself if you’re going to ride on the road. Not everyone has those attributes, and it’s impossible to force them upon everyone. Even for those who do have them, there are times when they can’t be applied: riding with children, with heavy loads, and so on.

Syllogisms and symptoms

It’s easy to look at people with no lights (which, don’t worry, I’m not going to defend in the slightest), no helmet, no whatever, and consider them in a completely flawed syllogistic manner: Bikes belong on the roads; you’d be a Muppet not to use lights and other paraphernalia for the roads; therefore you’re a Muppet for riding a bike without using lights and other paraphernalia. They don’t have the gear of a Real Cyclist. Muppets.

But the main reason people ride on the pavement is to all but eliminate a number of risks to themselves. In fact, all the most serious risks: those involving motor vehicles. Hopefully that flawed syllogism above should highlight the mistake: These people, rightly or wrongly, aren’t riding on the roads, so they don’t need that kit—at least, they don’t perceive themselves to need it—any more than someone on foot would.

These people are not Muppets.

Well, they are not necessarily muppets: there are those who are happy to minimise the risk to themselves but are disinclined to think about the new risks they present to others, and they ride carelessly: too fast, too close, unlit at night, and so on. Some are muppets, clearly, but then so are plenty of Real Cyclists; people on bikes in general, or in cars, or on foot—in fact just people. There goes that false dichotomy again. People who cause collisions should be held responsible, and the speed and mass of their vehicle should be integral to that level of responsibility, which means the greater responsibility should be on those on pedal cycles to avoid endangering those on foot.

But grouping everyone together under this label is unhelpful. The people who use the pavements are those who have decided that they want the cheap, healthy, quick, reliable transport of a bicycle but who feel the need to eliminate certain risks.

By labelling everyone Muppets we deem everything to be bad rather than pragmatic. And while pragmatic things aren’t ideal things, you don’t get from a poor state of affairs to a good one without being pragmatic. Eliminating the bad is a perfectly fine goal, but eliminating the bad at the expense of the pragmatic prevents us achieving other—in some cases more important—goals. Such as the goal of not forcing people like me and my son to get into their cars to drive a mile into town, join a queue of others prowling slowly round a full car park waiting for a space, adding to congestion and belching out pollution in the process: a conveniently invisible form of harm that many are happy to ignore.

The reason we, and they, feel the need to eliminate certain risks is that those risks on the road are too great. There is no route other than the pavement—at least for some of their journey—which connects their start point and destination.

And there’s the real problem.

The real problem is provision of infrastructure.

Real Problems

Yes, pavement cycling is a Real Problem in its own right. But the root cause is not Muppetry or anti-social behaviour—even though some who cycle on the pavement certainly do so anti-socially (because some people behave anti-socially, regardless of precisely what they’re doing at the time). It is demand for cycling meeting unsafe infrastructure head-on. The fundamental Real Problem is the lack of safe infrastructure.

Pavement cycling is simply a desire line—but instead of the main criterion being distance, it is personal safety. It’s frequently about people threading their way through aggressive, bustling urban landscapes, linking one safe-feeling section of route with another as best they can.

Really, it’s an excellent tracer device for highway planners: where there is pavement cycling, there is demand for safe cycling infrastructure. It serves to highlight where there was no planning, no provision, for a democratic and potentially thriving form of transport.

If anything, it serves to differentiate Real Planners and Muppets.


  1. dottigirl 12 January 2014 10:14pm #

    As tweeted, there’s another reason for me: I have joint problems & on some days I can’t walk more than a few metres. I can and do cycle miles and miles in the full lycra kit, as it keeps the pain under control. However to feed myself, sometimes I have to cycle right to the front door of the shop, along a short stretch of pavement. Or to get to my front gate and to avoid wheeling my bike between cars and damaging them, I mount the kerb and pedal a few yards along the pavement. Or to get to the bank to get cash out.
    I do it carefully and slowly, usually at walking pace.
    My biggest fear is being forced to walk when I can’t, and having a breakdown in the middle of the street when this occurs.

  2. platinum 12 January 2014 10:21pm #

    Totally agree. I go on the pavement alongside a busy 60mph A-road which is the ONLY way to get to the nearest town. It’s a quiet pavement I usually never see a single pedestrian, but if I did I would be courteous. I’m 30, female, overweight & unfit, on a 20 year old mountain bike. I can’t accelerate my way out of trouble. I did try to ride on the road for a while, but after one too many near misses, purely down to the impatience of motorists, I chose the pavement and it literally felt like a weight lifting off my shoulders. I hadn’t realised how terrible and stressed I was on the road until I could compare it to the relative peace and tranquillity of the pavement. I just wish I had my own space so I don’t have to feel guilty, but still a continual mortal deadly fear > small feeling of guilt.

  3. Lyn 12 January 2014 11:13pm #

    A fascinating piece – thanks heaps for such thoughtful analysis.

    While I agree 100% that pavement cycling should be acceptable with kids, it does strike me as odd that it’s deemed unacceptable for other vulnerable cyclists to use the pavement if they are not confident enough to ride in traffic (e.g new/inexperienced riders, elderly cyclists, cyclists with disabilities that may or may not be visible, regular riders who are not confident along a particular stretch of road, etc).

    I live in France and I’ve never been abused/yelled at for cycling on a footpath. While this is only my experience and, of course, I can’t say that it’s typical of ALL of France, there does seem to be general acceptance here that cyclists are OK on the footpaths if they are courteous and respectful, and if it’s the most sensible place for them to be.

    PS For what it’s worth, the ‘real’ cyclist thing does my head in.

  4. Kat 12 January 2014 11:30pm #

    Yup, even though I ride on the road 95% of the time, every single ride I do I would ride on the pavement at some point (riding in Australia, similar laws to UK I think). Because I end up somewhere where the infrastructure runs outs, because cars push me into the gutter, because it means a brief shortcut that avoids a dangerous stretch of road, because a shared path suddenly stops and I resent having to dismount because of bad planning, and so on. I always go slow, give way, get off if too crowded.

    I was riding in another city in Australia recently where cycling on the pavement is allowed, it was great, just knowing that I wasn’t breaking the law when I had to get out of the cars, mostly I stayed on the road, but having the option is really good.

  5. Gary Dawes (@gazza_d) 13 January 2014 7:12am #

    Excellent thoughtful analysis as ever Bez. I don’t have a child, but will still occasionally hit the pavement, mainly because the infra is crap, and hopping onto the pavement for a short stretch is the only way to join traffic tree sections together.

    I do and ride on the roads, but if there is a reasonable alternative then I’ll use it, but responsibilly.

    “Responsibility” is the key differentiator here, not lycra or helmets, or type of bike, and is what I think the “@shameoncyclists” is (very) clumsily meaning.

    Everyone, either on foot or bike need to use footpaths responsibly and some, regardless of clothing, bike, age don’t for a multitude of reasons.

    There is a subjective safety issue here and riding past some people does startle them, and can make them anti-cyclist

    If you see a complete tool riding along a pavement though, just be grateful that on a bike they’re more likely to damage themselves than anything or one else. If that person picks up a set of car keys then get of of the way as they’ll just bulldoze everything.

  6. Watdabni 13 January 2014 8:51am #

    Your link to the commons briefing paper is broken. I would very much like to read that. Any chance of restoring it please? Thanks

    • Bez 13 January 2014 8:57am #

      Done – thanks for letting me know.

  7. Sara (@SB_HH_JC) 13 January 2014 8:58am #

    As usual you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    I don’t wear a helmet or hiviz, I ride a sit up and beg with flowery panniers in my ordinary clothes. I’ve been utility cycling the hills of Sheffield for almost 20 years. I can quote CycleCraft in my sleep. Am I a real cyclist?

    I have an 11 year old child so it’s now not considered acceptable for him to ride the pavement, but I admit that I encourage him to do so to avoid busy roads/junctions – and ride with him depending on the circumstances. Like yourself, we do so courteously and have never encountered a problem when doing so.

    Another circumstance in which I regularly ride the pavement is at a set of traffic lights on my route home from work. Despite being part of a local authority recomended cycle route, the traffic light sensor doesn’t pick up cyclists. As the traffic light is the exit from a retail park car park and I ride through at a time when the shops have closed, I could potentially wait all night for a car to trigger the light to green – so I hop onto the pavement and press the button on the adjacent pedestrian crossing. Much safer than jumping the red across four lanes of traffic.

    I always say to anyone who grumbles about cyclists on the pavement – every time I see someone cycling on the pavement, I see someone let down by the infrastructure available to them. Rather than “shame” those individuals, shouldn’t we be shaming the local authorities who are forcing them into that position?

  8. chrisrust 14 January 2014 6:37pm #

    I lead a few wayfinding rides for inexperienced cyclists who are generally quite scared of traffic and junctions. They are quite amazed at first when I say, “we’ll just go down this bit of pavement and across the pedestrian crossing” but if they want to be able to get around the city it’s the only way until the planners come up with something very different. Must get some cards printed with that ministerial quote from Keith Vaz explaining that it’s OK for a sensible cyclist to use the payment when there isn’t another safe option.

    On my own I’ll get out there in the traffic and enjoy the adrenalin rush, but that’s not the point is it?

  9. binjameen 15 January 2014 7:45pm #

    Excellent article, thanks. Crewe was redesigned in the 80s so that it is illegal to cycle across the centre of town through the shopping area before 4pm. Local police have been directed to ‘discourage cycling’ at all times because pedestrians are intimidated by anti social cyclists racing though the centre. The mad thing is, elderly vicars have been cautioned for free wheeling on one pedal along a road that is used by cars. Just tonight both real and muppet cyclists zoomed past me walking my bike, and I can see why folk object.

  10. Simon Brooke 29 January 2014 9:15pm #

    Seriously, the road is infrastructure. Cycling infrastructure. Yes, I agree that because of the prevalence of ill-trained and indisciplined motorists it’s not safe enough for many cyclists to use, now, but our cities do not have space for a duplicate network of go-everywhere paths, and if you put in ‘segregated infrastructure’ in some places, drivers will assume that you *ought* to be using segregated infrastructure even where there isn’t any.

    The solution to this problem is not to try to build more segregated paths. It may, in the longer term, be to ban private cars from urban centres. But in the short term it’s to make it socially unacceptable to drive dangerously around cyclists, just as twenty years ago it became socially unacceptable to drive when drunk. That’s an education problem, and an education problem we need to contribute to the solution of.

    I’m not saying your four year old son – or a timid old lady – should cycle on the roads now. But I am saying we should adopt as a ten year goal the project of making all roads, everywhere, safe for (accompanied) four year old cyclists, and unaccompanied twelve year olds.

    • TokeRider 13 February 2014 9:34am #

      If there’s not enough space for cycling infrastructure, how come the ultra narrow winding streets of Amsterdam have so much of it?

      • Chris Bonner 14 February 2014 12:04pm #

        They generally dont have separate infrastructure on the streets that are narrow and winding. Those are often shared space. They’re often made one-way for cars and two-way for bikes.

    • Tim 26 October 2015 5:34pm #

      “The solution to this problem is not to try to build more segregated paths. It may, in the longer term, be to ban private cars from urban centres. But in the short term it’s to make it socially unacceptable to drive dangerously around cyclists.”

      Can’t it be both? To some degree we made drink-driving unacceptable by education – hard-hitting advertising campaigns which still continue at Christmas – but ALSO by pulling people over, testing their breath and punishing them severely if they were at fault. Maybe the latter is another form of education in a way, but it doesn’t happen to drivers who are inconsiderate around cyclists. The other sort of “education” – “play nicely” signs and billboards and tv adverts – have already been around for decades without making a bit of difference.

      Also, banning cars from an area is one very obvious way to create segregated paths. They aren’t different things. Even marginalising private motor traffic by closing off through routes, imposing speed limits, etc is a big step in the right direction.

      All these points are ways to prioritise cycling; to state that cycling is well respected and beneficial as a way of getting about (and that maybe driving is less worthy of respect in some instances due to the massive social harms and external costs). But safe infrastructure is a big one. And rather than segregated lanes hiding cyclists out of the way and causing problems elsewhere, I think good quality infrastructure sends an important message that people on bikes are valued.

    • Jeremy Hooks 20 August 2018 4:05pm #

      @Simon Brooke, it is an old thread but I agree with what you have said. It simply isn’t possible to build dedicated cycling infrastructure everywhere it would be required.

      Something I have come to realise, is that in a collision between a cyclist and a pedestrian, the cyclist will typically come off worse (all other things being equal). Additionally pedestrians do not generally take good observations, even on shared paths. They rarely check over their shoulder before changing course, even on shared path (heck they often fail to see a cyclist with lights and full high-vis. directly in front of them). Perhaps the most dangerous thing that anyone can do on a push bike is pass a pedestrian who has their back to them.

      I am amazed by the risks I regularly see cyclists take on (often very narrow) footpaths where they are sandwiched between pedestrians and fast moving heavy traffic – under the misaprehension that it is safer than riding on the road.

      Drivers will give cyclists the space they require, if they take the space they require – i.e. don’t tempt them by allowing them a (too) small space to pass. A small percentage will take offense – typically the ones who get offended by other drivers travelling at or (heaven forbid) below the speed limit. I can’t help but wonder if the people who avoid cycling on the road are the same people who (when they get in their car) don’t give cyclists space on the road.

      Perhaps the most incredible thing, is the ‘proper’ cyclists (i.e. road cyclists with expensive bikes, all the kit, maintaining a good pace) with appalling road positioning, riding in the gutter. They leave space for someone to pass them dangerously, ride in the door and travel so close to kerb that none can see them approaching a junction on all but the straightest of roads. It isn’t all road cyclists or even most – but it is all the more amazing when someone who can travel at 25-30mph on the flat does this.

      Education is surely the key. More/easily accessible cycle proficiency (maybe even online training), improvements to the driving tests and probably adding something to speed awareness (as speed is probably not the major fault of speeders – it is lack of respect for other road users). Anyway… I’ve probably ranted enough already.

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