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.
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.
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.