Cyclists ride on pavements

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Common claims and canards > Objections to cycling and cyclists > Cyclists ride on pavements

Summary of the claim

“Cyclists ride on pavements, footpaths and pedestrian zones without regard for pedestrians, inconveniencing and endangering them. It is illegal in the United Kingdom.”

The claim is used to hijack or derail discussions of, or campaigns for, cycling. The implication is that cycling does not deserve public support or investment.

Example sources

This claim is inevitably raised in the comments section whenever cycling is mentioned in a tabloid newspaper. The Daily Mail news debate forum and Evening Standard comments section provide fine examples.

Summary of responses

  1. Blaming “cyclists” for this problem is a mistake:
    1. Whatever method we choose to get around, we are all pedestrians some of the time, so problem pavement users affect all of us. It is therefore silly to characterise this as a “pedestrians versus cyclists” issue. It is a problem of people versus a selfish minority, and the Cycling Embassy finds itself on the side of the people.
    2. “Cyclists” is a diverse group. It includes teenagers and grandmothers, the Prime-Minister and playwrights. They don’t all believe the same things or behave the same way any more than all bus passengers or all pedestrians do, and should not be tarred with one brush or collectively punished.
    3. One can observe bad habits amongst users of all transport modes — many of them far more dangerous than using a bicycle on a pavement. But just as the average motorist would not identify with or defend drink driving, so the average cyclist does not identify with pavement cycling.
    4. Cars and delivery vans are also routinely driven onto and parked on pavements, creating obstructions and costly damage to paving. Pedestrian campaigns like Living Streets recognise that there is a more general problem of pedestrian space being invaded, and pavement cycling is only one part of it.
  2. Sociologists who have studied the behaviour and attitudes of pavement cyclists have found most to be far less dangerous and malicious than the claim portrays them:
    1. Some of those who cycle on pavements are simply not aware of the law regarding cycling on pavements. Rather than being selfish, they may simply not understand the consequences that their actions could have. In this case, education is more appropriate than punishment.
    2. Most of those who cycle on pavements are aware of the law and the potential consequences of their actions, but actively take steps to avoid inconveniencing and endangering others.
  3. Cycling on pavements is a response to badly designed streets and hostile road conditions. Where roads are quiet and safe, or where high-quality cycling facilities have been provided, pavement cycling ceases. The problem can not be solved without addressing the root cause. The Cycling Embassy campaigns for better infrastructure and conditions for cycling and an end to pavement cycling would be a side-effect of achieving that.
  4. Although by default the law prohibits cycling on pavements, councils are able to easily over-rule it in specified locations, turning the pavement into a “shared use” footway/cycleway, and many pavements now fall into this category. Pedestrians encountering a cyclist on the pavement might not have realised that they are actually using a shared path.

In more detail

The problem

Cycling on pavements can be inconsiderate and may cause inconvenience or fear for pedestrians, contributing to a hostile environment which reduces the mobility of vulnerable or disabled people such as the elderly and visually impaired. Such behaviour may ultimately cause injury or death, though such extremes are very rare and the risks exaggerated.2 Cycling on pavements is therefore illegal, punishable by a £30 fine (£60 in London), except where councils (or landowners if on private land) have made exceptions.

A minority of cyclists ride on pavements regardless. (And in most of the UK it certainly is a small minority, though it might feel like more as you spot and remember those on the pavement while missing and forgetting those on the road.) Sociologists at Lancaster University have sought to understand these pavement cyclists, studying their behaviour and interviewing them about their motives. They found that some are simply unaware of the law and the problems that they are causing — they should be aware of the law, of course, but the best solution in these cases is surely education rather than punishment. Most, though, are aware of the law and that the pavement rightfully belongs to pedestrians, but they choose to ignore the rules, for reasons discussed below (see “The cause of the problem, and the true solution”). However, contrary to the common claims of dangerous and reckless cycling, the pavement cyclists interviewed were generally aware that their behaviour could inconvenience or frighten pedestrians, and they told researchers that they try to cycle considerately, give way to pedestrians and dismount in busy areas.3

Though this evidence suggests that the problem is frequently exaggerated, we nonetheless recognise that it is a very real problem, and the Cycling Embassy makes no attempt to condone pavement cycling or to defend those who engage in it. However, we think that it should be obvious that blaming “cyclists” in general for the problem, as is so frequently done by tabloid newspaper commenters and commentators, is an irrational and lazy response, and even a harmful one when it used to dismiss the problems that cycling campaigns are trying to overcome. Additionally, we argue that tackling the problem is unlikely to be successful unless the root causes are addressed.

Why “cyclists” are not to blame

“Cyclists” is a diverse group, from kids going to school by BMX to village vicars on vintage three-speeds doing the parish rounds; affluent city commuters on Bromptons to their low-paid office cleaners on Tesco’s own-brand. There are competitive racers, thrill-seeking mountain bikers, laid-back country tourists and plain utility cyclists. It should be obvious that such are diverse group can not dismissed as having homogeneous beliefs or behaviours.

Just as it would be wrong to tar all “motorists” with the brush of joy riding, drink-driving or mobile-phone use (or, indeed, driving and parking on pavements), ridiculous to blame “passengers” for the crimes of the fare-dodger, and bizarre to blame “pedestrians” for dangerous dog walkers, it is silly to blame cyclists and cycling for the crimes that a few commit while riding a bicycle. Other cyclists are endangered by bad cycling too (not least because we are all pedestrians some of the time), so when a commentator derails a cycling discussion or campaign over this issue it amounts to a collective punishment when we already amongst the victims.

The cause of the problem, and the true solution

The root cause of cycling on pavements is the pressure that pushes cyclists off roads — fear of cycling in close proximity to fast and busy motor traffic and big trucks.3 When cyclists are observed cycling on the pavement, it is most commonly on roads which have higher volumes and/or faster motor traffic — especially near to junctions, the most dangerous places for cyclists. This is consistent with the fact that fear of traffic is the most common barrier to cycling. While most people simply give up cycling when confronted with the hostile conditions on Britain’s roads, some resort to breaking the law by using pavements. This is especially true for those who are new to cycling, those who do not cycle frequently, and those who cycle out of necessity rather than choice, such as students.1 3 4

Their actions, whilst inconsiderate and posing a moderate danger to pedestrians, are effectively illustrating the need for effective interventions which eliminate the barrier to cycling posed by fear of traffic — in particular, dedicated segregated cycle infrastructure along the busiest and fastest roads.

Shared use paths

Not all “pavement cycling” is illegal. Although by default one is not allowed to cycle on a pavement, it is easy for councils to over-rule the law on a specific pavement, turning it into a “shared-use facility” — a combined footway and cycleway. Sometimes a shared-use path is purpose built, with separate footway and cycleway lanes. More often, it is simply the same old pavement, but with a blue bicycle sign indicating its new status.

Pedestrians using these pavements might not always realise that cycling on them is legal, endorsed and even encouraged. There are many reports of cyclists having been the victims of misplaced wrath while using them, even when their status as cycleways has been quite clear.5

While cycling on shared paths is legal, this does not mean that pedestrians and cyclists will not be in conflict, or that vulnerable pedestrians will not find sharing the path intimidating. This is especially true of the very many poorly implemented and constructed shared paths, or inappropriately designated pavements in the UK. Shared paths are frequently too narrow, have obstructions and blind corners, and it is often unclear where the exact boundaries of the “shared use” zone are.

While the Cycling Embassy believes that on fast and busy roads cyclists need their own space separated from motor vehicles, we do not think that “shared use” is the right model for that space. Aside from the problems that such pavements create for pedestrians, they make for slow and unattractive cycle routes. The Cycling Embassy wants to ensure that where cycling facilities are required, they are implemented to appropriate high standards, and a reduction in pavement cycling should be a side-effect of our campaign.

Footnotes and references

1 For example, “Pavement cyclist who injured child says road too dangerous to cycle on.”

2 See “Cyclists are a danger to pedestrians“.

3 Full details in the Understanding Walking and Cycling report. A lay summary and discussion is available on the blog of the lead academic, Dave Horton.

4 This is excellently illustrated by the Independent article “A trucker’s view of life in the cycle lane“, in which a lorry driver states, “I haven’t been on a bike for ten years so I stay on the pavement”. One could therefore claim: “lorry drivers ride on pavements”.

5 e.g. Cyclist ‘lucky to be alive’ after attack on West Stafford bypass and this comment.

Related claims

  1. Cyclists are lawless and dangerous
  2. Cyclists ignore red lights
  3. Cyclists are a danger to pedestrians