What to Make of Pavement Cycling?

Parking on cycle path in Edinburgh

This week, a thoughtless idiot who knocked over a 3 year old girl has made national headlines, and prompted You and Yours, on Radio 4, to ask people "Have you ever been put at risk on the road by a cyclist?" I've chosen, however, to illustrate this blog post with an image of more thoughtless idiots who have made the news this weekend, because I think both stories are symptoms of our society's confused attitudes to infrastructure and traffic safety.

There is no denying the fact that the idiot on the cycle was at fault when he hit the 3 year old girl. The CCTV footage shows clearly that he was travelling at a speed that was wholly inappropriate for the location. We should not expect families to have to watch out for fast moving cycles on pavements. But, rather than seeking out further scare stories about other dangerous pavement encounters with cycle users, as Radio 4 is doing, we should instead consider the factors behind the choice he made to ride at a high speed along the pavement. The press and social media is full of people using this incident as an excuse to attack anyone on a cycle, and asking about other dangerous encounters is an example of confirmation bias, which ignores the statistics showing that over 100 cycle users and 400 pedestrians are killed in collisions with motor traffic on British roads every year, while rarely is a single person killed by being hit by a cycle. Idiots in motor vehicles pose a far greater threat than idiots on cycles.

I should at this point disclose that I do also ride along the pavement, in particular next to busy main roads, although I pay very close attention to the people walking along the pavement and take pains to not put them in discomfort by going too fast. I can not claim to be a neutral observer here, but think that I do understand the factors that influence the choice that people make about where to cycle, or whether to cycle at all. And that is where the photo from Edinburgh is important, showing selfish idiots who think that a cycle track is an appropriate place to park their cars. Attractive space for cycling is something that everyone who cycles want, but something that the UK has traditionally found it difficult to provide. Countries that provide attractive space for cycling have high cycling rates, while those who don't have had declining rates of cycling.

The role of infrastructure

The new cycle lane in Edinburgh is part of a national trend, however faltering it is, in the UK towards providing attractive space for cycling next to main roads. Research has consistently shown that fear of heavy and fast moving motor traffic is the biggest barrier to cycling in the UK, and that providing high quality cycle lanes would encourage more cycling. Pavement cycling can be seen as a reaction to a road environment that the majority of people find hostile and intimidating, and perhaps we should celebrate that people do cycle, even if they do so on the pavement. By cycling, they are reducing traffic congestion, improving their health and contributing to cleaner air. The answer to pavement cycling, then, is not to attack the people who chose to do so, but to provide space for cycling that encourages people using cycles away from people who are walking. Good infrastructure designs out conflict while encouraging sustainable modes of transport.

The role of enforcement

The new cycle lane in Edinburgh also shows the difficult that we face in keeping space for cycling open and easy for people on cycles to use. Enforcement of parking restrictions is split between the police and local authorities, with priorities varying between the two and confusion about exactly who is responsible for enforcing what. Add to this a sense of entitlement to park anywhere which has spawned a plethora of websites telling people how to avoid paying parking tickets (and, no, I'm not going to link to any of those) and we have a recipe for a situation in which supposed cycle infrastructure is instead turned into informal car parking. This sense of entitlement to park anywhere is part of a general culture of law breaking on British roads, with speeding, running through orange and even red lights, and abuse of bus lanes, common behaviour. We must have a change of culture away from seeing being caught and punished for bad behaviour on the roads as 'bad luck', and instead accept that strong enforcement of traffic regulations is an essential part of having a civilised road environment.

What actions can we take?

The first, immediate, step is to remind the BBC that cycle users are more often casualties on the roads, than inflicting injuries on others, and that the BBC would do better to ask why people feel the need to cycle on the pavement in the first place. You and Yours can be contacted through this webpage.

The second step is to directly contact your elected representatives to tell them that you want them to act to improve conditions for cycling. Your local councillors, your MP and your MEPs can be contacted easily through the Write to Them website. If you live in the West Midlands, you can contact the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner through this contact form. The last 4 years of campaigning have taught me that firstly that elected representatives do follow the priorities set by the people who write to them, and secondly that very few people write to any of them about cycling issues.

The third step is to support local and national campaigns. The CTC is running the Road Justice campaign, which aims to ensure a safer road environment through better enforcement, and Guide Dogs for the Blind are running a campaign around pavement parking. Locally, Push Bikes campaigns for better cycling conditions in Birmingham, and you can show your support by joining us. We are looking for people to:

Every little bit of help brings us that bit closer to a better cycling experience for everyone.