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. I took the naming – rightly or wrongly – to be fairly pejorative, so 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“.
Oh dear. Hopefully it’s obvious that even thinking there are such things as “Real Cyclists” and – hmm, “Fake Cyclists”? @shameoncyclists reaches embarrassingly for “muppets” – is a flawed view. But there’s no real point in having a dig at @shameoncyclists for the painful linguistic fumbling, because we’ve mostly been there ourselves; not least on Twitter, where the 140 character limit of each post doesn’t exactly lend itself to easy nuance.
(For what it’s worth, “people” is the word you’re looking for, and until you’ve realised that, I would suggest that you haven’t understood the issues. As we’re about to see.)
Spot the Real Cyclist
Here are two people on bikes. One, clothed in everyday trousers and coat, is an unknown lady posted (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 on the road and everyone 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 @shameoncyclist’s categorisation I’d be a “Real Cyclist”.
But, the thing is – and don’t tell anyone – I ride on the pavement.
Real pavement cyclists
Yes, folks, 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 there somehow. I’m not taking a four-year-old on a busy road under his own steam, so the pavement it is. And that’s fine by Home Office guidelines – in fact 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 down to 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. Broadly speaking: I can do enough to make me feel sufficiently safe.
When I’m with my son, however, 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 areas which are less intuitive, 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, 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 where you move from choosing the road to choosing the pavement (or vice versa). You need speed, confidence, alertness, competence and an acceptance of greater risk to yourself if you’re going to ride on the road.
And that threshold is not the same as – not even on the same spectrum as – any supposed threshold between Real Cyclist and Muppet. Nor is it even on the more coherent spectra between Real Cyclist and Fake Cyclist or Muppet and Jim Henson.
The badges of the Real Cyclist
The thing is, when someone rides on the pavement they do so because they perceive that it minimises their risk. Specifically what it does is to all but eliminate a certain number of risks.
Key to this is that you’re no longer on the same surface as motorised traffic, so as long as everyone stays in their place, there’s no need for drivers to see you. So no need for lights or hi-vis.
And since people think that, although they might be hit by a car on the road, they won’t fall off a bike of their own accord, they don’t see a need for a helmet.
And that suggests that maybe this “Real Cyclist or Muppet” concept is looking at things from the wrong end.
Syllogisms and symptoms
It’s easy to look at people with no lights, no helmet, no whatever, and think 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 using lights and other paraphernalia.
No. Hopefully that flawed syllogism above should highlight the mistake: These people, rightly or wrongly, aren’t riding on the roads. They don’t need that kit – at least, they understandably don’t perceive themselves to need it – any more than someone on foot would.
These are not Muppets. (Ok – some are muppets, as are plenty of Real Cyclists; in fact people on bikes in general, or in cars, or on foot, in fact just people – ah, we’re back at that terminology again.)
These are people who have decided that they want the cheap, healthy, quick, reliable transport of a bicycle but who feel the need to eliminate certain risks.
The reason 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 what causes it is not, at its root, Muppetry or anti-social behaviour – even though some who cycle on the pavement do so anti-socially (because all groups have their anti-social members). 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.
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 thriving form of transport.
If anything, it serves to differentiate Real Planners and Muppets.