Have pavement cyclists got it right?

Unrelated news: sixth law-abiding cyclist mown down in just thirteen days

I started writing this as a response to the interminable ‘Rubbish Cycling’ thread on CCE, but it got long enough (and relevant enough) that I didn’t want it to disappear after another nine complaint posts went up…

Here’s the comment that I was replying to:

Anyway – I personally take it as given that the (majority of) unlit, RLJing and dedicated pavement-cycling students are not being willfully antisocial or criminal; rather that they honestly just can’t figure out by themselves the potential consequences without it being pointed out to them.

While I appreciate that this is a very generous way of looking at the citizens in question, I also think it’s so wide of the mark as to be, well, completely opposite to the true situation.

The significant thing about Edinburgh’s annual influx of students is that it creates a large number of completely new cyclists. Their behaviour has little, I submit, to do with the fact that those cyclists happen to be students.

I can only back this up anecdotally, as someone who is now involved in actively encouraging people to bike to work.

I’ve “buddied up” with at least one colleague who wouldn’t consider descending from the pavement to ride on the road *with me behind them* on the short stretch of 20mph street between Ardmillan Terrace and the canal. (For this, establishment Edinburgh cyclists gave a written opinion that they should give up, and go back to a car-based commute from Livingston to Leith).

The common thread here is that when people approach cycling from first principles, they aren’t necessarily willing to expose themselves to all the inherent risks. They aren’t willing to do so *despite* legislation to the contrary, and not because they need to be reminded or have anything pointed out to them.

80-90% of cyclists, including students, have passed the driving test

It’s naive to suggest they aren’t completely aware of the law.

Cyclist who are not dogmatic ride on the pavement out of a finely judged (and in my opinion not inaccurate) estimation that it will significantly improve their life expectancy. The issue of pedestrians understandably objecting to this invasion of their territory is an externality that cannot be said to weigh in on your life expectancy, so it’s understandable that the pragmatic will ignore it.

I don’t ignore it because I’m powerful enough (in my own head… and because I have a headcam) that I feel confident going head to head with huge motorised vehicles on the roads. I sometimes like to think that it’s because I wouldn’t want to be known around the neighbourhood as a pavement cyclist, but to be honest that isn’t true. I’ve known neighbours considerably older than I who rode on the pavements in my time and didn’t particularly think less of them.

Someone riding unlit is not even making a statement that they don’t believe lights help drivers to see them. What they’re saying is that they believe the chance of being run down is so high with or without lights that they aren’t going to play the game at all.

Was anyone bereaved ever consoled by the thought: “at least they weren’t riding on the pavement”?

Establishment cyclists often express confusion at people who have one or other light missing, or if they have two, so poorly aimed as to be useless. I suspect it’s because they have picked up lights for some reason unrelated to safety in their own minds (a gift, as an alternative to a police ticket, whatever).

Because they don’t believe they are relevant to their safety, their application is understandably haphazard – how are your legally required, can’t-be-replaced-by-ankle-bands SPD pedal reflectors, by the way?

There’s little point trying to tell people that they’d be better off with lights because cyclists are constantly being mown down by inattentive drivers – the whole situation has arisen precisely because they believe they might be mown down either way.

Statistically, cycling on the road is usually said to be safer than the pavement, particularly because of the increased junction / crossing risk. However, this is to completely and utterly miss the point. When you ride on the pavement, undeniably, you’re only at risk on your own terms (if you’re not crossing a side street or crossing the road, you cannot be hit).

In the road, you’re at the mercy of every single driver who is eating, shaving, txting and/or putting on makeup – while eating a bowl of cornflakes – and your life depends on the lowest denominator.

That’s the real difference!

Seceding from the law is a logical response to the rising death toll

I’m not going to draw a position on whether society as a whole is better off when someone rides on a pavement or jumps a red light but remains a cyclist, versus driving around. I don’t believe there’s much chance of persuading the audience one way or the other… (clearly it would be better if this debate wasn’t even needed – but that’s not the reality).

I’ve saved junctions and red lights until last because I think in many ways they are the clearest (but most controversial) example of people taking a decision based on safety, just not based on the law – even if it seems otherwise.

If you believe that you are not protected from death whenever a vehicle passes you in traffic, then a logical strategy is to minimise the number of overtaking movements you experience. Waiting for a green light might mean a bowel-clenching episode where you’re passed by 20-30 vehicles in close succession, any one of which could take your life.

As we’re seeing in London, such vehicles are taking lives every day.

On the other hand, jumping the light probably exposes you to only one or two vehicles making an opposing movement. The chance of being hit by them is less than being hit by the vehicles behind you (because you can actually watch what’s going on as you cycle through the red light and across the junction), at least according to your world view – but perhaps also according to the real statistics.

I don’t think the people making these kinds of calculation are cold or unaware of the feelings of others on the road. It’s just that they are faced with death, or upsetting one or two other drivers (or cyclists who feel tarnished by association) and that’s a pretty easy choice.

Under this arithmetic, it’s even easy to understand people who jump pedestrian crossings. You’re buying yourself 20-30 seconds of time without the possibility of being fatally run over, whereas if you stop, a dozen or more vehicles might charge past your elbow, and if one of them decides to turn left when they’ve put you in their “blind spot”… game over.

If your response to this is “but what about the pedestrians”, I can only suggest you rephrase it to “why aren’t they putting pedestrian comfort above their own lives?” to better understand their position.

Cyclists are far from the last to complain when they see “bad” behaviour by other cyclists.

Yet I think we do ourselves a huge disservice by not attempting to understand what makes people do these things.

It’s silly to complain about the behaviour of others and remain wilfully ignorant of the very real forces that drive them.

You might not be able to understand or empathise with cyclists who fear for their lives, but if so, you’ve only yourself to blame for your eternal frustration.


  1. “I sometimes like to think that it’s because I wouldn’t want to be known around the neighbourhood as a pavement cyclist, but to be honest that isn’t true. I’ve known neighbours considerably older than I who rode on the pavements in my time and didn’t particularly think less of them.”

    Most pavement cyclists are slow from what I can see. Once you are able to cycle over 10mph the pavement isn’t attractive unless it’s very smooth and wide – like a road.

  2. Agree with David that speed is very important. If you can go faster on the road, you not only reduce closing speeds, but also the number of vehicles passing. Also, going faster, the chance of running into someone on the pavement increase and you have to keep stopping (so not go very fast).

    Trouble is that most people we’d like to get cycling: children, unfit & people who don’t wear Lycra for fun fall into the category for whom the pavement is a good option and I’m happy to see them cycling there rather than not at all. Otherwise we end up just with cyclists who are bloody minded enough to put up with the traffic.

  3. Sarah S

    I used to cringe a little when I saw people cycling on the pavement, but I nipped down to the shops after dark recently to pick up a few things and saw about 5 pavement cyclists in the space of about a minute in the main street of the village/suburb where I live. Unlike most pavement cyclists I see, they weren’t using the pavement because of not having lights, or opting to use the wrong side of the road for the sake of convenience. They had expensive, reliable looking bikes and quite decent lights, but they had decided that the pavement was the only safe place after dark.

    The three options on offer were: ride in the main traffic stream (speed limit: 50 km/h), ride in the door zone, or and ride on the pavement. I would personally have opted to ride as a sort of hi-viz clad mobile traffic calming device (at 25 km/h) in the main traffic stream. Actually doing it feels safer than you might think if you only watched somebody else do it. On balance, though, I think I was much happier to see people who aren’t willing to sacrifice themselves as mobile traffic calming devices on the pavement than risking their lives in the door zone of a street that has already seen a recent fatal dooring.

  4. PaulM

    Good point you never see argued. In Cambridge so much pavement is deignated ‘shared use’ that it has pretty much become a free for all. There’s a few juctions where I’ll use them myself, but one problem is if you don’t drivers will honk, but if you do pedestrians will object. (Even got severely haranged by one the other evening – should have guessed anyone walking with a horsey helemet on had issues…)

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