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Why do cyclists ride on the pavement?

Why do cyclists ride on the pavement?

That cyclists “always ride on the pavement” is a common complaint, from both motorists and pedestrians.
Why do cyclists ride on the pavement?
Why do cyclists ride on the pavement? - Image 1 Why do cyclists ride on the pavement? - Image 2 Why do cyclists ride on the pavement? - Image 3 Why do cyclists ride on the pavement? - Image 4
That cyclists “always ride on the pavement” is a standard complaint, from both motorists and pedestrians. Cycling on the pavement is, indeed, forbidden but what’s a pavement? It’s not as clear cut as you may think. In England and Wales, the “pavement” is the “footway”. A footpath, on the other hand, is a rural path away from a road. OK, smartypants, so why do cyclists ride on the footway? They shouldn’t, it’s an offence, and was made so before bicycles even existed! The offence is “driving” on the footway, dating from the 1835 Highway Act, and it originally prevented “driving” a horse and carriage on to the footway. Bicycles were classified as carriages in 1879 and were included under the same 1835 law (bicycles are still classified as carriages, which may seem daft but it allows cyclists full and free access to all roads, except motorways). The 1835 Highway Act was extended to motorists in 1903. This is the reason why motorists must not drive or park their cars on footways. Parking half-up-on-the-kerb may be considered normal but it’s the same offence as cycling on the footway.

Not all “pavements" are the same. When a motorist (or pedestrian) sees a cyclist pedalling on the pavement/footway/whatever the cyclist may, in fact, be riding on a “shared use” path. This can be confusing for all concerned. It’s common for a footway to turn into a shared-use path and for the signage to be poor or non-existent. And when the official stretch of shared-use path has come to an end it’s often not clear this is the case. Such mixed-use paths often look identical to footways. When footways no longer adjoin roads they turn into footpaths – cyclists have no explicit right to be on these paths but can only be sued by the landowner for any damage they do (which is likely none). Local authorities also make such paths into “shared use” spaces, again leading to confusion. Why do local authorities create “shared use” paths? It’s cheap and easy. It usually just involves slapping down a bit of white thermoplastic paint and erecting a blue sign here and there. This a lot less expensive than installing separated infrastructure for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists. So, it’s a cop-out? Yup. And cyclists then get the blame for “cycling on pavements” when, in fact, they might not be on footways at all. Shared use paths are sometimes divided with a white line but pedestrians are under no obligation to stick to “their” side of the path. This makes using shared-use paths a potential nightmare for all concerned.

Going back to the 1835 Highway Act, it’s worthwhile reciting part of Clause 72 because it remains in force:

“If any person shall wilfully ride upon any footpath or causeway by the side of any road made or set apart for the use or accommodation of foot passengers or shall wilfully lead or drive any horse, ass, sheep, mule, swine, or cattle or carriage of any description, or any truck or sledge, upon any such footpath or causeway or shall tether any horse, ass, mule, swine, or cattle, on any highway, so as to suffer or permit the tethered animal to be thereon…[then an offence has been committed].”

The key phrase is “carriage of any description”. Remember, bicycles are carriages in the same way as motor vehicles are carriages. The operators of carriages have equal “road rights”, that is, having the right to pass and repass over the public highway. Stopping for any length of time is a grey area, with a mishmash of laws, and the parking of a carriage is also caught up in a swirl of conflicting legislation.

However, the 1835 Highway Act is clear: carriages must not “ride upon any footpath or causeway by the side of any road.” As well as shouting at cyclists for “riding on the pavement” perhaps motorists and pedestrians should shout at those motorists who park on pavements? However, drive down almost any suburban street and you’ll see plenty of cars parked either wholly or partially on the infrastructure meant for pedestrians. It’s an odd society that harangues one road user group for committing the same offence that another commits with impunity.

Carlton Reid is the executive editor of He drives a Nissan Note "but not very often." He's writing a history book on motoring's cycling beginnings, Roads Were Not Built For Cars.

By Carlton Reid
Tue, 08 Jul 2014
Your CommentsBubble
Avatar 13/07/2014 07:31:43
Chris Green Commented:
Some people (usually the ones who only drive or walk) really ought to try cycling surrounded by opinionated bigots and see how they like it. Peter Berg writes "I rarely see anyone looking for cars coming up behind when pulling out to pass a parked car or pulling into the centre of the road when turning right for example and then there's the weaving in and out of slow moving traffic because if you didn't than you would move at the same pace as all the other road users and then what would be the advantage of riding a bike?" Yes, a cyclist should check behind if 'pulling out' round a parked car, but why should they be 'pulling out' in the first place? Their bike is a road vehicle and entitled to its lane just as much as the car behind. Therefore if they didn't feel cowed into riding in the gutter by motorists, they wouldn't be pulling out in the first place. As for moving to the centre of the road when turning right, which I wholly agree is the right way to do it, just try it in busy traffic and see how far you get sometimes. It doesn't seem to matter just how good you are at signalling and looking behind, no-one's going to let you move out. As for pedestrians leaping out of the way of 'lycra-clad louts', how about keeping the pedestrians off my bike lane? I'm constantly having to detour round walkers who can't seem to tell the difference between the bike and pedestrian symbols painted at regular intervals, usually with their backs to me, texting as they walk or with headphones blotting out reality. Maybe they should have some kind of test and insurance. Before anyone asks, I drive more miles than I cycle, and yes, I AM insured when cycling.
Avatar 11/07/2014 16:04:18
Gerard Waring Commented:
I am both a cyclist and a motorist and detest cyclists who use footpaths by any name and cause problems for pedestrians. However, I also detest motorists who also have no consideration for anyone but themselves by "parking" two wheels on footpaths, parking in cycle lanes etc. This cause so many problems for law abiding users and has led to many accidents in the past. The frontline police duties should be taken away from chasing twitter, facebook threats and upholding the law. USA/Canada and many EU countries enforce such laws which improves the roads/footpaths for all. The government and local councils should spend less time arguing over their expenses and improve definitions and useage.
Avatar 11/07/2014 10:16:30
Matt yd Commented:
@Robert Beveridge - My sister works with disabled kids, some of whom are wheelchair bound or have sight problems. I can tell you that the number one problem she faces is cars obstructing paths. And when she inevitably encounters this problem, her and the kids shes looking after have to on mass use the road as a means to move forward. And last time I checked insurance and registration has done nothing to stop this behavior. I think you are genuinely living on cloud cuckoo land.
Avatar 10/07/2014 22:02:37
Robert Beveridge Commented:
The answer to the question is "Because they can" they are a law unto themselves & will be so until they are made to have insurance and responsibility. Cars do not park on the pavement as such, they put two wheels upon the curb taking up about a foot of space, this is to give better access to other traffic including fire engines & ambulances on our narrow streets and roads which were built just wide enough for a couple of horse and carts to pass each other.
Avatar 10/07/2014 17:49:30
Robert B Commented:
"For Scotland it is the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984 and Section 129(5) that covers the driving bit, Section 129(2) the obstruction caused, and if it is a cycle route or path Section 129(6) has special conditions" Also if a “Core Path route", defined by Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, is along a footway contiguous with a road, the Core Path legislation supersedes the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984 restrictions, and permits the responsible use of that footway by all non-motorised users (including cyclists).
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