This is a post in defence of vulnerability. First, it defends the vulnerability many cyclists feel, and which sees them taking to the pavement. Second, it defends the vulnerability many pedestrians feel when confronted by the pavement cyclist.
Both directly and indirectly it’s also about disability. Directly, I examine how people with disabilities experience pavement cycling. Indirectly, I suggest we’ve all become disabled by the car.
The last two posts examined the (intersecting) relevance of class and ethnicity to attitudes to and practices of cycling. By doing so, we’ve moved away from the ‘dominant model’ of the cyclist. This model prevails across contemporary British cycling discourses, permeating much thinking, writing (including policy documents) and advocacy around cycling. It assumes the cyclist as middle-class, middle-aged, male, white, able-bodied, competitive, and fit. Within policy discourses especially, it also often assumes the cyclist travels alone, and is probably commuting. One danger of this model’s dominance is that it begins to define what cycling is and can be. It can influence what we see, think, know, even dream.
As we move away from the dominant conception of ‘the cyclist’ we become more likely to encounter the pavement cyclist. Whilst many British cyclists are – through force of circumstance – pavement cyclists from time to time, the most committed pavement cyclists tend not to fit the dominant model of ‘the cyclist’. The male pavement cyclist is much more likely than the model cyclist to be working-class, young, and/or non-white; whether male or female, the pavement cyclist is less likely than the model cyclist to be competitive and fit; and the pavement cyclist might be accompanying children.
For the benefit of readers outside the UK, by ‘pavement’ I mean ‘sidewalk’ – space conventionally regarded in many (but by no means all) cultures as the preserve of pedestrians.
7. A pavement cycling story
This story comprises two stories. It starts by examining why people cycle on pavements. It then explores pavement cycling from a pedestrian perspective, looking specifically at the experiences of people with various disabilities. Finally it offers thoughts on a pro-cycling but anti-pavement cycling strategy.
A cyclist perspective
Cycling on pavements is a normal way for many people to cycle. This normality is obfuscated by a dominant representation of the urban cyclist as a white, middle-aged, male, geared-up, and competent commuter.
People cycle on the pavement when they feel unable to cycle on the road. If we want cycling on roads, we must make roads cycle-able. Or, if we want cycling off pavements, we either make roads cycle-able, and/or give cycling its own space.
Cycling on pavements isn’t restricted to novice cyclists. Even long-time, regular cyclists do it. But it’s perceived as ‘the wrong way to cycle’ because of the ideological and discursive dominance of ‘the model (if still highly problematic) cyclist’ and ‘the right way to cycle’.
The following quotes show how different people, all of whom would generally be considered respectable and respectful, talk about their pavement cycling.
Hazel’s in her fifties. Cycling is her main means of transport:
“I cycle everywhere! … I don’t like the main roads – far too dangerous … You can get most places by using side roads. Occasionally I resort to the pavements if they’re not too busy, but I think you have to be sensible about this. But I will go on the pavement.”
Dev’s a British Asian man in his forties, and a professional. He’s very enthusiastic about cycling, but rides only occasionally for health and pleasure, and to accompany his young daughter on trips to the park:
“I only choose routes where there are not many pedestrians. And if there’s a lot of people coming walking towards me I’ll get off my bike. I never go through little gaps or cause any distress to pedestrians.
“Nobody’s ever said anything … I don’t know whether they understand or not [why I’m riding on the pavement]. I hope they do.
“I see a lot of people riding on the pavements, a lot. They are riding on the pavements for the same reason, they are conscious of the safety issues.
“I think there should probably be a proper lane for cyclists .. Sometimes I do go on the roads, provided it’s quiet and there are not many cars. But I would definitely not ride on [the local main road]; any road like that is no good – the cars come too close and you’ve got to get out of the way. It’s a bit risky.”
Dick is in his fifties. He rides mainly for pleasure, particularly in summertime after a day’s work which involves a lot of driving:
“Some roads I’m comfortable riding on, yeah. But others, you know, with the speed of the traffic and the state of some of the driving I wouldn’t be happy riding on some roads. I wouldn’t … I do have a tendency to ride on the pavement I must admit, but what I do is, you’ve got to understand, I’ll be very polite, people let me by and I say ‘thank you very much’.”
Ruby is an experienced cyclist in her late forties. She’s ridden all her life and cycles to work every day:
“I ride probably 60% on the road, 40% on the pavement. It depends on the time of day. Before 7 in the morning there’s very little traffic so I’m quite happy on the road, because I can be in the middle of the road and I’m not holding up the traffic. When I come home at 3:30pm then I’m more likely to be on the pavement because the traffic just gets too cross and silly.“
“I think it probably is fear of the traffic [which explains my pavement cycling] because people don’t seem to take any account of the fact that you’re going to wobble around a pothole. And I would say I’m a fairly confident cyclist. I kind of think ‘well sorry, you’ve got to wait for me, I’m here, I’m a road user’, you know, ‘tough’ kind of thing. But some drivers are not very happy with that point of view. I wouldn’t ever be bolshie about that, but some drivers don’t seem to like the fact that cyclists are on the road. On the other hand of course they don’t like the fact that cyclists are on the pavement either. You can’t win, can you? It doesn’t matter where you are, someone is going to moan about it.”
Ruby goes on to talk about her sons’ cycling:
“I suspect they all ride on the pavement rather more than I do. I think our youngest, certainly, rides on the pavement – probably 90% of the time … I’m pretty sure he’s on the pavement more than he is on the roads. I do tell him that he needs to make allowances for pedestrians. And when I’m a pedestrian I don’t like cyclists whizzing by, because you kind of jump don’t you? So as a cyclist I try to, you know, you’re kind of working out which way is the pedestrian going, and I’m aware that I’m on the pavement and I didn’t really ought to be.”
I’ve spoken to many people who ride on the pavement because they feel they’ve no choice, if they’re to keep cycling. It’s strange that people see pavement cycling as so reprehensible when it’s also so clearly comprehensible. But that’s not to say it’s unproblematic.
A pedestrian perspective
Pavement cycling has consequences. Its consequences for cycling are dire. Most people don’t want to cycle on pavements but they don’t want to ride on roads either, so they just don’t cycle. Those that do cycle are individually stigmatised and vilified for doing so, and cycling as a whole is constructed as a problematic, anti-social practice. As someone who passionately believes quite the opposite, I find this hard to swallow.
But what about pavement cycling’s consequences for pedestrians? Pavement cycling jeopardises the independent mobility of the most vulnerable people. Evan is blind. He says simply, “pavement cycling is the main problem for blind people. Well, for most disabled people”. People with disabilities struggle to move around cities more than most. The conversation below takes place amongst a group of people with various disabilities. Fred is profoundly deaf (and communicates with the rest of the group via a British Sign Language interpreter); Sheila has balance problems; both Tony and Janet are partially sighted.
Fred: “I don’t really understand why people cycle on the pavements because it’s really dangerous, especially for deaf people as obviously we can’t hear them.”
Sheila: “This is a big issue. I was actually knocked over yesterday. I’ve got a balance problem … [Pavement cycling] impacts on where you can go and how you feel about walking. It becomes less of a pleasure. [Pavement cycling] is certainly a major problem.”
Tony: “I’m blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other. Cyclists for me on a pavement suddenly appear on my blind side. I find that difficult.”
Janet: “There’s just a few of us [here], but we have got so many friends that have been knocked over and then told ‘why didn’t you look where you were walking?’ And they’ve got things like this [waving her cane], ‘oh a cane! Does that not indicate that there is a problem?’ But we are at wrong. And [incensed] we’re not at wrong! We’re walking perfectly sensible, because we have to. And then we get told we’re in the wrong. But it’s the cyclists that are in the wrong when they do create problems.”
(Incidentally, the call – which I’d never really understood – for registration of bicycles arises here; it’s based on a desire to be able to report and identify people whose cycling causes harm to others, in much the same way as I want, as a cyclist, to be able to identify and report bad driving.)
Pavement cycling is problematic not only because of the proximity between pedestrian and cyclist, but also because of the cyclists’ unpredictability. Because the cyclist is out of place there are no rules for his or her correct behaviour. Pedestrians can’t guess what he or she will do next. This unpredictability of movement also makes ‘shared space’ problematic. Talking about her city’s centre which works on the principle of shared space, Sheila says:
“Now, when you get bicycles coming down there, it’s such a wide area and they’re going anywhere and you’ve no idea where they’re going. Even if you can see them coming towards you, you don’t know whether they’re going to the left of you, the right of you. And that’s what I find impossible. I’ve just stopped using it” [my emphasis].
Although people with disabilities have real problems with cars parking on pavements, they tend generally to see bicycles as more problematic than cars. Why?
First, it’s true that many people with disabilities are hugely car dependent. So maybe they have an ideological blind-spot. But of course, they’re partly so car dependent because walking and cycling are currently so difficult for them, even more so than for other people, to do.
But second, as Fred says, “you know where the cars are … it’s having unexpected things happen that’s such a problem, and that’s why cyclists are a problem”.
If people with disabilities seem overly concerned about relatively ‘minor’ incidents such as a collision with a cyclist consider that the impact of a fall varies according to who you are. If you’re already frail, both the risks and consequences of falling are greater, so fear of falling will be greater too. For someone who’s already vulnerable, a fall (or fear of a fall) can spell the beginning of being house-bound.
We can try to relativize these risks and fears by comparing them to the risks imposed on pedestrians (and cyclists) by motorised traffic, but doing so won’t make the problems go away, and nor – by failing to empathise – will it win cycling friends.
The difficulty of responsible cycling
How do you know how much space to give someone if you don’t know what their tolerances are? How loudly do you ring your bell for the person who’s deaf? How much time to move do you give the person who can’t see? How slow is slow enough? Tony, who’s partially sighted, provides a sense of the potential for difference in perspective between pedestrian and cyclist:
“I crossed over from one side of the road to the other, and two cyclists were coming along and I had to jump out of the way. And the gentleman in front is going ‘ha, ha’, you know, all very jolly. But it wasn’t so jolly to me.”
‘Responsible cycling’ to us could be ‘irresponsible cycling’ to others, and good citizenship requires such recognition. When I’m cycling on roads, some motorists give me insufficient space to feel safe. How can I justify, then, imposing the emotional discomfort I feel about that onto others when I’m cycling and they’re walking? Based on my own experiences shouldn’t I be empathising with them, rather than (mindlessly?) repeating the discomfort I experience at the hands of others?
There are structural reasons why considerate cycling’s hard to do. I don’t want to excuse cyclists completely, but it’d be just as wrong to expect cyclists to behave in ways which are very difficult to achieve. The currently dominant transport order almost enforces styles of cycling which are antithetical to the calm, unhurried orientation towards pedestrians which would in a civilised society be normal. To survive, city cyclists often need to hurry. I doubt I’m alone in sometimes feeling almost primed to fight by my experience of city cycling. A refusal to engage in such ‘fighting’ is of course one of the reasons people take to cycling on pavements; but the fight remains, only the terrain and actors change.
Cycling’s in a fix. Mixing with cars pushes us to ‘hurry up’; mixing with pedestrians compels us to ‘slow down’. There’s work to do here; and in making cities fit for cycling we must also ensure cycling becomes fit for cities.
Towards a pro-cycling but anti-pavement cycling strategy
A big majority of people who cycle, as well as the (very, very many) people who don’t currently cycle, and most pedestrians (but especially pedestrians with disabilities of various kinds) need the same thing – much more dedicated space for cycling. This is mainly the case along busy main roads where pavement cycling is concentrated; these roads feel difficult and dangerous to ride, so many cyclists get pushed onto pavements which are often narrow and crowded with pedestrians (as well as street furniture and other ‘obstacles’).
Rather than feel uncomfortable and guilty about what they’re doing, people who ride on pavements should voice demands for the sort of space through which they’d actually like to ride;
Rather than suffer in silence or demonise the pavement cyclist, pedestrians should voice demands for cycling to have its own space off their pavements;
Rather than simply not ride in cities, non-cyclists and sometime-cyclists should stand up for their right to city cycling, and voice demands for the kind of urban space they require in order to ride;
Disputes between pedestrians and cyclists result from deep and continuing institutional discrimination against both modes. Rather than us their advocates facing towards each other and bickering amongst ourselves, we must learn to face outwards in solidarity against the monster still devouring far too much urban space, the car.
And rather than – whether deliberately or inadvertently – continuing to throw cycling and walking together, those people most responsible for ordering and re-ordering our cities should start mainstreaming these sustainable modes whilst marginalising the car.
A couple of final points to ponder, particularly for advocates of cycling.
First, completely pure space for either walking or cycling is of course unrealistic and undesirable. Cycling and walking sometimes have to mix. A good society is about brushing up against each other in respectful and tolerant ways more than it is about pretending other kinds of people and modes of mobility don’t exist by separating ourselves from them altogether.
Second, following from the first, cycling needs to change. If the world is starting to move around cycling, so too – inevitably and necessarily – must cycling move.
Here’s a suggestion for how people with cycles might move, from members of the group whose views we heard earlier.
Fred: “One idea would be, if it’s a pedestrianized area, then for people to actually get off their bike and walk it through the street instead of dodging in and out between people and knocking people down. I think if a cyclist actually got off their bike and walked with their bike … it’s only for a little time. And then they get back on their bike and cycle away … when there are not so many pedestrians, then get back on your bike and cycle.”
Paul: “I think on that last point, teaching people to push a bike should be part of cyclist training. Because lots of cyclists find it very difficult to push a bike.”
Fred is articulating a common sense strategy which we all probably use. But does he perhaps sound a bit extreme, a bit ‘anti-cyclist’? My instinct, at least, is to react against what he says, perhaps partly because I’m accustomed to defending a generally beleaguered cycling, and partly because I see myself as responsible and best able to judge when and where to dismount and remount – ‘I don’t need to be told’.
But in a sense, cycling moves below us, and we can’t afford to be fixed in what cycling means, whether that’s our own cycling, ‘good cycling’, or cycling in general. To be radically pro-cycling today is to know that cycling must change, and be part of that change. Our cycling repertoires need to broaden.
Challenges lie ahead for people who’ve kept riding through the time of the car. Speaking for myself, I’ve become used to riding fast and assertively, but such riding will become less and less appropriate. I need to broaden my repertoire of styles of riding in the city, learning to enjoy slow and sedate as much as fast and furious!
At the individual level the requirement is for ‘flexible cyclists’ able to cycle slowly, or even get off and push, when conditions (and not simply our own reading of those conditions) require it. At the societal level, new forms of governance of cycling must inevitably emerge, and – although of course we’ll negotiate them – we must be careful not automatically to oppose them.
Too fixed an idea of what cycling means is antithetical to a healthy future for cycling. To become established and better integrated into the fabric of the city, to become normal and democratic, cycling must change. New opportunities for the governance of cycling will emerge. So going back to Fred’s suggestion, for example, it should become possible for city centre pedestrian flows to be measured in real time, and signs indicating the appropriate behaviour of cyclists (to ride below a certain speed, or to dismount and push) to be adjusted accordingly. A paradigm shift requires everyone to think differently, everyone’s behaviour to change; those of us who cycle now aren’t immune, and if we think we are, I fear we become part of the problem, rather than its solution.