Look At Life: Pavement Cycling

9th February 2018

Bring Back the Bell

By Grace Fuller

Three times in as many weeks I have been nearly knocked down. On the pavement. Out of nowhere from behind me came someone on a bicycle – far too fast, whizzing close past my ear without the slightest moderation of speed or intention. If I’d happened to deviate even an inch or two out of my line (turning to check for traffic before crossing the road, perhaps) the rider would have been straight into me, and we’d both have been the worse for it.

It’s not the first time I’ve experienced this, either (pavements are dangerous places these days) – and the culprit is always way down the street, weaving in and out of other pedestrians, before I can gather my thoughts together to complain. In any case, I’m not sure I’d dare. They’re younger (usually, although middle-aged-men-in-lycra are not above the practice); they’re fitter and faster and armed with a bicycle. Best not tangle with them.

I appreciate that urban cycling can be both scary and dangerous. As a child, I was encouraged by my parents to ride on the pavement for my own safety. I think I was reasonably cautious – and I always used that old-fashioned but highly effective device, the bell, to signal my approach. Came the day, however, when an elderly lady said to me (in the way of elderly ladies who weren’t afraid to discipline stray children back then): “You shouldn’t be on the pavement on that bicycle.” I muttered an embarrassed apology (in the way of children who wouldn’t dream of answering back) and set off for home, only to be intercepted by a neighbour, who said (in the way of neighbours who weren’t afraid to take a responsible interest): “Does your mother know you’re riding on the road?”.

She didn’t, of course, and she didn’t much like it when I told her. Being more afraid of my mother and my neighbours than random elderly strangers, I carried on using the pavement, carefully, until I was into my early teens.

Key word: carefully. The road safety dilemma hasn’t gone away since the 1970s, when the roads were, in fact, very much quieter, but the concept of shared pavement usage and responsible riding seems to have vanished without trace. ‘What I want goes’ has become the motto of the modern age – and we appear to have raised a generation who can’t look further than their own desires, and don’t recognise any sort of social context. ‘I want to cycle at great speed along this pavement, so I’m going to. Oh, you’re in my way. Shame.’

It’s an unpleasant situation that makes your heart race when you’re on the receiving end. I guess you could pursue the issue with the headteachers of the schools concerned (providing you react quickly enough to identify the uniform) – but there’s another element in the mix. Even if I dared, or had the opportunity, to admonish these youngsters, I don’t really want to be cross with them because, actually, I’m quite impressed that they’re out on their bikes, instead of being ferried to school by their families or queuing in an unruly smoke-ridden rabble at the bus stop like the majority of their contemporaries. It’s hard to be different when you’re growing up, and stepping – or cycling – away from the crowd takes guts.

I don’t want to discourage them from taking to two wheels and getting the exercise that we’re constantly told young people don’t have. I don’t want them to stop cycling; I don’t even want them to stop cycling on the pavements if they must on major (or narrow) roads or at nasty junctions – I just want them to share nicely. They shouldn’t be frightening the life out of pedestrians just because they themselves are cowed by other road users. Perhaps they’re getting an andrenaline thrill from the risk.

There are, in fact, very few pedestrian deaths recorded as a result of bike/pedestrian collisions (only three in 2016, for example), but a recent Daily Telegraph analysis of the data reveals that it is nevertheless an upward trend. The 2016 figure (along with the three deaths, 108 pedestrians were seriously hurt) is more than double the 50 pedestrians who suffered death or major injury a decade earlier in 2006.

Last autumn, the government launched a review into the laws covering cyclists. And not before time. But while they consider the possibility of ‘a new offence, equivalent to causing death or serious injury by careless or dangerous driving’, to quote ª spokesperson, there are some quick-fix remedies that might help.

Bring back the bicycle bell, I say. And make Bikeability (the three stage course that replaced the Cycling Proficiency Test) compulsory, for both adults and children. That would be one way of increasing confidence in cyclists and pedestrians alike.

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