Shared use of roads by cyclists and motorists and of paths by pedestrians, cyclists and (sometimes) motorists is an issue that won’t go away in the UK these days.
I’ve just read an online news snippet about BBC presenter Jeremy Vine being stopped by the police for cycling at 16mph on a path. His quote is “If cyclists are forced to travel at walking pace, they will return to the roads and mix it with trucks.” Local papers here in North Somerset have had a series of quite emotional letters from outraged pedestrians, who feel they are being pushed off the paths by cyclists; outraged cyclists, who feel that their lives are at risk if they are forced to cycle on roads and would like to be able to cycle on paths without being criticised; and outraged motorists, who cannot bear the fact that they sometimes have to slow down when there is a cyclist on the road.
The problem is that roads in the UK are often quite ancient, having developed from lanes where occasional horsedrawn vehicles made their slow and steady way between farms and settlements. Other than in new town developments where there is space to provide separate lanes for motor vehicles and for cycles, our roads are often narrow to begin with and then further narrowed by being lined with parked cars. All forms of transport are pushed into close and dangerous proximity.
We are all at risk. Far too many cyclists are killed on the roads – even one death is too many – but there are risks for pedestrians when people cycle on the path, much as cyclists would like to believe it is a risk-free activity. I know this to be true because as a small child I stepped out of my garden gate while waiting for my parents to go shopping and was knocked flat by a cyclist who was moving fast and couldn’t stop in time. I ended up in hospital having a head injury stitched, and the cyclist ended up in shock/trauma/guilt.
The best solution is sadly unachieveable in the short term: to have dedicated cycle tracks everywhere there are cyclists. Much credit needs to go to the many organisations working to get safe cycle routes established, but there are planning issues in establishing route and usually funding issues too, so they cannot be quickly built. In any case, they usually run between towns, so they rarely address the problem of how we can all safely share roads and paths in our towns.
I believe the short term solution arises from increased awareness, consideration for others and training.
Cyclists need to develop and use the same observation and anticipation skills as advanced mtorists – look to see what is happening around you and what think about what might reasonably be expected to happen next. If you are cycling down a residential path, anyone could step through a gate at any moment. If there are tall fences and hedges either side of a gate, you may not see someone until it is too late. If there is an adult with a pushchair ahead of you, they might have a toddler you haven’t seen, who might run in front of you. A person walking in the same direction as you may have sight or hearing problems, and may not be aware of you, even if you ring a bell at them. If the route runs beside a beauty spot, people might stop suddenly or step to the side to look at the view, or to take a photograph. If you are approaching a corner, anything could be out of sight on the other side. Pedestrians are unpredictable – they veer across paths to head for a shop, pub, toilet, a chat with an old friend or to take a seat, so when pedstrians are about, you have have to expect the unexpected.
If it is dangerous for a cyclist to use the road and they switch to a path, they need to be aware of all the potential risks. While they are unlikely to kill someone if they hit them at 16 mph (unless the person has a weak heart and dies of the shock, or has brittle bones so sustains life threatening injuries in the fall, or falls badly and suffers a fatal head injury) the pedestrian can suffer nasty injuries. They can also get a fright from having a cyclist whizz past them at speed, and for the elderly or infirm this can make getting out for a walk a trial when it should be a pleasure and a health-giving activity.
To return to Jeremy Vine’s point ( “If cyclists are forced to travel at walking pace, they will return to the roads and mix it with trucks.”) I think that most reasonable people, including most police officers, wouldn’t expect to enforce a 5 mph limit if the cyclist is on an empty path with excellent all-round visiblity and there are plainly no pedestrians anywhere near. However if there are, or might be, pedestrians around they must be given priority on the path, and cyclists must make sure they can move out of the way or stop quickly if needed. Logically, that means going slowly, and a 5 mph speed limit sounds about right.
Road Safety training is generally available. If you aren’t confident about cycling safely, or feel that as a driver you need more training on how to safely interact with cyclists on the road, make enquiries locally to see what is available for you. You can also get plenty of hints and tips from revisiting the Highway Code.
I walk everyday, drive occasionally and would love to cycle more. I really hope we can all work together to make sure we can use our roads and paths safely and enjoy getting out and about.