As a cyclist, do you ever ride on the footpath? And if you do, are you breaking the law?
Your answer to the second question may depend on your location – and how old you are.
In half of Australia’s states and major territories – Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory – adults are allowed to ride on the footpath.
In the other states, however, it’s illegal – and often an extremely contentious issue.
Danger is often cited as a concern but it should be noted that the average ambulating Australian has significantly more chance of being killed by lightning than by a cyclist – to the best of my knowledge, the last time the latter happened was in 2006.
Of course, cyclists and pedestrians do collide, and both can suffer serious injuries. But, as I wrote in a previous blog, it’s the sense of danger that can be overwhelming, especially if a bicyclist whooshes past a walker unexpectedly.
Also controversial are “shared use” walkways – often wider, longer paths where the speed differential between walkers and pedallers increases. Even then, a study in NSW for the roads authority concluded that the perception of hazard outweighed the reality.
But what of the places where riding on the footpath is legal for everyone, and not just children less than 12 years old (or adults supervising a child)? How do they manage?
Ben Wilson, the CEO of Bicycle Queensland, told me that footpath riding has been a non-issue since it was legalised in 1993.
“There hasn’t been a high incidence of accidents or crashes between bikes and pedestrians,” he says, adding that self-preservation plays a role: “Very often, the bike rider comes off second best.”
Could it be that some of the anger in other states isn’t entirely due to danger per se, but simply because it is illegal behaviour by a minority group? After all, jaywalking is also illegal, but is widely practised and seldom criticised.
I don’t ride on footpaths, and even if it were allowed, I doubt I often would. As someone who does a lot of recreational/sports riding, I move quickly and am (mostly) comfortable in traffic.
A footpath can be hazardous for a two-wheeler at speed. You have to safely negotiate past any pedestrians, who often move unpredictably - people can also emerge suddenly from doorways, and cars from driveways. Meanwhile, uneven pavement surfaces are treacherous, branches jut and bins incur, navigating crossroads becomes tedious, and riding over gutters and ramps can be ruinous to slender racing wheels with skinny tyres.
But I can understand why some do it, even to the extent of breaking the law. If you are a nervous rider but want to trundle to the shops, would you rather take a busy road, or a footpath that is often sparsely used? In suburbs and inner city areas, the pavement riders I see tend to be moving slowly, on inexpensive utility bicycles, dressed in regular clothing and often unhelmeted.
Indeed, in the Northern Territory, adults riding on footpaths or bike paths don’t have to wear a helmet. It’s worth noting that census figures show Darwin has the nation’s highest percentage of people cycling to work.
So, does access to footpaths open up cycling to more people?
Wilson certainly thinks so. “Particularly women, who have a more conscious sense of risk, who prefer not to be sharing roads with drivers, trucks, buses etc,” he says.
Furthermore, a separated bike lane in the city is unlikely to lead to your office door. “The last half a kilometre might be the most dangerous part of the bike rider’s entire trip,” says Wilson.
As for children riding on footpaths, Victoria’s Bicycle Network is campaigning to have the age lifted to 16, arguing that younger children are still developing their visual and risk perception abilities.
The sad truth is that it’s impossible to legislate courtesy and good behaviour. There certainly are people on bicycles who treat the entire urban environment like a BMX park, switching at speed from road to footpath, while annoying and unnerving everybody in the process. But a blanket ban means a cautious cyclist keen on self-preservation isn't allowed to use a designated walking space to avoid a dangerous section of road.
It’s curious that Australia has such a mixed approach to footpath cycling. How can something be workable in one state but illegal in another?
As a bike rider, what is your attitude to riding on the footpath? Are there times when you do it? Would you ride more often if you could?