(Image via Victoria Walks)

Earlier this month Bicycle Network called for adults to be permitted to ride on footpaths in Victoria and NSW, as they are in other States. In Victoria, children aged less than 12 years are permitted to cycle on footpaths, but not adults. In NSW, the age limit is 17 years. Bicycle Network says:

All other States in Australia allow people of all ages to ride on the footpath, it’s time VIC and NSW caught up.

This is a fraught issue. On the one hand, many cyclists want a safe alternative to riding in traffic; on the other, many pedestrians feel unsafe on footpaths in the presence of riders. I’ve discussed the many and varied arguments for and against sharing footpaths before (e.g. see Should cycling on footpaths be made legal?) and it’s worth looking again at the two sides of this debate.

The claims for

In summary, the ‘pro’ claims for cycling on footpaths include:

  • Safety is a key obstacle to greater take-up of cycling, but there’s inadequate infrastructure on roads. Footpaths are a relatively safe haven for cyclists and providing access to them could lead to an increase in cycling.
  • Realistically, cyclists will be waiting decades before a safe network of on-road paths is provided.
  • Footpaths are an enormous existing resource that is only lightly used in most locations. There’s plenty of spare capacity for both cyclists and pedestrians.
  • A bicycle is far less dangerous to a pedestrian than a car is to a bicycle.
  • Cycling on footpaths in places where it’s permitted hasn’t been shown to be a major cause of serious injury. Nor is that the case on off-road trails.
  • Perceptions of risk to pedestrians can be controlled by a global speed limit on cyclists when close to a pedestrian e.g. 10 km/h max.
  • Conflict between cyclists and pedestrians is caused by a small minority; the great majority of cyclists are respectful and considerate around pedestrians.


The claims against

On the other hand, the ‘anti’ claims include:

  • Many footpaths aren’t safe for cycling due to vehicle crossovers, narrow pavements, intruding vegetation, sign posts. It’s a second-rate “solution”.
  • It could degrade the value/amenity of walking by making pedestrians fearful of injury, especially the growing numbers of older walkers. That feeling of apprehension is amplified for anyone walking with young children or a dog, or who is frail or has a disability.
  • It could lead to conflict between cycling and other footpath uses e.g. sidewalk dining, street art.
  • It could weaken support for cycling in the wider community, including from many disaffected pedestrians who might otherwise be natural supporters. Cyclists should be wary of fighting both motorists and pedestrians.
  • It could signal that roads belong to motorists and that they don’t have to give up anything. It sends the message that pedestrians and cyclists can fight over the scraps.
  • Speed limits and designated “no cycling areas” won’t work because laws are seldom enforced. A significant minority of cyclists (and pedestrians for that matter) will always be inconsiderate.
  • Walking is the most accessible and the most natural of all modes; virtually everyone can use a footpath. It must stand at the top of the “steam gives way to sail” hierarchy.
  • Legalising use of footpaths creates a norm that could lead to a significant proportion of cyclists viewing footpaths as “their territory”.


Where to?

The strongest argument for change in my view is that all-age cycling on footpaths hasn’t caused significant problems in those places where it’s permitted. On the other hand, it hasn’t prompted growth in cycling numbers either.

While it might be uncontroversial at present because use of footpaths is low, it can’t be assumed that would remain the case if the numbers of cyclists increased substantially. The next cohort of cyclists “waiting in the wings” is likely to be a little more risk averse than current riders and thus more inclined to avoid roads.

Increased investment in safe bicycle infrastructure would increase the number of cyclists and hence might lead to more cycling on footpaths in areas not served by safe cycling facilities. Activists opposed to the mandatory helmet law think repealing it could also lead to a big increase in riding.

I think an important catalyst for growth is the growing popularity of power-assisted bicycles, which increase the utility of cycling by extending range and reducing effort, particularly on hills. They make cycling an option for many more people.

Electric bikes could make all-age cycling on footpaths (and shared trails) problematic by increasing the number of cyclists and, perhaps more importantly, by increasing their average and peak speed. Because e-bikes are heavier, they will also carry more kinetic energy than a conventional bicycle, with consequently greater risk to a pedestrian in the event of a collision.

The assumption that cyclists are glorified pedestrians might’ve made sense when cycling was largely viewed as a recreation, but its role is changing. It’s now more widely understood that it’s also a form of transport with significant potential – given safe routes – to replace non-active modes. In order to fulfil that promise, cycling requires dedicated infrastructure; much of the required space must come from roads. At the same time, an ageing population and greater awareness of the value of exercise mean we should protect the attractiveness of walking.