There are lots of jokes about the tensions, splits and divides in bike groups, but one of the joys of being involved with Pedal on Parliament has been our refusal to recognize those divides. 'We are everyone' we have said - cyclists and non-cyclists. And our protests have been evidence of this - with all kinds of people on bikes, and people on foot taking part.
But I'm becoming increasingly aware of a divide that threatens our insouciant claims to climb above these divisions. I've put off blogging about this because I know it will open up tensions with people whose energy, commitment and sheer brilliance I admire tremendously.
Increasingly, I'm hearing the argument - in forums, blogs, on twitter, and in meetings - that cyclists who find the roads too dangerous should ride on the pavement. This comes in different settings, and is often presented as a reasonable alternative to the dangerous 'vehicular' cycling that has held sway until recently. At times it is talked about as if it were a form of civil disobedience, a public rejection of the dire provision made for cyclists.
But an angry tone of justification is also heard, suggesting that cyclists have a right to that space. This is bolstered by the claim that when fixed penalty notices were introduced for pavement cycling, only 'irresponsible' cycling was intended to be penalised. And finally, the piece-de-resistance, that cyclists are only responsible for a tiny fraction of pedestrian deaths and serious injuries.
This is where the argument starts to go down hill. Pedestrians understand that cyclists feel unsafe on the roads. They understand the difference between reckless cycling and careful, cautious cycling. But, they still find that space invasion threatening. Cyclists talk a lot about subjective safety these days, but what about pedestrians?
And the most vulnerable among them - the elderly, the mobility impaired, and the young - are those who find it most terrifying to have a cyclist overtaking them. That cyclist may be considerate and taking care, but just like those people who say 'he's harmless' while their dog barks at you, it's all subjective.... If you're in your 80s and get a broken hip as a result of a fall, it can be fatal. So, we're not just talking about the effect of people feeling less mobile, getting out less, but about serious health consequences.
The real irony is that many of the same activists reject shared space. How we can say we don't want shared space, then claim pavements as a refuge, even temporarily, or as a political statement?
By invading pedestrians space, we are showing our disdain for them. A cyclist-friendly pedestrian recently told me about waiting at a bust stop. Just as the bus pulled up, a family cycled by on the pavement - between him and the open bus door - politely saying 'excuse me' as they went. On the one hand, it sounds like they were being considerate. But on the other, why did they barge through? The signal being sent here - even with polite excuse me's -- is 'we're bigger, and faster: let us through'; we don't accept that from cars, why do we think its okay on bikes?
We are lucky enough to know two couples - friends and neighbours - who are die-hard, lifelong cyclists. Now in their 70s-90s, they cycled when it was trendy and when it was deeply unfashionable, and have gone places and done things on bikes that I can only dream of - racing, touring, youth hostelling, commuting - with much of their social lives revolving around bikes too. But they are horrified by the antics of cyclists now - rushing through parks, on the canalpath, across pedestrian crossings. They understand that most cyclists don't behave that way, and that we shouldn't all be tarred with the same brush, but they do not see cyclists as respecting them and their needs when they're not on their bikes. When people like that fear going out on foot because of cyclists, we're doing something wrong.
If we want to support active travel, if we want pedestrians as allies, we need to take their needs and concerns more seriously. And that's not going to be accomplished by advocating pavement cycling, or quoting statistics about how few people we kill as some perverse justification for holding their infrastructure hostage until we get some of our own.
I'm sorry if this sounds preachy. We all need to make our own personal decisions about how we cycle and where. Like most of us, I've ridden on pavements here and there - where I didn't feel safe, where the infra didn't join up, where my bike rack is at the other end of a cobbled street, but I'll be pushing my bike when I'm on the pavement from now on, in the interests of solidarity and subjective safety for pedestrians of all varieties.