An interesting debate about the rights and wrongs of riding on the pavement has been raging away on The Independent's new cycling blog, Cyclotherapy, over the past couple of weeks. Although most people seem to agree that it's not the end of the world if it's done with due respect and consideration for pedestrians, others have been quick to point to the letter of the law.
But while cycling on the pavement is indeed illegal, fewer people will be aware that the Government never intended to create rigid legislation with a view to stamping it out entirely.
In fact, when the Home Office introduced fixed, on-the-spot penalties for riding on the pavement towards the end of the last decade, it followed up by issuing an additional piece of guidance. In a letter to an MP, who had questioned the new fines, then Home Office minister Paul Boateng wrote the following: "The introduction of the fixed penalty is not aimed at responsible cyclists who sometimes feel obliged to use the pavement out of fear of the traffic, and who show consideration to other pavement users.
"Chief police officers, who are responsible for enforcement, acknowledge that many cyclists, particularly children and young people, are afraid to cycle on the road, sensitivity and careful use of police discretion is required." (Thanks very much to fellow blogger Dicky for bringing this to my attention.)
This is exactly the right approach to take – not just when it comes to riding on pavements, but when it comes to jumping red lights, too. I only tend to ride on the pavement when I get squeezed off the road by motorists – or when I don't feel safe enough staying on the road. But I'm always considerate to pedestrians and give priority to them (a respect that not all pedestrians return to cyclists when they're trying to cross the road).
Cyclists should be fined for riding on the pavement if they are dangerous or in any way disrespectful to those on foot. Similarly, police should penalise red-light jumpers if they are irresponsible and put other road users at risk.
Nipping through a red light when there's no traffic coming in either direction is hardly the end of the world. It's safer for the cyclist, as it keeps them ahead of, and out of the way of, any motorists behind them, and causes no harm to anyone.
When I've suggested this kind of more tolerant approach in the past, I'm always referred back to the law, and reminded that cyclists have to obey it just like anyone else. But as Mr Boateng illustrated, with his comments about riding on the pavement, the law does not have to be black and white. It's important that the police have powers to fine cyclists for being on the pavement – but they should use their discretion in how they apply such penalties.
It occurred to me that there are bound to be very few policemen who are aware of the Home Office's guidance on these fines, and who choose to apply them as liberally as the Government intended.
Last time I went out on the Critical Mass ride in London (where the police accompany on their pedal bikes), I saw a guy on a recumbent get given a ticket for riding on the pavement. The incident was ridiculous – and, in my opinion, certainly not in the spirit of the guidance. The cyclist involved hopped up on to the pavement for five seconds, peeling off from the front of the pack at some traffic lights, to rejoin further back. There were no pedestrians anywhere nearby – we were in the middle of an empty Gray's Inn Road at about 7.30pm on a Friday night – and the fine seemed to serve no purpose other than to give the police an opportunity to show that they were in control of the crowd.
My guess is that if you were to challenge such a penalty in court, the judge would side with the cyclist. But who's going to bother for the sake of £30?
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