Examining legality

This article was published in 2007, in Newsletter 71.

There has been a trickle of letters to the Cambridge Evening News in the few weeks since the announcement that the cycling ban in the city centre would be lifted permanently (well, permanently for at least 12 months), complaining about cyclists breaking laws such as riding on pavements or against one-way streets. (There have also been just as many letters welcoming the change.)

But what is it that causes people to ride illegally, and what should be done about it?

The Campaign’s position on illegal and inconsiderate cycling

Firstly, let us be clear that Cambridge Cycling Campaign has a clear position in favour of responsible, legal cycling. Several years ago we published our position paper on Responsible, Legal Cycling. The headline statement in this is:

‘The Campaign supports enforcement (applied in a fair and reasonable manner) of all traffic regulations, for all categories of road user, to reduce conflict and road danger.’

And as it also states:

‘This policy aims to make clear our advocacy of responsible, legal cycling. We believe this is in the best interests of cyclists themselves and of the wider community.’

Lack of enforcement can create a free-for-all

In any system, lack of enforcement of rules means that people will try to get away with doing what they want, and traffic is no exception. Look at the vast amount of speeding on motorways, for instance – except for the patches that are covered by speed (safety) cameras. There must be literally tens of millions of motoring infractions every day across the UK that go totally unenforced.

The same applies to errant cyclists. Those who fail to understand the societal cost of riding without lights will do so in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be caught. As my dad jokingly used to say to me in my school days, ‘by all means, break the rules at school, just don’t get caught!’

There is often debate as to whether a majority or minority of cyclists break rules on pavement cycling, one way streets, use of lights, etc. Personally I believe it is a minority – there is actually a large number of cyclists who do use lights, for instance. But, ironically it is those with lights that are least often noticed by motorists!

It is odd though that cyclists attract criticism to the extent that they do compared to other road users – ‘we’ collectively are singled out (and often without any reference to the very many law-abiding cyclists) in a way which law-breaking motorists rarely are. One can speculate as to why.

Police response?

The police have historically cared little about traffic enforcement, to the detriment of all groups of road users. The automated solution of speed cameras deals with a small proportion of dangerous road use, but nothing more. In Cambridge, initiatives to catch cyclists without lights seem limited to a few days each year.

The police themselves are not exactly sending out a positive message.

For instance, in four days in November 2005, police gave out a staggeringly tiny 37 fixed penalty notices. And I have seen cyclists breaking the law in some way ride past police officers or PCOs and receive not even a cautionary word. The police themselves are not exactly sending out a positive message.

Mind you, how many times have you heard of prosecutions for motorists for parking in mandatory cycle lanes (MCLs), which causes much danger and inconvenience? None that we have heard of – and not for want of trying to get the police to take action.

At the most recent East Area Committee meeting, I publicly asked the police officer in attendance why so little attention is given to enforcing laws on cyclists without lights and laws like those on MCLs. ‘Lack of resources’ was of course the response. He also responded that, for every letter complaining that more should be done, another letter is received asking why the police aren’t spending valuable time on drugs and other offences classified as being more serious.

I put the case that a very public three-month period of enforcement against rogue cycling during the winter would go a long way towards stamping out the problem. I suppose there would be issues with form-filling and the like. But what enforcement currently exists is pitiful, and the result is a public nuisance.

The very welcome initiative that cyclists should have to return to a police station within 14 days with a bike having working lights, or be prosecuted, should be extended and promoted. Not because it means people don’t get prosecuted, but because it gives less responsible cyclists a very direct incentive to adhere to the law. Presumably it also is easier for the police to run, in the face of budgetary pressures.

Errant cyclists their own worst enemy?

I have long felt that one of the key barriers to improving cycling in Cambridge is ironically not the littering of our streets with obstructions created by the Councils, but the behaviour of those cyclists who break the law. Such law-breaking reduces the level of support for improving cycling, particularly amongst those Councillors on the Area Joint Committee and other committees who are already wary of supporting cycling in any meaningful and genuine way.

Is there a consistent position here? Does the high level of illegal pavement parking stop the high level of support amongst councillors for squeezing as much parking out of our narrow streets as possible? No – such demands are as high as ever.

Take Romsey Town – pavement parking, despite the absolutely appalling environment this creates for walkers and cyclists, is now legalised, in an area that is suitable for car-free living. How many local Councillors or residents complain about that use of pavements?

Removal of on-road car parking would make space for cycling

Ironically, car parking provision is, in my view, one of the many roots of illegal cycling.

At the Central/West Area Committee a few months ago, discussions were being held on three topics. Firstly, about how buses were being held up on Barton Road by the amount of car parking; secondly condemnation of illegal cycling in the area; and lastly the old chestnut of how much residents parking should be provided.

I stood up and pointed out to the audience that the three issues are intricately linked. Many people walking in the area dislike the Barton Road cycleway. Yet that only exists because politicians were unwilling to remove on-road car parking, which is the correct and only genuinely cycle-friendly solution. To my surprise, I was cheered in support of this position.

Removal of on-road car parking here would have the effects that people were asking for: space for buses, bikes and walkers. It would mean that cyclists don’t have to weave in and out of parked cars precariously, and that they could avoid using an inadequate pavement cycleway that forces them to give way at every side road. Yet some residents also want to park in that space.

Residents can’t have it both ways. Reducing on-street parking in places like Barton Road, Station Road, Queen’s Road, Lensfield Road, most of Romsey and on East Road would make space for bikes. Clearing the parking from Queen’s Road would make space for a continental style cycleway – direct, 2.5 m wide, and highly visible. Who then would want to cycle on the pavement?

Two-way cycling in one-way streets

‘Many cyclists breaking the law is an indicator of suppressed demand. That is a different thing to saying that cycling misdemeanours should simply be legalised for the sake of it.’
Image as described adjacent

During the debate over the last few months about allowing two-way cycling in streets like Kingston Street, a form of provision that ought to be bread-and-butter, accusations were levied against the Campaign that we were seeking simply to legalise law-breaking.

That is an unfair statement. Our position has been one of principle – backed up by facts. This street has plenty of space for two-way cycling (indeed it is wider than many that allow two-way car traffic!) and forms part of an entirely sensible route.

The fact that many cyclists are breaking the law acts as an indicator of suppressed demand, and there are good reasons for why removing a cycling restriction is reasonable. That is a different thing to saying that cycling misdemeanours should simply be legalised for the sake of it. A universal legalisation of cycling on pavements is not something we would want to see, for instance.

When is a pavement a cycleway?

Is it any surprise that so many cyclists use pavements when the Council’s first port of call for providing for cycling is seemingly often to convert a pavement to shared-use?

For Hills Road bridge, all four original options for change involved pavement cycleways. Not a single one proposed on-road provision-what sort of message is that?

Time and time again we have told councillors that pavement provision should be provision of last resort, and that improving the general road environment (which includes removing car parking spaces) should be the priority. Yet those Councillors who have ignored our message, and approved pavement cycling schemes, are often the very same councillors who complain of cyclists being law-breakers. Those councillors must take a degree of responsibility for causing illegal cycling.

The problem is one of mixed messages: Councillors approve new pavement-based cycling schemes and at the same time tell cyclists not to use (other) pavements.

Spot the difference? One of these can be legally cycled, the other not. Write and tell us which, and why. Cycling is encouraged on some pavements but castigated on others which are almost identical.
Image as described adjacent Image as described adjacent

So let’s have a competition. I invite councillors (and anyone else) to write to tell us which of the pavements in these pictures can legally be cycled on. Responses via our usual contact details, please.

Is this an excuse for those who use pavements when they shouldn’t? No. But it isn’t exactly helping the situation. There is often no visible difference between a pavement you can cycle on and one you can’t. There is often no logical reasoning for allowing cycling on some pavements but not others nearby. And in many cases signage is unclear or absent.

Illegal cycling a response to inadequate provision

Cyclists breaking the law is one of the biggest barriers for improving cycling.

In my view, as well as the enforcement issue, illegal cycling is ultimately a response to inadequate provision, particularly where pavement cycling is concerned.

Is it any surprise that people cycle on pavements when the streets are chock-full of speeding cars, when cycle lanes are blocked by vehicles parked in them, when using the road means veering around parked cars, or being intimidated by drivers when cycling away from the kerb (as is good cycling practice)? In the UK, these conditions are absolutely the norm.

Councillors who approve pavement-based cycleways against our advice must take some responsibility for causing illegal cycling.

It did not surprise me that, in the Netherlands, where cycling is genuinely catered for, illegal cycling was practically non-existent. People had no need to break the law because a way to do the most natural, convenient thing had been legally provided.

Ultimately, many cyclists who break the law will do so because the official conditions under which they are supposed to ride are, in their view, neither safe nor convenient. Rather than shifting blame onto cyclists, politicians must take the radical steps towards proper provision for cycling that are required. But at the same time, real efforts must be made, particularly by the police, to crack down on anti-social cycling, for the benefit of the cycling community and society as a whole.

Martin Lucas-Smith