‘Pedestrians’ and ‘Cyclists’: a personal perspective

I wrote a first draft of this post some months ago but it got left on the shelf. I was worried it was too anecdotal, too long, too angry (or perhaps all three). Following a very constructive LCC-Living Streets seminar on Designing Well for Both Walking and Cycling, I thought it might be time to put it out there and invite comment and criticism.


There’s been a lot of discussion on the blogosphere about the demerits of the term ‘cyclist’. It’s interesting to note that the term ‘pedestrian’ has some related problems – every now and then an acquaintance or colleague will use ‘pedestrian’ as a pejorative term. Even though most of us are regular pedestrians, I suspect very few people are likely to say ‘I am a pedestrian’ in everyday conversation. Living Streets changed its name from the ‘Pedestrians Association’ in 2001 presumably partly on these grounds.

I noted recently that in this country, ‘hostility to cyclists is often expressed from a pedestrian perspective‘. Perhaps, part of the problem is indeed these terms – and that’s why, for the ‘Designing Well’ seminar, we said ‘for walking and cycling’, not ‘for pedestrians and cyclists’. As a ‘cyclist’ I might be annoyed by ‘pedestrians’ and vice versa. As a person I am sometimes on foot and sometimes on a bike, and I want both facilitated. But I think there’s a stronger cultural hostility towards ‘cyclists’ than there is towards ‘pedestrians’: the associations of ‘pedestrian’ are bad enough, but being a ‘cyclist’ is worse.

Conditions for cycling are, I would say, worse in much of the UK than are conditions for walking. Obviously, there are problems with walking environments. But let’s use anecdote to illustrate the difference. I am a London cyclist. But there are many parts of London where I’ll simply avoid cycling, because I don’t feel safe, such as the Marylebone Road, right in front of where I work. To get to King’s Cross by bike, I have to travel along three sides of a rectangle and experience a substantial time penalty. This wouldn’t happen if we had Dutch-quality cycle infrastructure along Euston Road. It reduces the trips that I make: if I could cycle safely to the Wellcome Gallery or the British Library along Euston Road, it’d take me less than ten minutes and I’d be much more likely to nip over at lunchtime; as it is, I haven’t been for ages.

I’d say most of us who currently cycle in London could cite many places like this. Although we disproportionately come from risk-tolerant demographics, we still have our no-go areas. These won’t necessarily be the same places, because subjective safety is complex: but that doesn’t mean our fears aren’t important.

Conversely, as a healthy, able-bodied, thirty-something woman, who’s often travelling alone or with those in a similar demographic, there’s pretty much nowhere I wouldn’t walk in Central or Inner London for fear of road danger. While I ride to work every day, I’ll choose to walk quite a few other trips, rather than cycle. For example, local high streets don’t feel great for cycling. This puts me off riding to them – instead I accept a small time penalty and walk.

I’ll walk to go out in the evening when I envisage drinking more than a pint or so, because I know I won’t feel safe cycling on London streets without my ‘wits about me’. But I’m usually happy to walk home after a couple of pints without fearing road injury. (Clearly ‘social safety’, or fear of personal assault, also affect many women in particular when it comes to walking and cycling: I’m only talking here about road danger).

Probably, if I lived somewhere that cycling felt safer, I’d cycle many of those short and ‘evening out’ trips. I noticed this in Cambridge, which has Dutch cycling levels, when I was doing research for the Cycling Cultures project. People would tell me about riding half a mile to the train station or shops. I’d think ‘But it’d almost be as quick to walk!’ And then I’d realise, I was thinking of my trade-off in London, where cycling comfort levels are lower relative to walking, so the time trade-off looks different. And Cambridge people I spoke to almost all cited cycling home from the pub as a major benefit of the mode. I remember being a bit shocked at the time, but in retrospect, I recognise this as a sign of the relatively high subjective safety in Cambridge compared to London.

Of course, Cambridge is still a UK context and so subjective safety is limited compared to The Netherlands. While there’s quite a lot of child cycling in Cambridge, unlike in Dutch contexts it’s mostly on the pavement. In London, where conditions feel less safe, you’ll see much less child cycling in the first place.

I think it’s fair to say that for people like me, walking in Inner or Central London mostly feels relatively unproblematic in terms of traffic safety. The figures do show some cause for concern, but for most people, the idea of walking for everyday trips is fundamentally not a scary one in the same way that cycling is. That said, it does often feel inconvenient or unpleasant. Traffic lights on one of my local high streets were re-phased to aid (motor) traffic flow not that long ago. They used to change quickly and people on foot would almost always wait; now, the more able-bodied and fit among us have started crossing against the lights. I resent this as a theft of time and space from people on foot, which takes far more from them than it gives to motorists.

However, most people in my demographic don’t feel safe enough to cycle in Central and Inner London. The facts back them up; women in their thirties experience risks around seven times greater per kilometre cycling in London than in The Netherlands. There is a fundamental difference between walking and cycling in terms of risk perception, reflecting the greater impact of the hostile road environment on cyclists’ perception of safety.

Walking and cycling are both of course sustainable modes that we need to support, and where space for cycling is needed, I’d want to take it from private motor vehicles. But I feel space for cycling is particularly important in Inner London, because the walking environment, while problematic for many, is not currently excluding the majority of current users – as demonstrated by comparing the statistics on walking and cycling levels.

And here we see a paradox. We may indeed all be pedestrians (broadly defined), and walking is certainly a good thing for many reasons. But some pedestrian trips are ‘enforced choices’ in relation to cycling, in the sense that the cycling option is unavailable. Similarly, in rural areas, we see people purchasing a ‘forced car’ that they cannot really afford, because the bus services are so poor; or, in London, older people’s bus trips (again, a ‘good thing’ in sustainability terms) might be ‘enforced’ if they feel the Tube is inaccessible to them.
For someone like me, the fact that I end up walking some trips is not a big problem. I enjoy walking – and the ability to experience my local environment in a different way – and it’s variety for me. The big problem is for those people who are excluded from cycling altogether. Which includes a large number of people of my age and ability, of course, but in terms of proportions, it’s older people, disabled people, and children (and women) who are excluded.

Many older and disabled people would find cycling easier than walking, because it’s not weight-bearing – but under current conditions, they do not feel able to cycle, meaning they are then limited by their (lower) walking ability. And of course, for these people the walking environment is more problematic than it is for me. Their walking environment may well look like the cycling environment looks to someone like me; with no-go areas due to road danger, trips they would like to make on foot, but don’t. That’s bad enough, but for these people, not only is the walking environment very problematic, but the cycling environment is likely to appear completely impassable. In terms of active travel, one choice is a poor choice, and the other is a non-choice.

Neither is inevitable. It’s important to recognise that, given a different context, we could ‘all be cyclists’, just like we can ‘all be pedestrians’. There is nothing about walking that makes it inherently easier and more popular than cycling. I and my colleague Kat (on the Cycling Cultures project) have spoken to a number of people in Cambridge and in Hull (both having relatively high proportions of older people cycling) who found walking hard and cycling relatively easy. One man in Hull could not walk to his local post box, but could ride there on his electric bicycle. One woman in Cambridge could not walk to her local shop, but could ride there on her tricycle. Another Cambridge woman had been too ill to do even gentle weight bearing exercise like walking, but had been able to ride a bike. I’m pretty sure few of these people would have been ‘cyclists’ in London or indeed most other parts of the UK.

So this makes me worry about the assumption sometimes made that ‘we are all pedestrians’ but cyclists are doomed to remain a tiny minority. Last year, Living Streets CEO Tony Armstrong wrote in a letter to the Evening Standard (25th June 2013) that ‘For people who are older, have sight impairment or mobility issues, cycling is not an option and they are forced to use narrow, cluttered and often poorly maintained pavements. Investment in London’s public realm is welcome but a holistic approach is required taking into account the needs of all road users.’
I would argue that cycling is only ‘not an option’ for many of these people because of the poor quality of the cycling environment. Let’s take Jean, in her eighties, who uses a tricycle in Cambridge as a mobility aid, as an example:

‘[The] reason I bought a tricycle was because I had had my hips replaced […] I can walk a little bit but I walk with two sticks if there’s any distance to walk and I get tired very quickly.’
She feels that she has been excluded from shopping at her two local malls, however:
‘I am not allowed to cycle through there, in fact, nobody is allowed to cycle through there. Well, it’s understandable but I’m not even allowed to push my tricycle through there […] I can’t go there, because I can’t walk far enough.’

At one of the two malls, she would be allowed to use the Shopmobility service to borrow a mobility scooter or an electric or manual wheelchair (hence, defined as a ‘pedestrian’), but she’s not allowed to ride her tricycle (because then, she’s defined as a ‘cyclist’). It’s not immediately obvious to me why a disabled person’s mobility scooter would be ok, but not a disabled person’s tricycle: both are pretty similar sizes and speeds. This to me demonstrates the pervasive assumption – even in Cambridge, where the statistics show otherwise – that cycling is somehow naturally the preserve of the young, able-bodied and fit.

No cycling allowed at any time; this is - sigh - part of the National Cycle Network.

No cycling allowed at any time; this is – sigh – part of the National Cycle Network.

Similarly, I saw in Thetford town centre a pedestrianised area where cycles of all kinds are banned at all times of day, while mobility scooters are allowed and widely used.

We simply don’t recognise that many people who use mobility scooters, sticks, or wheelchairs to get about, could use a cycle of some kind to extend their mobility and improve their health. This from Neil, in his seventies, from Hull, who found it easier to use his electric bike to get places than to walk to the end of his road and get a bus:
‘What a blessing it is to have a cycle. Because you know for me to walk just to the end of the road along here to catch a bus, it is absolutely a struggle with a stick.’

Neil wouldn’t have been able to dismount and push from one end of Thetford to the other. Like many of the older people I saw shopping in Thetford, he’d perhaps have long since replaced cycling and walking trips with trips by mobility scooter, allowing him to travel through the pedestrianised zone but stopping him from getting healthy exercise in the process. Similarly, a wheelchair user I interviewed in Hull had given up using his handcycle on the street. Instead he now periodically drove to the park to ride it there for leisure, because he felt the roads had become too threatening. If he hadn’t had a car, he might well have given up the handcycle altogether. But if the roads were safer, he’d be able to choose whether to drive to the shops or cycle there.

Therefore, to see older and disabled people as only pedestrians is a big mistake. Yes, people need better walking environments; longer crossing times, cars and clutter off the pavement, lower speeds and fewer motor vehicles in residential streets. But those things won’t get them cycling, on their own. Older and disabled people are particularly put off by having to share roads with motor traffic: the greater the separation (however achieved), the more equal the conditions. In TfL’s Attitudes to Cycling 2012, 18% of adults said they cycled regularly or occasionally; among disabled people, it’s 6%, and among over-65s it’s 4%.

This is not a natural situation. Just as it’s not inevitable that 82% of adult Londoners never cycle, it not inevitable that 96% of Londoners over 65 never cycle. Many people like Jean across the UK could use a bike of some sort, for some of their journeys, if the cycling environment were friendlier. Providing Dutch-quality cycling infrastructure is in the interests of many who currently are seen only as pedestrians, because it will allow them to choose to cycle (or, indeed, to use mobility scooters on cycle tracks: the Dutch see mobility scooter users as ‘cyclists’, while we see them as ‘pedestrians’ and make them share space with often much slower-moving people on foot).
Hengelostraat We shouldn’t compromise pedestrian comfort in order to provide this. At times, moving around by foot in The Netherlands, I have felt like a second class citizen. Staying in Enschede and walking to the University of Twente, I felt irritated by having to walk on the cycle track. It was much busier than in the Google picture, because I was travelling at peak times, so I was regularly having to jump out of the way of groups of students on bikes. Not great (although probably pretty ‘objectively’ safe, compared for example to walking in Westminster). I suppose in their defence, why on earth was I spending forty-five minutes walking several miles, when I could have ridden it in fifteen? I didn’t see any other people attempting the same route on foot. (And there was a pavement on the other side, albeit less convenient).

What’s there on that side of Hengelostraat is going to be safer than the UK equivalent on this kind of road, where the cycle track would be a pavement, and the cyclists made to use the road. But it’s not ideal, just like the UK situation isn’t. What is better here, with a university campus around the corner – and what The Netherlands would often provide here – is both a cycle track and a pavement. I’d like to see cycle advocates in Enschede asking for a pavement (they may be, I don’t know), to enable people to choose to walk without conflict with cycles. And I’d like to see walking advocates in the UK supporting the call for segregated cycle tracks on these kinds of roads, to ensure that everyone, particularly older and disabled people, has a choice to walk or cycle in subjective, and objective, safety. Let’s all call for the best for both worlds, so everyone can be a cyclist and a pedestrian.

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10 Responses to ‘Pedestrians’ and ‘Cyclists’: a personal perspective

  1. Thank you Rachel for this. Many people already use cycles as mobility aids but so many more could if the circumstances were right. Just this week in Leeds, I could not have my handcycle with me as I couldn’t take it on the train up (a big issue for nonstandard cycle users!). The slight hill between my hotel and the Cycle City Expo event would have been much easier with my power assist handcycle (with gears, motor and breaks) on the road than in my wheelchair, on pavements, with unreliable cut curbs to negociate, and only my hands to push and break with (thankfully it wasn’t raining when I returned to the hotel after the drinks at All Bar One!). Wheels for Wellbeing & its allies are fully behind the Space for Cycling campaign. We also ask that Living Streets recognise the role of cycling and good, inclusive cycling infrastructure in ensuring continued mobility and physical activity for many for whom walking any distance is not an option.

  2. Tim says:

    I’m interested that you suggest we see mobility scooter users as pedestrians. I often see them on the road, perhaps navigating around parked cars.

    I don’t know what the rules are. Maybe some have been forced onto the road by the parked cars clogging the pavement, but it looks like an intimidating and hateful way to get around to me. How much more civilised to have cycleways the scooters could use like those in the Bicycle Dutch video. http://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/who-else-benefits-from-the-dutch-cycling-infrastructure/

    • admin says:

      Hi Tim – the rules are here – https://www.gov.uk/rules-powered-wheelchairs-mobility-scooters-36-46. There are two classes of powered wheelchair/scooter, one which is pavement only and one which is pavement and/or road.

      So ‘technically’ scooter users are defined as more pedestrian than vehicle. In pedestrianised (no cycling) areas like Thetford town centre or the Cambridge malls, generally either type of scooter can be used. Similarly on public transport e.g. the Nottingham metro where cycles are prohibited but mobility scooters are allowed. (At the LCC ‘inclusive cycling policy’ seminar, people discussed the possible idea of having a ‘blue badge’ for cycles where used as a mobility aid).

      I’d entirely agree with your general point that inclusive separated infrastructure can also benefit people using mobility scooters and powered wheelchairs (as well as enabling more of them to use cycles if they wish).

  3. Sara says:

    All the points above also true for pregnant women. I went back to cycling in my last trimester because it was so much easier than walking or bus when I felt heavy, awkward and slow.

  4. Sarah says:

    Tricycles, quadricycles etc. can actually be behemoths, much bigger and more awkward than mobility scooters. On my last trip to the supermarket, I heard an elderly lady thank a stranger who moved her tricycle so that it was sheltered from the rain which set in as she was parking outside; she wouldn’t have had the strength to drag it two feet sideways herself. I would have a certain amount of sympathy with a shopping centre manager who wished to see such contraptions parked outside, close to the door. But in general, I very strongly agree that cycling should be seen as potentially acccessible to almost everybody and the environment (physical, legal, education etc.) adjusted accordingly. Sometimes cycling seems to work for elderly or distabled people (to some extent, and for some people) even where the built environment is less than satisfactory. I live in a German suburb which wouldn’t win any prizes for its walking and cycling infrastructure, but I see a fair number of unaccompanied child cyclists and elderly and/or disabled cyclists. As I was walking through the area towards town recently, a middle-aged woman on a quadricycle rocketed past me. She had a crutch on the back of her bike, but she looked happy, carefree and very much auto-mobile as she careered down the hill with the wind in her hair. On the road, a good metre and a half out from the kerb, and with a bus coming down the hill behind her that was probably going to catch up with her at the lights at the bottom of the hill. The road has a 20 mph speed limit which seems to be adhered to during daytime, and the bus drivers are reasonably competent and friendly – that seemed to have been enough to keep this particular woman on her own wheels, although others might need more infrastructure.

    It was inspiring – I like the idea of still being able to career down hills with the wind in my hair when I need to use a crutch to walk – but it also reminded me of just how much of a game-changer electric-assist bikes are when it comes to infrastructure provision for cyclists. Looking at this disabled cyclist riding in a classic “vehicular” style in the centre of a traffic lane, about five times faster than I was walking, on a heavy bike I wouldn’t wish to collide with, I was rather relieved that she had chosen to mix it up with buses on the road rather than with people on foot.

  5. Sara says:

    Brilliant article. My Mum (mid sixties) has some problems with walking due to painful orthapaedic problems in her feet.
    I suspect she’d find cycling much easier, but she isn’t prepared to try due to fear of traffic.
    Having never learn’t to drive and relied on walking and public transport all her life, he’s now quite restricted. Being unable to walk is impacting her health negatively. Sad.

  6. Sara says:

    Also, 18 months ago I had an acute episode of serious illness.
    I usually use my bike as my main form of transport but living in a very hilly city (Sheffield) I found myself unable to get out and about during my recovery as I was too weak to ride the hills.
    We took the decision to buy an ebike, which made a massive difference. I was able to get out and about, I felt ‘normal’ again, I was able to return to work sooner and I’m sure the gentle exersize it enabled made my recovery speedier than it would otherwise have been.
    Now fully recovered, the ebike will shortly be up for sale, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recomend them to elderly or disabled people, or just to those who find hills a barrier to cycling.

  7. Lawrence Kaoma says:

    Passenger Pedestrian and Cyclist Association of Zambia(PAPECA)

    Dear Sir/Madam,


    Through you, we would like to appeal to organizers and sponsors of transport and road safety conferences and capacity builders to extend their invitation and sponsorship to our association of Passengers, Pedestrians and Cyclist Association of Zambia (PAPECA).

    We are an NGO campaigning for the rights, safety and better welfare of the said vulnerable group of road users in our Country.

    PAPECA represented the vaulnarable Afican road user at the Low cost mobility and Velomondia bicycle use Conference in the Nertherlands (June 2000).

    For us to acquaint ourselves in new challenges as far as road safety for vulnerable road users is concerned, we need support from organizations like yours so that our members can learn how we can train our locals here in Zambia to reduce rampant road accidents in our country Zambia.

    With your generous support, the safety of vulnerable road users in Zambia will benefit a lot.

    PAPECA sits in the board of Road Transport and safety agency (RTSA) as mandated by the Zambian law.

    Your help will go along way in the promotion of capacity building of our NGO and through PAPECA a lot of citizens will benefit.

    Your favorable consideration will be highly be appreciated.

    Yours faithfully,

    Signed by:


    PAPECA President & Board Member of RTSA

    Box 33520

    Cell: +260 977 820705/+260955820705

  8. gar says:

    Interesting letter from Zambia. The fairly new mountain bike tyres (since about 1980 from California) have transformed cycling as a sport and mode of getting around.

    I should think that a golden rule for newly developing cycle user transport systems would be to promote NON-use of roads by cyclists as much as possible, NON-interaction or even PRO-action with motorists. (I say PRO- to recognize forward motion along side road vehicles.)

    Secondly, the newly developed use of SLIME inside tyres, even mountain bike thick tyres, transforms their use from needing constant tube repairs from never needing any at all.
    ther are still people in the UK after 35 years of mountain bike tyres who think that cycling requires a tube repair outfit. It does not.
    SLIME seals instantly when you pump up again. SLIME inside IS the repair.

    The worst problem of UK LAW (I’m QC rtd) is the definition of the bicycle as a vehicle, whether it is on the road, or off it.

    The best legal/law definition of the bicycle and its user, though in the slightly different context of the hand cranked trike, which can be used by either able bodied or disabled people, is that it is a tricycle when used by the disabled but a wheel chair when used by the disabled, exactly the same machine

    Defining a bi-cycle as a vehicle if the user is ON it, but as a piece of pedestrian apparatus, for want of a better term, if he is not, may be a helpful way of writing newly designed parliamentary Bills and Acts for the law statute.

    The lack of development of new terms for the vast numbers of new devices plagues the UK cycling law system in a way of which few people are aware. they think that if there is no term there can not be a problem either. Schrodinger knows that it is not so!!

    I was grateful to the London Para-Olympic broadcaster, who publicized the term “HANDAL” for the cracking bars of the hand cranked trike, which was raced as the Marathon class 2 wheel chair at that event. In the hands of the able bodied, it is a Hand cranked trike

    The word for which I campaigned with the international English language dictionaries (Yes you can campaign for a word meaning as well!) is now included in at least some of them.

    You CANNOT PEDAL WITH YOUR HANDS SO THEY CANNOT BE PEDALS. I did the relevant etymological research of the meaning and development of the words associated with Handles, Pedals, Pedallos, Peddlers, Paddlars, and even one particularly unpleasant word, which has absolutely no connection with the word “Pedal”(ie with the feet) at all.

    The word, lords, ladies, and gentlemen, is HANDAL. It is a new word in the English language anywhere in the world.

  9. gar says:

    I read the request from Zambia before reading the leader article, which is one of the best and most thoughtful essays on pedestrians and cyclists that I have seen, if not the best.

    Saying that somebody is pedestrian, or it is a pedestrian remark to make is of course nearly always a bit of an insult. So often and in any language it is not the word itself which is pejorative, but the way in which it is intoned, so it would not be much use enquiring too much in to manners of speaking!!!

    I think I should mention the seaside promenade sport of “catching the cyclist”, which must have a bad spin-off effect in the rest of the country, during the rest of the year. Speed limits should be represented in M/sec(metres per sec)by now, especially where the cyclist is concerned.

    The Bournemouth Dorset promenade has put up in the last 10-12 years cycling speed designations for the various heavy prom use months. We decided them way back in 1998 with a certain wicker pannier bag lady council employee at Poole Council offices, and they are serving well on the 8mile prom today.

    One big problem!!? How fast is 10MPH? In Metres per sec!!!!

    If the velocity of thecyclist could be ascertained by the simplest markings on the promenade Road(!) then convictions (loath as I am to suggest such things for cyclists) would be much simpler.

    It is public understanding of what speed is, ie velocity in Metres per second, and NOT MPH What does MPH mean to any pedestrian unless he had a pedometer with him. What is the use of a Mileometer and what the FEck does a mile-ometer mean any way?

    It would make an even bigger difference to the Bournemouth promenaders if they could stand gloriously by marked Metres on the prom so that they know how fast a cyclist is going.


    This applies to all categories of road user from cranked wheelchair user with severe disability all the way to fast sports car on a motorway.

    The law definitions as enunciated in Regulations from one person
    responsible for it in the DEPARTMENT of TRANSPORT, are totally inadequate and need to be gone over with a much finer toothcomb
    by a team of people and not just by one or two.

    As far as I know there is only one permanent person responsible for that particular section of the parliamentary Acts refering to cycle users.

    Lets get it together! I would be happy to participate as we are now

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