Cycling on footpaths: should it be allowed?

There are few things that better illustrate Australia's muddled approach to cycling than the issue of riding on footpaths.

If you're an adult in Queensland, the Northern Territory, the ACT or Tasmania, it's perfectly legal to ride a bike on the pavement.

Try it in the four remaining jurisdictions, and unless you're under 12 years old, you're a lawbreaker – in Victoria, you're looking at a $152 fine.

One Australian state has been discussing what might happen if the illegal became the allowable. And cycling organisations in other states are paying close attention.

The West Australian government is looking at the the idea of allowing footpath riding, with a spokesman for the Road Safety Minister telling me: "The issue is being explored as part of a range of options to come out of the government's cycling forums and other reviews to accommodate the growing number of cyclists and popularity of cycling in WA."

Debate around the issue has been heated, with many expressing fears that footpaths would become unsafe for walkers, especially the elderly and disabled, and questioning the need for change.

There is no timetable for a decision, but the idea received a boost this week when the peak body representing councils announced it supported the proposal.

Changing the law would encourage more people to take up cycling, WA Local Government Association president Lynne Craigie said, while "there is evidence from other jurisdictions that allowing footpath cycling did not result in a large migration of cyclists on to footpaths, nor did it cause adverse safety impacts".

"It merely provides greater choice to the cyclist and has the potential to attract a wider section of the community to engage in the activity," she said.

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A mixed blessing?

But would a change in the law be a mixed blessing for riders? Separated bike lanes are the best way to move cyclists, but building them can be costly and controversial. Would the implementation of footpath riding remove the impetus to keep building cycleways? 

"It is a concern," Jeremey Murray of Bicycling WA told me this week. "We would certainly continue to push for the number one priority, which is infrastructure."

Meanwhile, I've had plenty of motorists shout at me to "get on the footpath", even in states where it would be illegal to do so. Would a law change be seen as undermining a cyclist's right to use the road?

"This has been discussed," said Murray. "There would need to be a significant education campaign that says it's just increasing the choices – you can ride on the road or ride on the path."

I'd consider myself a confident rider, but several trips to Queensland have shown me that having the option to move off the roads can be an advantage at times.

The attractions are much greater for novice or cautious cyclists. The last time I wrote about footpath riding, I received a string of emails from people who love ride to but didn't feel safe on some of the roads they had to travel.

Shared paths

Many pointed out that suburban footpaths are underutilised, and said they at times break the law, believing they were unlikely to be penalised if they moved slowly and carefully. Others were reluctant to risk it, or loath to cast themselves as scofflaws.

I see a fair bit of footpath riding in Sydney: mostly utility riders or commuters staying clear of intimidating road conduits. Much of it appears to be ignored by the police, until there's a crackdown.

Of course, there are many designated "shared-use paths" in states such as NSW and Victoria where riders and pedestrians use the same space. Some might do the cause of footpath riding more harm than good, being high-use commuter areas in dire need of better separation, where both walkers and cyclists feel a sense of danger – even though studies have shown these concerns can be overestimated.

Queensland changed its footpath law in 1993. Cycling issues are the subject of far more controversy and hyperventilation today, however, and any state that tried it now could be in for a bumpy ride. 

Bicycle Network's Craig Richards told me the WA discussion was "fantastic to see" and that footpath riding should be legal in all jurisdictions.

"There are over 14 million Australians who are interested in riding but are concerned about interacting with cars," he said. "At the moment our bike network is developing. Riding on the footpath can provide a vital link where the bike infrastructure is yet to be installed."

Ray Rice of Bicycle NSW noted that the age cut-off for footpath riding was an especially concerning issue.

"We fail to see how forcing children aged 12 onto the road is safe," he said. "This is a glaring rule disparity between states."

Do you think footpath riding should be legalised across Australia? 

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2012. He has won a Cycling Promotion Fund media award and is a regular voice for cycling on radio and television.

Follow Michael on Twitter or Facebook, email him or read more of his blogs.

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