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Why do cyclists ride on the pavement? New study explores why

Pavement cycling should be “viewed as a sensible outcome as seen from the cyclists’ perspective," researchers conclude...

Avoiding motor vehicles and poor cycling infrastructure, as well as benefiting from a smoother riding surface are identified as the three principal reasons cyclists ride on pavements, according to a recently published study.

Led by Jonas Ihlström of the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute (VTI) in Linköpin, the study was based on analysis of data from two field studies and a questionnaire.

“In the study, we combine data from a questionnaire looking into cyclist preferences with respect to infrastructure design in Sweden, with data from two semi-controlled field studies, where cyclists’ observed behaviour was explored further through interviews and verbal protocol analysis,” the authors said.

“The goal of the study was to investigate the extent of cycling on the pavement in Sweden and to explore this phenomenon in depth using a social practice theory analytical approach.

“The study aims to contribute to the growing body of bicycle mobility literature that regards the wider socio-technical aspects of where the practice of cycling occurs, and thereby connects with literature that moves beyond simplistic individual explanations for unexpected and ‘undesirable’ behaviours.”

The field studies were carried out in the centre of Linköping, Sweden’s fifth largest city, situated in the south of the country and home to more than 160,000 people.

“Traffic volumes are generally low to medium, cyclists and pedestrians are common, and overall traffic can be characterised as calm,” researchers said.

“While there is a certain degree of cyclist infrastructure, the design is not consistent. Dedicated cycle paths, cycle lanes, shared cycle/pedestrian paths and cycling in mixed traffic occur and right-of-way rules are not readily comprehensible from the infrastructural layout.”

They pointed out that cycling on the pavement is against the law in Sweden (although since 2014 it has been allowed for children up to eight years of age if there is no adjacent cycle path), but said that “The risk of incurring a fine when cycling on the pavement in Linköping is though virtually non-existent.”

Avoiding motor vehicles

According to analysis of the two field studies as well as the questionnaires completed by participants, “Avoiding the space of the car was the most pronounced reason for cycling on the pavement in our study.

“Cycling among motorised vehicles was related to feelings of fear or discomfort, thus choosing the pavement instead of the road was a strategy adopted for managing this perceived risk. Riding on the pavement was therefore connected to a local context and an aspiration for a mobility without risking accidents and injuries.”

Researchers cited a 2013 study from Dr Rachel Aldred of the University of Westminster, which “also found similar reasons in relation to riding on the pavement, where cyclists revealed that they chose to cycle on the pavement because they found the roads intimidating and dangerous.

“Despite police efforts including penalties in limiting cycling on the pavement, cyclists claimed they would continue to do so as they believed police measures illegitimate. A relevant question that needs answering is why do cyclists perceive the mixed-traffic road space intimidating or unsafe?”

Smoothness of ride

In addressing the finding that the second most common reason for cycling on the pavement was “a wish to increase the smoothness of the ride,” researchers noted that “participants of the study did not express any specific motivation for why they found riding on the pavement smoother than riding in the mixed space, only that it was actually smoother per se.”

However, they acknowledged that “cycling is a human-powered mode of transportation, where it is natural for cyclists to both conserve time and energy thus seeking the smoothest route. In an environment planned for motorised movement, human expenditure is not often considered.

“If circumstances experienced as energy-consuming in the shared space, for instance excess traffic, poor design, road construction or traffic regulations not suited for cyclists, riding on the pavement is one way to avoid such circumstances. In choosing the pavement, the efficiency and smoothness can be enhanced or kept at the best possible level.

“Again, we see that the element of meaning in the practice of pavement cycling is not related to traffic regulations. It is rather demonstrated here by practice, that it is more important to have a smoother ride than to respect traffic regulations. This correlates with cyclists’ demand for decent cycling infrastructure.”

Poor infrastructure

The third reason cited for riding on the pavement was “when the infrastructure appeared ambiguous or unclear to the cyclist,” researchers said. “Stemming from a feeling of uncertainty of where to cycle, choosing the pavement was the outcome of experiencing the pavement as either the appropriate path, in accordance with the perceived intention of the design, or the safest or smoothest option.”


In conclusion, the researchers found that “riding on the pavement is a persistent and recurring element within the practice of urban cycling,” and should be “viewed as a sensible outcome as seen from the cyclists’ perspective.

“The practice of riding on the pavement is partly connected to the interpretation of urban traffic as unsafe,” they continued. “To manage personal safety is a competence that urban cyclists must master to feel safe, and to reach destinations in due time. Riding on the pavement represents this part of such management.

“Policies, urban planning and infrastructure design not harmonising with cyclists’ demands for safe and smooth infrastructure are therefore likely to continue to generate unwanted behaviour and conflicts to some extent. Moreover, if a physical environment is perceived as dangerous, it will also prevent certain groups from considering cycling as a mode of transport which was also illustrated by the present study.”

They added: “If there is a serious wish, in [striving] for more sustainable transport, to increase cycling, making it a safe and comfortable mode of transport, planning and design of urban space must to a higher degree take into account the perspectives and needs of cyclists.”

> Transport minister: Responsible cyclists CAN ride on the pavement

Simon has been news editor at since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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