An egregious fallacy

In London, and indeed other big cities, pavement cyclists are a regular and unpleasant fact of life for pedestrians. For the avoidance of any doubt, by ‘pavement cyclist’ I do not mean cyclists using a shared space; I do not mean young children accompanied by a parent; and I can turn a blind eye to tourists doing walking pace on Boris bikes. No, to be clear, I mean aggressive, healthy young men, usually wearing full cycling kit, who choose to ride on the pavement even when roads are quiet or – as was often the case during lock-down – entirely free of traffic.

In common with most people, I’d rather not have a cyclist hurtle past me, barely a foot away, on the pavement. Especially now, in the middle of a pandemic and social distancing. I also take a dim view of the foul and abusive language and/or threatening behaviour that usually follows any attempt to remonstrate with these individuals.

One might imagine the response of responsible cyclists to this issue would be to roundly condemn such behaviour, but nothing could be further from the case. On forums or social media sites like Twitter the response ranges from indifference to intolerance. As night follows day, the argument is trotted out that pedestrians are more at risk from cars than they are from cyclists using the pavement or ignoring red lights. Cars, we are told, are the ‘real problem’ and pavement cycling isn’t even open to discussion.

That this is blatant “whataboutery” isn’t even the most serious flaw in this line of reasoning.

It is entirely true that more pedestrians are killed or injured by cars than by cyclists. This is a matter of elementary physics: a car has far more kinetic energy than a cyclist. Most cyclist-on-pedestrian collisions result in nothing more than a few bruises. The small number of deaths mostly involve head injuries arising from being knocked to the ground. But – and it’s a big BUT – the lifetime risk of being killed or seriously injured by a car are also small. The real issue is not death or serious injury.

Albeit the consequences are usually less serious, you are far more likely to be hit by a cyclist than by a car. I have lived in London since the 1970s and I cannot recall more than two, maybe three close calls as a pedestrian involving a car. By contrast, barely a week goes by without a pavement cyclist skimming past me at close quarters and particularly alarming incidents occur every few months on average. Quite often these near misses are only the beginning of the unpleasantness as these louts rarely take kindly to anybody challenging them.

Most people do not want to be hit by a pavement cyclist, even if no serious injury results.
Most people don’t want to have to jump out of the way of a pavement cyclist, even if no collision results.
Most people don’t want to be subjected to foul-mouthed abuse or threatening behaviour.
But above all, most people don’t want to be told that this is not the ‘real problem’.

To put it bluntly, this sort of appalling behaviour is an urban blight and the ‘real problem’ argument is an egregious fallacy.

Yet even supposedly responsible cycling organisations refuse to take the problem seriously.  A high profile incident a few years ago drew the usual Pravda-like response from the London Cycling Campaign. Elsewhere, on social media and discussion fora, complaints about inconsiderate cycling are met with the party line, or howled down if anybody exposes it for the specious nonsense that it is. Many platforms now no longer allow cycling threads because of the inability of this minority to engage in adult conversation.

About two years ago, an anonymous article appeared in the Guardian by an individual who identified as a keen cyclist but not – as he put it – a Cyclist with a big C. He was very critical of the attitude of Cyclists, and was sufficiently worried about possible repercussions that he had written anonymously. That in itself is cause for concern.

If the cycling community want the sympathy of non-cycling public – not an unreasonable thing to want – then they are going the wrong way about it. An intolerance of criticism not out of place in Pyongyang only fuels Daily Mail reader prejudices against cyclists in general.

Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author

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