Should children cycle on the pavement?

A four-year old girl, the same age as Sophie, cycling in the park. Photo: Cycling UK
A police officer in Lincolnshire reportedly threatened to confiscate a four-year-old girl's bicycle because she was cycling on the pavement. Cycling UK's Victoria Hazael explains where the law stands on children cycling on the pavement.

I am the mother of a four-year-old who regularly cycles on the pavement, so I must confess I was really shocked when I read the report in Grantham Journal, that four-year-old Sophie Lindley was stopped by Lincolnshire Police as she was cycling to school on the pavement.

Sophie's father Dale, who was with her at the time, told the newspaper: “A police car pulled over and told me she had to get off her bike as it is against the law to ride on the footpath. He then drove off but said he’d be checking his mirrors, and if he saw her riding the bike again he would confiscate it.” Sophie was understandably upset and her father then had to carry his daughter and her bicycle to school. 

As only 1% of primary children in the UK cycle to school, it seems obvious to me that cycling to school on the pavement for younger children should be encouraged and this kind of behaviour from the police is unacceptable. Most four-year-olds are still learning to cycle, so are still practising steering and braking safely. Therefore, they need to be well away from traffic. 

It is easy to walk alongside a four-year-old who is cycling and encourage and teach them about negotiating everyday hazards. If you are helping a younger child to cycle, pavement cycling teaches them skills they cannot learn just zooming about in the park.

Obviously, as a parent it is your responsibility to make sure a young child cycling on the pavement is doing so safely and not putting vulnerable pedestrians in any danger. Just as you would if your child was riding a scooter.

My son uses his bike most days, and the vast majority of people on the pavement are very encouraging and we've not had any problems at all. However, I am aware that technically what we are doing is against the law.    

My son uses his bike most days and the vast majority of people on the pavement are very encouraging and we've not had any problems at all. However, I am aware that technically what we are doing is against the law.

Victoria Hazael, Cycling UK's Senior Communications Officer

So what does the law say about cycling on the pavement?

Section 72 of the Highways Act 1835 made it a criminal offence to “lead or drive” a “carriage of any description” on “any footpath or causeway by the side of any road made or set apart for the use or accommodation of foot passengers”. In 1888, s85(1) of the Local Government Act declared that “bicycles, tricycles, velocipedes, and other similar machines are ‘carriages’ within the meaning of the Highway Acts”. The maximum court fine is £500 or the police can issue a £50 fixed penalty notice (FPN). In short, it is illegal to cycle on a pavement alongside a road, unless it has been marked as a cycle track.

However, children under the age of 10 are below the age of criminal responsibility. Therefore, they cannot be prosecuted for a criminal offence. They cannot be issued with a fixed penalty notice either as they cannot be given to anyone under the age of 16. 

This means that, whilst police officers can theoretically stop young children (aged under 10) who are cycling on pavements, they have no powers to arrest, fine or even caution them. This is sensible, as young children should not be expected to cycle on the road. To prepare them for this step as they get older, Cycling UK thoroughly recommends high quality cycle training.

In any case, there are no powers for the police to confiscate pedal cycles being ridden on the pavement, not for cyclists of any age.

In my opinion, Sophie deserves an apology from the police officer. When I spoke to Lincolnshire Police about the matter today, they sent me this statement: “Safety is our priority and cycling on the pavement is illegal. However, common sense obviously prevails and in the case of young children officers would use their discretion and offer the most appropriate advice for the circumstances.”

For more information about what is legal and illegal when cycling, see Cycling UK's campaigns briefing on Cyclists' behaviour and the law.

What about adults who cycle on pavements?

For those aged 10 and over, the law is clear: it's illegal, except where there is a marked cycle track. Moreover Cycling UK believes that all road users have a duty to respect the rules of the road and one another's safety.  We are not in the business of defending irresponsible cycling, any more than you'd expect the AA or RAC to defend irresponsible driving.

However in practice, cyclists are often faced with the difficult choice of either acting legally or keeping safe. Unclearly signed shared-use paths and the lack of thought for cyclists by many planners and designers of the road network, have left many cyclists confused and those who lack confidence or who are frightened of busy roads then choose to cycle illegally on the pavement.

Cycling UK is calling for the creation of Space for Cycling, so that people of any age or ability can make any local journey, safely, conveniently and enjoyably.  Then cyclists would no longer have to chose between what is legal and what is safe. Unfortunately, this won't happen quickly.

So, in the meantime, it is surely right for police officers to exercise discretion - particularly when the resources for roads policing are as stretched as they are at present.  It makes no sense for the police to be fining cautious cyclists for minor infringements if they are causing no danger or intimidation to anyone, when they lack the resources to enforce 20mph limits or prosecute drivers who kill.

Is there a defence if you are given a Fixed Penalty Notice?

When Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) were first introduced in England and Wales, Cycling UK and other cycling organisations asked for assurance from the Government that the penalty would be applied fairly and only used when the behaviour put pedestrians at risk.

In a written response (see below), the then Home Office Minster, Paul Boateng MP, said that the introduction of the fixed penalty: “…is not aimed at responsible cyclists who sometimes feel obliged to use the pavement out of fear of the traffic, and who show consideration to other pavement users when doing so. This is not a clamp down on responsible cycling, and I know the police service too do not see it in that way.” (Paul Boateng MP (Home Office) to Ben Bradshaw MP, 9/7/1999).

In 2014, this advice and a reminder that police should use their discretion over fining people for cycling on the pavement was re-circulated to police forces, and endorsed by the Department for Transport's cycling minister, Robert Goodwill MP. It has also been included in the guidance to officers and PCSOs taking part in the Metropolitan Police's Operation Safeway.  This is a clampdown on both driving and cycling offences which was first launched after a horrific spate of six London cycling deaths in 13 days in November 2013. The inclusion of this guidance is a small victory for Cycling UK trustee Kristian Gregory, who - thanks to support from the Cyclists' Defence Fund - mounted a successful challenge to a Fixed Penalty Notice he received during Operation Safeway for straying marginally over a white line on a substandard and poorly-signed pavement cycle track.

CDF provides information about Fixed Penalty Notices and how best to respond to them.

Cycle training for older children and adults instead of fines

Cycling UK believes that police officers should have the option to send cyclists of any age found riding on the pavement on a cycle training course, if they are not posing a danger to others or riding in an obviously antisocial manner. This would help them feel more confident about riding on the road.

My only hope is that what happened to Sophie Lindley last week won't put her off cycling to school and that her bad experience isn't repeated anywhere in the UK. We need to be doing all we can to encourage children to get in the habit of cycling. 

In my opinion, police need to be more supportive of young children cycling on the pavement, the law needs to be clearer, parents need to be reassured it is ok, and there needs to be more investment in safer routes to school and cycle training. Only then could we see levels of cycling to school reach anywhere near the levels in Denmark and Holland.