Cyclists – Pedestrians or Vehicle?

“The bicycle is a curious vehicle.
Its passenger is its engine.”

- John Howard

Is a cyclist akin to an unprotected pedestrian or should a person on a bicycle be treated the same as a motorbike / motor vehicle?

Perhaps one reason why certain cycling issues can be so contentious is the fact that no-one is really sure how to classify cyclists. A cyclist is somewhere in between a pedestrian and motor vehicle, but we’re not quite sure where.

For example, when the surprisingly emotive issue of cycle helmets was raised. John Humphries argued [1] that if motorbikes have to wear helmets, why should cyclists be exempt?

Well, you could argue, there’s a big difference between doing 0-60mph in 3 seconds and the average speed of most city cyclists which is less than 15mph.

Secondly, I don’t know how much motorbike helmets protect, but I’m sure it’s considerably more than cycle helmets, (tested for accidents at 12-14mph).


Fatality rates per billion passenger Km.

If you look at the risk of different forms of transport. One statistic clearly stands out – motorbikes are by far the most risky form of transport. If you want to improve road safety, don’t ride a motorbike.

(BTW: You would have to cycle an average of  41,667,000 Km to be statistically likely to die. )

If human powered transport has the same laws as motor vehicles, cycling advocates may ask if cyclists have to wear helmets, why stop there? why not ask other groups at risk of head injury to wear protective clothing too? After all, more pedestrians die from road accidents than cyclists.

Cycling as a mode of transport doesn’t fit neatly into either category. Away from the velodrome, cycling is essentially a fairly slow form of self-propelled transport. Cyclists travel quicker than pedestrians, but can’t be classed in same bracket as motor cars.

With the rare / odd exceptions, cyclists do not cause fatal accidents. The death statistics from around the world are caused by motor vehicles. This is important in classification. Many road laws are there not to protect the drivers but third parties who get caught up in accidents.

Since motor vehicles are potential death traps, the abuse of road legislation is more serious when undertaken by cars. If a cyclist goes through a red light, he is essentially putting himself at risk. If a motor car goes through red light, there is a bigger danger to a third party.

This is not to justify red-light jumping which can be dangerous and annoying. But, the issue isn’t clear cut. Pedestrians can cross roads when they are clear – they don’t have to wait for the lights to be favourable. In that case, is it so bad if cyclists filter left when the road is clear?

Of course, a cyclist can very quickly dismount and become a pedestrian by pushing bike. A car driver can never jump out and push his car around.

How do Cyclists want to be perceived?

If you ask most ordinary cyclists, they would never really consider themselves a motor vehicle. Most cyclists identify would feel a vulnerable road user – like a pedestrian there is no protection of crushable metal boxes around them.

Yet, non-cyclists probably perceive things in a different light and are more likely to view them as just another vehicle on the road.



5 Responses to Cyclists – Pedestrians or Vehicle?

  1. Tim January 4, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

    Of course MrHappyCyclist is correct.

    But at the same time we can’t be expected to spend sparse taxpayers money on specific infrastructure for modes of transport if they aren’t popular enough; very few people would argue for segregated lanes just for segways, for instance.

    So is cycling currently popular enough to justify spending money on high-quality subjectively safe cycle networks? This is the wrong question. When deciding whether to put a door in a wall you don’t ask how many people are currently walking through the wall. So how many people would cycle? Only one way to really find out, but there are many examples of how much people enjoy cycling when they have an opportunity to do it without the traffic (center parcs, skyrides, etc).

    And of course there are other reasons for wanting to incentivise cycling (public health, environment, etc).

    And actually, infrastructure which works well for cycling also works well for some other modes of transport – importantly mobility scooters ( ), and maybe even the odd segway.

    And then

  2. Gerry October 28, 2012 at 2:13 pm #

    “Yet, non-cyclists probably perceive things in a different light and are more likely to view them as just another vehicle on the road”, so why then do some motorists shout at us to “get in the pavement?”.
    Yes we are vehicles on the road so please give us space.

  3. Brock August 11, 2012 at 5:10 am #

    Well.. I think it’s more like asking how you classify a goat in a sheep and horse gymkhana. You could force the goat to run with the sheep but he’d be slowed greatly by the confused fluffy herding woolly heads. If you make him compete with the horses he may get kicked by an excitable jittery hoof flinging equine giant.
    Perhaps there should be a special goat lane to protect the him from the cantering clip-clopper who just feels that the goat is in his way, or maybe horses should be whispered to more often until it gets through to their scatty brains that goats are small and vulnerable but deserve to be in the field because they go just as far but eat less grass and leave more room for the sheep to enjoy…..

  4. jbg August 10, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    This gets to the crux of a lot of debates about cycling. As a cyclist, I enjoy taking the best of both worlds – riding quickly with traffic, but being more pragmatic about traffic lights than motorised traffic.

    The statistics on motorbikes need unpacking a bit. Motorcyclists are disporportionately young, risk-taking men – a demographic at high risk irrespective of how they travel. Precisely because motorbikes are dangerous, they are more likely to be used by risk-takers. If you ban motorbikes, I’ll wager car deaths will rise sharply. Similarly, the statistics on pedestrian casualties are distorted – many fatalities are young children, or the elderly and infirm.

    That said, you’re absolutely right to start with the data. The debate is framed too much by subjective impressions. People feel threatened by bicycles, which appear to invade personal space despite statistical irrelevance in terms of actual risk. But pedestrians feel that bikes are especially dangerous – witness hysteria about red light jumping. An interesting perspective is provided by the US, where there are vitriolic discussions of the dangers posed by ‘jaywalkers’ – or pedestrians, as we would call them.

  5. MrHappyCyclist August 10, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

    A bicycle is not a pedestrian, and it is not a motor vehicle, it is a bicycle. This is like trying to argue about whether a goat is a sheep or a horse.

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