Cyclists on the footpath – Frank McNally on a permanently hostile debate

Running on the side of the road, even for short periods, is not always advisable in Dublin traffic

A thing I find myself doing a lot recently, whenever I’m out for a run in Dublin, is stepping off footpaths to make way for oncoming cyclists and people on scooters.

I don’t do this – or even write it – sarcastically. On the contrary. It just often seems like the polite, even the reasonable, way to behave.

One night a while ago, for example, I was trundling along the pavement of the East-Link bridge when a bike rounded the corner ahead of me.

The cyclist was not one of the lycra-clad speedsters of cliché. She was a woman of late middle age, moving at a stately pace, and visibly embarrassed to be caught using the path, so that she wobbled while veering towards the road to avoid me.


But the footpath is a bit steep there and, unlike me, she had her back to the traffic on that side. So before she could, I took to the road to let her pass.

Whereupon, wobbling with embarrassment now, she said “sorry”. And replying with the international hand-gesture for “don’t worry”, I carried on, in no way discomfited by my minor diversion.

I had a similar encounter the other day, this time involving a scooter and its 20-something male occupant, on one of those very narrow footpaths along the Luas line near Smithfield.

There was room for only one of us. But it’s awkward coming off the footpath on a scooter, I imagine; besides which, there was a tram approaching about 50 metres behind him.

So again, just because it was easier, and because I had fuller information on the whereabouts and velocity of the tram – not to mention that I was less likely to get either of my rubber appendages stuck in the tracks – I stepped out again.

The scooting person didn’t say “sorry”. But I wasn’t unduly disturbed then either. The truth is, like many runners, I often prefer the side of the road to the footpath. Tarmac is more forgiving on the joints than concrete. And where both are sloped, the camber of the road is also often more sympathetic to running pains.

This may be especially true in my case. While being fitted for orthotics a while back, I had the revelation late in life that one of my legs is very slightly longer than the other.

It’s not as unusual as you might think, apparently. But as a result, I have a very mild version of Flann O’Brien’s human bicycle syndrome and could probably park against a low kerb without raising my left foot.

Of course, running on the side of the road, even for short periods, is not always advisable in Dublin traffic. As for many of Ireland’s rural roads, in my experience, the only safe place to run or walk there these days is the ditch.


Anyway, what set me thinking about all this was a very sad case in the English courts this week, wherein a pedestrian was convicted of manslaughter for the death of a cyclist who had been using the footpath. Both parties were female: the cyclist a 77-year-old, the pedestrian 49 and (as she told police) “partially sighted”.

Peterborough Crown Court heard that the pedestrian had made an aggressive hand gesture towards the cyclist and swore “get off the f***ing pavement”, causing the older woman to fall in front of a car.

Everyone agreed it was a tragedy. But commenting on the verdict, a police detective said that regardless of the rights and wrongs of where the cyclist was, the pedestrian’s reaction had been “totally disproportionate”.

No doubt it’s because I’m guilty of it myself from time to time that I rarely feel outraged by people cycling on footpaths, so long as they do so slowly and apologetically.

Sometimes it’s the only safe place for them to be. Often, it’s just convenience. And yes, they could always dismount. But that’s an option of last resort on an unelectrified bike, which depends on momentum the way combustion engines depend on petrol.

While visiting Tokyo a few years back, I was amazed to see cyclists and pedestrians there – one of the most polite and law-abiding countries on earth – sharing many pavements, peacefully and without incident. But on this side of the world, the debate over road and footpath use is a permanently hostile one. To judge by social media and letters to the press, pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers are all members of mutually exclusive communities. And amid the general shouting match over incursions into each other’s territory, their relations are characterised by a kind of rock-paper-scissors righteousness.

Pedestrians proclaim moral superiority over cyclists. Cyclists proclaim it over drivers. Drivers can hardly proclaim it over anyone, really, unless they’re elderly or disabled. But they still try. And what they lack in strong debating points, they make up for with car horns.