A Select Committee has recommended children and older citizens be allowed to cycle on footpaths, while bells will essentially become mandatory for many cyclists. But will these measures improve safety for everyone?
Lower Hutt mum Jo Clendon was 10 when she first began wondering why she couldn’t ride her bike on the footpath.
But it wasn’t until her daughter’s teacher was knocked off his bike last year that she decided to get serious about cycle safety.
Thinking of her young children, she approached her local MP and eventually submitted her own petition to Parliament last year asking for those under 14 to be given the right to cycle on footpaths.
It would, she argued, allow them to learn how to ride in a safer environment and encourage regular uptake in an activity that has dropped off drastically amongst young people.
After pondering submissions, the Transport and Industrial Relations Committee unanimously agreed with Clendon, recommending children under 12 (or up to year 8) and their accompanying adults be allowed on footpaths.
In their report, they also extended the privilege to people over 65 and vulnerable users such as those with mental or physical disabilities.
To mitigate the risks to pedestrians, bells would be mandatory for those using footpaths and shared paths while local authorities could bar cyclists from certain areas if they had a good reason.
Clendon’s petition had the support of many including the New Zealand Transport Agency, who commissioned a review into the idea.
It found cycling on the footpath was safer for children until about the age of 12, when their cognitive processing began to mature.
Australia has already adopted the policy. In all states, children under 12 are allowed on footpaths, and in some states the right is extended to adults.
In 2014, Active Healthy Kids Australia reported 10 to 13 percent of children aged between five and 12 cycle to school. In New Zealand, it’s just four percent.
Concerns about the proposal largely relate to vulnerable pedestrians.
Some suggested the move would simply transfer the problem from one vulnerable group to another, with those with hearing and visual impairments more at risk of being hit by cyclists.
Neil Jarvis, a general manager at the Blind Foundation, says it’s a disappointing but unexpected decision.
He praised Clendon for raising a very real issue regarding children riding on roads, but her solution meant things would get more dangerous for visually impaired people already struggling on cluttered footpaths.
“From our point of view you don’t solve a problem by kicking it down the road, so to speak, and create problems for somebody else and that’s what we think’s going on here, because of the danger to people who can’t get out of the way of cyclists who are moving quite fast.”
What was needed was better planning and construction of shared spaces that catered for pedestrians, cyclists, and road users.
Similar concerns are likely held by the deaf community, but the National Foundation for the Deaf told Newsroom the issue was not part of their “strategic framework” and not something they would be commenting on.
So what do the cyclists think?
Lobby group Cycling Action Network’s spokesman Patrick Morgan was supportive of the change, but doesn’t think there will be a tangible increase in cyclists on footpaths.
He said many children already rode on footpaths unknowingly, while a lot of parents would not make their young child ride on an unsafe road.
The real benefit would be for road safety, as cycling instructors like himself could now teach children in a safer environment about safe and courteous footpath use.
“It’s perverse, I go to a school in Titahi Bay, we take the kids riding on the road and teach them all the road rules. At 3pm the bell goes and most of them jump on their bikes and pedal down the footpath.
“I have to teach the law which is sorry it’s illegal to ride your bike on the footpath…and I’m sending a different message from their parents at that point, never a good idea.”
Now that the Select Committee has reported back, it will up to new Minister Tim Macindoe, freshly in charge of the Associate Transport portfolio, to make a decision.
The pathway is a legislative change through a land transport rule, but Macindoe says he has a lot to consider before going ahead.
“The risks associated with riding on the footpath are complex and vary according to a number of factors, including the age, experience and speed of the rider, the number of driveways and intersections on the footpath, and the number of pedestrians using the footpath.
“I can appreciate the concerns that have been raised by more vulnerable pedestrians, and I think that any changes in this space will need to be carefully considered and the right balance struck.”
Mandatory bells, but what about helmets?
The Select Committee recommends bells be mandatory for everyone riding on not only footpaths, but shared pathways.
Most regular cyclists will at some point come across a shared pathway, especially in larger cities, so this would mean riders would need a bell to use them.
But Morgan believes this measure unnecessary, with bells having “as many haters as lovers”.
Mandatory laws would likely lead to a rise in “compliance bells”, cheap models that would break quickly.
“It’s nice to have, it can be courteous to let other path users know you’re there but I don’t think there’s a case for compulsion, most users can call out a friendly ‘good morning’.”
While not considered by the Select Committee, another common change campaigned for by cycling advocates is the removal of New Zealand’s strict all-ages helmet law.
We are one of only a handful of countries to enforce a blanket mandatory rule, with some arguing that the policy discourages cycling uptake.
Many believe there have been no tangible reductions to the rate of head injuries since the law was introduced in 1994, but a recent piece of research suggests they provide great benefit.
While we may see children legally cycling on footpaths soon, don’t expect any changes to the helmet law.
Macindoe says there are no plans to do so, as helmets play an important part of reducing the rate and severity of head and face injuries.
Footpath petitioner Clendon has mixed feelings about the helmet issue, complicated by the fact that her husband was once in a cycling accident that could have ended badly.
She says she has no doubt children should wear them - but she has also read the research that suggests mandatory helmets discourage cycling uptake among adults.
“But at the same time, I saw a helmet save my husband’s life and it’s likely he wouldn’t be here without one.”