Getting along: Cyclists and walkers sharing paths

Blog by Helen Todd, Ramblers Scotland campaigns & policy manager

It’s no secret that Scotland is a fantastic place for walkers of all levels and abilities. From the thrills of Skye’s jagged Cuillin ridge to the long sandy beaches of East Lothian, a walk in the Scottish countryside can offer awe-inspiring landscapes, plenty of wildlife and nature, and fascinating cultural heritage.

But Scotland’s also a great country for cyclists, both on quiet rural roads and on our growing network of off-road routes. Cycling in all its forms is becoming ever more popular, and it’s estimated that cycle tourism contributes £239 million to the Scottish economy. Walking is still the number one activity for our holiday time though, with 55% of people from the UK who visit Scotland enjoying a walk as part of their trip. Whether walking or cycling, it’s great to see more people carrying out these healthy activities outdoors.

Equal rights

There’s an interesting ongoing debate south of the border about how – and if – cyclists and walkers should share paths. The landscape and access context is different in England and Wales, and we all hope that user groups there can work together to find a practical solution that works for everyone enjoying the outdoors.

Here in Scotland, cyclists and walkers (and horse riders and paddlers!) have enjoyed equal rights of access since 2003. This approach is highly valued here and also by many people from outside Scotland. Each weekend, mountain bikers come by ferry from Northern Ireland, while cars laden with kayaks drive up the M6 to take advantage of the greater opportunities Scotland offers. They get a warm reception from locals – and their tourist pounds are very welcome too!

So how did Scotland get such a different access framework? As the 2003 land reform legislation was being progressed, the recreation bodies decided to work together to secure the best possible access for all – and to stop any opponents trying divide-and-rule tactics. As a result access rights apply to all who are enjoying the outdoors by non-motorised means, but only if we are responsible and respect other users as set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

And does it work?!

By and large it works fine, thanks to careful management, compromise and education. Of course it’s not all trouble-free; there are inconsiderate cyclists just as there are inconsiderate walkers – and uncontrolled dogs! On my daily commute using Edinburgh’s excellent path network I do see occasional examples of thoughtless behaviour from all sides, but there are few calls for the law to be changed. This is because basically common sense prevails. For example, narrow busy urban alleys aren’t enjoyable places to take a horse even if you do have a right to be there, and country paths with uneven, rocky steps aren’t much fun for any but the hardiest of cyclists.

Yes, Scotland has a smaller population and a lot more space, but even in city parks ‘no cycling’ signs have long disappeared and cyclists share paths with walkers, enjoying safe, pleasant routes away from heavy traffic. The benefits of cooperation are mutual and wide-ranging. For Munro-baggers, bikes can be a bonus for reducing the long walk in to remote hills. And many cyclists will lock up their bikes during their days out and enjoy short walks, perhaps along beaches or up to steep viewpoints.

A good place to see how shared use works is the Pentland Hills regional park outside Edinburgh, which has 600,000 visitors a year. Here, the main track from the visitor centre is used by absolutely everyone, so it could be mayhem on a busy weekend. Yet families with small children and buggies, mud-spattered mountain bikers and hikers coming off the hill, horse-riders, dog walkers - and even cars, since anglers are allowed to drive up to the nearby fishing loch – all just get on with sharing the track, watching out for others as they go.

Access rights to be proud of

We’re very proud of Scotland’s world-class access rights. When problems do arise, we should think about the bigger picture of the benefits to our health, environment and economy of having a more active population. And shared use can sometimes bring real advantages for those who are less able or in wheelchairs, since path improvements often mean ramps replace steps, or stiles are swapped for self-closing gates.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever see three parallel paths built for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders to enjoy in splendid, but peaceful, isolation any day soon! So a mix of mutual respect, common sense and education is key to sharing space, and making the most of our wonderful outdoors.

Lorna Numbers


Over many years I have both cycled [for transport but also fitness and leisure on rural pathways] and walked, currently mainly accompanied only by my dogs who are for the majority of the time on a lead. The only problem with cyclists and walkers path sharing in my experience is cyclists' reluctance to use a bell. The impact of a biker approaching unannounced from behind can be very disruptive, not only for the walker but also - and perhaps more significantly, for dogs who can of course respond with a display of aggression.

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Mike Livesey


This article is all very "inclusive" and touchy-feely, but it completely misses the point. The point is that when walkers and cyclists encounter each other neither has any idea what action they should be taking -- keep to the left, keep to the right, slow down, stop, ring a bell, shout, swear ...?!

Walkers naturally face the oncoming traffic so tend to keep to the right. But I have been told by cyclists that they prefer walkers to keep to the left. Cyclists are particularly irritated by walkers who spread across a path then proceed to dodge from side to side at the approach of a bike. Then again, walkers are particularly irritated (as Lorna Numbers comments) by the reluctance of cyclists to use a bell as a warning of approach. Many cyclist don't use their bell (possibly don't even have one) or they suddenly release a frantic peal right behind walkers, who then jump all over the place like frightened rabbits.

Therefore we need to establish a protocol that all parties know and adhere to.

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Ann Christie


I agree that there should be a protocol for cyclist and walkers. I stay in an area with a wide range of paths and tracks all shared by walkers, runners, cyclists, horse riders and dog walkers. I also have a sight hound who instinctively runs and chases on movement, so I try to be very aware of other path users, so if necessary I can put him on the lead for their and his safety. Mostly, that works, and usually people are friendly. However, we have both been hit by cyclists moving at speed on paths, always without warning, the worst one last autumn at dusk. I already had the dog under control, which for this incident probably made it worse, but the cyclist first hit me and then bounced into the dog. We were all bruised and shocked, so I can sort of excuse the cyclist for blaming us for being on the path, ( despite the fact I was wearing a light coloured jacket with reflective strips and the dog had a reflective collar) but not for shouting and cycling off, leaving us both sitting at the side of the path in some pain and with 2 miles to walk home. There was no warning, no bell and no light or shout to let us know he was there. I know that this is an unusual incident, but they are the ones that cause anger and future defensiveness/aggression. Were protocols in place, AND TAUGHT! right of way, safety and appropriate behaviours would be better understood by all. Since then, both hound and I have an array of lights that cannot be missed!

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Ann Christie


I agree that there should be a protocol for cyclist and walkers. I stay in an area with a wide range of paths and tracks all shared by walkers, runners, cyclists, horse riders and dog walkers. I also have a sight hound who instinctively runs and chases on movement, so I try to be very aware of other path users, so if necessary I can put him on the lead for their and his safety. Mostly, that works, and usually people are friendly. However, we have both been hit by cyclists moving at speed on paths, always without warning, the worst one last autumn at dusk. I already had the dog under control, which for this incident probably made it worse, but the cyclist first hit me and then bounced into the dog. We were all bruised and shocked, so I can sort of excuse the cyclist for blaming us for being on the path, ( despite the fact I was wearing a light coloured jacket with reflective strips and the dog had a reflective collar) but not for shouting and cycling off, leaving us both sitting at the side of the path in some pain and with 2 miles to walk home. There was no warning, no bell and no light or shout to let us know he was there. I know that this is an unusual incident, but they are the ones that cause anger and future defensiveness/aggression. Were protocols in place, AND TAUGHT! right of way, safety and appropriate behaviours would be better understood by all. Since then, both hound and I have an array of lights that cannot be missed!

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Alex Donald


Before I found my legs, and used a cycle more often, I was hesitant to use a bell as it felt like a 'get out of my way I'm coming through message'.

But I am now definitely in the 'ring-a-bell' camp, providing it is rung so that it is heard by path users in good time before reaching them.
The protocol just need to be well advertised so that its meaning is understood.
On a recent cycle, I found that younger people appeared to accept a bell ringing and remained walking in a straight line. But, the older versions either did not hear - deaf/busy talking? - or meandered across the path as they looked behind.

Anyway, perhaps we Ramblers had best learn the protocol.
As our legs get older & give way we might also end up on bikes!

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Alex Donald


Before I found my legs, and used a cycle more often, I was hesitant to use a bell as it felt like a 'get out of my way I'm coming through message'.

But I am now definitely in the 'ring-a-bell' camp, providing it is rung so that it is heard by path users in good time before reaching them.
The protocol just need to be well advertised so that its meaning is understood.
On a recent cycle, I found that younger people appeared to accept a bell ringing and remained walking in a straight line. But, the older versions either did not hear - deaf/busy talking? - or meandered across the path as they looked behind.

Anyway, perhaps we Ramblers had best learn the protocol.
As our legs get older & give way we might also end up on bikes!

Report this comment

Alex Donald


Before I found my legs, and used a cycle more often, I was hesitant to use a bell as it felt like a 'get out of my way I'm coming through message'.

But I am now definitely in the 'ring-a-bell' camp, providing it is rung so that it is heard by path users in good time before reaching them.
The protocol just need to be well advertised so that its meaning is understood.
On a recent cycle, I found that younger people appeared to accept a bell ringing and remained walking in a straight line. But, the older versions either did not hear - deaf/busy talking? - or meandered across the path as they looked behind.

Anyway, perhaps we Ramblers had best learn the protocol.
As our legs get older & give way we might also end up on bikes!

Report this comment

Alex Donald


Before I found my legs, and used a cycle more often, I was hesitant to use a bell as it felt like a 'get out of my way I'm coming through message'.

But I am now definitely in the 'ring-a-bell' camp, providing it is rung so that it is heard by path users in good time before reaching them.
The protocol just need to be well advertised so that its meaning is understood.
On a recent cycle, I found that younger people appeared to accept a bell ringing and remained walking in a straight line. But, the older versions either did not hear - deaf/busy talking? - or meandered across the path as they looked behind.

Anyway, perhaps we Ramblers had best learn the protocol.
As our legs get older & give way we might also end up on bikes!

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Dominic Pinto


We have concerns especially on the Thames Path in London and on Canal and River Trust towpaths. Anecdotally on the towpath, and this is in selected areas, cyclists are the main cause of complaint. It is a minority, but they ride fast and aggressively, and demand that anyone else get out of the way. As someone who was working for the Trust I was shouted at - the two tings means get out of the fucking way .....

This is from the latest Canal and River Trust staff organ, the Source.

As part of the Canal & River Trust’s Share the Space, Drop your Pace campaign, visitors have been asked to make a personal pledge to be courteous on our towpaths across the nation.

A recent poll suggests that 77% of Brits said that if people are polite to them, they are polite back. The research also revealed what the public believe constitutes common courtesy in 2016, including ‘modern manners’ such as not invading other people’s personal space and not having your music too loud on headphones.

Amongst the top bugbears were cyclists speeding past walkers (23%), owners not cleaning up after their dogs (56%), people taking up too much space on footpaths and walkways (25%) or not having an awareness of personal space (19%) and people not concentrating on where they’re going because they’re too busy looking at their phones (27%).

During 2015, 385 million visits were made to our towpaths by walkers, cyclists, boaters, anglers and runners.

For further information about the Share the Space, Drop your Pace campaign and the Better Towpaths for Everyone policy, search for share the space on www.canalrivertrust.org.uk

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Dominic Pinto


One of our Groups raised the matter with me in the spring. I noted that over two years ago there had been problems with cyclists on the Thames Path to the west of Vauxhall, and our then campaigns officer had said he was taking that up. It appears not.

The Group rep wrote as follows. I have followed up on the 2014 problem - there appears nothing further. I've highlighted what we (as in Canal and River Trust - I'm on the London Waterways Partnership) are doing.

"At the 2015 Ramblers GC meeting, the Board said it was “not persuaded that compulsory fitting of bells to bicycles will resolve this issue”. (The issue being to improve pedestrian safety.)

I was surprised because silent cyclists can be a real nuisance to walkers on flat tracks like the Thames Path and canal towpaths, especially at weekends.

The Highway Code recommends that a bell be fitted. Rules for Cyclists 66: “(Riders) should be considerate of other road users, particularly blind and partially sighted pedestrians. Let them know you are there when necessary, for example, by ringing your bell if you have one. It is recommended that a bell be fitted.” Few cyclists will have read the Highway Code.

Bikes must be sold with bells fitted but oddly there is no legal requirement for the bell to be fitted when the bike is ridden on the road. Few cyclists in my experience have bells.

(Area Chair) said that Ramblers were resource constrained and suggested I might take the matter up with the C&RT and Walk London (assume for Thames Path). I’m not sure this would work. How could they respond? Little use asking cyclists to use bells they don’t have. Better perhaps (but how) make cyclists aware of the Highway Code advice. Do you have any thoughts or ideas on the issue?"

I'm not sure what else that can be done immediately. Enforcement would be down to the local authorities, perhaps police, and on private land local security (as around City Hall, or Covent Garden Market).

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