The Downs in Bristol are one glorious open area with over 400 acres of grassland and trees. A Committee protects the ancient right of all Bristolians to enjoy them, unspoiled, in perpetuity. Among the prohibitions that assures that right is a ban on cycling. It applies on all grassed areas and on the well-surfaced footpaths that cross the Downs
There is one exception. A good wide track has been added along Durdham Down adjacent to Stoke Road and bicycle logos have been painted at intervals along it. It covers quite a lot (but not all) of a route between student residences to the north of the Downs and Whiteladies Road to the south. A narrower pedestrian path runs in parallel to it, but closer to the busy road that also serves as a car park for visitors to the Changing Rooms and Tea Shop beyond the cyclist in my picture.
I went there today to take some photographs of happy cyclists enjoying the good weather and the excellent facility. As I sat down by a tree I took a first picture (see above) and settled down to consider how to go about getting the shots I had imagined. After about fifteen minutes only two other cyclists went past, and none came from the direction that would allow me to get the sunlit smiling faces I had hoped for.
It was a puzzle. Behind me I had noticed several cyclists on the road. Eventually a mother and child came past on the cycle track. I took the next picture as they approached the mums with pushchairs who had been chatting for the last five minutes and who barely looked up as the child rang a polite bell of warning.
Another five minutes passed and while no more cyclists came by, several pedestrians did. Along the cycle track. The pedestrian path remained empty. I gave up my mission and set off homewards along Ladies Mile, one of the roads that cross the Downs. Crossing Ladies Mile was a footpath, a metre of so wide, with NO CYCLING painted in large white letters on each side of the road. I stopped to look and within a minute several cyclists had already arrived, crossed the road and departed, making confident use of the forbidden track.
I spotted this well-dressed woman in smart clothes on a smart bike, flagrantly disregarding the NO CYCLING instruction beneath her very wheels. What was I to make of the conundrum? These weren’t odd random events. I’ve actually noticed it happening before. People were using the forbidden track to cycle on, and the dedicated cycle track to walk and talk on. Both sets seemed content with the arrangement.
My theory is that people are happier when what they want to do is legal and grumpier when what they are doing isn’t allowed. Even when the converse is true, wise legislators adjust the law to marry practice if no harm comes of it.
Dear Downs Committee,
I think that some of the cycling restrictions on the Downs could be lifted, and some of the paths could be adjusted or shifted so that most Downs users felt even happier about their enjoyment of such a wonderful resource.