Shared paths in Canberra: the legal view

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A spirited public debate is playing out in the local media about the use of shared pathways in the ACT.  Ring your bells, say the pedestrians.  Keep left, say the cyclists.  Upping the ante, force bikes to be registered, say the pedestrians.  The shared paths were planned exclusively for cyclists, says a rider.

But what does the law in the ACT say?

It is important to understand that there is a hierarchy of legislation – while the Australian Road Rules (the Rules) generally apply throughout Australia, local laws may amend or override them.

For instance, footpath is defined in the Rules as meaning ‘an area open to the public that is designated for, or has one of its main uses, use by pedestrians’. In New South Wales, only cyclists under 12 years of age are permitted to ride on footpaths, while here in the ACT all bike riders are permitted to ride on footpaths.

Who’s who in the traffic zoo?

The Rules go into great detail about elements relating to shared paths, pedestrians and vehicles (which includes bicycles) in an effort to provide as much clarity as possible.  [Refer below for detail.]

A shared path is defined as ‘an area open to the public that is designated for, or has as one of its main uses, use by both the riders of bicycles and pedestrians’.

In the ACT, authorities often make this clear by installing ‘shared path’ signage marking the beginning and end of the path.

Who gives way to whom?

As to the respective duties of cyclist and pedestrian on shared paths, the Rules say that “The rider of a bicycle riding on a footpath or shared path must…give way to any pedestrian on the footpath or shared path.”

Further, the Rules clearly state that “give way means the rider must slow down and, if necessary, stop to avoid a collision” and, “the rider of a bicycle must not cause a traffic hazard by moving into the path of a… pedestrian”.

Therefore, responsibility for avoiding collisions with pedestrians lies squarely on the shoulders of the person riding a bike.  This makes sense given the potentially higher speed of a bike, and therefore greater control over the forces and factors involved in any collision.

But pedestrians do not escape legal responsibility.  The Rules say “a pedestrian must not cause a traffic hazard by moving into the path of a driver [which, by virtue of Rule 19, includes a cyclist]…” and “a pedestrian must not unreasonably obstruct the path of any [cyclist]”.

ACT legislation provides that the maximum penalty for breaching the Rules is ‘20 penalty units’. An ACT penalty unit for an individual is currently $150, so the maximum penalty is $3000.

If a cyclist fails to give way to a pedestrian on a footpath or a shared path — that is, if he or she does not slow down and, if necessary, stop to avoid a collision — he or she is guilty of an offence punishable by a fine of up to $3000.

If a pedestrian causes a traffic hazard by moving into the path of a cyclist or unreasonably obstructing a cyclist, then he or she is guilty of an offence also punishable by a fine of up to $3000.

‘Reasonable’ person…?

All shared path users need to act reasonably, as that standard as that standard has been defined and imposed by the courts.  Everyone using shared paths must pay attention, obey the Rules, be thoughtful when it comes to looking out for possible risks and dangers, and take into account the circumstances and available information that exist whilst on the shared path.

An eminent jurist once said of the ‘reasonable’ cyclist and pedestrian:

“He has not the courage of Achilles, the wisdom of Ulysses or the strength of Hercules, nor has he the prophetic vision of a clairvoyant.  He will not anticipate folly in all its forms but he never puts out of consideration the teachings of experience and so will guard against negligence of others when experience shows such negligence to be common.  He is a reasonable man but not a perfect citizen, nor a ‘paragon of circumspection’…” – Percy Henry Winfield [my emphasis].

So, there you have it.  Every shared path user must do their part and consider the other shared path users.


Thanks to Allistar Twigg from Snedden, Hall and Gallop for his legal insight into the shared paths issue in Canberra. 


Some of the Rules that are helpful relating to shared paths include:

  • Rule 11 provides that the Rules apply ‘to vehicles and road users on roads and road-related areas’.
  • Rule 12 provides that ‘a road is an area that is open to or used by the public and is developed for, or has as one of its main uses, the driving or riding of motor vehicles’. A road does not include a shoulder (which is also defined).
  • Rule 13 defines road-related area and includes ‘an area that is not a road and that is open to the public and designated for use by cyclists…’: so this includes shared paths.
  • Rule 14 says that ‘a road user is a driver, rider, passenger or pedestrian’.
  • Rule 15 says that ‘a vehicle includes… a bicycle’.
  • Rule 16 defines driver as a person who is driving a vehicle — which does not include, amongst other things, a bicycle.
  • Rule 17 defines a rider as a person who is riding, amongst other things, a bicycle.
  • Rule 18 defines a pedestrian to include people in and pushing wheelchairs and people on ‘a wheeled recreational device or wheeled toy’.
  • Finally, Rule 19 says that ‘Unless otherwise expressly stated…each reference…to a driver includes a reference to a rider’. Compare this with Rule 16.

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