Laura Laker investigates how low funding, poor planning & political indifference have made UK cycling networks lag behind the best of Europe
Our cycling network is a failure: how did it get this way?
It’s a curious situation that the only national, strategic cycling infrastructure we have in the UK is still managed by the charity that started it with volunteers bearing shovels 23 years ago. It’s perhaps even more curious that rather than an annual budget, which would allow that charity, Sustrans, to do fairly crucial things like plan maintenance and improvement, retain skilled staff and, you know, manage it, it’s only given crumbs of funding by Government in a seemingly random way.
Unsurprisingly, when pitted in a notional race against the cycle infrastructure of other, more cycling-advanced nations, ours is left wheezing embarrassingly behind the broom wagon of decent design standards.
The first major review of the National Cycle Network (NCN) was launched this week, along with an assessment of its 16,575 mile length of designated bike lane, shared-use paths, minor roads, towpaths and even disused railways.
That network forms the blueprint of a linked-up system for cyclists to travel from anywhere to anywhere else.
Unfortunately, that review showed 42% of it is poor, and 4% very poor. It won’t be hard for most people to visualise what ‘poor’ meant, but think cyclists sharing busy and/or fast A and B roads, poor surfacing, missing or hidden signage, and so on.
It’s not all bad, of course. The other 54% of the NCN contains cycling wonders such as the Camel Trail and the Two Tunnels loop near Bath.
The problem is, it also contains a three-lane roundabout where an A-road and B-road meet, near Stirling, among other things. When you see the blue NCN signs, you don’t really know what you’re getting.
Sustrans’s CEO, Xavier Brice, told me: ’20 years ago the network was first put in place, when the roads were quiet. They are now full of traffic, and we urgently need to make the NCN safe to use.
‘The NCN has started to show its age; if we don’t start fixing it it’s going to start losing its credibility.’
The review report estimates the network needs £2.3bn to increase its off-road miles by 5,000 miles, to 10,000 miles. It will use the money to remove the 16,000 barriers along the NCN’s length, almost one per mile, on average.
Barriers are the bane of anyone cycling, not least those with panniers, or disabled people, or those piloting non-standard bikes, including cargo bikes. There’s currently an average of three barriers per mile on the off-road parts of the NCN.
The demand is there, though: in 2017 the NCN carried 786 million walking and cycling trips. Half of the UK population lives within a mile of it.
We know riding with traffic in some parts of the UK can be unpleasant, and a traffic-free network could deliver a cycling experience for leisure, including increasingly popular bike packing, tourism or commuting.
Cycling and walking networks boost local economies
While we normally consider opportunities of improved cycle infrastructure on health and wellbeing, there’s evidence of an economic impact too.
A recent Transport for London (TfL) study has revealed that people who walk, cycle or use public transport spend 40% more in their local shops. That’s a serious boost at a time of financial despair on the high street.
The research proves, though, time and again that unless journeys are straightforward and not intimidating to cyclists, the uptake from new riders is likely to be miniscule. A network that works for new cyclists, older cyclists and even children is key.
Brice uses the ‘competent 12-year-old test’. At the moment only 4% of cyclists using it are new or returning to cycling – in other words, the vast majority of cyclists using it are experienced riders, and that shows us there’s a problem.
Meanwhile the Netherlands, World Champion of cycling infrastructure, has a comprehensive network of such reliable high quality that in my month cycling there I saw roadies on training rides, older people e-biking between home and town, and, yes, 12-year-olds riding by themselves.
I even rode a 32km long bike road that runs alongside a motorway across the dyke that keeps the sea out of the lowlands.
Design standards mean even routes through national parks, far from any motor traffic, are wide bike roads, end-to-end concrete or tarmac. It truly is astonishing to experience.
Where ‘spectacular’ cycle infrastructure is the norm
Mark Treasure, Chair of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, which shares examples of best practice in everyday cycling from around the world, says the problem is while our roads are run by councils and the government, the NCN is administered by a charity.
In the Netherlands, Treasure says, cycling is ‘just part of the roads system’ – and there’s decades of experience of building cycle routes there.
‘With Dutch road building projects they do these spectacular bridges and tunnels; it just happens as part of the project, without anyone campaigning for it or having to raise money to build it. It’s part of the budget, it just happens,’ Treasure says.
‘The Eindhoven ring is just a new junction they had to get a cycle crossing onto. I would describe the Netherlands as low motor traffic interaction, rather than “off road”.
‘Either you’re in a path in the middle of nowhere or if you’re in a city you’re on a separate path or an area that has been filtered.
‘In the UK we are just starting that process. Cycling is bolted on, if anyone thinks about it at all.’
He adds: ‘I think there is a bit of confusion over what the NCN is for. The “off road description” almost pushes you onto a leisure network. That is the defining problem that has to be overcome: it needs to go everywhere.’
Treasure’s local route in West Sussex highlights the issue. ‘It doesn’t really go near the towns, it veers out into the countryside. It has got a terrible muddy surface and I’m not sure Sustrans even recognises it.
‘It’s a former railway line but they have never surfaced it properly, it’s just about useable in the summer but I don’t go near it in the winter.’
Much of the UK’s cycle network is off-road, which limits the all-year use
The cycle path is greener in Scotland
In Scotland, the NCN is now being treated as strategic infrastructure by the Scottish government, which doubled its active travel budget to £40m this year, and with it the NCN budget rose £3.9m to £6.9m.
This will fund, among other things, completion of the 237-mile long Caledonia Way, which runs from Campbeltown to Inverness, and smaller links for everyday journeys across Scotland.
While in England there are no national design standards, there are in Scotland and Sustrans Scotland, funded by the Scottish Government, acts almost as a gatekeeper of quality.
As Sustrans Scotland’s Claire Daly puts it, ‘Sustrans in England bids for work, whereas in Scotland we have a team reviewing grant applications, going back and forth with local authorities to make infrastructure meets the standards set by Transport Scotland.
‘That’s key because without that someone could pitch for a 1.5m wide cycle lane, or one that creates conflict with other road users.’
The standards are what makes it exciting, she says, because anything built is useable, at a minimum, by less experienced cyclists.
The worst bits of English NCN that can’t or won’t be changed, Sustrans says it can, as a last resort, de-designate. It is, in fact, the only stick Sustrans has over local authorities, many of whom aren’t willing or able to pay more than lip service to cycling.
The trouble is, once de-designated, they could be left to fall into disrepair, something Sustrans is keen to avoid.
Brice remains optimistic, making the case for the NCN as an ideological as well as a physical link, a great leveller and joining infrastructure in a time of political polarisation.
He puts it: ‘It’s about fixing up a national asset that spans the whole of the UK. It links up cities and rural areas, Brexit voters, and non-Brexit voters.
‘In a time of division it’s needed more and more; this single network that connects all of us. It should rival other transport networks.’