Paths for everyone: why it matters

By Xavier Brice,
Union Canal in Edinburgh NCN Route 75 ©2018, Tony Marsh, all rights reserved

The National Cycle Network supports almost 800 million journeys a year

Cyclists on the Bristol and Bath Rilway Path (National Route 4).©2018, Jonathan Bewley

The Network contributes £2.5 billion every year in leisure and tourism spend to the UK economy

family walking, Taff Trail ©2018, Jonathan Bewley

The Network is over 23 years old, providing 16,575 miles of routes

people walking and cycling ©2018, Jonathan Bewley

We want to make the Network safer and more accessible for everyone

Think of a memorable walk you’ve had. Picture a cycle ride you enjoyed with your family or friends. I’m guessing that these weren’t on or alongside a busy road. 

We all need places to walk or cycle, scoot or wheel, away from the noise, fumes, stress and danger of traffic. Somewhere where we can teach our children how to ride a bike, somewhere to free our minds on our daily commute, or trip to the shops. Somewhere where we can reconnect with our surroundings, or with our friends and family. Somewhere where movement is at a human pace, and where interactions are between people, not metal boxes. 

This is why Sustrans is setting out an ambition to deliver a national network of traffic-free paths for everyone – a new vision for the National Cycle Network.

As custodians of the National Cycle Network, we have spent the last two years conducting a thorough review. We haven’t done this alone – in fact, we couldn’t. We have worked with the hundreds of local authorities and public and private landowners who provide the routes and maintain them. We have worked with organisations representing the different types of users of the Network, and we’ve worked with our national governments.

And above all, we’ve conducted this review thanks to our volunteers, hundreds of whom have worked tirelessly to plot the condition of every mile of road, lane, path and greenway providing a comprehensive audit of the state of the Network.

After all, the Network is a national asset, supporting almost 800 million journeys a year. A staggering figure.

The first ever review of the Network

The Network is over 23 years old. It grew from a collection of traffic-free greenways, into 16,575 miles of routes, on-road and off-road sections, covering every nation and region. Now, we all know that the Network today is far from perfect. But we now know exactly where, and why.

In 2015 we began a two-year audit of the paths which was carried out by independent surveyors. It was followed by the full review, conducted by a small project team supported by colleagues throughout Sustrans and many stakeholders. 

Every single section of the Network was surveyed and scored against four main criteria: flow (including width and barriers), surface, signage and safety. 

So what has the review told us?

In short, just over half (54%) of the Network was scored as good or very good, and the rest as poor or very poor (1% Very Good, 53% Good, 4% Poor, 42% Very Poor). The main reason for this is that too much of it is on roads with fast vehicles or too much traffic.

A third of the Network is traffic-free, and over 90% of this is good or very good. Of course, where it isn’t, we need to fix it. There are still too many sections that are barely passable on a mountain bike, and conversely, others that are now so popular that they can’t accommodate everyone without widening. So working with our partners, we will be focusing on path width and surface.

But it’s the other two thirds – the on-road sections – which we really need to tackle in order to give everyone the traffic-free network that we need and deserve.

Fixing the Network

This isn’t going to happen overnight. We have set out an ambition to double the traffic-free mileage by 2040, leaving us with one third on road. And that one third will need to be sufficiently safe and quiet for a 12-year-old to cycle on it on their own, to walk along it with small children on scooters, or to wheel along in a wheelchair or mobility scooter. In urban areas or on larger roads that means 20mph speed limits or protected cycle lanes, and adequate pavements. Along quieter rural roads, that means reducing the speed limit to 40mph.

These changes will help make the Network safer and more accessible for everyone. But that still leaves over 16,000 other issues – this is the number of barriers across the Network that can prevent all types of users from getting onto the paths.

We are going to be working with our partners to redesign or remove these so that traffic-free paths are open to everyone, whether you’re pushing a double buggy, using an adapted tricycle or towing children behind a bicycle.

This isn’t simple.

Barriers are often there to prevent off-road unauthorised access by motorbikes and similar. But we know from our experience of opening up York’s popular Foss Islands cycle and walking path (Route 658)  to people with mobility scooters, cycle trailers and larger non-motorised bikes by relaxing barriers at all entrance points along the route, that it is possible to improve accessibility whilst ensuring the paths are used appropriately. 

As with all of these changes, this is not something that Sustrans can do alone. Building on the foundations of this review, we are going to be working with our partners over the coming years to fix these issues and grow the amount of traffic-free miles, creating network development plans for the whole network.

A network which is loved by the communities it serves

This isn’t just about fixing it – important though this is. We also want to help everyone love it.

Across the UK we have over 3,500 fantastic volunteers who contributed 250,000 hours in 2017/18, and numerous independent ‘Friends of’ groups who look after and help promote, and develop their paths. This is a UK-wide Network and its aggregate contribution to the UK is huge: £2.5 billion every year in leisure and tourism spend alone.

The Network's impact is also felt at a local level. Yes, from money spent in shops, and from reduced congestion on local roads as people choose to walk or cycle instead, but also the way it serves to connect people to places and, more importantly, to each other. So we will be working with community groups and organisations across the country to make even stronger connections. An early example of this is a partnership with Good Gym where their community runners will help pick up litter, cut back overgrowing vegetation and generally love the Network.

Untapped potential

Of course, all of this is going to cost money. We are fortunate to have over 30,000 supporters who give generously to Sustrans and help us look after the Network.

Local authorities are increasingly cash-strapped, but many find ways to not only maintain but also develop their parts of the Network. To deliver this ambitious vision we will be seeking to recruit more supporters, and we will also be working to raise and assemble funding from a broad range of sources.

In Scotland, the government is investing £6.9m in improving the National Cycle Network, over the summer the Department for Transport granted £1m for improvements in England, and we are working with Highways England to improve the National Cycle Network where it intersects with their Strategic Road Network.

But more is needed to transform the Network for everyone. We simply can’t afford not to do this.

At a time of increasing division, this Network spans our nations and connects our towns and cities. As we face up to an air quality and climate crisis, the National Cycle Network makes it easier for everyone to choose not to travel by car, hence reducing carbon emissions. And as we find ourselves with not only an obesity epidemic but a growing mental health one too, traffic-free routes are what we all need to get out there, and get along, each at our own pace and in harmony with each other.

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