Barriers are often used to keep motor vehicles off walking and cycling routes. But they end up excluding a much wider group of people. In this post we explore why barriers exist on the National Cycle Network and what the solutions are to make these traffic-free routes as accessible and safe as possible for everyone.
Barriers can prevent people from enjoying the benefits of walking, wheeling and cycling.
There are a few reasons you might find barriers on your local stretch of the National Cycle Network.
Sometimes they’re used to keep livestock off the paths. For example, cattle grids and gates are often used to make sure farm animals can’t wander onto the route.
You may also see barriers used in places where a cycle route meets a main road or another bike path. In this case, they’re designed to slow down the flow of traffic before reaching the junction.
But most of the time, barriers are meant to keep illegitimate users from accessing the Network. This includes people using motorbikes, mopeds and other vehicles.
Many of the barriers on the National Cycle Network were installed decades ago when the routes were first designed.
In some cases, landowners wanted to make sure that motor vehicles couldn’t get onto their land, so the planning permission or landowner consent was conditional on barriers being installed.
What’s the problem with barriers?
There are two main issues with barriers.
Firstly, they exclude lots of legitimate users from accessing the Network.
If you’re using a wheelchair, adapted cycle or mobility scooter, or if you’re using a cycle that’s larger than a standard bike, barriers might prevent you from getting onto your local route full stop.
The same goes for people pushing prams or pulling trailers.
Secondly, barriers often aren’t effective at doing what they’re meant to.
It might be possible for motorbikes to go over, under or around them.
If someone is determined to get onto the route with their motorbike, they’ll just find another access point: maybe a gap in a hedge or a fence they can lift their motorbike over.
So, in many cases, barriers are stopping legitimate users from accessing the Network, but aren’t preventing illegitimate users from getting onto the paths.
A barrier removal trial in London
As part of a research project, we temporarily removed access barriers at two sites in London.
The first set of barriers was at an underpass in a residential area in Bermondsey, and the second barrier was in a suburban park in Sutton.
We undertook perception surveys with local residents and route users at both sites to find out about the impacts of the barrier removal on the community.
We also monitored traffic at the sites.
Some of the key findings were:
- A 20% increase in users was recorded across both sites.
- 64% of survey respondents said that they were more encouraged to use the space, and so had been using it more frequently.
- 57% of respondents stated that the barrier removal had had a positive impact on the area, and no respondents stated that it had had a negative impact.
- 100% of respondents felt that changes increased accessibility for all users.
- Survey respondents indicated that the removal of the barriers led to increased footfall and a reduction in antisocial behaviour.
In both cases, removing barriers created accessible routes, which opened them up to a wider group of users.
This led to an increase in the number of people using the route.
Local perceptions of the routes changed for the better: after the barriers were taken down, people felt the routes were safer and that the changes had helped reduce antisocial behaviour.
A redesigned barrier in York.
What are the alternatives to barriers?
If a barrier is restricting access to people who should be able to get onto a route, but isn’t stopping illegal vehicle use, what’s the solution?
It's important to remember that every barrier is different.
We have to look at the illegal use of paths and antisocial behaviour at community level, as the risk varies from area to area.
Our goal is to redesign as many of the barriers on the Network as possible to make our routes accessible to everyone.
We do this by working alongside communities to find a tailored solution that works for everyone.
One of the main concerns with redesigning barriers is that opening up the route will lead to more antisocial behaviour or more motor vehicles using the path.
But when routes are accessible to more people, they become busier.
Busier routes mean more ‘eyes on the street’, which can make paths safer and lead to a reduction in crime rates.
We call this ‘natural surveillance’.
If someone wants to take their motorbike out onto a cycle path illegally, they are far less likely to do so in places they’re likely to be seen.
This creates a positive feedback loop: people are more likely to use safe paths, so as a route gains a reputation for being safe, the number of people using the route goes up.
This makes illegal use and antisocial behaviour less and less likely.
Along with natural surveillance, another effective way of combatting antisocial behaviour and the use of motor vehicles on routes is for local communities to record and report any instances to the authorities.
More rigorous policing helps reduce motor vehicle use on paths.
Illegal use of the Network is a criminal activity, and so it is ultimately a police matter.