NCN review - we wouldn’t run our roads like this, why our national cycle network?

Chances are we all know a bit of the National Cycle Network – half of us live within a mile of it. It might be a great leisure route like the Camel Trail, or the Taff Trail, or it might be a hodge-podge assortment of pavement cycle paths that throw you out on a busy road and into a field with no real indication of whether this is where you’re supposed to be.

It can be divisive. Every time I mention the NCN, and Sustrans, the charity that manages it, lively debate ensues. From barriers so tight you have to remove your panniers to get through (begging the question what disabled users would do) to muddy paths that become impassable in winter, grumbling about them seems in some quarters a national sport.

In an ideal world, the NCN would be a coherent, consistent network a sensible 12-year-old could use. It would be a mix of on-road protected cycle tracks, quiet residential roads, and well-surfaced off-road paths, ideally taking the most direct route between settlements, with the added bonus of hearing birdsong, in the absence of cars.

A new Sustrans report outlines just how far the NCN has strayed from that vision. It reveals 42% of the network is ‘poor’ – think off-road routes that cross main roads, or with poor signage or surfacing – and 4% is very poor: on roads that were probably lightly-trafficked 20 years ago when the NCN was begun, but are now full of lorries and speeding cars. There’s almost one barrier for each of its 16,575 miles – a whopping three per mile on average on the off-road sections (often to stop scrambler bikes).

Rightly Sustrans CEO, Xavier Brice, admitted to me that some bits of it are ‘crap’.

Some people would – and do – blame Sustrans, but I think that’s missing the point. Would we hand our road network to a charity, give it stop-start funding for 20 years, and no power over local road authorities to deliver to a safe, coherent and decent standard, and then blame it for a patchy, circuitous network?

I’d question why, if we don’t manage our road network that way, we do so for our national cycle network?

Sustrans has set out a vision for bringing the network up to scratch by 2040, a task that will cost £2.8bn but, it says, will reap economic and wider benefits of £7.6bn by then. Sustans wants to double the traffic-free sections to 10,000 miles, and take routes off fast roads. They may threaten to de-designate the worst bits, and some would argue they should use that stick.

It has earmarked 50 ‘activation’ projects to deliver by 2023, from a protected bike track on an A-road in Mirfield (NCN 66), to re-routing the NCN away from a three-lane wide roundabout near Stirling where an A and B road meet. It also wants to re-route the NCN 76 from a bleak, wind-blown B-road on the North Wales coast, which the NCN crosses six times within a mile, to a traffic-free coastal path. It wants speed restrictions on some roads.

The major sticking point is it still needs to find most of the money to deliver this vision.

Another one is many councils will baulk at making space on roads for cycle routes, when the inevitable complaints start – and because Sustrans is merely the NCN’s custodian, there’s very little they can do about it.

It doesn’t need to be like this. A recent report on the HS2 cycleway (one of its authors is Sustrans’ co-founder, John Grimshaw, the other, the excellent Phil Jones, of PJA), set out not only design standards for such a strategic cycle network, but a mechanism to deliver it. It recommended a national body oversee the work and its funding, set design standards and, if a council couldn’t complete a piece of the network, the secretary of state can take control of the route by designating it a ‘trunk road’, to build it and hand it back to the council, completed. Not that I hold out much hope for ‘car guy’ Grayling, our current Transport Secretary, to do so.

I’d argue, though, in the face of an impending inactivity, air pollution and climate change crisis – not to mention declining high streets up and down the country, choked by motor traffic - it’s urgent and of national strategic importance that we build and fund a proper network that gives us the option to cycle and walk more.

Public speaking coming up

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I've been asked to do some more speaking so if you haven't heard my voice for a while here's your chance(s). The first ever Street Talk podcast (of Street Talks , usually held in London, and run by Sustrans) will be an interview with Jon Orcutt, formerly of New York City's transportation department, which will be coming to the internet in the next few days. He's the guy who oversaw introduction of Citibikes and introduced New York's Vision Zero plan, making it the first US city to aim for a target of no traffic deaths or serious injuries. Keep a look out on my Twitters or this website, under public speaking, where I'll be sharing that podcast with joyous abandon. 

Tomorrow, yes tomorrow, I'm at Look Mum, no Hands, talking about Kat Jungnickel's new book, Bikes & Bloomers, with the excellent Emily Chappell,  Kat Jungnickel herself, and Bruce Bennett (Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Lancaster University). You can book your tickets here.

And later in the year it looks like I'll be doing some kind of Paxman panel chairing/corralling job at a large national cycling conference...more details TBC. In the meantime, know I shall take no nonsense from anyone. Not even you. 

I've been shortlisted for a Cycling Woman of the Year Award

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As you can see, I'm excited to have been shortlisted for a Cycling Woman of the Year Award. My name appears among those of some amazing women who do a lot for cycling in their communities and inspire and empower other women to get out there and ride, and fix their own bikes.

Jenni Gwiazdowski is among those - and I want to give a shout out to her. From the off, I've been secretly hoping she'll win, and here's why. Jenni is the founder and powerhouse behind the fantastic London Bike Kitchen, a DIY bike fixing space, where everyone is welcome. Her WAG (women and gender variant) classes and WAGFests have helped bring more women and those with non-binary gender identities into cycling, and empower them with mad skills once they're there.

Her work ranges from organising whole festivals with debates on how women are portrayed by the industry to just improving representation of women and gender variant people in cycling. In short helping people, whoever they are, learn to, in her words, #fixshit, and ride with confidence. Jenni is a total hero, and having only glimpsed just how hard she works to keep LBK the fun, funny, welcoming and community-spirited place it is I have enormous respect for her.

I always remember going into the shop in its early days, when some kids from the local neighbourhood came in with a battered bike and left with it repaired, free of charge. That kind of sums it up for me. Also - if you aren't signed up to her hilarious newsletter, you should be.

Last year, Jenni wrote a book called How to Build a Bike. It's a beautiful piece of work, which she has made as helpful and diverse as her own business. I bought a copy and love it - it's full of gorgeous images of machines being lovingly repaired, with clear instructions, and one day I hope to use it to good effect, to build my own frankenbike.

Through the hard work, stress and sleepless nights of running her business in a challenging environment, and writing a book, and doing the public speaking that comes with all of that, she always seems to have a smile on her face. I for one find Jenni a huge inspiration, and for me she is cycling woman of the year.

For my own part, I've been quietly hacking away at cycling journalism for some years now, in the firm belief more people cycling is just good for everyone, from our mental and physical health to our public spaces. As with many of us in the industry it's been badly-paid, but it comes with its own perks, and I consider myself pretty lucky that I get to do it. Cycling is something I strongly believe in, which is why I keep doing it.

I hope to have some exciting news in the coming months (it’s not a bike baby), so watch this irregularly updated space.

It’s pretty typical of me that I decided to write this after voting has closed, but whatever - the winner will be announced at the BikeBiz awards, which this year is gently nestled within the London Bike Show in February. I might see one or two of you there. Come and say hi. And bring a cape.

100 Women in Cycling nomination

It was great to be nominated to be among Cycling UK's 100 Women in Cycling, and to meet some women doing genuinely great stuff in their communities to get more women on two wheels.

As for my contribution, it involves little more than writing articles, which I hope at times put pressure on decision makers to consider cycling to a greater extent, while exposing corporate and government attitudes to two-wheeled transport. The aim is to bring about change that will allow cycling to be taken seriously as a means of everyday travel - something that benefits everyone, not just the fit and the brave.

I hope that in my own small way I am able to have a positive impact to this end and I would like to do more in the future. Cycling really benefits everyone, and yet there is a disconnect between what we have long known in terms of these benefits and the decisions taken by planners and governments, which too often favour motorised transport at the expense of active travel - walking and cycling - and public transport. 

We know people want to live somewhere that is pleasant to be, not simply places we drive through, and if the UK hopes to be competitive in an uncertain future, to attract the best talent and the business, our towns and cities would do well to heed this.  

Here is Cycling UK's write up of the initiative; I'm in the 21-40 link.

Cycling Quietway 2 with Sustrans

The second of London's so-so Quietways is on its way to being ready, and in the spirit of investigation I cycled its length, from Waltham Forest to Bloomsbury, with some kind people from Sustrans.

Here is the route on Strava (I tried to embed but couldn't), and here on TfL's website, with road names, etc.

Starting at Walthamstow Central, on Selborne Road we headed west along this pavement cycle path, with a row of grass and tall trees in the middle. It’s also shared with pedestrians, so anyone cycling here will need to be patient - it looks like a normal pavement, aside from the bike symbols.

Update - this is actually a new section of pavement. See below: 

The route heads right on Willow Walk, via a shared, signal controlled crossing (pictured below - as you see there's a vast amount of road, with a splayed turning, and a narrow pavement). It then follows a dedicated pavement cycle path (there's one on each side of the road), to traffic lights, where you're funneled onto the road to turn left. This bit of the route is still to be decided on, so there’s nothing notable yet on the road we took. The route then follows Coppermill Lane, past some water treatment works and the home of some strong NIMBY protestations against the Quietway, apparently.  


You then cycle under a VERY low bridge. We’re talking hunkering down over your handlebars to get through (you’re advised to dismount, but I never have). This underpass can become flooded after heavy rain.


Then it’s along a wide, traffic-free, gravelly path, and up, over and down challengingly steep bridge ramps - strategic gear pre-selection, brute force, advanced bike handling skills and still pleased you made it to the top (or push the bike up), steep - to the Lea River towpath.

On the other side of the river there’s a wide road section (I've cycled here hundreds of times and never seen a car on it as it doesn't go anywhere for cars), then back to the towpath, with couple of tight chicane-style barriers on it. The path gets quite narrow in places, with overgrown shrubs on one side, buildings forming a wall on the other and wonky paving in the middle – at one point it’s only really wide enough for one person to cycle through comfortably. If someone’s walking here I will wait for them to pass before proceeding.

After a wider, pretty stretch surrounded by new flats, where Lea Bridge Road (of Waltham Forest’s future Cycle Superhighway) crosses the river you can go under on a metal towpath bridge structure, or over via a shared crossing. We went over, after briefly detouring to stare at the finished Cycle Superhighway section on Lea Bridge Road - that's the blip on the Strava map.

The route turns south, away from the river, at Millfields Park where the former separate cycle and walking route through the park were merged to a shared space, and widened. Some kind of engineering is happening at the junction with Chatsworth Road to help riders cross and proceed up Powerscroft Road - a welcome intervention on this at times aggressive rat run.

Powerscroft is a horrible road. Central speed cushions encourage traffic (including double decker buses) into the centre of the road, leaving very little space either side between them and the parked cars. I lived on nearby Clapton Square for five years and cycled here several times a week; I found it reliably stressful. 

This route is used by drivers short-cutting from Lower Clapton Road to Lea Bridge Road. I’ve seen a driver doing what I estimated to be about 50mph while overtaking a mother and child, who were cycling.

Then there’s the one way section at the south west end, with its contraflow cycle lane. Again the speed cushions draw drivers into the centre of the road, where they stray into the cycle lane, which is already in the door zone. Every time a driver’s wheels edge over that white line I feel my stress levels rising. By then you’re in “one false move…” territory.

Some drivers enter the contraflow bike lane to overtake cyclists, whether there are oncoming cyclists or not - one person deliberately drove at me, because I gestured for him to move over. I frankly can’t believe Hackney hasn’t used the Quietway to do something about Powerscroft Road. 

Then comes the really, genuinely, good bit. The closure of one arm of Clapton Square to through traffic creates a briefly excellent section, and a public space at the south east corner of the square, outside the café where I used to write. There’s bendy bollards so emergency vehicles can get in, and a new, realigned, wider shared cycle and pedestrian crossing to the desire line with Churchwell Path (right, and below, left).

This section of shared path is not only haunted, it’s a place from which I bear a scar to this day, following a close encounter with a zombie pedestrian. There's signage telling you how to cross the road, at least (below).

There’s school kids all over the path on Quietway Day and we proceed slowly to the new crossing of Morning Lane, to Chatham Place. This, incidentally, is the newly branded Hackney Walk, a designer destination where you can buy fancy clothes apparently, at what I assume to be knock down prices. Or maybe just fancy clothes (below).

This is another Hackney road that fills me with trepidation. A nicely dressed youth once threw a bottle at me here from his car, after I took the lane (wide enough for a single vehicle) on my rather slow Dutch bike. I thought he would run me down. I went to the police, but investigations were halted after it emerged he had since been stabbed, in an unrelated incident. A reminder people don’t reserve their anger for cyclists alone. 

Never mind. Traffic now can’t turn from Morning Lane to Chatham Road, reducing the likelihood of a similarly well-dressed bottler doing the same to someone else.

Crossing of Morning Lane - by Hackney Walk

On we head, through one way Brenthouse Road, newly made bidirectional for cycles, and meandering, via St Thomas’s Square, to cross Mare Street, where there will be some sort of crossing for cycles. After cycling through London Fields (a park) we join Middleton Road, the site of modal filtering battles – more exciting than it sounds.

Left - crossing of Mare Street - and some bobbies on bicycles

A compromise to the horror of halting untrammeled motor vehicle access to residential streets was a width restriction at either end. The route then crosses De Beauvoir Square – an area of longstanding modal filters – and Cycle Super(quiet)way 1, and along Northchurch Street. 

Nothing much has changed here, aside from the widening of an already traffic-free modal filter, and pretty much nothing changes on the route’s entire length through Islington, apart from widening of the already traffic-free bits -  a concrete illustration of how reliant Quietways are on boroughs actually wanting to tackle motor traffic.

From here to Bloomsbury was long a commuting route of mine, as for many, many other cyclists. It was never heavily trafficked but has some sketchy bits, including the roundabout of Northchurch and Southgate Roads where drivers often forget to give way to cyclists approaching from the right.

Cleveland and Elmore are the same, though some give way priorities have changed on Ecclesbourne Rd to favour the cycle route, which are welcome. The route zigzags, via filtered Popham and Bishop St, to Prebend St, Gerrard St, Colebrooke Row, and across the old City Road/A1 cycle & pedestrian crossing, which has been, thankfully, widened, and the narrow bit through Owen St improved, to fix a former cycling bottleneck and conflict with pedestrians.

No change through Middleton Square, Amwell St or Margery St (still Islington), until the route’s end, at the junction of Pakenham St, where the north-south cycle superhighway will intersect. Work will start on that route imminently.  

As with all Quietways, these routes are at the mercy of the borough the roads run through, and how brave or inclined they feel about restricting traffic. Nothing on this route has tackled through traffic, apart from the excellent bit at Clapton Square and the one-way section by the designer shops.

Chatting to my kind Sustrans guides it's clear a lot of work has gone into making this route the best it can be with what boroughs will permit. This is not months, but years, of painstaking, at times no doubt dispiritingly boring work, with little to show until the very end of the project. 

At last! Some weather to talk about

What's a person got to do to get some weather around here?! Not many people seem to realise, but we've experienced a drought here in Blighty. My local lake has actually dried up. Which is no joke for a Laker. 

So it was with some excitement I greeted the onslaught of this week's rain.

At last! I thought.

I'm not sure why people complain about rain so much; I've been drenched two nights running, and frankly I quite enjoyed it. But then it was raining when I was born, so perhaps that’s my weather.

Last night the trains at Liverpool St were stuck, because of signal failures, and so taking one look at the masses of backed up commuters crammed onto platforms, I thought better of it and hopped on a Boris Bike.


I pedalled furiously, until my glasses were too rain-obscured, and then hopped on a DLR. Followed by a bus. Followed by a walk. If not easy, it at least lent my commute some novelty value. I probably should have just cycled in the first place. 

Today was the second drenching, of course. I popped by Palestra on the way home; TfL's secret headquarters which are located in a large building by Southwark Station, right beside the North-South cycle superhighway - or CS6 as number enthusiasts might call it - for a top secret meeting about cycling. 

I'd sagely decided this morning that my already stuffed rucksack, which pushed 10kg last week on trips to and from my new office, didn’t need the extra weight of a jacket, what with the sunny, warm weather and all.

It was only upon glancing out the window at 4pm, as I was about to head to Southwark, I realised this was A Mistake.

I considered public transport for a brief moment, then thought better of it.

It was actually OK once you got in past your shoulders. I put my cycling clothes back on from this morning, and embraced the rain, managing to get changed again in a loo before my meeting.

Rain is the perfect excuse to talk to your fellow cycling Londoner. And they are full of gems of wisdom, as well as each emitting their own miniature water feature from their back wheels in wet weather, like watery tails.

I chatted briefly to a woman on a Boris Bike, on the East-West Cycle Superhighway on the way home, who got in on my selfie.

She agreed the rain was unexpected, before expressing a feeling about cycling in the rain I hadn’t quite put my finger on, but had inspired the silly grin I'd worn since Palestra.

“It feels like an adventure”.

Later, at the end of CS2 in Stratford, and nearly home, I sensed the time was ripe for more small talk with fellow cyclists.

I exclaimed what a lovely evening it was for a bike ride as five or so men on bikes bunched up beside me at some lights. As we waited in the pouring rain one rolled his eyes comically; another observed: “No wind, light rain. It couldn’t be better!”

And you know what? He was right. Even with my clothes soaked through, my arms numb and cold, and hands slipping on brakes that worked half as well as they do in the dry, it couldn’t have been better.

Who needs the same thing every day?! Give me weather. This is my home at last! face.