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.