What's Beyond the Green Belt for cycling?
Town and city cycling tends to focus on using bikes for transport - to get to work, school, college, shops - and, of course, residents of rural communities make cycle trips like this too. The ‘utility’ aspect doesn’t mean that people don’t or can’t enjoy this kind of cycling, and Cycling UK wants it to grow into the natural choice for adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds.
Arguably, though, cycling in the countryside has the edge on fun: awaydays with family and friends; unforgettable views, National Trails, National Parks, AONBs, forests and woodlands; clean air and peace, village tea and cake shops, foxes and fieldfares, and, if you’re more of an extremist, gravel, rocks, tree stumps and seas of mud.
Cycling UK knows for a fact that thousands of people already love cycling off-road. Our ‘Rides of Way’ survey, published in 2017, attracted responses from nearly 11,500 riders, two thirds of whom told us they’d been enjoying the activity for over a decade.
We also know that whether they’re off-road, on-road, or mix it up, cyclists spend money in local pubs, cafés and restaurants, they book into hostels and B&Bs, they visit National Parks, monuments and wildlife reserves – many are, essentially, tourists out to enjoy themselves with a budget. Local businesses and communities are bound to benefit from the rural pedalling pound.
Yet even experienced a regular off-roaders tell us they don't always find their kind of riding trouble-free. Top frustrations are poor signposting and, in England and Wales, an incoherent and often illogical rights of way network for cycling that makes it difficult to put together a 'legal' route. They also mentioned the lack of quiet roads to help feed them safely and seamlessly onto off-road routes.
This may well be one of the reasons why off-road cycling has such a narrow appeal in terms of diversity. Most enthusiasts seem to identify themselves as ‘white British’ and male, a fact that glared us straight in the face from our Rides of Way survey – 92% and 87% ticked these boxes respectively.
Visionary advances and legislation
The good news is that, in recent years, Cycling UK has witnessed and been involved in major advances in Wales and Scotland. Not only have these nations recognised in principle the benefits of making it easier for people to cycle and walk in rural areas, but their governments have also used their powers to introduce daring, progressive legislation to facilitate it.
- Our ongoing Trails for Wales campaign has been helping the public engage with Government proposals for making it easier for people to enjoy the countryside;
- If implemented properly, The Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 should see truly coherent and comprehensive cycling and walking networks linking urban areas neatly the countryside;
- The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 has already granted the public lawful access to most land and inland water, without distinguishing between walking, cycling and horse riding.
Wales and Scotland are both strong examples of change for the better. They show what can be done with political will, and are a valuable inspiration for England to develop a modernised system of its own.
Dreaming of a better network: mechanisms
Within and by means of the current system - and hopefully reforms will happen in time - English local authorities highways and rights of way departments do have mechanisms at their command to improve their networks and, in the Green Belt context, to enhance connectivity between settlements and off-road routes. Also, their planning departments and landowners have the potential to make a positive contribution too.
Potentially, all of the following could make a huge difference:
- Rights of Way Improvement Plans (England & Wales)
- Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans (England, outside London)
- Joint-working on both of the above
- Lower speed limits and traffic calming for some minor rural roads
- Grants and subsidies for landowners to plug gaps in the network and enhance it in other ways
Dreaming of a better network: old railways, National Trails & Parks, and themed loops
- Some disused railway lines have already been converted into first-class cycle paths, but we're keep to see others secured and opened to the public;
- There's still enormous potential to promote cycling within National Parks, both for recreation and to reduce the impact of motorised traffic on local rural communities;
- Only two of the fifteen National Trails in England & Wales are fully open to cyclists and horse riders. Powers do exist to upgrade the footpath sections so that riders don't have to dismount so often, and we're urging the relevant authorities to use them.
- For some, simply walking or cycling freely in the countryside is entertainment enough. Others may need more of a staged, facilitated experience at a trail centre or bike park, say. A family’s cycling day out could be all the more fun on a circular, signposted route themed with a story, or some obvious historical or botanical landmarks to investigate on the way. It’s the overall experience that matters.
Making it happen
So, that’s our vision for what we want cycling in the countryside to look and feel like, but having the vision is just the first step. We now need to make it happen.
To do this, Cycling UK will be working tirelessly to influence national governments, major landowners, local authorities and other stakeholders to bring about this change.
If you share our vision for cycling Beyond the Green Belt, you can help us bring it to life by joining our network of campaigners.