Sustrans aims to remove 16,000 barriers on the NCN

Stairs on the NCN 22
Sustrans ambition is to remove or redesign 16,000 barriers on the entire network
Sustrans launches its new vision for the National Cycle Network (NCN) that recommends a complete overhaul which will remove barriers and allow more people to use it, especially children and anyone with impaired mobility.

Paths for everyone is Sustrans first report to look not just at the current state of the NCN over its 23 year lifetime, but also what its future could be.

It’s the conclusion of a major review and independent audit of a network that snakes 16,575 miles through England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. As a network it is easily reached, with reportedly over half of the UK population living within a mile of it, but as the Bristol based charity points out, this does not mean it is accessible to everyone.

Steps, fords, stiles, mud baths, fast roads and poor signage are just some of the obstacles holding the network back from being open to everyone.

“Historic problems such as poor surfaces, incomplete signage or barriers mean for people with mobility issues or those of us who are less physically active, there may as well be a ‘no entry’ sign on their local path,” says Sustrans CEO, Xavier Brice. “We have two priorities – to make the Network safer and more accessible for everyone.”

We have two priorities – to make the Network safer and more accessible for everyone.

Xavier Brice, Sustrans CEO

Despite these barriers, the network still enables over 780 million journeys each year from the Shetland Islands to Land’s End, but as Mr Brice points out, with proper investment it could do so much more: “In pure transport terms, the NCN presents a huge opportunity to transform the way people travel. But the benefits of investing in the network will be seen right across government, like relieving pressure on the NHS budget.”

Just over two thirds (68 percent) of the network – 11, 271 miles – is on road, and this includes nearly 2,000 miles of busy A and B roads. This isn’t good enough, says Mr Brice, whose vision is “to make the Network traffic free and safe for a 12-year-old to use on their own.”

Currently, according to the report, only 54 percent of the network is suitable for a 12-year-old to use safely.

Overhauling the network will require removing 16,000 identified barriers. In doing so, Sustrans estimates double the number of people will use the network.

The charity says this is achievable over the next 22 years and will only require an investment of £2.8bn. This level of investment would soon be recovered, as Sustrans estimates the total amount of trips would generate £7.8bn in economic and local benefits every year. This would be through reduced road congestion and health benefits associated with increased exercise, and also includes £5bn in benefits to local businesses from tourism and leisure.

Cycling UK, along with other cycling organisations such as inclusive cycling charity, Wheels for Wellbeing and British Cycling and national organisations like the Forestry Commission and Canal and River Trust, contributed to the NCN’s review.

“Cycling UK are proud to be supporting the review of the National Cycle Network. We believe that cycling can help make happier healthier communities for all and the National Cycle Network provides a great environment for new and existing cyclists alike,” said Cycling UK’s Director of Influence and Engagement, Matt Mallinder.

“Safe, signposted and traffic-light routes provide reassurance and easy navigation to discover communities by bike as well as inspiration to explore further afield.”

The review sets out 15 recommendations for local authorities, private and charitable landowners, national governments and agencies, to transform the Network, including:

  1. Set the tone for harmonious use of the Network by everyone.
  2. Remove or redesign all 16,000 barriers on the Network to make it accessible to everyone, with no barriers in place for continuous travel.
  3. Transform the Network by replacing existing on-road sections with new traffic-free paths or by creating quiet-way  sections so it is safer for everyone.
  4. Ensure that where the Network is on a quiet-way section the speed limit is 20mph in built-up areas and 40mph in rural areas.
  5. Improve safety at crossings where the Network crosses roads or railways.
  6. Adopt a new quality standard to ensure path widths and surfaces are built for everyone.
  7. Improve signage so everyone can use the paths without a map or smartphone.
  8. Deliver over 50 activation projects across the UK by 2023 to improve the Network and demonstrate change.
  9. Introduce a process for de-designation of parts of the Network that cannot be improved – and a clear process for  incorporating new routes that fill gaps or make new connections.
  10. Make it easier for people using the Network to feed back on its condition – and use this insight to improve it.
  11. Promote the Network to new users.
  12. Encourage greater community involvement in designing, developing and maintaining the Network.
  13. Provide open data on the Network.
  14. Report regularly on the impact of the Network in improving everyone’s lives and places.
  15. Establish clear governance to bring together land managers, funders, users and others.

Sam’s case study: fragments of a town to country cycle trip

To look at the map, cycling from the town where I work to my home village in the countryside shouldn't be too difficult. It's a straightforward journey along the road, but entirely unappealing due to both the speed and density of motor traffic.

Fortunately, there are alternative, cycle-friendlier routes, but each require compromise and whether I use them or not depends on the season.

The first obstacle is a huge bridge crossing two very busy A roads. The railings are 13cm too short, so cycling is currently banned for safety reasons – despite there being no recorded incidents in the last 30 years.

Following the canal into the town centre helps to avoid motor traffic, but the lack of lighting and frequently muddy surface means it's not a suitable route for all bikes and users, and you need good lights in winter. 

Heading out of town, the route most people take is part of the National Cycle Network (NCN) 22. To get onto it legally, I have to use a pedestrian crossing, cycle along a 1/2 mile stretch of an A road, come off at another traffic light and then wait (ages sometimes) for a toucan crossing to let me back onto the other side of the road again. Alternatively, I can avoid the road and cycle legitimately through a small park by the canal. This is OK, but the path is fairly narrow and popular with dog-walkers, and ends with some very steep concrete steps.

From there, it's plain-sailing along a shared use path but, disappointingly, the surface is prone to flooding after prolonged rain and there’s another steep set of steps added to the mix! The lack of lighting and rough muddy surface at the top is off-putting for all but the most determined, as is the fast-ish rocky descent on the return journey. Consequently, I tend to avoid this route in winter months.

Ending up in a midway village, to keep on the right side of the law I have to cross a busy road not once but twice to keep on the NCN, which joins a shared use narrow tarmac path leading to the beginning of a route along a disused railway line.

In summer, this link is an ideal motor traffic-free route; in winter, large patches turn to muddy puddles that are treacherous below freezing and, again it’s all unlit. 

Despite the multiple obstacles, compared to joining the motor traffic, it's a dream, but you have to be committed to cycling to use it regularly and for anything but the occasional leisure ride – preferably in the summer when it's dry and sunny. Also, I’ve had to cobble it all together myself over time, and I remember it being very confusing at first. I’ve also had to adapt it to the seasons ever since.

It would be easier to use if:

  • The links between the various sections were smoother and more obvious – it wouldn’t be impossible to improve the road crossing points, or even introduce schemes to avoid the need to cross at all;
  • The off-road paths were better maintained;  
  • If the steps were ironed out entirely!

Our local campaign group has proposed a ‘greenway’ that would create a much better linked motor traffic-free route. If that gets the go-ahead, it’ll make a huge difference to me, other commuters and anyone wanting to take a leisure-time ride from town to our rural villages.

This case study appeared in Cycling UK's vision for rural cycling, Beyond the Green Belt.