National Cycling Network: An Ambitious Vision of an Active Britain

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National Cycling Network: An Ambitious Vision of an Active Britain

Far-reaching plans for a traffic-and-barrier free cycling and walking network were unveiled last week by the cycling charity, Sustrans. Designed to allow ‘a sensible 12-year-old’ to travel alone across the country, Sustrans' planned network would link most settlements of 10,000 people or more while expanding on the existing 12,786-mile system, connecting all corners of the UK and making them accessible to those even without cars.

Sustrans looks also to remove all barriers from network, a move that would allow all cyclists, particularly those on adaptive bikes, to make the most of available British cycle paths. As highlighted in a recent blog post, for those who use tandems, handcycles, trikes, etc., the current cycle lane infrastructure, while having greatly expanded over the past few years, is still designed with conventional bicycles in mind. For example, where lanes have physical barriers (to control livestock and stop motorbikes riding down them), adaptive cyclists are essentially barred from using them, putting limits on where they can go, explore and exercise - neither are they conducive to social distancing or a particularly inviting installation.

CEO of Sustrans, Xavier Brice, dubbed the network a "national asset...on the doorstep of millions of people", and wants it accessible to everyone. It 'won't replace the need for fully segregated high-volume cycle lanes in cities and towns'  or 'replace the need for neighbourhoods that are pleasant and easy to move around without a car', Brice suggests the system will instead constitute 'a strategic arterial core network.’

Following this announcement, the next step in development will be to plan the network in detail (to be completed by 2023). Using a process similar to that rolled out in London to identify potential sites for Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods, traffic-free sections and “quiet ways” will be designated on existing roads, while accompanying speed limits of 20mph in urban areas and 40mph in rural areas will be introduced in these chosen sections.

The task, while very admirable, is extremely ambitious. Sustrans owns only 2% of the network and the rest of the network is in a questionable state – indeed, a third is classed as very poor. With the target to complete 416 miles of improvements by 2023 when the rest of the network is to be completely planned out, only 315 of 16,000 barriers have been removed so far, so a barrier free complete network might not be made reality for quite some time.

However, the recent founding of Active Travel England, a body designed to supervise the Government’s active transport goals, will hopefully mean more consistent support for the initiative and guarantees that adaptive cyclists will be catered for in this network.

There is clearly more work to be done to make cycling more inclusive, but initiatives such as this are helping the industry to move in the right direction. Government must support this as much as it can - a Department of Transport recently spokesperson promised that “we will continue to support this wonderful national asset as we build on our commitments to make walking and cycling easier, safer and more accessible for all." This promise must be kept.

We need more people on bikes, for environmental, social and public health reasons, but this won't happen miraculously of its own accord - serious investment and lobbying must coalesce to encourage more people to move away from cars, leave behind congestion and pollution and embrace active transport.


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