Cycling charity launches ambitious plan to boost UK-wide path network

Amasterplan for a UK-wide traffic and barrier-free national cycling and walking network (NCN) suitable for “a sensible 12-year-old travelling alone” is to be launched on Wednesday.

The ambitious plan would link most settlements of 10,000 people or more, and would make travel easier for wheelchair users, who can face multiple hurdles, while growing and improving the existing 12,786-mile network to reach all corners of the UK.

However, there are concerns that at the current rate of progress – Sustrans, the charity that manages the network, will complete 416 miles of improvements by 2023, and has removed just 315 of 16,000 barriers – the goal of a barrier-free network could take another 150 years.

The charity owns only 2% of the network, much of which is on public roads, and its latest report into the state of the current NCN shows how far there is still to go. Only a third of the NCN is currently traffic-free. A third (33%) is classed by Sustrans as very poor, 61% good and only 2% very good.

Xavier Brice, Sustrans’ CEO, told the Guardian: “The idea of the National Cycle Network isn’t to, for example, replace the need for fully segregated high-volume cycle lanes in cities and towns, or to replace the need for neighbourhoods that are pleasant and easy to move around without a car. This is a strategic arterial core network.

“It’s about more than cycling. It’s about mobility scooters, wheelchairs, pushchairs, and in some places, horse riding as well.”

Brice said the recent founding of Active Travel England, a non-executive body to deliver on the government’s walking and cycling goals, will mean more consistent funding, as well as enforcement of standards that don’t discriminate against disabled cyclists or wheelchair users. On average, 800 fences and chicanes need to be removed per year to meet a barrierless target of 2040.

Brice said that while “in an ideal world, we’d just get the angle grinders and remove them all … people will often believe that they’re there for good reason”, such as to prevent off-road motorbikers illegally using the paths.

“The fundamental point that we mustn’t lose sight of is: these barriers are discriminatory; they discriminate against wheelchairs, and mobility scooters and adapted trikes, people out with buggies, and therefore they need to go,” he said.The charity argues that by providing safe, accessible cycling, walking and horse-riding links the NCN can help the UK meet its physical activity, climate change and active travel targets. Usage grew by 19%, or 121m trips, in 2020 as people used green spaces for their daily exercise during the pandemic, with 6% of users in 2020 new or returning to cycling. This despite the fact Sustrans removed 3,733 miles, or a quarter of the network, in 2020 that no longer met the charity’s goals of “paths for everyone”.

The masterplan map draws straight lines between settlements of 10,000 or more people, including reconnecting and improving missing sections. The next step, by June 2023, will be to set out a strategy for every mile of the network – including identifying new traffic-free sections and creating “quiet ways” on existing roads, with speed limits of 20mph in urban areas, 40mph in rural areas. This is using a process similar to one produced in identifying new London cycling routes.

Sustrans calls the NCN a “national asset … on the doorstep of millions of people”, and wants it to be accessible to everyone.


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