Online Feature: Access All Areas Part 2

Dave once again takes up the torch of land access reform for mountain bikers in the UK and here, in an article reproduced from Issue 58, he takes readers’ questions and thoughts on the issue and adds his own.

Last issue I invited comments and thoughts on what I’d written in Access All Areas in issue 58, an article I’d hoped would stimulate some debate on the issue of riding footpaths. Between a lengthy forum thread and many emails on the subject, a good discussion has begun. Contact and feedback from local Rights of Way officers and a ‘source close to government’ has been very promising. I’d like to take the opportunity to address some of the points raised and look at ways forward to keep momentum going.

So with a bit of cut and pasting, here goes. Apologies in advance for not individually crediting people but space is at a premium and I’d like to make the most of my word allowance. Needless to say thanks to everyone who contributed.

“For me, trail use boils down to two separate but usually muddled issues: access rights and impact. I don’t give a stuff about access rights, they are historic nonsense. But I care a lot about impact: noise, distraction, erosion, damage and risk to other users. Impact guides my choice of trails.”

It was great to get a general feeling of consensus about this point with nearly all replies mentioning this approach. Access based on impact seems to be the right way to address the need for a better system of rights of way. Riding a footpath is in no way comparable to a trail bike on a bridleway, motorised users have a whole magnitude of impact more than we do.

“Many people will still be annoyed by it simply because it is prescribed by law. If the same person saw you riding the same piece of ground but it was classed as a bridleway, they may be unconcerned as to your presence. The mere fact that you are perceived as doing something you are not supposed to be doing can be enough to make someone angry, even if no inconvenience or damage is being caused. Many people just don’t like others “getting away with something” they shouldn’t be doing.“

This I think is the main issue we need to address; the ‘you shouldn’t be here’ argument. Calmly putting forward a counter argument showing a level of responsibility and common sense approach with an awareness for impact seems the best way of disarming it. Pointing out the random way we’ve arrived at the rights of way network we have.

“I have been riding off-road in the countryside for over 25 years, and have noticed other users’ reactions have gone from astonishment at coming across a bike in the early days, to confrontation and complaint during the initial MTB ‘boom years’ to general acceptance of us as part of the outdoors scene.”

A lot of opposition and early confrontation seemed to come from elderly ramblers not used to seeing bikes on trails; putting it bluntly, they’re a dying breed.Today’s outdoor user tends to have several different sports they take part in, the walker you meet today is likely to be out mountain biking themselves next time you meet.This shift away from tribalism is to our advantage as we can show that our impact is no worse than walking or trail running.

“Isn’t it that Trail centres have raised the bar a bit from what we expect from our trails? Most bridleways are pretty tame really so it is always tempting to go on a footpath. After going to a trail centre you see the possibilities and start looking elsewhere or complaining when your local trail is bulldozed flat.”

The requirement to maintain bridleways suitable to the needs of horses is definitely an issue where we’re better catered for on footpaths.Trail sanitising was certainly a factor in the widespread acceptance by riders of footpath poaching in Calderdale and I’m sure the same can be said of other areas. Removing the technical nature of trails not only encourages riders to look further afield but can also lead to more trail conflict by increasing the speed the trail is ridden. Fast approaching riders often seem intimidating to other users and are a common source of complaint. More technical trails keep speeds lower.

“Under current RoW law, access and surfaces of paths have to be kept suitable for the permitted user group (e.g. you’re not allowed to put a stile across a byway, or plough up footpaths) – how would that work if more of the countryside was open to cyclists?”

I think the best way forward on this is that no requirement to maintain paths for cycles is acknowledged. Stiles can easily be negotiated with a bike, admittedly some trails with many stiles would be unattractive to riding but that would be a small price to pay for wider access.

“Until MTBing actually gets itself organised and gets a voice with the same amount of clout as, say, the Ramblers or the British Horse Society then nothing is going to happen. You’ve got Sustrans, CTC, British Cycling, IMBA all with their own slightly different agenda (cycling as transport, cycling as fun, MTB racing etc) and none of them lobbying effectively for a change in the law – it needs ONE voice with a common aim.”

This is one message that has come back repeatedly from officialdom. It’s not that no one wants to listen to what we have to say (in fact everyone I spoke to said they want to hear from us) but rather that no one is speaking for us. Other outdoor users have the ear of government; is it really so hard for mountain bikers to get organised enough to have representation? At the moment we’re missing the opportunity to push at what seems to be an open door.

The CTC has a very good document on this matter. I don’t know how they are moving the debate along though or if this just sits on their website.

www.ctc.org.uk/resources/Campaigns/0604_DMox_NCAF_Future_of_Cycling_final.doc

It seems to me that the CTC are the best placed to campaign for a Scottish style access code.They’re a well-established campaigning body that’s already recognised by government and has that Ramblers’ air of respectability. So what are they doing about the future of bike access to the outdoors?

Next issue I’m hoping to chat to the CTC and The Ramblers about their views on the issue of access, if you’ve got any questions you want me to ask email me dave@singletrackworld.com (feedback and thoughts also welcome)

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Online Feature