Open Access for Wales?

The National Assembly for Wales recently released a White Paper on a proposed piece of legislation called the Active Travel (Wales) Bill. Like the name suggests, the bill aims to encourage walking and cycling as a viable alternative to other modes of transport – and in fact to make it not just an alternative, but to make it the “the most natural and normal way of getting about” for people in Wales.

The White Paper highlights the health benefits, reduced carbon emissions, positive effects on people living poverty plus the promotion of economic growth that such legislation would create – indeed, the Bill has been described as “a public health bill with transport in the title”.

Although the devolved Welsh government has tried to increase the numbers of people walking and riding with their Walking and Cycling Action Plan they’ve only seen modest gains. With the Active Travel Bill they plan to go much further by coming up with ideas that remove barriers that prevent people choosing to walk or ride instead of taking the car.

What are those barriers? Poor facilities at work, lack of storage space for a cycle at work, the lack of the culture of cycling that exists in other countries – these all play a part.

Unsurprisingly, the number one concern is fear for safety, whether that be from proximity to traffic or fear of assault or robbery on poorly lit paths. Fear of being near to fast moving traffic is a valid concern. An IAM report shows that per billion passenger kilometres in 2010 there were 3,435 casualties amongst those travelling by bike and 1,537 by foot, compared with 227 casualties per billion kilometres travelled by car. That makes riding a bicycle second only in danger to a riding a motorcycle – and it’s worth bearing in mind that Britain has some of the world’s safest roads.

As a result of this it makes a lot of sense to improve transport networks and create genuinely useful and interlinked walking and cycling routes for people to use. Seems sensible, doesn’t it? We think so.

But what’s this got to do with mountain biking?

As part of the White Paper many groups (thank you Sustrans and the CTC) have spoken out about complexity of legislation surrounding rights of way and cycle tracks as a major barrier to the creation of of new routes. They’ve basically pointed out that some Rights of Way law make no sense – for example, allowing pedestrians to use bike paths but not allowing bicycles to use footpaths. It’s a nonsensical situation anyone familiar with the RoW network in England and Wales will be familiar with.

At the moment, Local Authorities can convert footpaths into cycle paths – section 3 of the Cycle Tracks Act 1984 – but it’s time consuming, complicated and expensive. As part of their consultation, the Assembly are looking for views on whether the definitions of rights of way in Wales should be amended to expand the number of routes suitable for cyclists and pedestrians, e.g. should cyclists be allowed on footpaths?

The White Paper is eminently sensible about the practicalities of doing this. The massive cost of converting footpaths to the standards required for them to be bridleways or cycle paths be prohibitive and, while recognising that different RoW are constructed and specified to different levels, they would try to limit the costs of any changes by not including retrospective requirements to amend footpath furniture, signage – and most importantly – surface.

Not that we wish to blow our own trumpet, but this is what we (and many others) have been asking for. Allow cycles on footpaths without forcing Local Authorities to meet what is wrongly perceived as the minimum requirement for anyone to be able ride on them safely. It’s a massive move in the right direction and the National Assembly for Wales, although currently geared more to semi urban and urban use. The report states:

“Some footpaths will be too busy or will not have sufficient lines of sight for cyclists to use without risking injury to pedestrians. Some routes, such as cliff-top paths, could also be dangerous for cyclists. However, many of the footpaths regularly used by walkers, particularly in urban and semi-urban areas are of a quality and type which would allow cyclists to use them safely. There are also a number, particularly in more rural settings, which may be sensibly utilised by other users such as horse riders or carriage drivers.”

We’d disagree with that in part – why not open all footpaths to bicycles unless there is a specific, sensible and valid reason – rather than perceived worry – for them not to be used? Where just issues are raised, such as conflict between walkers and cyclists, why not allow user groups to come to an agreement which would suit the interests of both parties?

That’s something that’s worked exceptionally well in Wales before – the voluntary ban of cyclists on Snowdon during peak summer hours is respected almost to a fault and allows enjoyment of one of Wales’ greatest natural attractions by many different users with minimal conflict despite the heavy traffic.

Anyway, the consultation is asking for your input and we’d suggest that you offer it to them – preferably having read the White Paper (available for download as a PDF here) first.

The process is open until the 14th August and these are the questions they’d like answers to:

1.    What are your views on the proposals for Local Authorities to have a duty to:

  • identify and map the routes within their areas that are safe and appropriate for walking and cycling;
  • identify and map the enhancements that would be required to create a fully integrated network for walking and cycling and develop a prioritised list of schemes to deliver the network;
  • deliver an enhanced network subject to budget availability and following due process;
  • consider the potential for enhancing walking and cycling provision in the development of new road schemes?

2.    How do you think the duty should be enforced?

3.    Do you think the type of routes and facilities that Local Authorities be required to map should be specified in guidance or regulation?

4.    What are your views about revising rights of way definitions, for example allowing cyclists to use footpaths, or equestrians to use cycle paths?

5.    What are your views of the proposal for new design guidance?

6.    What would the costs and the benefits of these proposals be to you or your organisation (or the people your organisation represents)?

7.    We have asked a series of specific questions. Is there anything else that you would like us to consider as part of the development of the Active Travel Bill, or wider activity to encourage walking and cycling?

You can head to the consultation page here to read more about the proposed Bill or if you’re super keen, there’s an online form here.

If you’re currently a resident of Wales then it may be worth getting in touch with your AM to make them aware of your feelings on the issue. You can find out who that is here.

This is an incredibly rare chance to put forward the case for being allowed Scottish style open access in Wales and frankly, it’s one that’s unlikely to happen again in your lifetime. We, whether you want to be labelled as mountain bikers, cyclists, equestrians, pedestrians, residents, visitors or business owners, need to make our thoughts on this issue known and now would be the time to do it.

If we can make a clear and concise case for allowing open access with negotiated exceptions in Wales, then the absurdity of the Right of Way system can be exposed and changed for the better, first in Wales, then until the whole of the UK can enjoy the rights, freedoms and responsibilities that Scotland currently enjoys…

Categorised as:

Access