Bez: Some Blue Signs

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Late last year I accidentally ended up with a new cyclocross bike; something I’ve had before in a couple of different forms but have been missing for a while. It’s ideal for mixing bridleways with rural backroads, and when I use it for the ride to work it’s a good way of dodging several parts of my normal route where drivers pose particular risk.

But it’s interesting that I need a specific bike to do this.

Here are a couple of photos taken on my commute this morning.



This is fine, you might say. After all, I set out to mix up bridleways and backroads. And in my specific case, that’d be a broadly fair point.

But these aren’t bridleways as such.

These are sections of our National Cycle Network.

(A brief digression: At the moment that link takes you to a page atop which sits a banner asking for charitable donations to repair the flooded network: a plaintive illustration of the total disregard that government has for cycling as a mode of transport. Seen any “Donate now” buttons asking to help repair potholes on A-roads recently?)

The three reactions

There are three basic ways in which people can react to virtually impassable cycleways.

The first reaction is that of a tiny minority, of which I am intermittently one, and that is to use the path anyway (at least on an occasional basis). To do this, you’ll need a hardy bike, hardy legs and a hardy attitude. And decent shower facilities at work. Not many people have all these, let alone want to exercise them on a frequent basis, and nor should they be required to.

The second reaction is that of a larger (but still small) minority, of which I am more frequently one, and that is to ride on the road instead. If you’re reading this as a seasoned bicycle rider then this might not seem like a big deal, but the simple fact is that it exposes people to the dangers of motorised traffic. There is perhaps no clearer example of this than that of Robert Don, who—being unable to use the cycle path along the A9 due to it being flooded—took to the main road and was hit from behind by a bus driver. He died from his injuries.

The third reaction is of course the most common by far, and that is not to use a bicycle at all. The farcical state of the National Cycle Network is a notable contributor to the general public’s perception of cycling as being either a matter of taking to the road and pretending to be in the Tour de France; or one of having a very British “character building” day out, dragging one’s children (complete with decorative helmets dangling off the backs of their heads) through a few miles of filth before trying to laugh about it, quoting Nietszche, and then letting the bikes go rusty in the shed.

The third reaction not only has the effect of increasing pollution, congestion, and so on, but also adds to the danger faced by those who choose the second reaction, and therefore increases the likelihood that they too will choose the third instead. There is a vicious circle at work here.

Country ways

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s take a look at a rural cycleway in—yes, you’ve guessed it—the Netherlands.


Now, of course, not all UK cycleways are submerged, six inches deep in thick mud, cratered or otherwise totally impractical for utility cycling. But a lot of rural ones are, even in summer; and more than a few urban ones are, too.

But the Netherlands shows (again) that with political will it’s perfectly possible to provide practical year-round utility routes. I expect not all rural cycleways in the Netherlands are perfect, but if you do a Google Images search for “fietspad” things don’t exactly look bad.

It’s a subject that Cycling Embassy chair Mark Treasure has covered in detail on more than one occasion, and I’d thoroughly recommend reading “Natural character” and “The role for surfacing in rural areas”.

When is a network not a network?

The National Cycle Network has a grand name, but for the most part is of little consequence or practical use. It’s more notional than national; more not-work than network.

It’s important to consider the three reactions above. A network such as the UK’s—predominantly made up of ordinary roads, unsurfaced off-road routes, terrible paint treatments and outright nonsense—serves to do one thing: to keep people off pedal cycles of all sorts, and in cars. And to actively support a network in that form is to support that result; it is to make that result a goal.

I’ll leave you with a tweet. One of the great things about Twitter is that it necessitates pithy wording, and I think the general state of affairs can be neatly summed up as follows:

Comments (12)

    How about we also try to open up more country foot[paths to bikes? Round where i live there is one bridleway of 1/2 mile long but miles of footpaths which are lightly used. There is also the Ashdown forest which is bared to cyclists which is another very unfair restriction. To cycle off road from where i am you have to drive for about half an hour which is not exactly encouraging for the majority of people and i’m sure its the same in many other places. As you can see from some areas are almost no go zones for bikes off road. having commuted to work by bike for the last five years i have a pretty braod range of both grea and not so great and downright frightening experiences on the road. So if we want to encourage people to cycle and be healthy surely its time we looked at how to use the country side more widely and fairly and encourage people by makings things more accessible. Just my two peneth worth

    I should probably add a postscript to this.

    I know that much of Sustrans’ work is done by people, many of whom are volunteers, who put in a great deal of effort, and this column is in no way intended to diminish that.

    But all that effort is applied within a system that is fundamentally broken. For the provision of active transport infrastructure to be a charitable exercise is either crazy or corrupt, given that it has been shown time and time again that it pays dividends not only in terms of people’s health and welfare, but also in terms of cold, hard cash.

    The dismal state of much the NCN is not a reflection on those who give their time freely to maintain it; it is a reflection on much wider and larger issues, and on those whose remits those issues fall within.

    Genuine question: The Netherlands cycle path network is often cited as an example of great cycle infrastructure. Do they end up full of dog walkers, kids on scooters etc anytime the sun comes out like uk cycle paths?

    Possibly but I bet they have more respect for each other than we do.

    Great article, round my way the bridleways have been wrecked by scramblers making them impossible to ride along and also with the bits like in the photos you’ve shown. It frustrates me that so many people in Britain look apon cycling as an odd and kind of novelty thing to do on a Sunday afternoon (certainly MTB) and I think this attitude is certainly why no progress is made over the decades. But here’s the thing….WE HAVE NO MONEY! Our councils can’t afford fundamental road repairs let alone improvements to bridleways. Decades of bad government, bad councils and low taxes have contributed to this, and now we are up a creek!! But hey, riding in the mud is more fun and soon tyres will be such high volume we will be able to ride on water 😉

    “The Netherlands cycle path network is often cited as an example of great cycle infrastructure. Do they end up full of dog walkers, kids on scooters etc anytime the sun comes out like uk cycle paths?”

    In a word, no. There are some shared paths but there are also very clear guidelines about when to use this approach. Anything above a certain volume of pedestrians and bikes per hour, and they build separate paths for bikes and pedestrians. Examples here:

    I think the real failure of Sustrans was not bringing in a set of these guidelines. Creating a National Cycle Network was an inspired move and it now means that loads of towns have a converted railway path or similar that kids can learn to cycle on. But without pressure on central government to deliver decent quality infra for day-to-day journeys it was always going to have limited benefits.

    The NCN has the double whammy of being built to no particular standard, and being delivered in large part by local authorities who don’t have deep pockets and don’t have the faintest clue about cycling.

    As a side note, Sustrans’ funding has been cut so much that I suspect that in the future those blue NCN signs will become the equivalent of those CTC plaques you see on cafés: a quaint reminder of a time when cycling was an everyday leisure option for a lot of people.

    From my experience they might as well change the blue signs to indicate an open dog toilet

    “There is a vicious circle at work here.”

    Certainly is. Build it and they will come, or rather, build it poorly as a token gesture and they won’t. You can then cite lack of use as a fair reson for not investing in it and only the ‘Cycling Militants’ will argue for their ‘unfair share of transport cash’.

    If only people in the position to change things could understand the well-being good-mood benefits of walking or cycling on the good bits of the NCN on a nice day. I get that experience on my way to work. It’s one of those good things in life that can’t be measured but to me it’s part of the answer to why many European countries have higher happiness measures than we do in the UK. It’s the simple value of local transport in an environment where children don’t need to walk 2ft away from traffic while wearing hi-viz and wildlife isn’t flattened but thrives.
    It’s a bit like marketing, you can’t always measure the return easily but sometimes it’s clear to see. If you only invest in measureables and never take a risk on your intuition you’re going to miss out.

    Problem is, anyone in a position of power won’t give two hoots about happiness indicators. Money talks in those circles.

    Now, it’s well established that investing in good active transport infrastructure pays dividends. But there are a couple of issues with that.

    One is that the benefit doesn’t necessarily pay back to the same pot: a significant increase in cycling would require highways spending, but would reduce the costs of providing healthcare and emergency services. So if you wanted to save public money, you’d need an accounting framework which was able to take a holistic view of the demands on the Exchequer, rather than prioritising departmentalised accountancy.

    Another is that reducing the spend from other services might not actually be desirable to those in power, regardless of the net effect on the public purse. For instance, if your political intentions involved transferring services away from the private sector to the public then reducing the need for those services in any way would make the offering less attractive to private companies. On a related note, one might also ponder how any action to undermine the economic base of certain economic heavyweights such as car manufacturers and oil firms might play out with political backers.

    Once rationally positive effects of a certain investment are well known, which in this case they are, then any failure to make that investment must be attributable to a mixture of basically three things: impracticality, stupidity or corruption.

    Pondering the balance of those three things in this case is left as an exercise for the reader 🙂


    “transferring services away from the private sector to the public”

    should be

    “transferring services away from the public sector to the private”


    I concur with yourview on the NCN. Near me the sections that aren’t highways shared with motorised traffic are either, churned up by farm traffic and largely unrideable, or you get shouted at to slow down by dog walkers and pedestrians.

    Advertising the fact a national network exists does give the anti cycling lobby a reason to express their hate at you inconviencing them for 10 seconds by cycling on the road. This fact was recently vented on myself in the comments of our local paper after I defended the actions of an 85 year old cyclist who crashed after he hit a pothole on a busy A road. The emergency services closed the road to attend to his life threatening injuries, thus inconveniencing some motorists.

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