Plans to make 10,000 miles of the National Cycle Network (NCN) traffic-free have been announced by Sustrans. Since the network was launched 23 years ago, the active travel charity has installed more than 5,000 traffic-free miles and aims to double this by 2040.
This is among the pledges in a major review of the network, published today. The NCN is 16,575 miles long and spans England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Currently, 11,303 miles of the network are on-road while 5,273 miles are traffic-free.
The network should be safe and accessible enough to be used by a sensible 12-year-old travelling alone, says Sustrans’ chief executive Xavier Brice (pictured left).
Brice told LTT: “I’m not calling for an expansion of the network. What I want to see is a growth in quality, not mileage.
“Sections of the network, which are little used or unlikely to be used in the future, could be de-designated. It might be prohibitively expensive to bring these sections up to scratch.” De-designated sections would be removed from the NCN map, with signage removed.
Sustrans owns just 500 miles of the network, with the rest owned by landowners including Network Rail, Highways England, National Trust, Forestry Commission, the Canal and River Trust, local authorities and private landowners.
The audit of the entire network was carried out by independent surveyors from 2015-2017, which was followed by a full year-long review carried out by Sustrans staff, interested stakeholders and volunteers. The audit looked at surface types, width, lighting, barriers, signage and safety, with the findings then combined with speed and volume traffic data to score the network.
Brice told LTT: “There are lots of comments on Twitter and the internet about how bad bits of the National Cycle Network are. But we found that the majority of the off-road network is actually in a really good state. Issues with quality are more to do with on-road sections.”
With traffic-free sections, the audit revealed that 4% is ‘very good’, 88% ‘good’ and 8% ‘poor’. As for on-road sections, 62% was deemed ‘very poor’, 2% ‘poor’ and 36% ‘good’. With on-road sections, 69% of issues related to traffic safety, with traffic speeds and flows deemed too high for a 12-year-old travelling alone.
The review maps out a long-term strategy to remove or redesign 16,000 barriers, and where the NCN is on quietways, to introduce a 20mph limit of built-up areas and a 40mph limit in rural areas.
Sustrans estimates that it will cost £2.8bn to improve the NCN between now and 2040. It expects funding to come from a range of sources including governments, individuals, donors, businesses, trusts and foundations. Funding is likely to vary by region, Brice says. “For example, this year we received £7m from the Scottish Government to fund their network, which is double the previous year, but there is no regular funding from government for the network in England, although there are ongoing conversations with regards to possible future funding.”
Highways England has agreed to contribute £3m to improve sections of the NCN aligned with the strategic road network.
As the “custodian” of the NCN, Sustrans plays a key role in bringing together civil servants from the Scottish Government and the DfT to “shine a light on some of the funding discrepancies”, says Brice. “We need to set out an ambitious vision and have a plan rather than just banging a drum and saying, ‘Spend more money! Spend more money!’ That is why we are doing this review.”
Any changes to the NCN will have to adhere to a new set of quality standards, says Brice. Routes will be designed “in accordance with current best practice design guidance” to meet a set of principles ensuring they are: traffic-free or quietways; wide enough to accommodate all users; clearly signed; have a smooth surface and be well drained; fully accessible to all legitimate users including people in wheelchairs, mobility scooters and people with pushchairs; enable users to cross roads safely and be step-free.
“It is about governance and ensuring that we don’t repeat previous mistakes,” says Brice. “We will make sure that we replicate improvements on a regional and national level while recognising there may be exceptions, for example where there are physical constraints on sections of the canal network.”
Sustrans has drawn up plans for 50 “activation projects” to be completed by 2023. These have been chosen from a longlist of 150. “There was a certain pragmatism in our choice of the 50 projects,” Brice says. “We asked: does the project improve a section that has high usage; does it improve safety; does it support the delivery of a traffic-free network; is there landowner support; and is there funding available.”
The cost of the activation projects will range from £18,000 for better city centre signage through to £6m for the creation of a new 30-mile greenway.
Sustrans’ NCN review offers a snapshot of the projects, including a traffic-free route on busy on-road sections within, or beside, the Calder Greenway between Dewsbury and Huddersield in West Yorkshire. Other projects include: improving the surface, width and signage on traffic-free network in Greater Manchester; making on-road sections quietways on Chilton Road, Upton in South Oxfordshire; re-routing an on-road section to a traffic-free alternative at the Flint to Connah’s Quary, North Wales; improving the safety of crossings where traffic-free sections cross routes at Manor Powis Roundabout in Stirling, Scotland.
Each year the network benefits the UK economy by nearly £8m through reduced road congestion while leisure and tourist users of the NCN contribute £2.5bn to local economies, Sustrans estimates. Walking and cycling on the network in 2017 prevented 630 early deaths and averted nearly 8,000 serious long-term health conditions, according to the charity.
Forecasts by Sustrans' research and monitoring unit suggest a rise from 4.4m users and 786m walking and cycling trips in 2017 to 8.4m users and 1.6bn journeys by 2040. These journey projections have been reviewed by John Parkin, Professor of Transport Engineering at the University of the West of England, who has confirmed that the approach used to estimate and forecast network usage is appropriate, and there is potential for future cycling levels to be even higher than forecast.
Brice says: “We think our estimates for the growth in trips is quite conservative given that we know people want to walk and cycle in a traffic-free environment. I think the old segregation versus non-segregation argument is tedious and dead. If you ask most people if they’d want their 12-year-old to be cycling on the road in traffic or somewhere that is traffic-free where people who are cycling and walking have priority, I think the answer would be pretty clear.”
Brice points out that 55% of the network’s users are on foot – data from automatic cycle counters and surveys found that, last year, there were 410 million walking trips and 377 million cycling trips.
“We have a one path mantra, which is: ‘share, respect, enjoy’. This is about encouraging everyone to use the path appropriately because bad behaviour is not limited to one particular type of user. It is about people, whether they are walking dogs, walking, cycling or jogging.”
He refers to recent collisions between cyclists on the busy Bath – Bristol section of the NCN. “This shows it isn’t about conflict between different types of user. These paths are about creating paths for everyone. They should not be high-speed commuter networks. It is about creating places where people can be with each other and enjoy each other in the open air while moving.”
Just 4% of users on bikes are beginners or returning to cycling, Brice says. “That is surprisingly low, if you think about the potential of the NCN and a traffic-free network to provide a safe place for people to learn to cycle to build their confidence.”
He lists three ways that Sustrans can encourage more cycling novices to use the NCN: ensure people trust the quality of the network; work with partners to promote the NCN; work with communities, “especially those that don’t exercise as much as they’d like to encourage them to use the network”.
In a Sustrans online survey of nearly 6,000 people in July 2018, 81% wanted “more traffic-free routes where everyone feels safe to get around” while 62% said they would like “a network of routes that connect me to towns, cities and the countryside”.
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