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Lack of accessibility and too many on-road routes among issues flagged up as charity announces major action plan

Sustrans has today published a review of the National Cycle Network (NCN), which it develops and manages, highlighting serious shortcomings in the existing 16,575 miles of routes it comprises and recommending an action plan that it says will result in the number of journeys made on it each year doubling by 2040.

In its Paths for Everyone report unveiled at the Houses of Parliament this morning, the Bristol-based charity admits serious shortcomings in the current network, which despite its name is also aimed at walkers, joggers, horse riders and people in wheelchairs.

Those include the fact that less than half of it is suitable for a child aged 12 to ride alone, as well as barriers that make it impossible for people on adapted or non-standard bikes or with prams to use some routes, poor signage, plus some sections being made difficult to negotiate or even impassable at times through mud or water.

And while more than half of the UK’s population live within a mile of an NCN route, only a third of the paths that comprise it are traffic-free, with two-thirds of it on-road and more than 2,000 miles runs along what Sustrans says are busy A and B roads.

The review is the result of two years’ work, with Sustrans putting together an advisory panel including representatives of national and regional governmental bodies across the UK as well as organisations including British Cycling, Cycling UK, the Canal and River Trust, Forestry Commission, Highways England, the National Trust and Wheels for Wellbeing.

Sustrans also conducted an online survey of 5,965 which showed that 81 per cent of respondents wanted paths built away from motor vehicles so they could feel safer using them.

Xavier Brice, CEO of Sustrans, said: “The National Cycle Network is a well-loved, well-used asset that’s enjoyed by millions of people across the UK every day.

“We want to build on its success and make the Network safer and more accessible for everyone, not just for people who currently use it. Our ‘Paths for Everyone’ report lays out an ambitious vision to make the Network traffic-free and safe for a 12-year-old to use on their own.

“However, historic problems such as poor surfaces, incomplete signage and barriers mean that for people with mobility issues or those of us who are less physically active, there may as well be a ‘no entry’ sign on their local path.”

“The National Cycle Network is a well-loved, well-used asset that’s enjoyed by millions of people across the UK every day.”

Formally launched with the help of National Lottery funding in 1995, the NCN – like Sustrans – can trace its roots back to 1977 and the volunteer let campaign that led to the creation of the Bristol & Bath Railway Path.  

The review published today includes individual action plans for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as three regions of England – the North, Midlands and East, and South, which can be found here.

Chris Boardman MBE, Greater Manchester Cycling and Walking Commissioner and a member of the National Cycle Network advisory panel commented: “The little blue and red sign indicating a segment of the National Cycle Network is a long-recognised and trusted mark, used by cyclists and walkers alike, to navigate their way around the UK without cars. That alone should tell us just how valuable an asset it is.

“In times of high obesity and poor air quality, travelling actively has never been more important and the National Cycle Network is a key tool in helping address these problems.”

Sustrans believes that investing £2.8 billion over implementing its recommendations between now and 2040 will result in the number of annual trips on the NCN doubling to 8.8 million.

It says that would generate £7.6 billion annually in economic and local benefits, twice the £3.8 billion estimated for 2017.

The charity says that the review has the backing of the UK government as well as the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and among the 15 recommendations aimed at them and at landowners, local authorities and other agencies are:

Removal or redesign of 16,000 barriers on the entire Network to make it accessible to everyone, especially those facing mobility challenges.

Doubling the number of paths away from cars, from 5,000 to 10,000 miles and diverting all routes off busy and fast moving roads onto new quiet-way roads.

Improving safety at junctions where the Network crosses roads and railways.

Improving signage so everyone can follow the paths without a map or smartphone.

Adopting a new quality design standard for paths, including width and surface so all routes are classed as ‘very good’ or ‘good’ by 2040.

Sustrans, working with local authorities, aims to deliver 55 schemes across the UK, ranging from improving signage to re-designing junctions and creating traffic-free paths. These are to be finalised by 2023.

Transport minister Jesse Norman said: “The National Cycle Network is a familiar sight for many, and a great asset for cyclists and walkers across the country.

“This report shows that more needs to be done to make it fully accessible, and that’s why earlier this year the Government dedicated £1 million to support initial work repairing and upgrading sections of this popular network.

“My department has worked closely with Sustrans throughout the review, and I look forward to seeing how the Network is further improved to encourage generations to make cycling and walking the natural choice for shorter journeys.”

Brice added: “Politicians across the UK are grappling with problems like congested roads, air pollution and increasing levels of obesity. In pure transport terms, the National Cycle Network presents a huge opportunity to transform the way people travel.

“But the benefits of investing in the Network will be seen right across government, like relieving pressure on the NHS budget.

“Trips on the Network benefit the UK economy by £88 million through reduced road congestion and contribute £2.5 billion to local economies through leisure and tourism.

“In 2017 alone, walking and cycling on the Network prevented 630 early deaths and averted nearly 8,000 serious long-term health conditions.”

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.