Britain's National Cycle Network
by Nick Williams (September 1997)

It's often very difficult to behave according to principles, especially when the principles concerned are not held by the majority and sometimes ridiculed by them. This applies particularly to cyclists (the minority) when dealing with motorists (the majority). This was illustrated to me graphically by the experience of an acquaintance, Tom, who cycles. He was taking advantage of his bikes smaller size and greater manoeuvrability to move through a traffic jam more quickly than the motorists stuck in their metal boxes. There is nothing more infuriating to a car driver than to see a cyclist passing in heavy traffic: why pay out good money for your Nissan when a bike goes faster? On this occasion, one irate motorist took out his frustration verbally on Tom in a offensively personal way. Being a normally placid man (most cyclists seem to be placid on the whole), Tom turned the other cheek. A little later, the cars moved a little faster and the motorist concerned caught up with Tom before grinding to another halt. This prompted further verbal assaults on Tom, but with a different response. His limit had been passed, and he leant into the drivers car, took out the ignition key and tossed it into the adjoining field before cycling gently onward. I dont condone Toms behaviour, but I do understand it (and Id like to have seen the motorists face when his key disappeared into the undergrowth). This episode is a good example of how its difficult to be a cyclist when the infra-structure is against you, and that cars and cycles dont mix easily.

Achieving a sustainable transport system will ultimately depend upon people choosing to behave in sustainable ways, but the wise choice could be made much easier if we as a society got our act together and supported individuals to make that choice. Britain is a horrible country to cycle in because of its love affair with the car; a transport minister in the previous Tory Government even said publicly that he didnt like public transport because when using it, he had to mix with riff-raff. British roads are smelly, noisy and dangerous, especially for pedestrians and cyclists. There are now encouraging signs that this situation is about to change. Among these is the decision to establish a 6,500 mile National Cycle Network of traffic free cycleways and traffic calmed or minor roads. Designed to provide stress-free cycling and walking, the network will be within 2 miles of 20 million people. Due for completion in 2005, it is intended that 2,000 miles will be open by 2000, and 42.5 million has been pledged to the project from the National Millennium Fund. British cycle manufacturers have also pledged 1 million. Four hundred miles are open to date. Co-ordination of the project is by Sustrans, a charity devoted to the development of cycling and walking and the liberation of people from car dependency. Execution of the work is in the hands of local government and sympathetic landowners, and at any one time it is hoped that about 1,000 sections will be under development. The network will be truly national, stretching from Inverness in northern Scotland to Penzance at the far south west tip of England. It will eventually be possible to cycle to the heart of London along a traffic-free riverside route.

As much of the network as possible (up to 50 per cent is the target) will be traffic free, making use of old railway lines (their redundancy as rail lines is another example of how stupidly Britain has developed its transport systems), canal towpaths, riversides and derelict land. The rest will be quiet minor roads, with negotiated traffic calming, cycle lanes and special crossing facilities of major roads wherever they are needed. Arrangements in towns include a separately controlled crossing stage for cyclists at major roads and advanced stop lights at traffic lights to give cyclists an opportunity to start ahead of motor vehicles. This makes a clear statement that cyclists are welcome. On some roads there will be mandatory cycle lanes from which motor vehicles are excluded; where motor vehicles have to cross the cycle lane at junctions, priority will be with cyclists. It will be constructed using guidelines that enable all the network to be used unsupervised by a 12 year old child, the traffic-free sections being suitable for younger children. Wherever possible, the network will link to railway stations so that the cycle can be used as an integral part of long journeys. Pedestrians will not be disadvantaged by the network, and will have equal access to those parts of it suitable for walking. Where a cycleway is to be built alongside a pedestrian way, the space required is to be taken from the road, not the sidewalk.

The National Cycle Network is a welcome development, and a step along the way to civilising Britains transport system. It raises the profile of cycling as a truly sustainable means of transport and has official government support. It will significantly increase the opportunities for safe, healthy and pleasurable cycling. It is, however, a small step and much more needs to be done. Although the network will link with railway stations, there is no guarantee that cyclists will be allowed to take their cycles on trains by all of Britains newly privatised rail companies. Privatisation and deregulation of transport by the previous government have made integration of transport modes more difficult. Most urban roads will not be part of the network and will remain the domain of the internal combustion engine. Cycling on these roads will remain a nightmare. To make cycling more popular, the numbers of cars on the roads has to be reduced significantly, but people wont abandon their cars while cycling is so dangerous. How do we break out of this vicious circle? I am a pessimist about human nature and think people will only change their behaviour voluntarily when the consequences of not doing so are obvious, and sometimes too late. People persist in driving to work when it takes an hour even when cycling would halve their journey time. Government has a big role to play here in making driving difficult and expensive, and the alternatives attractive and cheap. This means ecological tax reform (such as a big rise in petroleum taxes), road pricing, reduction of parking facilities and investment in integrated public transport. If these were done, the attractiveness of cycling would increase, car use would decline, and all of Britains routeways would be part of the national cycle network. Above all, there has to be a cultural change so that we become a cycle-oriented society. Using a car unnecessarily should become as unacceptable as smoking in someone elses home; the end results are similar!

More information about Britain's National Cycle Network can be obtained from:

35 King Street
Bristol BS1 4DZ
United Kingdom

Nick Williams