The NCN: A national asset

The National Cycle Network could not only provide a potential boost to the cycle industry but also to communities up and down the UK, writes Laura Laker.

Leisure and tourist users of the 16,575 miles of the National Cycle Network (NCN) generate £2.5 billion to local economies each year, with cycle tourists spending more than average tourists, and favouring local businesses. There are also local health benefits. Some routes are destinations in themselves, like the 18-mile Camel Trail, near Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, or the 200-mile Caledonia Way.

However, a recent review of the NCN revealed 42% of it is ‘very poor’, with issues with the surface, sharing with heavy traffic or poor signage, and there’s almost one barrier for every mile of the NCN, mostly on the traffic-free sections. 54% was classified ‘good’ or ‘very good’. However, if the NCN was brought up to a good standard, protecting and separating users from motor traffic, it could help solve the number one reason people don’t cycle – fear of riding with traffic. And, naturally, more people cycling is good for the cycle industry. Sustrans, the charity that runs the NCN, hopes to overhaul the network, starting with 55 ‘Activation Projects’.

Xavier Brice, Sustrans CEO, says: “The NCN already enables 4.4 million people to travel actively every year, but currently only one third of the paths are away from cars and half are not the quality asset they should be. The new projects are the first step to help us achieve a vision for a traffic-free, safe and accessible network for all. We look forward to working closely with local authorities and other landowners to turn this vision into a reality and create walking and cycling paths used and enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities across all nations and regions.”

He adds: “The positive economic impacts of high-quality walking and cycling paths are unmissable opportunities for the cycling industry. Better, busier paths mean more business. And the equation works both ways. The network is a fantastic opportunity for businesses to encourage their employees to use it and stay active, support new schemes and promote wide-community development in the process.”

Brice adds that images of family cycling used by the industry often portray riders on canal paths and greenways, which are parts of the NCN – because when done well, it is attractive and safe for all ages and abilities.

However, not all parts of the NCN are good, and it has an unfortunate reputation for its barriers, circuitous routes, sharing with heavy, fast-moving traffic and stop-start provision. The NCN is unusual in that it is a piece of national infrastructure run by a charity. As that charity, Sustrans has to negotiate with landowners, from councils to private individuals, for access, while raising funds to pay for improvements. These can range from signage, surfacing and lighting, to new bridges and tunnels.

Over five years, projects will improve signage, remove barriers and re-route away from busy roads. Sustrans says bringing the entire network up to scratch will cost £2.8 billion over the next 22 years, doubling usage to 8.8 million users per year. It estimates the return on investment, from tourism and leisure benefits to congestion and health, at £7.6 billion.

The plan is to refocus minds on the NCN, and to provide impetus and guidance to improve it. As Brice puts it: “For me, this is about attracting new entrants to cycling and in particular new types of people – families, older people etc. Fear of traffic and concern for safety are the number one barriers to why people don’t cycle. A national traffic-free network for everyone is what’s needed to attract different people and grow the market.”

Among the activation projects which have begun are:

National Route 76, near Stirling, Scotland includes the ‘Round the Forth’ circuit. A section crossing Manor Powis Roundabout will be re-aligned to a traffic-free alternative, in partnership with Stirling Council, with funding from the Scottish Government.

Sustrans describes NCN 5, Flint-Connah’s Quay, Wales as an ‘important transport corridor along the North Wales coast’, but this section runs on a busy, narrow road. Working with Flintshire County Council, the charity hopes to provide a traffic-free alternative.

Working with West Sussex County Council, a one-mile section of busy road on NCN 223 around Christ’s Hospital, West Sussex, England, will be moved to a disused railway line, connecting to the Downs Link between Guildford and Shoreham, one of the UK’s longest greenways.

Sustrans is seeking planning permission to create a traffic-free route on a continuation of disused railway on NCN 67, Trans Pennine Trail at Methley, Yorkshire to avoid a busy road. This will link the TPT with Methley Junction.

86% of the NCN in Northern Ireland is on-road; by 2023 Sustrans will develop an NCN realignment plan to identify traffic-free alternatives.

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