Ceci n’est pas une piste de bicyclette

Sorry, I failed to post much because I’ve been on the road.  And sometimes the Sustrans paths.

NCN 68 in Kielder Forest, Northumberland
This is a forestry track, NCN 68, Kielder Forest, Northumberland.

I hesitate to criticise Sustrans because I know that they are good people, with an excellent idea — the National Cycle Network — and because they make delightful cycle routes when they are given sufficient money to do so.  I don’t want to harm Sustrans, I want them to do more, and I want them to be able to do it properly, with proper funding.

But this isn’t helping:

This is a bridleway, NCN 6 Sheffield-Manchester over Woodhead.
This is a bridleway, NCN 6 Sheffield-Manchester over Woodhead.

These are heavily eroded boulder steps covered in sheep poo, NCN 6, Woodhead.
These are heavily eroded boulder steps covered in scree and sheep poo on a 40% incline, NCN 6, Woodhead.

In Kielder Forest I met another pair of touring cyclists, with slicker tyres than mine.  They were following the NCN signs as far as the first town, where they would be seeking a road map for the remainder of their journey.  I met a pair of retired gents on racing bikes beside a road beneath the Woodhead route.  They laughed at me and my newly mud-caked tourer.

But I met nobody at all riding NCN 1 into Edinburgh, despite it being a sunny bank holiday sunday afternoon.  Clearly the locals knew better.

This is a railway station platform, NCN 1 Edinburgh.
This is a railway station platform, NCN 1 Edinburgh.
This is a car park.  NCN 1 Edinburgh.
This is a car park in a soulless modern cul-de-sac. NCN 1 Edinburgh.

But after a very long and circuitous route through every industrial estate and cul-de-sac in east Edinburgh, it did seem appropriate that the signs eventually directed the cyclist onto a station platform.  When I eventually reached the pub, Kim Harding laughed at me.

I know I’m not the first to point out that large swathes of the National Cycle Network are utter crap and can not possibly be defended as “cycle routes”.  And I know the reasons that Sustrans give for including them in the network — that they are “interim standard”, designed to show on the map what the completed network will look like, and that if you read the small-print on their website you would know in advance that these “cycle routes” can’t actually be cycled.

But that’s bollocks.  People see signposts for cycle routes at the side of the road, not small print on websites.  And having followed the signs,  the cycling tourists I met were giving up.  Not giving up on the forestry track but giving up on the National Cycle Network and Sustrans, which is a shame because they will miss out on the second half of the route, which was delightful.  It’s not hard to find people who have tried the National Cycle Network, found it impossible to use — or worse, found it injurious to bicycle or to self — and to whom the NCN and Sustrans names are now more mud than the paths.

This is something left over from the Spanish Inquisition, NCN 4, Reading.
This is a device left over from the Spanish Inquisition, NCN 4, Reading.

Signing the railway stations and car parks of eastern Edinburgh as NCN 1 means that nobody will make it as far as the lovely quiet road through the wonderful Moorfoot Hills.  Signing the hiker’s steps over Woodhead as NCN 6 means that people will abandon the NCN before they reach the Longendale rail trail.  The loose rocky towpaths of NCN 4 stand in the way of the excellent Bristol and Bath Railway Path.  Excellent cycle routes are wasted because when you see an NCN sign, you can’t take the risk.

I know Sustrans want to put better cycle routes there — and are slowly getting there, as the funding trickles in.  But in the meantime, signing this crap as cycle routes does massive harm to Sustrans, the National Cycle Network, and the very ability to build those better cycle routes that Sustrans wants.  Crap like this fuels the myth that cycle paths are by definition poor quality and undesirable, a myth that remains powerful amongst some sections of cycle campaigning and transport planning.

This is a flight of steps, NCN 1, Edinburgh.
This is a flight of steps, NCN 1, Edinburgh.

While on the road my extensive thinking time has been consumed with how to communicate effectively to other cyclists and campaigners the evidence for the benefits of proper cycling infrastructure  (more on that some other time). But any such attempt to communicate hypothetical high-quality facilities is going to have to fight all the way against people’s direct experience of crap like these routes.

These routes are not helping.  If it can not be cycled, take down the cycle signs.

14 thoughts on “Ceci n’est pas une piste de bicyclette”

  1. Even where they do manage to get tarmac, and away from roads, Sustrans routes can still be heart-achingly compromised. I commute along the “10,000th mile” of the NCN, on NCN11 just south of Cambridge. It’s a good link, cutting off dig legs that traffic has to take in either direction.

    However, the ends are horrible. At the Shelford end, where it meets a road, it has to kink around a substation before ending up on a narrow section parallel to the road, with a power line cable stay in the middle of the corner. At the northern end is a bridge that can only be used by one bike at a time- despite the route carrying heavy two way traffic- it then goes onto a path with a couple of sharp corners that eventually dumps onto the Hospital site perimeter road, or, now, also on to the new hospital access road (another road scheme with extensive, yet poor, cycling provision- I could probably write a whole guest post on why the superficially good provision is actually shit).

    The whole thing is narrow, so narrow that it isn’t possible to overtake if there’s someone coming the other way, so narrow you can get stuck behind pedestrians, so narrow people can’t sensibly ride two abreast without causing a nuisance.

    It sums up Sustrans- nice idea, poor execution. Still, better than the rival scheme with the brown signs.

  2. While ‘Cycling Facility of the Month’ grows ever larger and larger, the theoretical alternative shrinks daily.

    The people who design and build this crap need to be forced to use it themselves. We have a hotch-potch of substandard, often dangerous, discontinuous, incompetently planned, poorly-designed and inadequately maintained ‘facilities’ that are inherently useless to cyclists. Very often they are impassable to all but standard bicycles. Anyone with panniers, work-bikes, trailers, tandems, tricycles – can forget it.
    And of course, anyone intending to go anywhere will be forced onto roads at some stage.

    I’m certain that’s why the Dutch experience is so different and why so many Dutch cycle, because it’s better than driving. Shock-horror, their network’s competently designed by cyclists for use by cyclists. So they design a network of integrated facilities that is intended for convenient, fast, practical, safe everyday use. [You notice that the Dutch have a network?]
    Naturally, Dutch infrastructure is suitable for a wide range of bicycle types.

  3. Yes, good post, most of us have had this kind of experience with Sustrans routes. The fundamental problem is that it doesn’t make sense to have something imposingly called “The National Cycle Network” and then leave it to a charity with no statutory powers and little money to build. It’s as daft as if we left the motorway network to be built by an organisation with no power and no money. It obviously can’t happen.

    Often Sustrans come up with good ideas, such as the (crappily named) Connect2 project, which would have provided new cycle links in cities over major infrastructural barriers, such as over the lines near Paddington in W London, but that was then scuppered, not by lack of money, but by the Crossrail plans. There is no hope of integration of these cycle facilities with wider transport plans under the current arrangement with Sustrans, which is a fundamental problem. This is a job of government.

    But another problem is that the very concept Sustrans (or many working in it) are wedded to is wrong. I mean the concept that the building of very small-scale, inconvenient, low-priority cycle facilities aimed at “those un-confident cyclists who no not want to cycle on the road” can ever work. The have not understood that the only effective cycle facilities, as in the good continental models, are those that cater for the whole spectrum of cyclists simultaneously, from young children to confident, fast adults who would be fully capable of cycling on the road, but find it more relaxing to cycle in a traffic-free environment.

    The point is that it doesn’t make sense to build different standards of roads for “different types” of motorists, and we don’t do it. We shouldn’t expect cycling to be any different.

    David Arditti
    Vole O”Speed

  4. The railway crossing at Brunstane Station is a classic as you show above. There often times when following sections of the National Cycle Network whether who ever planned it had actually tried to ride it on a loaded touring bike. It really is a national embarrassment, surely we would could do better. If we want more people to use the bicycle as a means of transport, then we really must do better…

  5. Perhaps, but then they’ve also had some great success.

    As I’m typing this, a brand new (massive!) viaduct is being built of the river Walkham, just outside Grenofen. This is the worst part of the Devon C2C route, but will be fantastic when done (Jan 2012). Have a look: http://willcycle.blogspot.com/2011/04/gem-bridge-there-are-signs-of-progress.html

    Equally, they’re opening the old Grenofen tunnel to re-route that last section of the trail between Yelverton and Tavistock. In doing so, they’re cutting out some seriously steep uphills. Link: http://willcycle.blogspot.com/2011/05/drakes-trail-future.html

    So what’s the difference? Easy to answer, actually – Devon County Council is footing the bill. Devon CC has realised the economic benefits cycle tourism brings to what can otherwise be a challenging economic environment, and they’re putting their money where their mouths are.

    So much so that Devon CC purchased Grenofen tunnel outright, whilst having a policy of not owning any tunnels, then sold it on to Sustrans for £1-00.

    This simply means that the Devon C2C will be an absolute stunning, and mostly very good quality cycle trail over its 104 miles from Ilfracombe to Plymouth. At present over 60 miles of that is traffic-free, and there are additional plans to build additional traffic-free parts to link Tavistock and Lydford, using the disused rail bed.

    Maybe they should use to colours of signage: blue for “quality” routes, yellow for “interim standard” routes and red for “mountain bike only” routes. That’d clear up a great deal of confusion.

    Also, no, I’m not a Sustrans ranger or employee. In fact, I’m quite critical of them, which is why I wanted to make it clear that the success of the Devon C2C route is down to Devon county council, and not Sustrans.

  6. I regularly use NCN 64, which passes quite close to my house. I use it in either direction to reach Collingham or Bottesford (there are some nice pubs there).

    I find myself thinking that much of the route is on quiet roads which were there already, where I could have worked out myself that they were an alternative to the main roads. The other bits tend to be mud, gravel, hard surfaces that are tediously bumpy or have become broken up by tree roots, covered in dog mess or full of pedestrians and randomly-moving dogs who block the way. Some parts seem to be tortuously convoluted ways round some obstacle, such as a farmer’s field.

    I wouldn’t mind so much if they hadn’t called it “National Cycle Network”, which really does give the impression it should be like an equivalent of the motorway network, for bicycles.

  7. A friend of mine (a local gov’t transport planner) informs me that the UK is the only country in Europe where the ‘national cycle network’ is provided by a charity and not by government itself…

  8. It’s very mixed, and there’s no way to tell what the surface will be like ahead of finding yourself churning through it.

    I like the Cheshire Cycleway (which I think is NCN70), but wouldn’t embark on an unknown section of it without the Long Haul trucker (it’s got some pretty rough bridleway portions locally). Similarly, NCN5 is a nice route that suffers from un-notified closures (and no alternative route signed), poor maintenance (sand drifting from the dunes across the path, lifting green tarmac in Colwyn Bay) and poor transfers to road sections. Ironically, perhaps, the best bits of NCN70 are the ones that follow the smaller local roads (signposting is excellent, and most motor traffic is on nearby roads with higher speed limits).

    I’d really like to see Sustrans grade the NCN in some way, e.g. “Road Bike”, “Hybrid”, “Amphibious Vehicle” &c

  9. They all look challengingly rideable, but I’m a mtber not a tourer :-)
    John’s grading would be a good idea, as would getting rid of those stupid spanish inquisition contraptions. They are, of course, to prevent motorbikes getting in on the fun but there’s normally an easily negotiated cut through nearby so it’s just legitimate users who get slowed by them!

  10. NCN 41 between Gloucester and Cheltenham is a joke… the cyclist has to travel nearly TWICE as far as a car doing the same journey…

    plus there’s barriers that stop me from using my cycle trailer :(

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: