This post is part of a series, starting at “What would you do here?”, on making utility cycling attractive in rural Britain.
In the Netherlands, children cycle to school. Almost all of them. Unaccompanied from the age of 8 or 9. You only wouldn’t cycle if you lived so close that it’s quicker to walk, and even then you might cycle sometimes anyway, so that you can go places with friends afterwards. Children there are fitter, healthier, and freer, less dependent on the parents’ taxi service. British authorities talk a lot about wanting children to walk and cycle more and to be ferried around in parents’ cars less, but have so far done little that has actually succeeded in making that happen. What would it take to make cycling to school possible in our rural British case study subject?
The village is lucky to be served by its own primary school. Most of the children live within 1km of it, and so walk. A few are driven in from more distant scattered dwellings and farms, and the previously described treatments to main roads and country lanes should make cycling a more attractive option for them. Once those treatments have been implemented, many people will switch their journeys to bicycle without prompting, but marketing activity and assistance with personal transport plans might further help the shift. UK local authorities and consultants like Sustrans have a lot of experience with this kind of marketing and assistance, but their projects usually have little real impact because they happen before the roads are fixed.
Most of the 11-16 year old children from the village attend school in the small market town Sturminster, 6km south east — well within the easily cycled range, but of course, almost nobody cycles it. There is no public bus between Stalbridge and Sturminster, but at least four dedicated council subsidised school buses run between the two, taking a variety of slow meandering routes to collect from the scattered dwellings and farms on the lanes between the two towns. (One of the bus routes is even taken 200 yards up this narrow street, only to have to do an awkward 3 point turn at a side-road, just to ensure that the kids aren’t forced to get 200 yards of exercise on the way to the bus stop.) Standard stuff for rural Britain.
I was abnormal in choosing, sometimes, when the weather was fair, to cycle — it was at least as fast as the ancient bus on its meandering route, and it added some variety after four years of it. A dozen other people used bicycles to get to school, but only because they lived in the narrow band that is too close to qualify for the free bus and far enough that cycling would be significantly quicker than walking. And because they had parents who didn’t care enough to wrap them up in 4x4s every day.
At the moment there is no good direct route between Stalbridge and Sturminster. The ‘A’ road, even if given the cycling infrastructure that ‘A’ roads need, takes a wide detour. The red route marked on the map is the best route, using country lanes (currently busy with through traffic) and a ‘B’ road.
The ‘B’ road is a low priority candidate for dedicated cycling infrastructure, but it might benefit more from Dutch-style engineering to reinforce those easily ignored speed limits. The route is again indirect, giving cycling a time disadvantage, and has an unattractive hill.
The blue route is flatter, and would be more direct but for the want of a more convenient river crossing in Sturminster. It also has the benefit of being designated as bridleway, and therefore free from motor vehicles for a lot of the distance.
But this comes with the disadvantage of having seen no maintenance in decades.
And disappearing into green lane for a while.
Before a proper surface reappears a quarter of a mile later.
With a refreshed surface and a better river crossing, this could become a useful route.
But wait, there’s potentially a better route. The best possible route to make cycling attractive is direct and flat, giving it a competitive advantage over cars and buses on the winding lanes. You can see where that route might be:
A rail trail here would be better than any lanes or bridleways or main road cycle tracks, giving cycling all the advantages that come with a direct, flat, away-from-traffic route. There already is an amateur rail trail, a few hundred yards long, in the village:
But the trackbed was sold off in bits to all the farmers, so the trail runs out at the first property boundary:
Easy to revolve if the councils had the will to buy back the trackbed — much of it preserved as field access. They’ve already done it on the other side of Sturminster Newton, giving the people of Shillingstone an easy route into the town. New river crossings would still be required where the old railway bridges were demolished, but that’s another problem solved on the other side of Sturminster, with new bridges:
Those bridges cost about £300,000 — an excellent investment given the struggles the county council have been having finding cuts in the annual travel-to-school budget. The bridges could pay for themselves within a decade in school bus reductions alone.
Better if the whole lot could be properly surfaced, like these routes in Bristol and north Somerset:
Apparently some folk object to giving traffic-free routes like these a proper surface because it “detracts from the rural setting”, as if a flat straight railway embankment through dairy fields could be imagined as pristine virgin wilderness if only the path were surfaced with scruffy noisy muddy gravel instead of clean asphalt. Poor surfaces are less attractive to most potential users, but especially to potential bicycle users — they require more effort, cause more mechanical problems, and get dirty. In terms of modal shift, they won’t be as effective, leaving more cars and buses on the lanes, and those really do disturb the rural tranquillity.
All you need then is to fix the ridiculous sprawling speed-inviting junction beside the school…
…and fill one of the car parks with bike parking.
This route would have benefits far beyond kids getting to school, of course. Continuing north, a couple of km from the village it crosses the A30, where it would intersect the cycle tracks the big road needs, and a couple of km beyond that it meets the West of England Main Line (Exeter-Salisbury-London), and so could greatly expand access to and feasibility of public transport beyond the infrequent bus services that make the detour into Stalbridge. Because it’s flatter and more direct than the main road, and because the main road has three sets of traffic lights between the town and the station, a high quality rail trail could be a very attractive transport option.
It would also be quite nice for leisure and tourism, of course — a long gentle continuous route down Thomas Hardy’s vale of little dairies. And that’s currently the justification that most people use when campaigning for the trailway: it would make a nice place for locals and tourists alike to walk and ride on a sunny Sunday. But those benefits, fantastic as they are, should be secondary to the potential this alignment has to be an important piece of modern transport infrastructure, providing cheap, healthy and independent mobility for kids; recession-proof access to centres of employment, retail, culture, and services; and easy access to the public transport network for a population that is very isolated from it. It’s a simple, quick, inexpensive, and easy win.