Sustrans, the UK sustainable transport charity, progress report
Next year sees the completion of the National Cycle Network. But with strategies aimed at promoting this eco-friendly form of transport having little effect, what are the chances of people ever getting back in the saddle? Ken Worpole reports
Wednesday July 28, 2004
A dictum: "Build it and they will come." It was first expounded by Roman grandees establishing retreats in the Italian campagna, only to find the emperor and his court unwilling to travel the distance. It was disproved again recently by the Millennium Dome project.
Other lottery projects, adopting the same principle, have likewise failed to achieve the numbers of visitors predicted. So while the National Cycle Network (NCN) - 10,000 miles of routes through the UK by 2005 - nears completion, the breakthrough in turning Britain into a cycling country simply has not happened.
Although Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity, has so far met or exceeded most of its targets - the total use of the network doubled between 2000 and 2003, to 126m trips including walkers - cycling statistics are in contraflow. The number of cycle journeys in Britain has fallen since 2001, despite government strategies intended to increase bike use nationally fourfold by 2012. Fewer people in Britain, it seems, are prepared to get on their bike, even though more than 25 million live within two miles of where the network passes.
Rather than do anything to stimulate demand, the government, in its new transport strategy announced last week, has simply abandoned all targets for increasing cycling, leaving cyclist organisations "dismayed".
Some insights into this conundrum came a couple of weeks ago when I cycled a fair stretch of Sustrans route three (Bristol to Land's End) with some friends. We followed the route from Bath in North Somerset to Sampford Peverell in Devon, during what was predicted to be the hottest weekend of the year. Indeed, the weather was perfect: warm and mostly cloudless. The journey meandered through the countryside, along carefully signposted lanes and back roads, as well as delightful stretches of reclaimed railway land and canal towpaths.
Our trip was full of incident and interest - the greenfinches and buzzards, the eccentric churches and religious settlements, the extraordinary Roman lead mine workings at Charterhouse, the views of Glastonbury Tor, the Mendips and the Quantocks, the exquisite cathedral at Wells, and the eerie marshlands and peat moors around the King's Sedge Moor Drain. There was the occasional steep ascents and descents (notably from Priddy, the highest village in Somerset at 800 feet, precipitously down to Wookey Hole near Wells in a couple of nerve-racking minutes), and the pleasures of a long flat ride in brilliant sunshine along the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal.
Yet in the course of over 100 miles, we counted no more than 30 other cyclists. At the pub we stopped at in Priddy, one of the very few places directly on the route that offers accommodation, the landlord claimed never to have heard of Sustrans. Neither had the farmer's wife in Crossington, just minutes from the official route, who provided us with the best food and company of our trip. More worrying still, the reckless driving occasionally encountered along the narrower lanes led us to suspect that few drivers in any of the places we passed through had been cautioned to take care in case of meeting cyclists, along what is a government sponsored, officially designated national network.
How different to the experience of cycling in the Netherlands. There, at the weekends, the canal towpaths are packed with cyclists of all ages, sometimes stopping to eat lunch or an ice-cream at one of the canalside cafes. Though parts of the route we cycled through were as flat and as close to urban populations as the Dutch cycle routes (and even prettier), there the cycleways are crowded while in much of Britain they remain stubbornly empty.
John Grimshaw, the director of Sustrans, acknowledges that the national network has been more successful in cities than in rural areas, and that commuter cyclists may well now outnumber recreational riders - although this may not have been the original intention. Never the less, he agrees that the national picture for cycling looks gloomy, and he is equally concerned that the network has failed to provide the same kind of breakthrough into popular cycling that similar networks have achieved elsewhere in Europe.
Why is this? Grimshaw and I seem to agree that money and government commitment are the two missing ingredients. The £43m that Sustrans received from the Millennium Commission sounds substantial (although it only represented 20% of the total costs required by the network), and it did finance 10,000 miles of cycling and pedestrian routes. But this is peanuts when compared with the £340m, for example, spent on one and a half miles of the Limehouse Link roadway to Docklands.
Politicians, nationally and locally, are simply not prepared to support cycling and walking to a fraction of the degree to which they will pump money into underwriting the great car economy. Yet as futurologist Stewart Brand has often pointed out, the real test of political vision is what governments choose to prioritise in the way of investment in infrastructure.
Another issue is a classic "tipping point" problem. The more cyclists there are, the safer they become. At present, a British cyclist is 10 times more likely to be injured than their Danish counterpart, and seven times more at risk on British roads than in the Netherlands or Sweden. The explanation appears to be that once you get a large enough number of people cycling, politicians start to notice and build proper cycleways. And when that happens cyclists are no longer perceived by car drivers as eccentrics - they might even be the motorist's own parents, children or friends. Then, cyclists become transport equals.
This is the problem that Sustrans and other like-minded organisations must tackle if the national network is to achieve its original aims, and cycling is to become the new common sense of local transport policy.
It would be hard to discover a sightseeing trip or expedition to match the pleasure of cycling a Sustrans route across unfamiliar territory. The B&Bs we found were cheap and friendly; the lanes, canals, railway lands, woods and forests, lakes and hills we passed along or close to were equally memorable. This was deep England, hidden away, but still open to enjoyment and understanding. There is enough of it to go round, even with 10 times the numbers, and only a bicycle gets you there.
· Ken Worpole's most recent book, Last Landscapes: Death and the Architecture of the Cemetery in the West, is published by Reaktion Books, price £19.05.