To borrow a saying of Bill Bryson’s: if you’ve never ridden on the National Cycle Network, do it now. Take my bike. It’s wonderful.
The National Cycle Network is a set of connected cycle routes, either off-road or on quiet roads, providing extensive coverage of Britain via some of our island’s most stunning scenery.
Expertly conceived by Sustainable Transport charity Sustrans, the network is equipped with signs showing cyclists how to follow the routes. The signs take all the hassle out of navigating. Rather than planning and noting down numerous turn-rights and turn-lefts before you go, you can just remember a few route numbers and follow the signs.
Recently, I met with Daniel James Paterson, a volunteer ‘Sustrans Ranger’. Daniel rides out every couple of weeks on a stretch of National Cycle Network near Cambridge, to check that the route is functioning properly – that the road surface isn’t damaged and there are no other obstacles blocking the route, and that the signs are in good repair and visible, e.g. not obscured by overgrown bushes. I joined Daniel on his rounds, so I could get a flavour of the work he does. We covered 50 miles.
I was impressed and warmed by Daniel’s conscientiousness. When we encountered a junction at which it wasn’t entirely clear how to follow the route, Daniel spent 20 minutes riding up and down the road, to establish the best position to put up a new sign where it would be most visible and helpful. Most signs on the network are simply stickers affixed to lampposts or other roadside furniture, so almost the entire network, in all its vastness, has been created and maintained efficiently, unobtrusively and cheaply by people like Daniel. There is a helpful online map of the routes which backs up the work being done on the streets.
I am particularly fascinated by the National Cycle Network, and its dedicated Rangers, because I think this system shows how easily a similar London Cycle Network could be fashioned.
The raw material already exists in the capital. Over the last 30-odd years, around 2000 kilometres of generally safe and quiet London Cycle Network were created by previous governments. The problem is, the network is woefully signed and mapped. In map form, the network is an incomprehensible squiggle; on the streets, the signs are correspondingly incomprehensible or non-existent.
Simon Parker has come up with a magnificent plan for making the London Cycle Network easier to understand and use. His Tube-style ‘London Cycle Map’ re-imagines the network as a series of long, straight, parallel coloured routes, transecting the capital in all directions. Using Parker’s map, you could get from anywhere to anywhere in the capital, by remembering just a few of these coloured routes and where to change from one to the other – just like catching the Tube.
Well, you could if there were signs on the streets. With a few London Cycle Network Rangers and a few stickers, the network could be up and running within a matter of days. Sure, many of the streets and junctions on the London Cycle Network currently only have rudimentary cycling infrastructure – and road-markings, not just signs, would be useful too – but even a minimally functioning network on mostly safer streets would be better than the status quo. Faced with the task of navigating in a bewildering metropolis, many Londoners currently end up cycling on the busiest main roads. Or, worse, the thought of those main roads puts people off cycling altogether. This universal focus on main roads is reflected in well-meaning but utterly unrealistic calls for the capital’s main roads, as a rule, to be redesigned for cyclists, and in the government’s expensive but not exactly reassuring Cycle Superhighways which consist of trails of blue paint daubed along major motor transport arteries.
Earlier this year, Sustrans launched its very promising ‘Connect London’ campaign, calling for a capital-wide network of quiet cycle routes (albeit curiously downplaying the existing London Cycle Network). The sincerity of the campaign cannot be doubted given Sustrans’ previous accomplishments with the wonderful National Cycle Network. But Connect London seemingly lacked detail from the start. In particular, no plan was specified as to how the routes on a usable network of cycle routes in the capital would be organised (e.g. numbered? coloured? named?) and signed. Since then, an online map has been compiled; but in its current state this proposed map doesn't seem to be much of an improvement on the old London Cycle Network squiggle.
I’ve no doubt Sustrans are making further plans and that practical results will follow soon. If you’re reading this, Sustrans, I urge you to adopt Simon Parker’s brilliant London Cycle Map as the blueprint for mapping and signing a completed London Cycle Network. And do keep up the good work.
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