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Is the UK Infrastructure Really Cycling Friendly?

By Charlotte Murray

According to reports by the Department for Transport, two-thirds of adults feel that it is too dangerous to cycle on the road. This in itself says a great deal about the current state of cycling infrastructure in the UK. Giulio Ferrini, Head of Built Environment at Sustrans, provides his insight into the challenges and potential solutions to support safer walking and cycling. With a background in engineering and transport consultancy, Giulio now works with local authorities in London and across the UK promoting Sustrans’ vision.

Sustrans are a charity making it easier for people to walk and cycle. Their flagship project, the National Cycle Network, links over 10,000 miles of traffic-free or traffic-calmed routes and quiet country lanes. While the NCN is a brilliant initiative, compared to Europe’s EuroVelo, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. With cities in the UK initially built with road networks in mind, a vision for the future should encourage cyclists and walkers. Giulio shares how this might be done.

Cycle Lane
There’s still room for improvement. © Profimedia

Could you tell us a little bit about the different types of cycling infrastructure in place in the UK and what those might look like?

The National Cycle Network is the biggest collection of routes we have in this country. With a mixture of leisure and utility routes, the network targets the two main purposes of such routes. Both user groups have similar requirements in terms of accessibility and quality but a lot of work is needed to bring the whole network up to the same standard. Most of the NCN, however, is on private land with only around 2% owned by Sustrans, so the decision-making power primarily sits with landowners. Though positive changes are coming with £30m recently approved to improve the network and so local authorities have been developing their own section of the network within their cities.

There is quite little infrastructure already in place, with very little of the network currently up to a good standard. Our roads are built for people to move most easily by car with driving being the convenient, safe and comfortable option so, of course, people will choose to travel this way. The starting point for improving options in the UK is poor so there is a lot of work to be done. However, in the past 10 years, there has been more of a concerted effort to challenge this. Last summer, the LTN (Local Transport Note) 1/20 was introduced: the guidance for local authorities on designing high-quality, safe cycle infrastructure. This is a game-changer, it sets the standard and provides consistency across plans for better infrastructure.

There are certain areas taking a proactive approach, even prior to the LTN 1/20. London, for example, with the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling, set out to embed cycling as an integral part of the transport network by implementing high quality and direct routes, which would get people into and out of London easily. These were planned as points around a clock face with each number representing a route. Initially, the quality varied with Cycle Superhighways 3 and 6 being the better routes [these routes are now part of the Cycleways network].

One particular route in London sees some 12,000 users a day proving its popularity. Seen as somewhat radical, the building of the cycleway took away road space whereas previous efforts would be more conservative, instead removing green space or pavement. Other cycleway routes were slightly patchy, struggling with political buy-in to even implement them. As a result, the Quietways network was launched. These connected quiet streets and provided interventions on larger road sections such as safe crossing points, requiring less intrusive road design. But these were still very average.

Similarly, Manchester has grand plans for the Bee Network, with £85m currently invested. But this is yet to come to fruition. [The current goal is set at 55 miles of cycling and walking infrastructure by the end of 2021].

How do you think the pandemic has impacted cycling infrastructure in the UK?

An opportunity was seen with the roads being empty but the implementation of these [additional cycle lanes] wasn’t great and they were clearly linked to the pandemic. So they were removed just as quickly as they were put in. It may instead be more beneficial to link active travel to the wider issue of the climate crisis as that hasn’t gone away.

There has definitely been a big increase in the numbers of people cycling, that’s abundantly clear. What’s maybe not so evident is where that shift has come from. Interestingly, in places across the UK where road design encourages cycling, evidence suggests that driving is still the preferred form of transport.

UK Cycle path
The UK has definitely seen a big increase in the numbers of people cycling. © Profimedia

How do we hold onto the changes which were implemented in 2020?

During the pandemic, experimental traffic orders were used as opposed to the usual method of implementing changes to the road network. Essentially, the consultation period for changes happened whilst the changes were already in place (instead of prior to installation). This meant that people who might not ordinarily respond, responded to the consultation as they could physically see its impact. However, the big difference in the last year has been that the ultimate decision of implementation has not been based on whether they are meeting stated outcomes i.e. increased cycling, improved air quality but rather how popular and unpopular they are.

This is unsurprising since data collection was a challenge as a result of the pandemic. But this isn’t really how sound decisions should be made. So whilst the changes were positive, the planning and implementation going forward should be more thorough, with a robust monitoring framework. Finally, despite all of this, urgent change is needed. With the current climate crisis, the scale and pace of change needed is dramatic so a balance will be needed.

From our conversation with Giulio, it would seem that trials are the best way to achieve collaborative change. Meaningful engagement, which is grounded in policy and data, is important. This is the way to create sustainable change and implement high-quality cycling infrastructure in a place that could certainly do better. It is clear from the interview that the UK has a long way to go and hopefully change is on the horizon.