How does the UK Government’s Gear Change relate to the National Cycle Network?

by | Jun 14, 2021 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Walking and cycling has been an important part of the UK’s resilience in weathering the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The UK Government has recognised this in its recently published Gear Change strategy, packed with measures that Sustrans, together with our partners in the Walking and Cycling Alliance, have long campaigned and worked for. Our CEO, Xavier Brice takes a closer look at the strategy, what it means for the National Cycle Network and what you can do to support proposed changes to the Highway Code.

The Department for Transport is currently consulting on proposed changes to the Highway Code (HC), to improve safety for vulnerable road users.

‘Gear Change’ is one of the most exciting developments for cycling and walking in my lifetime. We know that there will be £2 billion investment over the coming years specifically for cycling and walking.

Active travel is now being treated like a proper transport mode, worthy of considered, long-term investment.

We know that the Government want this to be spent on quality infrastructure and schemes that people can truly benefit from. Not white lines and green paint.

We know that there will be a new inspectorate. Active Travel England, which will be led by a Cycling and Walking Commissioner, accountable for:

  • holding the budget
  • approving and inspecting schemes
  • running training
  • good practice
  • knowledge sharing
  • inspecting highway authorities
  • and reviewing major planning applications over a certain size to ensure walking and cycling is embedded.

In short, it looks like the Government is getting very serious about active travel. It wants to do it properly. 

What we don’t know is how quickly all of this will happen, or how exactly it will unfold. But what we do know is sufficient reason to be optimistic, at least for cycling.

Although one big weakness in ‘Gear Change’ is suggested by the title.

It is light on walking, a mode which is so much more accessible for so many more people and where action is also needed.

Social prescribing linked to quality infrastructure

Before ‘Gear Change’ the Government recognised the role that regular walking and cycling can play in keeping us active and healthy, in their Obesity Strategy.

We now know that pilots will be rolled out where GPs will be prescribing cycling and walking.

Individuals will be prescribed a cycle on loan which they may, in some cases, be able to keep. They will also be offered cycle training.

Now, we all know that safe infrastructure and less motor traffic is key to helping people, in particular those new to cycling, integrate cycling and walking into their daily life.

So the pilots will be rolled out in areas that are being treated for low traffic neighbourhoods, i.e. where roads will be open to people walking and cycling and closed to cars; and where protected cycle lanes are being implemented.

How does ‘Gear Change’ relate to the Network?

The Government has also recognised the vital importance of the National Cycle Network in enabling everyone to walk and cycle (and scoot and wheel) safely and easily by committing to ‘significantly increasing funding’ for the Network across England.

We are now hopeful that this will materialise into long-term funding to hasten the ongoing transformation of the Network being delivered by Sustrans and our many partners.

This investment boost is much needed and will be money well spent.

As you may remember, in 2018, we launched Paths for Everyone with a vision to make the whole of the Network accessible and enjoyable for all by 2040.

This means making sure it is all traffic free or on low-traffic routes, removing or re-designing barriers, and improving width, signage and surface.

people walking and on bikes using traffic-free path lined with trees

The Network is not a government project. It is a product of civil society and this is its strength. Volunteers play a crucial role in helping drive this vision and in maintaining the Network.

Blockquote quotation marks

So whilst the Government’s commitment is a huge win for us and an exciting opportunity – we still have work to do over the coming years to make the case for the Network with Government, with the DfT but also with other departments – as the Network is more than just a piece of transport infrastructure. Blockquote quotation marks

XAVIER BRICE, SUSTRANS CEO

The Network is not a government project. It is a product of civil society and this is its strength.

Volunteers play a crucial role in helping drive this vision and in maintaining the Network.

The Network exists thanks to a consortium of partners, local government, national government, community groups, NGOs, landowners big and small, private and public.

But the Network is also a national asset. It’s an important part of the UK’s green infrastructure.

It therefore needs and merits meaningful investment for infrastructure changes and maintenance.

So whilst the Government’s commitment is a huge win for us and an exciting opportunity – we still have work to do over the coming years to make the case for the Network with Government, with the DfT but also with other departments.

The Network is more than just a piece of transport infrastructure.

Firstly, DfT’s strategy puts focus on urban routes. This means we still need to secure investment for routes passing through rural areas to better connect people with their local services, and with other settlements big and small.

These connections are also important for leisure trips and local economies.

The cycle tourist industry is worth 40bn Euros a year to the European economy, routes spread that spend out into small businesses and rural communities in a way that few other tourist infrastructure does.

Secondly, we still need to secure long-term funding for paths across Wales and Northern Ireland.

Devolved funding for the Network

There is no direct funding for the Network in Wales. However, some sections within designated built-up areas and links to settlements have received funding from Welsh Government (WG) through the Active Travel Fund and Safer Routes in Communities Fund via Local Authorities.

As these have to be for utility and purposeful journeys, leisure orientated routes can lose out. The funding is patchy and limited to year on year submissions.

Northern Ireland

The main landowner of the Network in Northern Ireland is the Department for Infrastructure (DfI), which is responsible for building and maintaining the paths.  

There is no specific funding for the National Cycle Network in Northern Ireland. Fortunately, our vision to make it traffic-free aligns well with the DfI’s own Strategic Plan for Greenways, published in 2016.

In June, Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon announced a £20m fund for blue/green infrastructure, including greenways (traffic-free paths in Northern Ireland).

We’re currently working with and calling for DfI and local authorities to develop more traffic-free routes across the country and adopt greenways into the Network in order to increase traffic-free miles.

This includes the North Down coastal path, which Sustrans worked with Aecom on, and Strathfoyle Greenway near Derry.

Recently our new Director in Northern Ireland, Caroline Bloomfield, joined the Infrastructure Minister to open a new section of greenway, at Blaris Road which links to the NCN Route 9 or Lagan Towpath.

And what’s the latest in Scotland?

Scottish Government have led the way in recognising and supporting the development of the National Cycle Network for over twenty years.

This ongoing support has secured investment of over £32m since 2015, helping to expand and improve the Network across Scotland. 

In particular, this support has allowed us to deliver a number of new routes including the now-iconic Caledonia Way along Scotland’s west coast.

More recently, this has helped deliver the first two activation projects at Ledaig and Duror, with a third, National Route 7 at Bowling Basin in West Dunbartonshire, due to complete in December.

In addition to this, funding has also been allocated to continue our essential work to identify and remove or modify barriers along Scotland’s routes to ensure the Network is accessible and fit for everyone.

Better Highway Code for cycling and walking – share your views

Last but not least, the Department for Transport is currently consulting on proposed changes to the Highway Code (HC), to improve safety for vulnerable road users.

This is a huge win for us all, and really exciting. We now need your help to get this victory over the line.

Announcing the consultation, the DfT explained that:

“The objective of the hierarchy is not to give priority to pedestrians, people cycling and horse riders in every situation, but rather to ensure a more mutually respectful and considerate culture of safe and effective road use that benefits all users”.

We’ve been working on some of the proposed changes to the Highway Code prior to the public consultation.

Some of those include:

  • introducing a hierarchy of road users which ensures that those road users who can do the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger or threat they may pose to others
  • clarifying existing rules on pedestrian priority on pavements, to advise that drivers and riders should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross the road;
  • providing guidance on cyclist priority at junctions; to advise drivers to give priority to cyclists at junctions when travelling straight ahead
  • establishing guidance on safe passing distances and speeds when overtaking cyclists and horse riders. The new rule advises: a minimum distance of 1.5 metres at speeds under 30 mph; a minimum distance of 2.0 metres at speeds over 30 mph; for a large vehicle, a minimum distance of 2.0 metres in all conditions; more space when overtaking in bad weather (including high winds) and at night
  • adopting the Dutch Reach, which makes drivers turn their head to look over their shoulder before opening the door. This should reduce the number of cycling-related injuries when someone opens a car door without looking.

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