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Does the national cycle network live up to expectations?

    There is a tiny but alas vocal number of cynics who argue that cycleways are underused and are a waste of public money because they serve only the recreation of a small cycling minority.

    This ignorant scepticism has been contradicted by various surveys, one of the most recent and comprehensive of which has just been published in Volume 9, Number 1, 2003 of "World Transport Policy & Practice", a quarterly journal edited by Professor John Whitelegg. It is available free of charge as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file at


     Among various other articles this volume contains one entitled:

The U.K. cycle national network: an assessment of the benefits of a sustainable transport infrastructure

    This report contains a detailed analysis of a large-scale survey of a selection of parts of the National Cycle Network (NCN).

Children cycling on cycle path on Colwyn promenade

Children using the cycleway at Colwyn Bay

    22 off road cycleways were chosen in different parts of the UK to represent the network as a whole. Some were in relatively deprived areas, others in more favoured ones, some were tourist orientated but others were urban cycleways.

    The survey was carried out on 4 days in late summer and early autumn, 2001, between 7 am and 5 pm. One day was a weekday and another a weekend day in school term time. Similarly there was a weekday and weekend day during school holidays.

    I have tried to pick out some of the salient points from this thorough and objective study.

Are cycleways underused or used mainly by cyclists?

    Overall more than 60,000 people used the 22 cycleways on the 4 days. Only half were cyclists.

Are cycleways only used for recreation?

    39% of people (cyclists and non-cyclists) were using them for functional purposes such as going to the shops or to work. This proportion varied hugely between different cycleways, eg. on the Tarka trail in Devon 98% of use was recreational but only 5% on several other cycleways. A third of cyclists were using the tracks for functional reasons, though on several urban ones the percentage was 59%.

Does the cycleway network promote good health?

    It is universally acknowledged that moderate aerobic exercise is healthy and reduces the risk of cardio-vascular disease. 42% of users said that the NCN had enabled them to increase their level of physical exercise substantially. Indeed 27% of men and 19% of women said they were using the NCN primarily for reasons of fitness and health.

    A fifth of users were retired and almost a quarter were children, both being groups about which most concern has been expressed concerning inadequate levels of physical activity.

    Functional trips to shops and work averaged 10 km for cyclists and 3 km for pedestrians and such trips if repeated only twice a week would provide a level of activity sufficient to benefit good health.

Has the NCN encouraged cycle usage?

    Comparison with earlier surveys leads the writers to conclude that the opportunity to use a cycleway has encouraged novice and inexperienced cyclists, including traditionally under-represented groups such as women, children and the retired, to cycle more.

Is there any spin-off for local businesses?

    The writers report that several surveys indicate that cyclists tend to spend similar amounts to other visitors varying for example from a mean tourist spend of 3.33 per day in South Wales to over 30 per day on the C2C route.

Do most users access cycleways by car?

    Overall only 19% of users accessed the paths by car, which is substantially lower than visitors to other attractions in the countryside or the National Parks.


   In conclusion I believe that this article confirms that the National Cycle Network, by encouraging safer, sustainable transport with ensuing environmental, health and economic benefits, is indeed living up to the original premises on which it was based.

Maurice Clarke