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How do we tackle our crises? With a walking and cycling network for everyone - Sustrans

How do we tackle our crises? With a walking and cycling network for everyone - Sustrans


5 min read Partner content

There is a national asset rooted in all our local communities that could help solve a plethora of policy issues: the climate crisis, lowering life expectancy, record levels of physical inactivity, air pollution, and loneliness, writes Sustrans.

Whatever your views on Brexit, in the short term we can all agree that like any change, it will bring uncertainty. Of course the uncertainty is already here. An unstable pound, nervous markets and an unclear political outlook means that there is no better time to embrace the assets we have on our doorstep.

Imagine a national asset which bolsters local economies. A network that gets people to the resources they need, such as schools, hospitals and work in a manner which is good for their health and the health of the planet. An asset which is not just utilitarian but recreational, which allows access to some of our most beautiful landscapes across the UK and which enters all of our National Parks.

This asset exists. The National Cycle Network consists of over 16,000 miles of routes for walking and cycling across the UK, with over half of the UK population living within a mile’s reach of it. The Network is a vital part of the UK’s infrastructure, with almost three quarters of a billion trips made on it every year (that’s half of the total rail trips in the UK), of which just over half are made on foot while most of the rest are cycled.

In 2017, the Network contributed £3.8 billion to the UK economy, £2.5 billion of which came from leisure and tourism to local economies and a large amount of the rest from benefits to health. But it’s about more than the hard numbers of transport trips and local economies. It connects people to places, vital services and communities. And it connects people to each other, in every county, region and nation of the UK. A third of the paths are off-road so that anyone can enjoy the space without coming into contact with cars.

However, the Network is not currently meeting its full potential. Sustrans is a cycling and walking charity. We initiated the Network over 20 years ago, and we are its custodians. We only own 1.5% of it, and the Network exists because of the local authorities and other land owners on whose land it runs. Working with our partners we conducted an audit of the Network and set out a new vision at the end of 2018 in our ‘Paths for Everyone’ report. Our aim for the Network is for it to meet its full potential and be a traffic free network of paths for everyone by 2040.

This is a big challenge. At present 46% of the Network is not good enough. There are a variety of reasons for this: poor signage, surfaces or width; barriers which prevent buggies and wheelchairs from using the Network fully; and sections of the Network on roads with speeds or traffic volumes that are inappropriate. We want to change this by making as much of the Network off-road as possible and putting in traffic calming measures where this is not possible so that a 12 year old could use the Network by herself.

We know the Network works as an excellent tourist attraction in itself and a gateway for families to enjoy the natural environment around them such as our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. However, nearly half the Network is in urban areas and we also want to ensure it fully serves the communities it passes through by looking at how parts of the Network can more directly link people to the services they require. To do this we need to continue to work with UK Government, local authorities and landowners.

When we succeed in this, we estimate that the Network will contribute a £7.6 billion benefit to the economy every year by 2040. But that statistic doesn’t do justice to what the Network is really about. This is an asset that can connect us to each other physically, by linking communities in a way that doesn’t mean having to use a car, but also more profoundly. This is about providing spaces for people to live and move well together. Creating links within and across communities. Reducing loneliness. And then by helping make walking and cycling the easiest choice for short journeys and helping tackle our climate crisis, obesity crisis and air quality crisis. 

As the Science and Technology Committee recently recommended to Government in their ‘Clean Growth’ report: ‘In the long-term, widespread personal vehicle ownership does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonisation. The Government should not aim to achieve emissions reductions simply by replacing existing vehicles with lower-emissions versions.’ We know electric vehicles still have a carbon intensive supply chain and emit dangerous particulate matter from tyre and brake wear so we need fewer, not just cleaner vehicles.

Now is the time to give people real, viable alternatives to the private car for short journeys and to link them to the places and resources around them. Chances are the Network runs through your constituency and could help your constituents to access local services. If you want to find out more about the quality of the Network in your constituency or how you can help please get in contact with Sustrans.

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