More ambition and investment needed for National Cycle Network in Scotland, says charity boss
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As huge parts of the cycle network in the Highlands are reclassified, John Davidson spoke to Sustrans Scotland director John Lauder about its future
The director of a national charity wants to see Scotland's cycle network become the envy of Europe – and he says it can be done with the right investment.
John Lauder is the director of Sustrans Scotland, the organisation behind the National Cycle Network (NCN), which began as a vision in 1995 and has gone on to cover thousands of miles across Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
However, a recent review of the network has seen large parts of it reclassified or, in some cases in England, removed completely. The network has long been criticised for its inconsistency, with local authorities and other landowners responsible for its upkeep rather than the charity itself.
Some routes use main roads where no alternative has been identified and urban streets can create problems where traffic is busier, while rural roads with fast-moving vehicles are not suitable for many cyclists and certainly won't attract new riders.
It's something Sustrans has been aware of, but determination to link up routes and make the network a reality sometimes got the better of them, Mr Lauder admits.
He said: "In 2016 when Xavier Brice became the CEO, he asked me to go away from Scotland for six months and take a hard look at the NCN, and my recommendation was that we just need to be realistic and honest about the quality of the network.
"We’ve been really ambitious, sometimes overly so; sometimes we’ve signed routes that we knew were on busy roads – we were comfortable [riding] on them but were we really honest in promoting that to a family market?
"Partly, we always thought that in time we’ll get a off-road alternative built because it’ll be so popular, but we haven’t been able to achieve that, so this is taking a sober look and saying, you know what, we do need to hit the reset button."
Many of the long-distance routes across the Highlands rely on the existing infrastructure, such as A roads which are single-track in places but are often the only route between two destinations. North of Tain, for example, the NCN no longer officially exists.
But Mr Lauder says that no routes are being lost in Scotland, with the routes in the Highlands being kept as long-distance touring routes which will be promoted to an adult audience.
"The reality is that was the market that was always using those long stretches of rural road for a National Cycle Network experience," he said. "It was always an adult audience; we’re just being a little bit clearer now about how we market and promote those routes."
Marketing is a key part of the changes to the network in Scotland. Sustrans has teamed up with VisitScotland to promote these 'new' touring routes with a series of online journey planners that will include the full routes and 15 new day trips.
The planner is aimed at encouraging visitors to the Highlands, Argyll and Bute, Stirling, Perthshire and the central belt through cycling day trips or longer challenges, according to VisitScotland.
The idea was piloted with the Caledonia Way cycle route, which connects Inverness with Campebeltown via Fort William and Oban, and three more routes have now been added – the Lochs and Glens Way which goes from Glasgow to Inverness, the Loch Ness 360 off-road trail and the Union and Forth & Clyde Canals route between Edinburgh and Glasgow.
These 'named routes' – as Sustrans calls them – use parts of the NCN, but the full length of them will be signed using a logo based on the name, rather than the established route number. Route 1 from Inverness to John O'Groats is next in line for a name, to allow the continuation of the cycle route to the far north and onwards to Orkney and Shetland.
Mr Lauder said: "We want to get to the point where it becomes something that people discuss: 'Have you been to Scotland yet? Have you seen their National Cycle Network? It’s amazing.' We want to be talked about the same way people talk about Germany, Switzerland, Slovenia. In fact, Slovenia is a great case study, where they are attracting wealthy Germans to come on ebikes to ride their routes, and they are benefitting from that. Why shouldn’t Scotland?"
The review into the NCN said that it would cost £2.8 billion to bring the network up to scratch across the UK, and Mr Lauder believes that investment is feasible.
"They are spending more than that on the A9," he said. "Take the A96, the Queensferry Crossing at £300 million – so yes, it’s sustainable, it’s part of the green recovery, it ticks so many boxes. In particular, what the NCN gives us is a great opportunity to be out, to walk, to cycle, to learn to cycle, to familiarise ourselves with it and to take it out of the town that you live in to the rural area that surrounds every Scottish city.
"We would like to see the NCN quality sections extended, so the vision for the National Cycle Network is that it allows confident journeys, connecting communities to countryside.
"Currently, the Scottish Government is doing work around its strategic transport review STPR2 – that is the big resource plan for spending transport money over the next 30 years. It would be great to see the National Cycle Network lodged in STPR2 as a strategic transport initiative and then delivered over those 30 years.
"It doesn’t have to be delivered by Sustrans. I think it’s a tremendous achievement that a relatively small charity has got us this far; it really needs to be invested in by the state and local authorities in particular need support to deliver those better quality sections."
And what about those long stretches of rural road that make up so much of the cycle network – official and unofficial – in the Highlands?
Mr Lauder said: "What we’d like to see is on rural roads where the speed limit can be reduced, for it to be reduced and signed as being cycling, walking and horse friendly roads – that would make a big difference.
"In addition, in terms of the support we receive from Scottish Government, we would like to see an increase in the funding we receive for the National Cycle Network. I think it’s an under-invested opportunity for Scotland plc and the more that we talk about a post-Covid world where foreign travel will be reduced and we’re talking about staycations, it seems to us that Scotland is ideally suited with a huge market in England and also a resident population – and we know from our own research that the majority of patrons of the National Cycle Network are resident in Scotland.
"It’s being used daily, for long weekends and sometimes it’s for multi-day trips. And when people are out they are contributing to the economy.
"The great advantage of a cycling holiday is that you are limited in your capacity to carry stuff. So whereas you can fill you campervan before you go on a trip, on a bike you have to buy as you go, so you’re staying in B&Bs, you’re eating locally, and you’re stopping for coffees and all those things – and that’s what small businesses in Scotland really want, passing trade."
For local people who want to cycle nearer to home, Mr Lauder admitted there were still plenty of challenges ahead.
"You want people to be able to cycle out of Inverness safely and feel comfortable about going five, six miles and coming back again – that’s a decent trip out with the kids if that’s what you’re doing, and the whole idea of the NCN was to create that, so there is a job of work to be done, there is no question," he said.
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