The world collectively hit the pause button on life early in 2020 – and things haven’t been the same since.
We will be learning lessons from the pandemic for years to come, but one thing we found out straight away was that changing our habits was not as difficult as we previously thought.
We quickly adapted to working from home, shopping differently, cutting out car journeys and spending more of our leisure time outdoors – with many people discovering or rediscovering the joy of cycling.
The UK Government connected this successful mass behaviour change to its long-term plans for increased active travel – and has announced plans to spend £2bn on a “cycling and walking revolution”.
This acceleration of plans for cycling and walking is very welcome, but we feel that Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps and our national cycling bodies have missed a trick by ignoring the potential of off-road routes to contribute to this revolution.
The lack of a national representative body for mountain biking has meant our community’s voice is not always heard, but any off-road cycling advocate would immediately point to the nearly 80 per cent of the rights-of-way network which could quickly and easily be opened up to bikes.
Not only are the routes already on the ground, but they’re also already segregated from motor traffic.
One of the by-products of lockdown was a boom in bicycle sales , with both adults and children taking to the suddenly quieter roads and venturing off-road on our rights-of-way network.
Some of these new or returning riders may be blissfully unaware that they are “breaking the rules” by riding on footpaths, but others may be avoiding them because they wish to respect the rules.
Traffic may have dropped massively as lockdown was introduced, but it has already crept back up almost to the previous levels – and a residual distrust of public transport could see it higher than ever as more people get back to work. It’s now vital to make it as easy as possible for people to keep on cycling, but to do it safely.
The UK Government is now inviting proposals for the second phase of its plan to improve cycling, and the rights-of-way network seems an obvious point to consider.
Fit for purpose?
Of course, a huge number of regular cyclists (nearly 80 per cent of respondents in an OpenMTB/Cycling UK survey) cycle on footpaths anyway – and the vast majority do so responsibly and without objection from other from walkers or landowners.
The Scottish Government had the foresight to do away with distinctions between user groups with the Land Reform Act of 2003, with its principle of responsible access, which has proved to be an unqualified success.
And – partly thanks to our Trails for Wales campaign – the Welsh Assembly has already set wheels in motion to follow suit with a forward-thinking move which would see “single status” rights-of-way open to walkers, horse riders and cyclists.
Change is inevitable
Both the Scottish and Welsh governments have reviewed rights of way – and decided to bring about more equitable, simpler systems that suit modern use. There is an air of inevitability about how a long-awaited review would bring about similar change in England.
This will offer big gains to society in general, by making it more straightforward to explore the countryside safely and to use its rights of way for everyday transport.
It can also contribute to the UK Government’s stated aim of tackling obesity, introducing more people to the ease and pleasure of active travel in contrast to car journeys.
What other initiative could bring about more benefit per pound than changing the denomination of footpaths to shared-use trails? Many trails are ready to go. Some would benefit from swapping stiles for gates or similar, while others might need simple, low-cost infrastructure which could be funded by Government.
Cycling’s representative bodies are rightly lobbying for improved provision for cycling on the road, but we feel they are missing the opportunity to fast forward a review of the English Rights of Way system and bring about what we all know is coming anyway in a more timely manner.
The cost would be negligible when compared to other transport spending and a clearer, fairer and more open system would have huge benefits for active travel, for leisure use and for overall wellbeing.