When it comes to outdoor activity it is easy to overlook what’s on our own doorstep. But chances are you live within a mile or two of the National Cycle Network, making it easy to get on your bike.
An increasing number of people are beginning to realise the multiple benefits of cycling. It’s obviously good for you and good for the environment. And we all know it’s an ideal way to explore the countryside but many people overlook the fact that in towns and cities it’s fast – 22 minutes of cycling can take you four miles, compared to a journey of 40 minutes by car in a city like London.
It’s also convenient, it gives you freedom and independence, takes you from door to door, allows you to double park, is reliable, and even allows you to make eye contact with fellow human beings. That’s not just a win-win situation, it’s a win-win-win-win…
Imagine what life would be like if people took advantage of these many benefits and chose to travel in ways that benefited our health and environment. It’s perhaps a difficult image to conjure up unless you’ve visited a pedestrian/cycle friendly city in Europe.
You might manage to create an image of people walking and cycling along calm, unpolluted streets, looking healthy and smiling at one another.
This is the vision of Sustrans – the UK’s leading sustainable transport charity – whose flagship programme is the National Cycle Network.
There are 12,000 miles of National Cycle Network in the UK connecting towns and villages, countryside and coast.
To put 12,000 miles in context, that’s more than there are miles of motorway and a third of the network is now traffic free. These off-road stretches are vital to encourage people to feel safe when they pedal about from a to b, and helping youngsters feel safe on their bikes is one of Sustrans’ main objectives.
We know from surveys that nearly a third of children want to cycle to school in this country yet only one per cent do.
Research shows that boys on average cycle more than four times as many miles than girls. So Beauty and the Bike was launched last year for secondary school girls in Exeter to overcome the negative images they have of cycling. Girls were offered free advice on how to look and feel good when arriving by bike.
Exeter’s Bike It Officer Emma Osborne said: “I wanted to target teenage girls to show them not only that cycling is a brilliant way to get around and keep fit but that you can arrive looking and feeling great too!
“We had to highlight the benefits of cycling in a way that appeals to girls’ interest in health and beauty and to overcome negative images of cycling. Perhaps more importantly, I wanted to help raise girls’ self esteem that they grow to realise it is OK to look ‘less good’ some of the time.”
The Beauty and the Bike initiative scooped the top gong in the Europe-wide Shimano Cycling Concept Awards 2007, beating over 100 other entries to the £8,000 prize fund. Once youngsters can be confident in their cycling skills and know how to stop the wind or helmets playing havoc with their hair, it is important for them and their parents to be confident that they can cycle independently.
So Sustrans has also set up Links to Schools – a project to make the roads safer by creating new cycle routes to pedestrian crossings.
These safety measures have other direct benefits to communities. By reducing the number of cars taking children to and from school, there is less congestion and pollution, and less potential for accidents outside school gates. In fact, the whole community benefits since links also connect people to their work, to their shops, and to green spaces.
People want safer streets and a healthier environment, and Sustrans’ aims received another thumbs-up in December when our Connect2 project won £50million in a televised public vote.
Connect2 will transform local travel within 79 communities UK-wide. New bridges and crossings over busy roads, railways and rivers will link into newly created networks of paths, giving many more millions of people direct and continuous access by foot and bike to the places they want to get to every day. We were up against stiff competition for the winner takes all prize and grabbed nearly half of all the votes.
It was a terrific result but the hard work starts now to deliver the 79 schemes, not to mention expanding our regular projects such as the NCN and Bike It – to name just two.
What can you do to help?
Although we’re a charity, public support isn’t just from fundraising and giving monthly donations (although that always helps!)
Anyone can enjoy our routes and add to the 1.2 billion journeys on the National Cycle Network since 2000. The more that people use our routes, the more we can persuade Government that additional funding is needed.
It is easy to find out what cycle routes are near to where you live using interactive mapping on our website www.sustrans.org.uk
Just type in your postcode and see what comes up.
If you’re at school, try organising a bike event in the annual Bike to School Week coming up in April. A Pedal Pack can be downloaded from our website but hurry because it takes at least five weeks to set up.
If you’re 18 or over and are passionate about the environment – globally and locally – you can become a volunteer and join the 2,400 rangers across the UK who help maintain the NCN.
Rangers carry out vital work from looking after and promoting a section of the NCN to forming work camps building new paths. These work camps usually involve laying the path and an equal length of fencing, erecting benches, relocating current gates and installing new ones and there might even be a chance to be trained to operate a dumper.