Why we deserve better cycle paths

Many cycle paths are at best a lottery, and at worst a real safety hazard

Last year saw me do a lot of bike touring - visiting Cuba, France, Sri Lanka and the US. Much of this involved getting lost, and relying on the helpful directions of friendly old locals.

The furthest I’ll get this year, however – thanks to various DIY requirements around the house – looks like being the remoter aisles of the local DIY store. In other words, I’ll still be getting lost and relying on the helpful directions of friendly old locals; they’ll just happen to be working there.

Being a devoted everyday cyclist, I’m doing all the travelling involved by bike. Anything transportable by a car is transportable by a bike trailer: worn carpets, dead mattresses, broken beds and the like to the dump one way; paint, ladders, flat-pack furniture from the superstore the other.

The mattress was the trickiest: a double, which had been rendered a health hazard by a departed lodger’s ‘tea stains’ – though if that’s what he calls tea, I shudder to think what he used the teapot for. Anyway, we somehow coiled it up with tape and stood it upright on the trailer, like a bouncy castle on wheels.

My £70 bike trailer has repaid itself many times over (the council charges £40 to remove each large refuse item). But what truly makes all this a pleasing and efficient process is that the dump (which, charmingly, has a special entrance for bikes) and DIY stores (which don’t) are conveniently placed along a flat, well surfaced rail-trail that runs from behind my house – which is partly why I bought the house in the first place.

Are you going to Scarborough Fair? If so, pack a toolbox and first aid kit

Quality of surface is the key, and it’s something local authorities are dreadfully haphazard about. What’s labelled a ‘cycle path’ on the map could be anything from a potholed, boggy track to firm asphalt – or both at various points along the way.

Take National Cycle Route 1 between Scarborough and Whitby, for instance. The rhyme needs updating: are you going to Scarborough Fair? If so, pack a toolbox and first aid kit rather than a bag of herbs, as it’s awfully rough and rutted round Ravenscar. Last time we did it, one of us came a cropper and ended up in A&E, receiving heavy-duty kneecap embroidery.

Compare this with what happened as I was going to St Ives (the one in Cambridgeshire, not the Cornwall village with alleys narrower than your handlebars). Again the rhyme failed. I didn’t meet a man with seven wives and lots of bagged-up cats. But I did meet countless cyclists gliding serenely along the smooth dozen miles from Cambridge alongside the Guided Busway.

When the Busway was built, it included an unsurfaced bike path – until local campaigners got on the case. Since re-opening in 2011, however, the newly tarmacked Cambridge–St Ives route has become a favourite for local cyclists of all types, and is used for everything from weekend family trundles to full-on club runs – rather than serial bigamists linked to 2,744 offences of animal cruelty (although a bike trailer could hold an awful lot of kittens, mind).

Or take another cycle path I’m familiar with: the surfaced four-mile rail-trail between Harrogate and the castled village of Ripley. Safe, weatherproof and fun, it’s a favourite with our young nephews, though any hopes of it tiring them out are dashed by the sugar rush from the ice-cream shop.

Contrast this with the half-surfaced trail in the other direction, to Starbeck: we take them to swimming every week along it, though it’s often sodden enough to swim in itself. There are lots of muddy patches, too, principally the ones on the back of the nephews’ coats, thanks to their fondness for careering through puddles. It’s said that every pound spent on good cycle facilities generates around £5 worth of economic benefits, and I have to agree: a few quid on tarmac here would save large laundry bills – and replacement inner tubes.

There’s still huge pent-up demand for good cycleways, so let’s not be fobbed off with sub-standard, unsurfaced paths. Simply enabling quality leisure time – whether it’s solo or with friends and family – is benefit enough. Not everyone is looking to shift comedy loads by bike trailer; but surely everyone wants to avoid an enforced visit to a bike shop, launderette, or A&E, on the way home?

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