I use the National Cycle Network (NCN) for commuting and I’ve been thinking of writing a post on my experiences and observations for a while. A report published by Sustrans titled The Real Cycling Revolution has finally prompted me to do it.
The report has been released to celebrate National Bike Week 2012 running from 16th to 24th June. An aim of the report is to highlight the growth in cycling and walking journeys made on Sustrans’ National Cycle Network. It also serves as a rebuke against the 2010 National Travel Survey which reported declines in both cycling and walking journeys. The same survey reported a fall, though less dramatic, in car journeys since 2002.
In this post I do not intend to question Sustrans figures, I do not know enough about their survey methods to do so. Instead I am going to pick on page 5 of their report titled The National Commuting Network. It starts with the following words:
“Efficient, convenient, reliable”
Sorry Sustrans, but no, from my experience I disagree.
I live near to NCN Route 12. The route passes through St Neots on the Cambridgeshire/Bedfordshire border. I will use the town as a starting point for two different commutes. In each case I will compare the NCN route with an on road alternative. I know both the roads around St Neots and the NCN routes well. Both of the examples are based on real cycle commutes that I know people make, they are not contrived.
The Bikes, Speeds and Me
I have two single speed bikes that I use for commuting, a hybrid and a road bike. Both are relatively inexpensive hack bikes and equipped to carry panniers. Like many commuters I leave my bikes in public places, so the less attractive they are to thieves the better. I have a faster bike I could commute on, but because of the risk of theft, it stays at home.
The hybird has a smaller gear ratio than the road bike, though not by much. This is a concession to make pedalling off-road easier. The road bike has 25mm Continental GP 4 Seasons and while they are good reliable year round road tyres, they are not up to the off road surfaces. The hybrid uses 1.9″ Specialised Crossroads. I have found they offer a good compromise of puncture protection, grip and traction across rough gravel and mud tracks and speed on the road. Nevertheless with the hybrid I cannot maintain the same comfortable pace on tarmac that I can with the road bike.
The NCN routes feature off-road sections characterised by rough mud and gravel farm tracks and unsurfaced bridleways (I have written about the route surface in an earlier post). I use the hybrid for this route as it is the bike best equipped for off-road riding. For the on road routes I use the road bike because it is the faster bike.
As for me, I am a fit cyclist and I can push a bike reasonably hard when I want to. Based on my experience and ability, the speeds given below are representative of what I would expect to achieve with each bike/route pairing under reasonable weather conditions.
In each case route maps are given followed by a table detailing distance, average speed and journey time for comparison.
Example 1. St Neots to Huntingdon
|NCN Route||Road Alternative|
|Average Speed (mph)||15||18|
|Journey Time (minutes/seconds)||57.36||30.00|
The NCN route is over 5 miles further and takes almost twice as long! I know a couple of people in my club who commute using the alternative route, but no one who uses the NCN route.
Example 2. St Neots to Little Hey Prison
|NCN Route||Road Alternative|
|Average Speed (mph)||15||18|
|Journey Time (minutes/seconds)||31.36||25.30|
Despite being almost identical in length, the NCN Route takes an extra 6 minutes. Note, the NCN Route options leaves the actual NCN route at the left hand turn onto the B661.
On leaving St Neots, the NCN appears to take an unusual route. The obvious exit route is along Crosshall road. It is a good road and has a shared use path. Instead the route quite literally goes round the houses. The route passes Crosshall School, so I suspect the design is to encourage children and parents to cycle or walk there. Perhaps it is not as daft as it first seems!
Completing the picture
Both the B645 and B1041 can be busy during peak rush hour times, although at other times you might not see a dozen cars pass you. The B645 has generally good visibility and is wide for a B-road. While the rural road sections of the NCN are narrow, they are very quiet and enjoyable to ride.
The NCN’s off road surface exerts a greater toll on your bike. My hybrid requires more frequent cleaning and maintenance. Despite having tough, puncture resistant tyres it still gets more punctures.
The NCN route is more strongly influenced by the weather than the alternative road routes. In cold weather the roads are gritted, while on the NCN ice can be a problem. In wet weather, on the road you may skirt around the odd puddle, but on the NCN some sections can flood or form extensive puddles. The puddles can become persistent during the winter.
There are other factors that can lengthen your journey on the NCN. The off-road sections utilise existing rights of way, so you may encounter horses, dog walkers or joggers plugged in to iPods. The route crosses working farmland; during harvest times you can find the way blocked by farm machinery.
This post is based on my experience of this section of NCN 12 and my knowledge of alternative routes. I hope it has demonstrated Sustrans’ assertion that the NCN provides an efficient, convenient and reliable infrastructure for commuters should not be taken at face value. In an urban environment the NCN does appear to provide these things, but across a rural setting, connecting settlements together, it does not.
Using the NCN for a mixed urban/rural commute requires you to compromise over your choice of bike and it’s set up, compromises that are not required for alternative road routes. On the road my journey times are consistent. On the NCN they can vary by 10minutes or more depending on the weather and surface conditions. As providers of a National Commuting Network, Sustrans still have a long road to travel.
And no, I don’t work at Little Hey!