Commuting on the Sustrans National Cycle Network

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.

The Routes

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
Distance (miles) 14.4 9
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
Distance (miles) 7.9 7.6
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!

About richardjostler

Data Scientist working at Rothamsted Research
This entry was posted in Bike, Commuting, Cycling, Huntingdon, National Cycle Network, St Neots, sustrans and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Commuting on the Sustrans National Cycle Network

  1. george cole says:

    Unfortunately, with the rapid increase in the size of the NCN, less attention is being paid to the quality of the routes, and their usefulnes for anything other than light leisure activity.
    My experience is that the NCN is usually a longer, less easy to follow and slower route from A to B than alternatives.
    In addition, I ride a road bike; some parts of the NCN are impassable


  2. My Exp. of commuting along the entirely flat, straight, direct, Middlewood Way (part of NCN 55) near us is that it is slower than the less direct quiet road routes because the surfaces are so poor. The over use of sand means that it wrecks bicycles too. The idea that such a poorly surfaced route presents any sort of “network” is risible. It is very popular with families who drive there at weekends, but could be a viable commute route if done properly. I’ve long suspected that Sustrans exist as a fundraising organisation rather than a cycling one, and their acceptance of extremely poor quality routes provides local authorities with a stamp of approval for dismal provision where otherwise improvements might have been made.


    • velorichard says:

      Thanks for the comments!
      I sometimes think Sustrans are obsessed solely with increasing the NCN mileage. I don’t see the value in creating an extensive network of very variable quality – a few signposts and an online mapping tool don’t qualify as cycling infrastructure. It would be better if they focused on fewer quality routes rather than quantity.

      Sustrans do have guidelines for route standards. However, part of the problem, especially with off-road routes, is they do not own the land, so they cannot necessarily enforce them. The land may be owned by local authorities or private landowners. Although they have guidelines they can’t enforce them. While they can lobby local authorities to make improvements, for private landowners they are reliant on good will. But, a landowner rarely has any financial interest in upgrading a farm track or bridleway to Sustrans guidelines. So nothing gets done, why would they voluntarily fork out the cash? I think a success of the NCN is demonstrating that as a model for building a national cycling infrastructure this is a flawed approach.

      So for now I think Sustrans should aim to maintain their existing high profile routes such as C2C, but it is time they acknowledged they don’t have the muscle to build a genuine high quality national network. Sustrans do a lot of good promoting cycling and walking. They would be better off using their resources to lobby councils and government to provide better facilities and policies instead.


  3. Pingback: National Commuting Network « Cargobike Dad

  4. The earlier comment …their (Sustrans) acceptance of extremely poor quality routes provides local authorities with a stamp of approval for dismal provision…..could not be more accurate.
    If a local authority are allowed to get away with cycling provision that consists of a cheap bucket of white paint and a bicycle stencil they will. Take a look at St Neots Road, Sandy. The rest of the money can then be spent on social media campaigns, PR stunts, awards ceremonies, grand openings, gala dinners etc. Time for Sustrans to make staged payments only against agreed milestones. .


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