Cycle touring and Sustrans routes

In the UK, there’s a charity called Sustrans, and they’re behind something called, perhaps overly optimistically, the National Cycle Network (NCN for short).

NCN: a quality lottery

NCN routes vary massively in terms of quality – from smooth, sealed, traffic-free surfaces, to swampy quagmires, to busy roads, congested with cars. As a result, many British cyclists speak of disdain of Sustrans, and sadly, the charity’s apparent willingness to chase funding first and foremost didn’t help the situation, and certainly contributed to many exceedingly poor routes being given NCN route designation.

The photo above was sent to me by John Holah, and shows NCN 21, just outside Reigate.

Some steps in the right direction

It seems Sustrans themselves have eventually woken up and realised what so many have been saying openly for so long: chasing quantity over quality only results in rubbish infrastructure being built. As a result, Sustrans had quite a cull, stripping huge swathes of routes from the NCN status. Of course, proving that it’s impossible to please all the people all the time, they faced quite severe criticism for this step, mainly from Sustrans supporters and volunteers.

The reality is that Sustrans took a brave and positive step by culling so much of the NCN. It’s an admission that they got it wrong, and that the NCN still is effectively a lottery, in terms of quality (it even includes carrying your bike up or down big staircases!)

It’s very easy to descend into a “Everything ever done by Sustrans is utter rubbish” mindset, and following from that, actively avoid all NCN routes, but doing so would be a huge mistake!

Don’t overlook the good stuff

Sustrans has delivered some wonderful routes, too – just look at the Devon Coast To Coast route (NCN 27), for example, or the Bristol – Bath Rail Path, or many others. Many Sustrans routes are simply stunning!

And therein lies the problem: how do you, when planning on going cycle touring, plan a route, when NCN routes are such a lottery of good and bad?

As I said above, Sustrans is taking steps about the quality of routes with NCN status, but there are several points you need to keep in mind:

  • Sustrans is a charity, not a highways authority, and as such, they have no legal powers, and a smaller annual budget than a cat rescue charity
  • Much of the exceedingly poor sections are privately owned, and there’s not a thing Sustrans can do about it
  • Sustrans has limited funding, and needs to spend it carefully. Simply resurfacing the entire NCN network is beyond realistic
  • Much of the NCN is actually the responsibility of the local authority, not Sustrans

A fool’s errand

The issue is compounded by Sustrans trying (in vain) to be the sole source of route maps, which they sell, to raise additional funding. What I’m going to propose below will undoubtedly cut into their revenue at least a tiny bit, but if done correctly, should improve things for everyone.

In short, if you want to use NCN routes in the short to medium term, you will have to ask people familiar with the route about suitability. It really isn’t an optimal position to be in, but that’s the reality of it.

Fortunately, my growing range of traffic-free routes cover many NCN routes, and are highly detailed, including a star-rating for each route, information about the route surface, where toilets and refreshment stops are, whether or not trikes can get through, plus much more!

Open Street Map

However, if you’re genuinely interested in making this better, then you’d best sign up for a user account with the Open Street Map, and start editing the map. Open Street Map (OSM for short) is an incredible resource – free, and as the name suggests, open for anyone to edit and update. Over on, they have a really good guide to help you learn how to edit the OSM.

There are different layers to the OSM, one of which is the Open Cycle Map (OCM for short), which shows NCN routes. Incidentally, compare the Netherlands to the UK in the Open Cycle Map – the difference is enormous!

Think beyond just your own needs

The first step is for you to check the Sustrans site, to see which routes near you are rated as part of the NCN, and to remove from the OCM those parts of routes that have lost their NCN status. Next, go cycle the remaining NCN routes, then update the map with details about the route surface (look for signs of flooding, during dry weather) and also add any barriers you found.

Here’s where things get interesting: don’t just look at barriers as acceptable if you can get through, but instead, consider someone riding a trike, or a cargo bike, as well as think about how well wheelchair users would be able to cope with it, especially when on their own.

Increasingly, digital mapping services are incorporating these additional pieces of information into their routing algorithms, meaning we all benefit by tackling this collectively.

People power trumps ivory towers

I don’t think I can over-emphasise what a powerful and important resource Open Street Map is, and it’s a pity Sustrans doesn’t openly embrace it. Still, as Royal Mail found, when it wouldn’t share the UK postal code database, people could simply add postal codes to roads in the OSM, and in doing so, effectively removed Royal Mail’s monopoly on a database it used to charge steep fees for.

I also cannot over-emphasise how important it is that you become an active OSM contributor. Try to imagine a world where you can plot a route along NCN paths, confident that you won’t need to ford a swamp, or carry a laden touring bike up a flight of stairs.

The power of all of us, collectively working towards a common goal, should not be underestimated, and by each of us just making some small changes to the map, for our local area, everybody wins.
And yes, even Sustrans wins, as when people start realising they can confidently start relying on NCN routes when plotting a new route, people will become less critical of Sustrans.

Probably the easiest, most fun and rather addictive way of updating the OSM is to use the StreetComplete app. Unfortunately, it’s only available for Android.

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