Why there’s more to successful cycle paths than just building cycle paths

Wherever you are in the UK, you’re never too far from a so-called “recreational bike path”; a family-friendly cycle route separated from the roads and often built on converted railway lines.  Thanks largely to the work of the charity Sustrans these routes criss-cross the country.  Some are wildly popular, both with long-distance touring cyclists as well as with families out for a ride and a day out by bicycle.


In previous discussions cycling friends of mine have denigrated these paths, describing them as “choked”, “slow” and in one instance “stuffed with nodders on bike-shaped-objects.”  But I take a different view.  The Mums and Dad you find hitting these trails in the school holidays might not ride the best bikes, or even self-define as “cyclists”, but when it comes to rehabilitating the bicycle with the British public every journey counts.

In order to encourage adults to start cycling again (often for the first time since their teens) we need to make the experience as simple as possible.  What’s more, you shouldn’t have to make a large up-front investment before deciding you’d like to try riding a bike once more. And that’s where I think we are going wrong with our recreational cycle paths here in the UK.  It turns out there is more to building successful cycle paths than just building cycle paths.

Fun in the sun on the Venice Beach bike track, Los Angeles. 

On a recent trip to Los Angeles I was astonished to find that there - in the very heart of the world’s most car-sick city - was a resoundingly popular recreational bike path.  Running along the length of Venice Beach, the track itself was smooth, wide and separated from pedestrians.  It passed Venice pier, Muscle Beach and other interesting spots and on the Friday afternoon I visited it was packed with people of all ages cruising up and down on bikes.  Roller skaters, cycling ice cream salesmen and shady palm trees helped to lend a festive air.  We turned off the path and rode for a few blocks away from the beach to see if the whole district was a cycling nirvana, but found ourselves alone.  The people on bikes were stuck resolutely to cycling up and down on their safe cycle path.  I watched the riders, and started to think; what made this path such a success?


A few years ago I was lucky enough to cycle in Taiwan (check out this ride from the capital, Taipei)  In the city of Taichung the local government have converted a disused railway to create a cycling route which stretches for a number of miles along the river and in to the country.  There I saw whole families (some on only one bike!) out enjoying themselves for the day on hired bicycles.  There were tandems, and cargo bikes and bikes with baby seats.  There were electric pedal-assist bikes and bikes with sound systems and bikes which looked like small family cars.  The trails were packed with riders, stopping off at small track-side cafes for drinks and snacks or hiring another bike when they got bored with the other at one of the many hire shops.  They even had ride-in toilets so you didn't have to worry if you'd not brought a bike lock with you!  It turns out that the same amenities in Taiwan which make this path work are the same amenities you find in Los Angeles, and it’s what we are lacking on our British paths.

Ride-in toilets for security conscious cyclists who don't have a lock. 

In Los Angeles all of the cycle hire stalls were run by the same business, meaning bikes could be dropped off at any point along the route.  If people got tired of riding they could simply drop off the bike without having to ride back, or they could do a one way journey with the wind behind them without having to contemplate a strenuous return trip.  The ice cream salesmen on bikes added a further level of amenity, whilst well-observed and safe cycle parking clusters were positioned at interesting points along the route meaning people could lock up their bikes with confidence.

Small businesses selling food, drink and hiring out bicycles line the Taichung bike path. 

Gem Bridge, near Tavistock. Beautiful, and somewhat empty of cyclists.

In Taiwan, the bike hire was cheap and plentiful and once again right on the path itself so that the ride started in pleasure straight way.  On a recent trip to Devon I cycled on the impressive Gem Bridge, a beautiful structure which fords a deep valley and connects two newly-opened sections of converted railway line.  But in order to access the path from the nearest town, Tavistock, was a torturous route crossing main roads and down little alleyways.  It may not have the best eco-credentials, but people need to have “park and play” access to these routes in order for them to be a success.

Of course, these successful cycle routes had all of the usual things you’d expect, such as smooth surfaces, good sign posting, and safe bike parking.  But there’s a role for business - such as bike hire and small cafes - in making better recreational cycle routes that we don’t utilise enough in the UK.  It helps to create jobs, keep money in the local economy and enable rehabilitating bicycle journeys for people who wouldn’t usually ride and need their bike served up on a plate.  What’s not to like?

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Space Hobo said...

The families on bikes are, if anything, MORE important than expert "cyclists" for keeping movement on two wheels possible in Britain!

What we need is safe space for pootling!

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