This is a big year for the sustainable transport charity Sustrans as it marks two decades of the National Cycle Network and the completion of a new long-distance route, The Caledonia Way. Eileen Malone caught up with Sustrans Scotlandâ€™s national director John Lauder.
Sustrans exists to encourage people to choose to walk, cycle or use public transport for everyday journeys and in 2015 it celebrates 20 years of progress on its great project, the National Cycle Network (NCN). In 1995, Sustrans was awarded a grant of Â£42.5 million from the Millennium Commission to develop its vision of a network of safe and convenient cycling and walking routes connecting communities across the UK.
Today the network stretches over 14,000 miles, with more than 2,000 of those miles in Scotland. In 2013 the network carried more than 103million trips and those using it contributed Â£230m to the Scottish economy in discretionary spending. It is becoming a dependable income generator for the leisure and tourist market, particularly in remote, rural areas.
To encourage more people to walk and cycle every day, Sustrans Scotland manages funding from Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government and works closely with a range of partners including local authorities, national parks and Scottish Canals to ensure routes are built to a high standard. â€œWe want to always be in the position where we’re encouraging people to use the network and the best thing about the network is that it’s safe, predictable and well planned,â€ John says. â€œWe improve it in partnership because we wouldn’t have a network if it wasn’t for the support of the local authorities, national parks and organisations that contribute to keeping the routes maintained and developing.â€
As well as that, the network is supported by Sustrans route volunteers who work hard to ensure the routes look their best for the walkers and cyclists who use them every day. John explains: â€œIn Scotland, we have about 400 volunteers and the majority of them work in small teams to look after specific sections of the network across the country. But we have a large team of 20 volunteers South West of Glasgow who are out twice a week and do a lot of vegetation management â€“ cutting grass, trimming back trees and maintaining the areas. We also rely on volunteers as our eyes and ears and work with local authorities and other landowners to resolve any issues that arise on routes managed by them.â€
Sustrans relies on donations from supporters and funding from the Scottish Government and local authorities to continue its work. John tells us: â€œThe core of the organisation is funded by our supporters; we simply couldn’t do what we do without them. They are absolutely vital to the development of the network. Sustrans owns and manages sections of the NCN itself and in Scotland our supporters are helping to fund the maintenance of about 300 miles of routes for which we are responsible. The funding we manage for Transport Scotland is given out as grants that are match funded by recipients; the funding is used by local authorities to improve and upgrade sections of the NCN and other cycling and walking infrastructure. This year we have a budget of Â£20m which is generating Â£23m in matched funding delivering projects all across Scotland, from Shetland to Dumfries.â€
The anniversary of the network also coincides with the launch of Route 78, The Caledonia Way. The 228-mile route stretching from Campbeltown to Inverness promises stunning views of Scotland’s landscapes. John gives me a glimpse of what cyclists can expect to see on the new route.
â€œPractically every time you turn a corner, there’s just another picturesque postcard scene. It is stunningly beautiful and you follow the route from Campbeltown to Oban, from Oban to Ballachulish, Ballachulish up to Fort William, and then all the way to Inverness along the Great Glen. In addition to that, you have some of the world’s best seafood right along the route, fantastic restaurants, hotels and lots of lovely campsites. It might not be a route you do in one go, but over several short trips. Either way, it’ll be very memorable and lovely.â€
The route which is currently nearing the end of construction has proven to be one of the biggest projects that Sustrans Scotland has been involved in, particularly the 30 miles from Oban to Ballachulish, which promises to give cyclists looking for adventure a route that is â€œreally bonnie and scenicâ€. The route will be officially opened later in 2015.
The success of the network has also had a significant economic and environmental impact within communities in recent years, leading to a positive shift in attitudes as people become more aware of how their travel choices can impact the environment. According to recent research from Sustrans Scotland, a total of 104 million trips were made on the NCN in Scotland in 2013, with an estimated saving of over 64,000 tonnes of carbon emissions. This indicates how people are becoming more inclined to cycle or walk rather than using a car to make small, everyday journeys.
Despite these developments, there remain concerns that the road environment is still hostile within towns and cities, with plans now being made to tackle this issue to ensure busy roads become safer for cyclists and pedestrians. A welcome development in this case is an announcement by Edinburgh City Council which has recently voted to make 80 per cent of the streets in the city 20 miles per hour, beginning next year. Most of the residential and shopping streets in Fife are 20mph, making it the leading authority in Scotland for this change.
Discussing the news, John says: â€œItâ€™s fantastic! Edinburgh is the first city in Scotland to say that the vast majority of roads will be 20 miles per hour. Police Scotland has welcomed the decision and will enforce it. Transport for Edinburgh has said the new speed limit will make no difference to their timetabling, so buses will still run on time. Therefore, why not follow that example in other cities? I think people now see the streets as something that should be shared equitably between all modes of transport.â€
And the evidence is clear from other countries that when 20mph becomes the standard speed limit, the streets will become more welcoming for pedestrians and cyclists travelling within urban areas. It is hoped that this move will encourage more local authorities to look at how people are travelling and seek to provide the best options for travel that will benefit people and their lifestyles. â€œI think we’re getting better at making the urban realm much more welcoming and friendly to people who are walking, but we still have a long way to go. Scotland has got quite a respectable 23 per cent of people who make trips by walking, which is good, but cycling levels are still quite low and that needs to grow.â€
Researchers found that more than 85 per cent of people using the NCN felt fitter as a result and more than half felt it helped them to save money. By doing just 30 minutes of exercise per day, a few times each week, people can use the network to make journeys that will benefit their health and their wallet.
John says: “We need more everyday activity; just a short walk or bicycle trip is a great way to get some regular exercise that is part of your daily life. You don’t need to buy special clothing or go to a gym. We want to give people more options to travel with a bike. They can take a route which they know is safe and well planned for utility or leisure journeys.”
One goal for Sustrans Scotland is to double the number of short journeys made by foot, bike or public transport to four out of five by 2020. With the support of the Scottish Government, which has developed the Cycling Action Plan for Scotland (CAPS) and the National Walking Strategy, it is hoped that 10 per cent of all short trips will be by bike by 2020 and that figures for walking will continue to rise.
John explains: â€œEdinburgh is a good example where you’ve got a city council that is committed to having 15 per cent of commuting trips to be by bike by 2020. Edinburgh is on 8 per cent already so that’s achievable. While the shared vision of 10 per cent of purposeful trips to be by bike by 2020 seems ambitious when we’ve only got commuting trips of 2.5 per cent by bicycle at the moment, there are many positive indications of growing numbers using bicycles to make short trips and I believe things are getting better. Iâ€™m therefore positive that we’re heading in the right direction in Scotland.â€
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the National Cycle Network, Sustrans Scotland would like to thank all supporters, volunteers and people who use the network every day. 20-28 June is National Cycle Network week in Scotland and there are many ways to get involved in the celebrations. John says: â€œWe want these celebrations to be driven by the people who use the network every day and value it.â€ To mark this special occasion, Sustrans Scotland would like to encourage lots of people to get out and about on the network that week whether they’re walking, cycling, jogging or taking part in one of the events taking place that week and throughout the summer.
For more information on an event near you, visit www.sustrans.org.uk/scotland/events.
You can also tweet @SustransScot using the hashtag #celebrate20 and share your NCN photos.