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Cycling - Daft Cycle Lanes - A day ride in Kent on a sustrans route

After a long and ongoing arguement on the Cyclingplus web forum between a large group of people who aren't keen on the farcilities that Sustrans build and a smaller group who do like their work I went for a ride on a nearby route myself. Read a copy of my report on this page. Read a copy of the full discussion here.

What I really found interesting though was the feedback that was given to me in the discussion afterwards.

Following on from last week’s discussions I decided this weekend to give a Sustrans route another chance. I know that some people won’t believe that this was unbiased, but it was and here is my reasoning.

- I decided that I would use the nearest route to me, except those I had already ridden and disliked.
- I also decided, that as Sustrans work closely with the local authorities I should use a path outside of Essex, as I had been criticising the Essex facilities within the thread.
- I also thought that I should avoid the fiasco of paths already discussed as route 1 (or 51) in the Harwich/Ipswich/Felixstowe areas.
- Preferably I’d choose an off-road facility, as on road are just normal roads.
- Since one of the main points raised on the thread (and by Sustrans) was that these are “leisure” routes, I decided to drive to the start and to take my wife (an average new cyclist) and our two Bromptons; rather than take my decent proper bike with skinny road tyres and panniers.

I hope everybody agrees this is fair?

My argument has never been against Sustrans, it has been against this idea that off-road cycle tracks, or dedicated cycle infrastructure is required for us to cycle. It is my belief that it is safe to cycle without any of these; and worse, that by groups such as Sustrans installing so many cycle routes it implies it is dangerous to ride anywhere but on those routes. Finally it is my belief that the enjoyment of cycling is being spoilt by impractical and long winded routes.

On Saturday, I spent nearly an hour and a half on Sustrans’ website trying to get route information. I’m sorry, but this has to be a big black mark to Sustrans. I struggled a lot to find the information. Last time I was on the site you could enter the route number and get told where it went. This time that option didn’t appear to be there. All I could do was enter place names and then zoom in and out to look at the routes on the map. Not easy on dial up! I could enter a county, such as Kent, which gave me lists of open routes. However I couldn’t get to see that route information.

Eventually I decided to look at the area around Gillingham as this appeared to be on route number 1 (the same “1” as in Harwich? That’s confusing!) as well as meeting my criteria. My main point of interest was the traffic free route which appeared to go from the Medway tunnel to Rainham. Out of interest and fairness though I decided also to look at the on-road route at each end of this. We decided to drive the route, then ride back.

In summary, to prevent readers here getting bored.
-We didn’t ride the sections out near Cliffe, but they looked no different to the normal roads I ride on a Sunday with the CTC; with the exception these had blue cycle signs and my normal roads don’t.
-As we drove alongside the off-road path between the Medway tunnel and Gillingham, I decided I had no desire at all to waste my time riding on a pavement, heading down every side road and looking for the crossings, and generally being forced to take a longer route with a worse surface.
-The first section of bad traffic congestion we came to was as we passed the area on the map which said there was an on-road route (Lower Rainham Road). Here there were many “traffic calming” signs and obstructions, together with many non-calm drivers! I was disappointed to see that although I thought I was in the right area according to the map on the Sustrans site, I could see no evidence of this on the road.
- We never got to see the off-road section I had gone to look at, as we couldn't find it at first, and we'd given up with sustrans by the time we'd returned from the rest of the ride.

Finally we found a yellow Sustrans route 1 sign (a diversion?), so parked up and followed it. It took us past a “Private - footpath only” sign, and then disappeared. No more signs. I was not willing to try to cycle across a muddy public footpath through an orchard, so we turned back to see if we had missed a sign. If we had we couldn’t find it.

Out of fairness to Sustrans (and I was still trying to be unbiased and fair minded) I suggested that as these were yellow signs, and the map did have a proposed route in that area, maybe they were part way through signing the area. (Mind you, when we came back, the official blue signs turned yellow and sent us this way, so we’d have come to this dead end with no signed way around anyway!)

So we decided to ride the NCN 1 away from Gillingham, heading for Sittingbourne. I was disappointed with the first road as it was so narrow that even though we dived into the hedge the van coming the other way hit my elbow and knocked the mirror sideways. We then came to the end of the road and weren’t certain which way to turn, but eventually spotted the sign – a small red sticker on a post. We followed this, passed another sign that confirmed our route, and then lost all signs. We stopped after a while, checked the map and decided we’d lost our way. On backtracking we found that the sign had been turned around, and we should have turned onto a gravel track.

We took this gravel track, and it was rideable although not as comfy or good as I’d have liked. At the end of the track we came to a T-Junction, complete with sign lying in ruins on the ground. Another bit of map-work and we guessed the correct route. I was glad of the route confirmation signs as this was nothing more than a narrow footpath. However, had the route been negotiated to continue ahead at that T junction on a different footpath, a much shorter and easier route could have been taken to Newington.

The rest of the ride was on road. This is what surprised me about that gravel section, according to the map there’s a parallel road with a slightly longer route could have been taken through Upchurch (which we rode by accident with no problems) and even possibly Lower Halstow. The chosen route seems to be in between a route which links places and a route which goes to places on a sensible course.

In fact, and in complete agreement with the comments I have made to date, I found no advantage at all in Sustrans having labelled the roads. Judging from the large number of vandalised signs, there’s some people in the area who also dislike Sustrans, coupled with a lack of Sustrans rangers to fix the problems.

The hour and a half I spent on Sustrans web site could have been achieved in 5 minutes with a road atlas and OS maps. The roads we rode on were no different in any way from normal roads. Even the 60mph one (at Nether Toes)! The shortcuts didn’t really cut any distance off. In fact on one classic photo I took the 2¼ miles by road was 5¼ by NCN and signed in different directions!

Finally, having been thankful we were on Bromptons and not full sized bikes so were able to get through the obstructions, having seen one sign that said 2¼ miles to Sittingbourne, and the next sign that said “Town Centre 3½” miles. My wife said that she’d had enough and that I was to tell you that the signing and idea of cycle facilities was appalling and not worth it. She then turned round and headed back to the car.

That is my final say on the matter. If Sustrans really have spent the money they claim to have spent then they have been taken to the cleaners well and truly. All that has been provided are signposts which indicate that you are capable of cycling on roads. The off road paths are not suitable for serious cycling (i.e. long distance touring, transport from A to B or for fast rides), they are only suitable for leisure and playing.

Worse, these signs attract cyclists to those roads/routes (and we saw quite a few in the area around Lower Higham) and away from other, just as safe, roads. Off of the NCN I saw one near miss as a cyclist tried turning right and traffic was just ignoring him and overtaking on the wrong side of the road despite the double white lines. His wife had already given up and was standing by the kerb. These two elderly folk had all the hallmarks of new/novice riders and I wondered whether they had been attracted to the area by the prospect of the NCN and the “Other signed on-road cycle route”.

Whilst I was pleased to see them out cycling and enjoying the fresh air, I was worried by the fact that they appeared to have little skill in coping with other road users – a skill they will be unable to develop if they continued using traffic free routes.

I was also unhappy with the inability of car drivers to cope with cyclists, something that they will not learn if they do not encounter cyclists on a regular basis. Therefore to keep routing cyclists off of the roads onto traffic free routes, or onto roads which are quieter than average roads is not the way forward for safety.

Statistically (and I don’t like stats as they can be skewed to prove any point) as the number of cyclists on the road increased, the number accidents reduced. This is a good thing. However, as the BBC point out, the number of cyclists on the road appears to be dropping – I hope we don’t see a corresponding increase in accidents as a result. I certainly hope that the reduced number of cyclists has nothing to do with the implication that roads are dangerous and that there are no "cycle facilities" in the areas that cyclists used to use…

Here is some of the feedback given me in that thread. There is more, mostly positive, but since it is not specifically related to the above article I have not included it here. Read the full article to see those comments.

could it be that some cyclists who used to cycle on the road now use off-road cycle paths??

Possibly, but given that other modes of transport are correspondingly increased and that Nutty's experiences at the weekend are pretty typical, I would not share that particular conclusion.

I was on on NCN 51/1 on Sunday morning as part of my weekly Tour de Tendring. 'Twas a gorgeous, sunny, crisp morning but like most weekends, I didn't see another cyclist on any of it.

Excellent post, BTW, Nutty.

Nuttycyclist: I know this bit of NR1 well and I agree with your opinion of it. The off-road section in Rainham is there, but to find it you have to ignore the footpath only signs and negotiate a few of the usual Sustrans obstacles (the randomly placed 'cyclists dismount' are a bit of a giveaway - why are there never 'cyclists can get back on' signs?).

Shame you didn't make it to Sittingbourne (my home town). You would have found even more to confirm your ideas about Sustrans. I'd be dead impressed if anyone got from one side of Sittingbourne to the other on NR1 without the aid of a good map. If you'd chosen the off-road bits you'd have had to carry your Bromptons over a stile, walked them along the top of a sea wall too rutted to be ridable, pushed them along a section between two high fences (too overgrown and narrow to ride), cycled through a really nice bit surfaced with broken glass (not Sustrans fault - it goes past a 'travellers' camp - they also occasionally burn old tyres in the middle of the path). If you'd gone on the the roads you'd have just got lost.

There are some nice bits once you get past Sittingbourne, though, through Conyer and Faversham.


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