National Highways – On the road to supporting cycling – but a long way to go

For those looking to improve cycle networks, new roads are both an opportunity and a threat.

There is an opportunity for all new major road schemes (and rail for that matter) to include high quality, interconnected and segregated cycle routes along the line of the new infrastructure, and use these projects to help create new cycle route crossings of rivers, railways etc alongside the new road.

But there is also a threat that when a new road crosses existing cycling or walking routes, these may become blocked or re-routed, extending existing journey times, unless safe and convenient new crossings are created.

So Conservative Friends of Cycling were keen to invite National Highways (Formerly Highways England, and before that the Highways Agency – responsible for major roads) – to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Cycling and Walking, to discuss how they are meeting the challenge of the Government’s ambitious plans for increasing levels of Cycling and Walking. On 8th November 2021, the All Party Group met with Freda Rashdi – National Highways Head of Customer Journeys.

Our President, Andrew Selous MP had three questions:

1 What are National Highways doing to make sure all new road schemes comply with the high standards of LTN 1/20 (the Government’s great new technical guidance for cycle infrastructure) – including physically segregated routes, interconnected with other cycle routes without gaps in provision, barriers, chicanes or dismount signs.

2 What are National Highways doing to make sure that funding to meet the aspirations of Gear Change, the Government’s new policies to increase cycling, is integral to the schemes and not just a ‘nice to have’ add-on to pay lip service to sustainable transport.

3. Do National Highways have enough experienced staff who are cyclists themselves and who understand the requirements of the new policy and guidance (such that ‘cycle routes should only be designed by those with experience on a cycle’ as Gear Change suggests).

Cllr Martyn Bolt, committee member of the Conservative Friends of Cycling, also raised the important current topic of National Highways approach to old railway infrastructure that crosses roads – where structural issues are being addressed by infilling with concrete, destroying the option to use old rail routes for cycling and walking.

Freda responded that National Highways have been changing to support active travel.

The funding tranche for 2020-2025 (Road Investment Strategy 2 – RIS2) totalling £27.4m includes new ‘designated funds’ of £936m to support cycling and walking projects around schemes, to be spent in conjunction with local authorities. National Highways confirmed that bids were currently nowhere near reaching the limit of designated funds so funding ‘shouldn’t be a limiting factor on cycling projects’.

Whilst LTN 1/20 applies to Local Authorities, the relevant guidelines applicable to cycling around National Highways schemes (GG 142, CD 143, CD 195) have been updated to move closer to the aspirations of LTN 1/20, although support for cycling infrastructure was still caveated with phrases like being ‘where possible’, and segregation wasn’t part of standards, but it is now ‘an option’.

In terms of the experience of engineers of designing for cycling, there is a team dedicated to active travel, and many National Highways employees were keen cyclists. Whilst internal guidance has been provided to the new standards, it was indicated that training sessions for the new standards haven’t happened for everyone yet.

On the issue of National Highways approach to maintaining old railway infrastructure – there was an interesting revelation – the approach for each structure should be considered independently on its merits as to how to deal with any structural issues, including the impact on cycling and walking.

Finally, National Highways pointed out that guidance had changed relatively recently in the context of a major road scheme timescale, and newer schemes should be better. Some examples were the A6-M1 link road that will have a cycle route adjacent (unlike the earlier A5-M1 link), and the Keswick trail next to the A66.

Questions to the meeting, many from activists with local experience of National Highways schemes, did however raise a number of concerns, and suggests there remains a gap between the aspirations, and what is actually happening on the ground.

Conservative Friends of Cycling Co-Chair Chris Howell raised concerns that the ‘designated funds’ are potentially contentious with competing claims, and argued provision for cycling should be part of the core scheme and its funding, not a bolt on extra. 

APPGCW co-Chair Ruth Cadbury MP enquired if National Highways is incentivised to follow new cycle standards in the same way as local authorities are (where there is a threat that funding for schemes will be cut if the standards for active travel aren’t followed) – something of particular concern given the ‘where possible’ caveats given to reassurances.

Examples were raised of very poor provision for cycling and walking in current schemes e.g. new cycle routes with unsafe road crossings, with suggestions that perhaps not all those involved in designing schemes on the ground share our enthusiasm for safe, segregated cycle routes, or even accept that the updated standards really do apply to their schemes.

Overall, although National Highways is moving in the right direction on active travel, it feels like progress is slow, not normalised within the organisation, and not yet fully matching the governments aspirations for modal shift to cycle and walking.

We would like to see cycling becoming a core part of all new road and rail schemes and to include high quality, interconnected and segregated cycle routes along the line of the new infrastructure, and where existing routes are severed, safe and convenient crossings are created.

We would urge the All Party Group to continue to hold National Highways to account, and follow up as promised on concerns raised at the meeting, and for improved training on active travel for all those responsible for road design. 

Finally, on the issue of infilling old railway structures by National Highways – if options for each road crossing by an old railway should be treated on its merits, taking into account potential for cycling and walking when addressing structural issues, why does there appear to be a blanket approach adopted of concrete-infill and destruction of potential future trails?