“Potholes and Pavements”: why we need a better cycle network

“Potholes and Pavements”: why we need a better cycle network

Active-looking white woman with bike standing on paved cycle path through rural landscape with blue sky in background

By Laura Laker and Emily Kerr

Green City Councillor Emily Kerr interviews Laura Laker, Sunday Times and Guardian journalist, about her new book on Britain’s National Cycle Network

EK: Laura, your book is called Potholes and Pavements. Why?

LL: The name was chosen as a reflection of the state of the network. The National Cycle Network (NCN) is amazing, but it has been coordinated by a charity, Sustrans, which has passion, but no real power. So there’s a disjointed approach to delivery. It’s been up to individual councils to find the money and it’s been very ad hoc, with almost no multi-year planning. Some bits of the network are great, and some bits are riddled with potholes…or on pavements.

EK: What inspired you to write the book?

LL: I’ve been writing and podcasting about cycling for over a decade. I wanted to write a story about cycling around talking to people. I just love that thing when you’re cycling and you end up talking to strangers and it feels like you really connect to the world around you. And then it organically became a story about the vision for a unifying network of routes across the UK.

I was impressed with the political ambition in Scotland and Wales.

EK: What were your highlights?

LL: I was impressed with the political ambition in Wales and Scotland. In Wales there are plans for a path connecting Cardiff and Newport. It’s 10–15 miles, eminently commutable by e-bike. And then in Scotland, I just loved Glasgow’s Stockingfield Bridge. It’s a beautiful cycling and walking bridge connecting three communities which had previously been separated. And local artists and volunteers have created a sculpture park nearby, using the soil which was excavated during the works to sculpt a Bethir – a mythical Scottish creature – and patching her body with reclaimed ceramics, for which the town was famous.

EK: Why do you think cycling routes is an important issue?

LL: Investing in cycling infrastructure is among the best return on investment you can have. Compared to other things we fund, it’s very cheap. And if you also take into account the impact on road investment, environmental harms, etc., it makes sense to help people cycle for shorter journeys. And the health benefits are big: research shows people who cycle to work are happier, fitter and healthier, and we know that children who walk or cycle to school are also happier and healthier.

Leisure is also vital. Many more of our car journeys are for leisure (30%) than commuting (16%). There could be a huge shift if we create the right infrastructure. Cornwall’s Camel Trail, an 18-mile off-road cycling route, has nearly half a million visitors a year. We could create new routes which offer tourists and locals access to green routes running into less affluent parts of the country in need of a tourism boost. I can see this working across the UK, including counties like Oxfordshire.

EK: So what do we need to do?

LL: We need to remember that two thirds of Brits want to cycle more and most of them say safe routes would help. We know that cycling can improve health, wellbeing, climate and congestion.

We have National Highways and Network Rail. Now we need a government body for strategic national cycle infrastructure that will plan, fund and lead on this agenda. Sustrans has done unbelievable work on the back of passionate, committed individuals – but as a charity it can’t deliver a consistent national network at pace. We can learn from Europe, where in many countries, a national cycling network envisioned by campaigners was then taken on by the government – and benefited millions.

I’ve been writing and podcasting about cycling for over a decade.

Laura Laker, Potholes and Pavements: A Bumpy Ride on Britain’s National Cycle Network,  is published by Bloomsbury, May 2024.

Image credits

Main image and signposts: Laura Laker
Portrait of Laura: Ben Broomfield