National Cycle Network Route Signage...
If you get in a car, drive and follow the road signs, you can pretty much guarantee that you will find your way to your chosen destination without a map or even a Sat Nav just by following the signs. The entire road network has been built around good route signage.
However, when I am out and about cycling in the U.K, one of my biggest frustrations is relying on the blue Sustrans National Cycle Network signs to guide me. The amount of times I have tried to do a route, follow them and ended up lost, in a circle or unsure of which direction I am pointing in is quite astounding.
What do the numbers actually mean?
The main flaw in the system is that the numbered sign does not give any geographical place name to work with. For example, you can start following NCN 55 and see the '55' frequently along a route. However unless you have prior researched what the '55' means, the sign is largely irrelevant as a geographical marker.
You wouldn't approach a junction on a motorway without some sort of geographical connection e.g. M62 West (Liverpool) or M62 East (Leeds) to guide you. Yet for some reason, the cycle network does not give this information at frequent intervals.
This is not so much of a problem if you know the area, however if you are cycling in an unfamiliar place, you could be unsure of the direction you are travelling in or which cycle route you are following especially in rural areas.
I remember 'following the signs' when I was in the Carlisle area once and nearly ended up in Lockerbie rather than Brampton on the Hadrian's Wall Cycle Path because I did not know where the numbered signs would take me!
In other European countries this is not a problem. Germany has over 200 long distance routes and you can largely follow cycle trails without a map due to two things - the signs often have a destination and distance to go on them. The network also has named routes combined with a numbered system too.
For example, named cycle paths such as the Rhine Cycle Path, Danube Cycle Path, Berlin Wall Cycle Trail and the Weser Cycle Path generate revenue through cycle-tourism, but are also easy to use and navigate along across long distances even if you dip in and out of the specific route.
In Switzerland, you can possibly have too much route information!
Part of the problem is that Sustrans is a charity and relies on donations and grants to fund cycle signage. They also use volunteers and Rangers to mark out the routes and put up signs.
Whilst segregated cycle paths, cycle super highways and Mini-Holland style roundabouts require large capital investment to build, a relatively low cost way to improve cycling infrastructure in the UK would be to have a clear, comprehensive and well signed network across inter-city and inter-urban routes such as the SchweizMobil example in Lake Constance above.
Walkden to Manchester by bike...
Let's take my journey home from work as an example
I work in Walkden about 8 miles outside of Manchester City Centre. Next to the office is a former railway line that has been converted into a cycle path and forms part of National Route 55. This route actually runs from Ironbridge in Shropshire to Preston via Stafford, Macclesfield and Wigan.
In Germany, this would be called the 'Industrial Heritage Route' or similar, yet in the U.K, it is simply National Route 55 and marked by the blue sign with a red box indicating the number in white.
The surface on this Greater Manchester section from Monton to the outskirts of Bolton was really poor until recently, but has been rebuilt by United Utilities and Salford City Council to a high standard using a mixed tarmac/shale material.
The traffic-free path historically formed part of the Eccles to Little Hulton railway line and is the best part of the ride home. The path is around 3 miles in length from Walkden and 5 miles in total.
This route has great potential for inter-urban cycling and is well used by cyclists, joggers and dog walkers. Riding back to Manchester is great because the train services from Walkden are every 30 minutes, the buses along the A6 stop at virtually every stop whilst the nearby East Lancs Road is often backed up due to traffic lights, road works or similar making cycling hazardous.
This traffic-free cycle stretch is now excellent thanks to recent improvements, is one of the best in Greater Manchester and an asset to Salford. However, there are very few directional signs giving directions for Manchester, Bolton and beyond so it is not immediate obvious that you can get to the City Centre, Trafford Centre or even Patricroft Train Station by bike using this path for a few miles.
I also wonder how many users of the route know that if you followed the '55' signs to the end that they would end up in Shropshire!
I must admit, I had to Google the answer myself...