How to find safe places to cycle

Photo 31-05-2018, 15 32 52-1000

Many more people have been riding their bikes during the pandemic lockdown, but for many the biggest concern is finding places to cycle where they aren’t threatened by unsafe drivers. Many of us would prefer to do most of our riding away from traffic. But how do you find safe places to ride a bike?

Here are some of the best ways we’ve found to find safe places to cycle:

Use online mapping

There isn’t one perfect site, that shows all routes, indicates whether they are on or off-road, and includes ridable bridleways. But these are still incredibly useful. Some of the Apps listed in the section further down the page would also fit into this category, so if you want something that works both at home for route planning and on your device whilst out-and-about they might be what you’re looking for.

Here are some of the most best mapping sites. First of all, the National Cycle Network:

  • OS Maps National Cycle network This map shows the whole of the National Cycle Network (NCN), and has the advantage of showing which sections are on-road (blue) and traffic-free (yellow). The downside is that it doesn’t include most other cycle routes, although a recent update (July ’20) means that some downgraded parts of the network and some other routes are shown.
  • The Sustrans website has maps and details for individual National Cycle Network routes. The NCN isn’t perfect, route-quality varies, and sometimes there are better ways to cycle from A to B, but it is a great place to start.

The following three map sites essentially show a far more comprehensive selection of routes than just the NCN, but a slightly less-obvious indication about which are on-road and which are traffic-free. They are really useful for discovering routes.

One downside of these three mapping sites is that they usually don’t show bridleways, which can sometimes be useful connecting routes or good places to ride in their own right (although they can also be badly-surfaced, muddy and impassable…).

  • Footpathmap is a free site that shows bridleways more clearly – you’re looking for the pink lines. The red lines are footpaths, which you can’t ride on unless specific permission has been given. It might be useful for finding local places to ride, although bridleways vary hugely in quality – at worst they can be a muddy quagmire.
  • Ordnance Survey maps. These are a paid alternative (if you want the more detailed Explorer and Landranger maps) – you can use the app, or download maps to your phone or computer.
  • The Strava Heat Map is an interesting way to find out which places and routes are popular with other people on bikes. Some caveats: 1. It is widely used by people on road bikes, so the routes shown may not really be ones you’d choose and some will be busy roads; 2. Not all the routes may be valid rights of way; 3. It isn’t designed to help you with navigation.
  • GPX Editor is an online tool for route planning, if you’re looking to plan routes and then upload them as a .GPX file to a device (beginners – you can probably ignore this…)

Use paper maps

  • Sustrans have an excellent series of maps in their shop which are great for planning adventures.
  • OS paper maps are brilliant for general planning and for collecting maps that you don’t really need but might need one day… That said you won’t find all the cycling-specific information that is available on online maps.

Use apps

There are a number of good cycling apps. Here are some we’ve found useful:

  • Komoot is a popular mapping app for cycling, allowing you to plan routes. It shows you percentages of routes on and off-road, which is useful. You have to pay for certain functions, but the maps are a one-off cost rather than a recurring subscription, and the first region is free.
  • Ordnance Survey Maps app, as previously mentioned, might be the ideal solution if you enjoy using OS maps to navigate.
  • Cyclestreets is an app, as well as the website, listed above.
  • MapMyRide is a another popular app for planning routes.
  • Strava is great if you’re interested in knowing how quickly you ride – it’s aimed more at people for whom cycling is a sport rather than a means of transport. The advantage is that a lot of other people use it, so you can see where other people are riding and running.
  • Ride with GPS is favoured by some for route planning and navigation.
  • Citymapper. Useful if you live in London or another large city.

Local cycling organisations

Your local cycling campaign group may well have links to local maps, which may be more comprehensive than the national ones. They are great people to link up with anyway. It’s tricky to tell you how to find your local cycling campaign as we haven’t found a comprehensive list, but it is worth Googling the name of the place you live followed by ‘cycling campaign’.

Other good places to ride

We love disused railway lines – favourites including the Camel Trail in Cornwall, Bristol-Bath Railway Path and The Granite Way in Devon. If you have one of these on your doorstep you probably know about it, but what if you don’t?

There will be great places to ride that are more local to you. People you know who cycle will have ridden elsewhere, and there’s nothing like first-hand experience, so it’s worth asking people local to you who ride bikes for their recommendations.

Alternatively local Facebook groups may include people who cycle, so why not ask for local recommendations there? It may also inspire other people to think about cycling, which can’t be a bad thing.

Sometimes just getting out there and exploring will open up new possibilities. You never know* what is round the next corner.
*Unless you’ve looked it up on Google Streetview.

If you’re just starting out

If you still feel like you need to build up confidence riding a bike there’s no shame in finding a quiet open space to practice riding. Possibilities could include a local car park after hours, a cul-de-sac, a park, or other quiet place.

Campaign for safe bike routes

Ultimately we need to keep campaigning so that there are more safe places to ride a bike. We’d recommend joining Cycling UK or your local cycling campaign group, and continuing to let your local elected politicians (MPs and local councillors) know that you want to be able to cycle safely and that it isn’t currently easy to find safe routes.

What are your favourite ways to find places to ride? Let us know!

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