07 September 2016 by Helen Todd
Blog by Helen Todd, Ramblers Scotland campaigns & policy manager
It’s no secret that Scotland is a fantastic place for walkers of all levels and abilities. From the thrills of Skye’s jagged Cuillin ridge to the long sandy beaches of East Lothian, a walk in the Scottish countryside can offer awe-inspiring landscapes, plenty of wildlife and nature, and fascinating cultural heritage.
But Scotland’s also a great country for cyclists, both on quiet rural roads and on our growing network of off-road routes. Cycling in all its forms is becoming ever more popular, and it’s estimated that cycle tourism contributes £239 million to the Scottish economy. Walking is still the number one activity for our holiday time though, with 55% of people from the UK who visit Scotland enjoying a walk as part of their trip. Whether walking or cycling, it’s great to see more people carrying out these healthy activities outdoors.
There’s an interesting ongoing debate south of the border about how – and if – cyclists and walkers should share paths. The landscape and access context is different in England and Wales, and we all hope that user groups there can work together to find a practical solution that works for everyone enjoying the outdoors.
Here in Scotland, cyclists and walkers (and horse riders and paddlers!) have enjoyed equal rights of access since 2003. This approach is highly valued here and also by many people from outside Scotland. Each weekend, mountain bikers come by ferry from Northern Ireland, while cars laden with kayaks drive up the M6 to take advantage of the greater opportunities Scotland offers. They get a warm reception from locals – and their tourist pounds are very welcome too!
So how did Scotland get such a different access framework? As the 2003 land reform legislation was being progressed, the recreation bodies decided to work together to secure the best possible access for all – and to stop any opponents trying divide-and-rule tactics. As a result access rights apply to all who are enjoying the outdoors by non-motorised means, but only if we are responsible and respect other users as set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
And does it work?!
By and large it works fine, thanks to careful management, compromise and education. Of course it’s not all trouble-free; there are inconsiderate cyclists just as there are inconsiderate walkers – and uncontrolled dogs! On my daily commute using Edinburgh’s excellent path network I do see occasional examples of thoughtless behaviour from all sides, but there are few calls for the law to be changed. This is because basically common sense prevails. For example, narrow busy urban alleys aren’t enjoyable places to take a horse even if you do have a right to be there, and country paths with uneven, rocky steps aren’t much fun for any but the hardiest of cyclists.
Yes, Scotland has a smaller population and a lot more space, but even in city parks ‘no cycling’ signs have long disappeared and cyclists share paths with walkers, enjoying safe, pleasant routes away from heavy traffic. The benefits of cooperation are mutual and wide-ranging. For Munro-baggers, bikes can be a bonus for reducing the long walk in to remote hills. And many cyclists will lock up their bikes during their days out and enjoy short walks, perhaps along beaches or up to steep viewpoints.
A good place to see how shared use works is the Pentland Hills regional park outside Edinburgh, which has 600,000 visitors a year. Here, the main track from the visitor centre is used by absolutely everyone, so it could be mayhem on a busy weekend. Yet families with small children and buggies, mud-spattered mountain bikers and hikers coming off the hill, horse-riders, dog walkers - and even cars, since anglers are allowed to drive up to the nearby fishing loch – all just get on with sharing the track, watching out for others as they go.
Access rights to be proud of
We’re very proud of Scotland’s world-class access rights. When problems do arise, we should think about the bigger picture of the benefits to our health, environment and economy of having a more active population. And shared use can sometimes bring real advantages for those who are less able or in wheelchairs, since path improvements often mean ramps replace steps, or stiles are swapped for self-closing gates.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever see three parallel paths built for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders to enjoy in splendid, but peaceful, isolation any day soon! So a mix of mutual respect, common sense and education is key to sharing space, and making the most of our wonderful outdoors.