Ride and prejudice

A challenge to ban 4x4s from green lanes in the Lake District has been rejected by the High Court, leading to dismay amongst the group behind the campaign.

GLEAM (the Green Lanes Environmental Action Movement) had called for off-road vehicles in Langdale and Coniston valleys to be banned from using tracks (currently public highways)  – claiming 4x4s are causing environmental pollution and affecting the enjoyment of the route by other users; citing walkers and cyclists amongst them.

It’s all very interesting from an access point of view, but perhaps what is more interesting is what is written between the lines when you dig into the reports on the debates.

Whenever access for motor vehicles comes up for debate in our national parks it’s a divisive subject. Look at recent examples of 4×4 restrictions we’ve seen locally for example – Chapel Gate ended up with a permanent TRO, much to the frustration of the green laners but to the joy of others; though importantly not all.

As mountain bikers we’re in the constant position of banging our heads against a wall when it comes to the impact we have on trails. Evidence abounds that a tyre and a boot cause comparable damage to a path over time, yet the argument persists that “mountain bikes damage the paths”. So do walking boots – there’s just more of them pointing the finger at us and no matter how many times we make the case with supporting evidence, we’re drowned out by the clack, clack, clack of a hundred thousand telescopic walking poles clicking into pointy point position.

And so it’s interesting to see those familiar lines emerging in the documents related to the decision on Tilberthwaite Road. Digging through the Rights of Way committee meeting Assessment report from 8 October 2019, the various appendices share the comments from groups giving reasons that motorised traffic should be banned from the routes. And in the midst of those comments too, you find collateral damage hitting mountain bikers.

Looking to get a TRO, GLEAM and their supporters talk about walkers having to move off the trail as motorised vehicles use the tracks – but video evidence submitted, it is suggested, shows perfectly civil interactions as the walkers make way for the faster traffic on the route. Here, we’re referenced as a “risk to walkers” in complaints raised. Reassuringly  the Lake District NPA (LDNPA) references the brilliant collaborative, progressive access projects which elsewhere have led to improved relationships.

However, perhaps the most fascinating and insightful comments in the report focus on noise pollution. And they provide an intriguing tell as to the real reasons for opposition – and those are reasons not borne out of any logic. We’ve all been on a green lane when the tell tale sound of a motocross bike has grown louder as both bike and rider get closer – and the diminishing chainsaw sound as the rider carries on their journey following a brief nod of the head as they pass. But in the report, it’s revealed that it’s not the noise that’s the problem, it’s the source of the noise. It takes a trained ear to tell the difference between a farmer’s quad and a cross bike, even more a Series 2 driven by a farm hand or a Series 2 driven by a green laner. And the report makes this clear:

Campaigner Comment: “When you are away from a route, but hear the noise of vehicles coming probably from the route, how can you tell if the sound of a 4×4 is from a recreational or agricultural vehicle? If the latter, and if it can be glimpsed, it doesn’t detract from my enjoyment”

Do we, as mountain bikers, fall victim to this kind of mindset as well? Studies show the comparable impact of tyre and boot, but is that immaterial when opposition is actually nothing to do with the science of erosion, and everything  to do with someone’s unqualified opinion on who is allowed to do what to enjoy the outdoors? When that opposition is so influential there may be something in it.

The Ramblers UK official stance on blanket access to footpaths is one of opposition. And this stance is at the bottom of a few paragraphs in a page on their website about shared use trails where it follows some detail about just how limited bike access is to the rights of way network.

As other home nations move to progressive open access policies and embrace collaborative approaches to improved Rights of Way legislation, England remains a stubbornly limited prospect for mountain bikers. With Ramblers UK’s official stance against open access, and the kind of prejudices displayed in the Tilberthwaite report, it’s clearly going to be a tough challenge to change minds, regardless of how much evidence there is in support of a better network. 

And at times we just don’t help ourselves. Recently the chair of Peak District MTB shared an experience of having to pull his kids out of the way of a rider arriving unannounced on a footpath in White Peak. Not a good look for us all, and just the kind of example people with less tolerance and understanding would use to inform their opinion. No amount of “Saying Hi” is  going to help if we’re not going to do the “Be Nice” bit too.

It’s not all bad news though. Reading the assessment report, you can detect a weariness on the part of the writer. It’s a weariness that I’ve seen in other access managers too who are sick of dealing with the kind of tit for tat treacle that holds back the access debate. But they flag up a tantalising argument which lands us firmly back in the science and where exactly we should be making our case:

LDNPA: “If we were to make a prohibition on a road purely because of damage caused by vehicles, we would surely be in the position of having to extend this logic to fell paths and other routes, and to consider banning walkers/riders from them to prevent surface damage.”

Thought provoking eh?

We all cause damage. We’ve been clear on that for years in the mountain biking community – but we come back to that insight about noise. It’s not about the damage being caused, it’s about who is causing it. That mindset needs to be shelved and the argument needs to move on. We can all help it to do so.

The report also responds to calls regarding the ‘traditional’ use of the tracks in question. And again, the LDNPA poses an intriguing question – how far back do you go to draw the line as to what forms of transport are ‘traditional’ and what are ‘modern’? 

LDNPA: “When looking at the historic and cultural usage of these roads (and indeed the wider unsealed road network) it is difficult to know at which point in history any lines should be drawn. Where would we stop the cultural development of such highways?”

The most recent cultural development cited is the rise of mountain biking in the 80s. It’s an intriguing poser and one which again, points to the necessity to use science to inform the access debate.

If you get chance, go and read the report – it is fascinating  overview and representation of the arguments  for and against, and I can see why the high court rejected the appeal. 

In an age where we often hear  people say “It’ll be the mountain bikers they come for next”, it’s reassuring to see a beacon of common sense in the access debate.