Here’s where it all began. The Bristol-Bath Railway Path was created by a volunteer campaign: the Cycle Bristol Action Group, aka Cyclebag. It was so well received that the volunteers formed themselves into a national organisation, renamed themselves Sustrans, and went on to build cycle paths all over Britain.
Thirty years on, and the path is more popular and useful than ever. Nothing has quite matched it since, but Bristol’s cycle network has nonetheless expanded, both with local routes and as a hub of Sustrans’ National Cycle Network.
The River Avon isn’t too much of an obstacle, with several bike-friendly bridges: Prince Street Bridge, in particular, is thronged with cyclists day and night. There are off-road riverside routes heading west to Pill, Shirehampton and Avonmouth. That on the north bank follows the busy Portway road and is best described as workaday; the south bank is bumpier but prettier. Bristol’s success in winning £7.8m of Government money means the routes will continue east of the city, as the ‘Bristol Promenade’ all the way to Keynsham.
Several largely off-road routes run to the south; one from Bedminster along Hartcliffe Way and into Hartcliffe, another from Brislington to Whitchurch. The new Festival Way connects the city to Long Ashton via the picturesque (if hilly) Ashton Court, and has rapidly become a popular commuting route.
In North Bristol, however, routes tend to be confined to particular areas. Mangotsfield and Emerson’s Green benefit from excellent connections to the Bristol-Bath path, but there’s precious little in Kingswood, for example.
Across the city centre, small cut-throughs do a good job of linking minor roads, cycleways and shared-use paths to make useful through routes for cyclists. Signage can often be sporadic, though: the ubiquitous fingerposts are definitely aimed at people on foot.
Social enterprises have long thrived in Bristol, and several cycling organisations are run on a non-profit basis. There’s the Bristol Bike Project, which repairs and recycles old bikes, and Life Cycle UK, which provides free cycle training for locals. The delightful quarterly Boneshaker magazine, written by local cyclists, sums up the prevailing attitude: “it's not how much your bike weighs that matters, but where it takes you”.
One other non-profit is the city’s new cycle café, Roll for the Soul. Located just off Quay Street, it offers coffee and sandwiches, beer and spanners – what else could a cyclist need? There’s also a ‘hub’ event space for local cycling groups to use.
And famously, the biggest cycling charity of all is based in Bristol. Sustrans started as a local cycling campaign and has since blossomed to run a nationwide network of bike routes, but it’s still very active in the area. One of its founders, George Ferguson, is now the (cycling) mayor of Bristol.
The local campaigning role has been taken up by the Bristol Cycle Campaign, which tirelessly fights for safer routes in the city. It recently launched a ‘Bristol Cycling Manifesto’, which aims to raise cycling to 20% of city travel by 2025. There’s also a monthly Critical Mass ride.
You’ll see all manner of bikes around the city. The terrain is unforgiving (though kinder than Bath’s!), and that makes low-geared hybrids and lightweight drop-bar bikes particularly practical. But Dutch bikes, fixies, tandems and that-old-thing-from-the-back-of-the-shed are all common sights.
Bristol’s major roads are largely untamed. Many have partial cycle lanes, usually shared with buses, but the sheer weight of traffic in this dense city never makes for a relaxing ride.
Fortunately, you’re not alone: thousands of cyclists take to these roads every day. At rush hour, Stoke’s Croft, Cheltenham Road and Gloucester Road are a tidal wave of bikes, advancing light by light up the hill. Though cyclists can use the bus lane, car parking is permitted in it for most of the day – so you may end up dodging in and out more than you’d like. (This, surely, is one road where a segregated cycle track would make a huge difference.)
It’s a similar story on the climb up to Clifton, through College Green and Park Street. Cars and buses dart in and out as cyclists labour up the hill. It’s often possible to string together a back-street route, but Bristol drivers know the rat-runs too; what looks like a neat alternative on the map may not work in the flesh.
In the city centre, much to Bristol’s credit, cycling on the pedestrianised streets is generally permitted. Cycle contraflows on one-way streets are common. All of this helps to avoid the Inner Ring Road, which is no place for a bike – though you’ll invariably need to cross it at some point. (The Bristol Cycling Campaign has proposed a traffic-free ‘Inner Loop’ to provide a safer option.)
Bristol’s Inner Ring Road is its least appealing feature. By common consent, the St James Barton Roundabout is Bristol’s blackspot. Stokes Croft meets Broadmead here, making it an essential part of many cyclists’ commute. It’s also known as the ‘Bearpit’, and cycling round it does rather feel like a bear fight.
At some locations on the ring road, such as the Redcliffe Roundabout near Temple Meads station, cycle crossings provide an alternative to mixing with the traffic. Cycling is permitted on the pavement around Cabot Circus. Still, if possible, it’s better to find a route that avoids the ring road.
The harbourside in front of the M Shed museum might not seem like a danger spot. But there’s one very present danger here: the old Bristol Harbour Railway. It’s all too easy to get your wheel caught in the historic rail tracks. There’s a safer, if less attractive, alternative route behind the museum.
The stop-start traffic up the hill to Clifton, on College Green and Park Street, requires cyclists to stay alert. All the arterial main roads require care: the bus and cycle lanes have a tendency to disappear at junctions or narrow sections. Needless to say, these are all potential locations for conflict, especially where left-turning HGVs are involved.
Much of what’s colloquially called ‘Bristol’ is outside the formal city boundary. Though Bristol City Council has a reasonable reputation for listening to cyclists, the same isn’t necessarily true of (say) South Gloucestershire; provision is generally of a lower quality once you cross the border.