Leading Article: Rural regulations and the off-road cyclist

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The Independent Online
THOSE who like to visit Britain's wide open spaces have long been in conflict with farmers and landowners. So it is particularly sad that an internecine rift should have grown up between those who want to travel in the countryside on foot, and those who want to do it by bike.

Until recently, walkers have simply not been used to the alien presence of young mountain bikers with their helmets and fluorescent clothes. But there is a minority of inconsiderate mountain bikers who cause irritation and environmental damage by cycling noisily and quickly, and whipping paths into pools of mud. No wonder the Government is considering restricting their activities.

There is a clear case for tighter enforcement of the existing law, which confines cyclists to bridlepaths. In certain areas - notably in some of the most popular parts of the Lake District - it may also prove necessary to restrict off-road cycling more drastically still. But it would be a mistake to believe that restrictions and bans alone can solve the problem.

All-terrain biking has been around too long to be dismissed as a craze that will go away. There are now 15 million bikes in Britain, and more than a million new mountain bikes are sold every year. If mountain bikers do not already outnumber those who ride horses, they certainly will do soon.

Properly regulated, countryside biking can be silent, healthy and environmentally friendly. It gives access to the beauties of nature to thousands of people who might otherwise stay cooped up in towns. Since many off-road cyclists also use their bikes to travel to work, the spread of the mountain bike promises to reduce congestion and pollution in cities.

Any long-term solution, therefore, must pay as much attention to expanding access to off-road cycles as to restricting it. Some organisations, such as the Countryside Commission, the Forestry Commission and the National Trust - all of which are either establishing new routes for cyclists or helping to train off-road cyclists to drive safely and considerately - have already realised this. The Government should do so, too.

Environmental protection ought to be consistent with opening the countryside to everyone - whether on foot, on horseback or on wheels.