A farewell to Sustrans

sustrans

Dear Sustrans

Notice of cancellation of funding

I have been funding your work for about a decade. Only a modest monthly donation, but these things add up. Today I have cancelled my Direct Debit. What you are doing is not what I want you to do, and I will no longer fund it.

What I want you to do is promote cycling as sustainable transport and to construct a national cycling network. Your name certainly suggests this work and for a long time I hoped that was what you were doing. But you‘re not.

You began so well, as the Bristol-based group who campaigned successfully for the Bath-Bristol bike path. That is a useful route between the two cities. It is now somewhat congested, which lessens its usefulness, but this only underlines the demand for good-quality routes.

In the decades since then, Sustrans has become a national organisation employing people around the country and handling tens of millions of pounds. What has this achieved?

The National Cycle Routes are not fit for long-distance travel, or even commuting. Take, for example, NCR 1. On the map it looks like my way in and out of London to the north east, a cyclist’s version of the M11. I have twice attempted to use it to reach Cambridge and been defeated both times. The Lee Valley section to Ware is too narrow, too congested, too obstructed and too badly surfaced to make progress. Compared to what? Compared for example to my route north-west from central Copenhagen to meetings in Bagsværd. I take the Hillerød motorway, which is equipped with comfortable bike paths. To leave London, I feel safer on the A1010, the old coaching road.

You will object that your work is not to serve experienced cyclists like myself, but to attract those not now riding. Very well – but to what?

Yesterday I again rode on the Lee Valley section of NCR 1, returning from a ride in Epping Forest. It was a perfect winter riding day, clear and cold. We stopped to admire ducks, talk to strangers and pet ponies. We took it carefully or walked over cobblestones, negotiated narrow muddy corners and dismounted for the gates. We had a delightful time. Everything was as it should be for a ride in a park. But you have no business claiming or designating this as a cross-country cycle route. The same is true of other paths suited to recreational riding that you have designated as NCRs: for the Thames Path, for NCR 61’s use of the Grand Union Canal towpath.

When you have a choice between the recreational and the useful, you choose the recreational. Take NCR 57, which can be picked up from the Metropolitan Line at Chesham and followed to Oxford. At Great Missenden it detours through picturesque Angling Spring Wood, a muddy detour to be avoided by any rider intent on reaching Oxford. At Wheatley it ignores the useful cycle path into Oxford beside the A40 for a picturesque ascent of Shotover Hill, across rutted gravel roads.

And this is the nub of my quarrel with what you are doing. You are promoting recreational riding for families and children where they can be out of the way of motor traffic. That is not a bad thing to do, but it is not sustainable transport and it is not the national cycle network we need. It does nothing to help us ride to work, to school or the shops. It does nothing to help me get between cities, as the Bristol-Bath path does. When I ride off from home in London to the shops or to see friends I see nothing of your work helping me. And when I ride across country I have learned to be wary of your routes.

Worse, you occupy a prominent place in the political landscape and consume a large part of the meagre resources granted. You claim to be working on a future of sustainable transport in which cycling plays a key part. By giving the comforting illusion of progress, and drawing resources to yourself, you are, I fear, more part of the problem than its solution. That is why I am cancelling your funding.

Yours sincerely

Stephen Taylor FRSA

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16 Comments

  1. I too cancelled my direct debit to Sustrans (£15/month), in my case when I read that they had given their approval to spending £300k of the “Cycle Safety Fund” on the so-called Bedford Turbo Roundabout.

    Anyone versed in Dutch road design will tell you that a turbo roundabout is definitively NOT a solution for bicycles, in fact cyclists should not be using them at all. In the Netherlands the cycle path would go around it. And so it proved, that the roundabout was NOT intended to be used by cyclists, who instead were directed to the footpath around its perimeter, now designated as shared with cyclists.

    And this merited diverting £300k of the pathetically scarce funds available for cycle infrastructure? If the truth of the matter was that there was nothing else available to spend the money on before its availability expired, then it should have been politely returned to the government to save all our tax bills or spend on something more useful.

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  2. Well said. Every time I see Sustrans are involved in a scheme, I know it’ll be rubbish. They have encouraged the current horrendous level of cycling provision – patchy, badly designed and stops when you need it most (ie, junctions). They should just stop and defer to the CTC or the Cycling Embassy… At least they seem to know what riding a bike is like.

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  3. To say the NCN “does nothing to help us ride to work, to school or the shops” – nothing, at all – will come as news to the people of Worcester, who have a new, much-needed bridge across the River Severn courtesy of Sustrans’ Connect2 project and can now reach the shops without using the congested, dangerous Worcester Bridge and its approach roads. Or to the people of Cardiff, who have the similar Pont y Werin; or to those people commuting between Nantwich and Crewe, who have a new cycleway beside the busy A530; and so on.

    The irony is that you’ve cited three “old” routes, most of them I believe created as part of the Millennium project 15 years ago or thereabouts, as a reason for withdrawing your donation now. That’s your right and your privilege, of course, but by and large that’s not what Sustrans is doing these days; most of its work has shifted from the earlier leisure-inspired routes towards everyday cycling, particularly to schools.

    There have been, and continue to be, missteps along the way. I’m no more a fan of the infamous Bedford turbo roundabout than Paul M is, and a couple of recent street redesign projects have been too tame in my view. But criticising Sustrans as purely a “recreational riding” organisation is an image that’s several years out of date.

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    1. That is not what I wrote. I wrote: “promoting recreational riding […] does nothing to help us ride to work, to school or the shops.” Even the people of Worcester and Cardiff might agree with that.

      I hope you are right. I hope the Worcester and Cardiff bridges are straws in a new wind blowing through the organisation.

      I’ll have a chance to examine that in 2015. Our neighbourhood forum wants more civil streets here. I’m secretary. We’ll consult Sustrans, and I’ll report here on how that goes.

      PS – if you wish to post here again, please use a real email address.

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  4. Here is my recent twitter enquiry for support getting through Windsor Great Park at night (route 4)

    Miles Gripton ‏@miles_from_here Oct 27
    @sustrans Hi, I’m wondering what I do if one of your routes (4) goes through a park which closes at dusk? Is this normal or even acceptable?

    Sustrans ‏@sustrans Oct 27
    @miles_from_here Hi Miles. It’s not normal – we can find out more from our local team about this park though. Where is it?

    Miles Gripton ‏@miles_from_here Oct 27
    @sustrans thanks for the quick response. It is Windsor great Park on route 4. I’m available to help if you send my details to the local team

    Sustrans ‏@sustrans Oct 28
    @miles_from_here We’ve flagged this to the local area manager at @SustransSE and we’ll let you know what he says. Thanks.

    Miles Gripton ‏@miles_from_here Oct 28
    @sustrans @SustransSE many thanks, willing to help where I can 🙂

    Sustrans South East ‏@SustransSE Oct 28
    @miles_from_here Sadly in hands of Crown Estate who manage Great Park. Best alt. via Old Windsor (Crimp Hill – shared path along the A308)

    So, they promote a route that closes at 4pm in the winter!

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  5. Hi there,

    Great post. I couldn’t agree more with your criticisms of Sustrans. As a cyclist I don’t want a ‘shared-use’ for everything approach, I want an organisation who promotes high quality Dutch-style fully segregated infrastructure like the CEofGB. Sustrans occupy a very prominent position in terms of gobbling up all the cycle funding in the UK and as David Hembrow once said ‘they are not associated with good infrastructure’. Hopefully, one day they’ll get the message!

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  6. I’ve been critical.of the Route1ThamesPath which has two ‘chicanes’ created by immense concrete blocks. Very difficult to negotiate and in fact dangerous. Can’t see the point of them other than making life difficult for cyclists. Should be removed in the interests of Health & Safety.

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  7. I totally agree. I tried the Lee Valley Route from Waterloo to Royston. My front rim buckled when I went through a deep pothole. When I returned a couple of days later I took the A10 into the heart ofLondon and had a far better time. Just as the article says, Lee Valley is a recreational route but not suitable as alternative transport from A to B. On the other hand, I use the Two Tunnels route in Bath and that is a terrific commuter route. Perhaps part of the problem stems from a decade or so ago when Sustrans tried to cobble together as large a network as possible using an assortment of paths, tracks, roads and lanes and ended up overstating their quality by using the term National Cycle Route. I tried Route 4 through South Wales and it is a brilliant feat of signage and a terrible warren at the same time. I spent two days feeling I had or was about to lose my way.

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  8. Hi, while I agree with your polite exasperation with some routes of the NCN (I’ve had similar experiences) I think all of you are directing your ire at the wrong culprits.
    Sustrans are a medium sized charity- NOT the highways authority. They do not own or even manage most of the NCN- this is actually done by the relevant local authority.

    Let’s get this crystal clear: It’s local and national government who are to blame for the woeful cycling conditions in the uk. Not a charity who has no jurisdiction over most of the routes.
    In the Netherlands, Germany, France, this work is done by government. Sustrans exists because our government, elected by us, doesn’t care. It costs upwards of £50million to build 1 mile of motorway; yet we cyclists are squabbling over comparatively minuscule amounts- accusing Sustrans of sucking up all the ‘cycling money’. Like it’s a finite amount. It’s not. It’s exactly the amount the government/ dept for transport decide to skim off the top of their staggeringly enormous road building budgets.

    They’re not perfect, but what Sustrans do really well is act, measure the impact if what they do and inspire government at local and national levels. They’ve proved a 50:1 ROI on cycle path building (as opposed to 3:1 on a good road scheme), brought cycling culture to literally millions of children in schools over the last few years, and levered a lot of funding to help local authorities to build a bunch of decent bridges and routes. Funding which you should not doubt would otherwise be spent on car- centric roads.

    No they’re not perfect. But equally no they’re not to blame for all the rubbish cycling infrastructure, all of the LA owned NCN. Their crime is in too readily claiming credit for the neglected NCN when in fact, apart from signage managed by their volunteers, is lagrgely out of their control.

    Why don’t all us cycle advocates work together and look to the real culprits: the budget holding, road managing government, local and national, and vent our ire there. It might actually do some good.

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    1. Rosiepoes, my complaint is not that Sustrans does nothing good. Nor do I hold it responsible for the lamentable state of the roads. I’m withdrawing funding because Sustrans is not doing what I want done, or not doing it well enough: promoting sustainable transport and getting a usable national cycle network built. And by claiming to do those things and sopping up grants, it’s masking the need and blocking the way for others that might.

      Without denigrating any of the people involved, Sustrans can be seen as a fine example of the strategy common in liberal democracies by which ruling elites capture opposition movements, addict them to official consultations and grants, providing a show of pluralism and opposition that will never press for reforms the elite finds unacceptable. The highway authorities are indeed responsible and the problem is fundamentally political: the allocation of public resources.

      On this view, Sustrans looks more a part of the problem than its solution. If I were ‘the road lobby’, I’d be funding it.

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    2. Why don’t all us cycle advocates work together and look to the real culprits: the budget holding, road managing government, local and national, and vent our ire there. It might actually do some good.

      This question deserves a separate reply. The short reply is that highway authorities don’t respond to our ire. The car culture provides a context in which people who want to ride bikes are a special-interest group. Driving is normal. Racing and cyclo-cross could balloon in popularity, but that’s just sport, nothing to do with the highways. Family riding and mass events such as Sky Ride could balloon in popularity, but that’s recreation. Nothing to do with the highways. Strangely enough, these are the forms of cycling getting supported and celebrated. Everyday riding — to work, to the shops, to visit friends — that is the form of riding whose claims infringe on the privileges of motor transport. And — with the honourable exception of the hire bike scheme Mayor Livingstone gets no credit for — that is the form of riding that is not supported. It’s suspected and tolerated — if that.

      Context is decisive, as always. In the car culture, the claims of everyday riders on road space and driver behaviour cannot be allowed. It’s the normality of driving that is decisive. Anything that impedes driving is ipso facto an error. It is this context that makes campaign progress so woefully slow.

      It’s time to confront the context itself. It’s been done before. Fifty years ago it was ‘normal’ to drive after a drink too many; reprehensible, but hey. The Don’t Drink and Drive campaign — backed by enforcement — changed a peccadillo into a serious crime. As Bob Davis (rdrf.org.uk) says, what we have to do is denigrate behaviour that endangers others. Strategically we should make bold and outrageous claims that leave the motoring lobby to defend the unreasonable. Some examples:

      1. A study twenty years ago showed that the same accounting principles used to privatise Railtrack discovered £50 billion a year of motoring-related costs funded from general taxation. (For example: £7bn in motor-related policing and court costs.) Campaign to return £50bn a year to taxpayers and raise the money instead from fuel taxes. (Twenty years ago this would have tripled the price of fuel.) Invite the motoring lobby to explain why car owners should not have a “level playing field” to choose whether to spend their refunded money on other things, or why non-motorists should subsidise their travel. At a minimum, end the blather about the “war on the motorist” and reposition motorists as recipients of vast subsidy.
      2. Campaign for routine confiscation and suspension of the licences of drivers involved in any collision until cleared by police investigation or the courts. (A minimum 24-hour suspension.) Holding a licence is a privilege requiring a demonstration of competence. Any collision brings that competence into question. Invite the motoring lobby to explain why people should be driving while their competence is in question.
      3. Statistics show large 4WDs such as Range Rovers are several times more likely to kill a pedestrian in a collision than a saloon car. These vehicles have great practical rural use. Campaign to make it impossible to register one to an urban address. Invite the motoring lobby to explain what urban use of these dangerous giants justifies the higher threat level.

      One could go on, but you get the idea.

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  9. South Glos council are working on a scheme which will make life more dangerous and difficult for cyclists, and it is opposed by all cycle groups, local and national, except one. When I contacted Sustrans to ask whether they would join in to make it a full house, they politely declined, without explanation. They would appear to be more interested in quantity, not quality, but without the latter, the former is useless and can actively discourage cycling and walking. Low quality routes also perpetuates the myth that cyclists should be grateful for whatever is provided, even if it is clearly not adequate.

    I’m also tired of the Sustrans chuggers on the local paths!

    Reply

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