The Problem with Sustrans: How a Grassroots Phenomenon Has Turned Into a Private Unaccountable Corporation

Oh Sustrans, what hath become of thee?

Oh Sustrans, what hath become of thee?

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail about the Bristol Cycle Expressway, a proposed cycle path that could connect large areas of north Bristol directly to the Bristol and Bath Railway Path:

Josh,

Be good to stay in the loop on this – as an interested cyclist who has two kids having to cross the Gloucester Rd on the way to / from school each day…. Thought of a cycle path alongside the Severn Beach line occurred to me a few years ago and I corresponded with Sustrans but they couldn’t be bothered thinking about anything other than reasons not to do it.

Thanks,

C

C’s e-mail got me wondering—how many times has someone with a good idea for a new cycle path contacted Sustrans and received this kind of response? How many perfectly good ideas have been thrown in the bin because of a bureaucratic lack of vision from those tasked with keeping that vision whole? How many opportunities have been lost and positive energy squandered?  I wonder….

This e-mail was received the same week as it was revealed by a Bristol councillor that an investigation is underway into Sustrans’ cozy relationship with the city, specifically their employees being seconded to the City Council for the Cycling City project, and exclusion of other charities and firms to win contracts from the £11.4 million budget.  Frankly, it’s too much to keep a lid on, and I felt like On the Level cannot ignore this issue any longer.

Because of these dispiriting experiences with Sustrans, I began to do some research into the organisation, speaking with former and current employees, co-founders, and doing research on the internet. Bear with me while I shatter some of your illusions about the UK’s “leading sustainable transport charity”….

Disclaimer
Let me preface what I’m about to say with the following:

I am deeply grateful to John Grimshaw and others involved with Sustrans for creating the Bristol and Bath Railway Path- seemingly from sheer will, as well as the many other incredible rail-to-trail conversions that have enriched so many lives and communities throughout the UK.  I have several friends who work for Sustrans, and many of the organisation’s programs are truly positive contributions to people’s quality of life and transport choices.  Many well-meaning, passionate, and effective people work for Sustrans and my critique is in no way intended to diminish their work.   The following is directed primarily at the structure of the organisation itself.  This article may ruffle some feathers, but sometimes feathers need to be ruffled, and once in a while every organisation could do with some honest criticism.

CYCLEBAG and Sustrans’ Roots

From a modest, grassroots beginning as Bristol-based CYCLEBAG (Channel Your Calf and Leg Energy Bristol Action Group), a group of cyclists keen to restrain the inexorable growth of motor traffic and convert abandoned railways for cyclists’ use, Sustrans has now become a large corporate institution, with nearly 200 staff and 14 offices around the country, responsible for spending millions of pounds of public money channelled to them from central and regional government.

A charity is a fascinating entity.  It tends to thrive on the tension created between the status quo, and a significant element of the public who wants to change that status quo.   If the tension is relieved, by, for example, actually changing the status quo in some lasting and significant way, the charity has potentially put itself, and the hundreds of employees who depend on a paycheck every month, out of a job.  By actually succeeding in its mission, Sustrans might place its very existence on the line.  So as it turns out, what’s good for Sustrans is not necessarily good for the UK…..

Sustainability without Democracy?

It appears that I’m far from the only one who has serious reservations about Sustrans’ role in the movement for sustainable transport.  There are an increasing number of concerns including here, here and here, but they centre around this:  should a private charity with no accountability to the public or its membership (Sustrans calls them supporters) be given millions of taxpayer pounds every year without adequate consultation or oversight?

With the stakes so high in the fight against climate change, and with transport being the fastest growing source of emissions, can we really depend on Sustrans to bring about the change we so badly need?  Or have they become too complacent and corporate in recent years, losing their grip on the vision of a true National Cycle Network, terrified of taking on the Jeremy Clarksons of the world, afraid of conflict, afraid of their own success, paralyzed by the possibility of their failure…. What if people thought that Sustrans was watching the hens, when all along they’d been turning a blind eye as the foxes helped themselves through the back door of the henhouse?  What then?

Sadly, my own experience over the past two years living in the UK confirms C’s experience.  Several months ago, after I cycled from Reading to Bristol along the Kennet and Avon canal towpath, about 100 miles of gorgeous unspoiled countryside, but difficult to ride because of the muddy, rocky, and irregular pathway running alongside the canal, I rang up Sustrans’ Oxford office and volunteered to work toward a continuous high quality pathway along the entire Kennet and Avon from London to Bristol, potentially the first long distance completely off-road cycleway in the UK.  The corridor is there- all it really needs is some improved surfacing.  I spoke to Simon Pratt, their director and he basically said, “we don’t have the money, it’s not a high priority, no one would use it, and I’m really very busy at the moment- please go away.”

This is the kind of response you would expect from a local authority or their hired hacks, not a charity working to develop a National Cycle Network (NCN) and achieve a sustainable transport system. You would think Sustrans would be very eager to engage and work with advocates who are keen to work to improve the NCN.   Yet each time I’ve tried to volunteer with Sustrans, I have been met with indifference at best.

Sustrans and Bristol
j3b_3113_e_scaledpreview

It also turns out that very few Sustrans employees are personally involved in the Bristol Cycling Campaign-something I find very odd considering many of them live and cycle in Bristol.  In fact, it sometimes seems that Sustrans goes out of its way to ignore Bristol, as if to prove to other areas of the country that the City that hosts their headquarters curries no special favour. When plans for a bus rapid transit route threatened the Bristol-Bath Railway Path (Sustrans’ flagship facility) they were sluggish in responding to the threat, terrified of offending the local council, actually going on record in the Evening Post saying essentially that they had “no comment” about the plans.

Though the beast finally woke from its bloated lottery-money induced slumber and opposed the plan with some force, the damage had been done.  Thankfully, local activists stepped into the vacuum and formed Save the Railway Path, organised a 1000 strong march to the Council house that succeeded in getting the City Council to shelve the ill-conceived plans.  We know that Sustrans knew about the BRT plan as early as July 2007 if not earlier, yet they did nothing to alert others and provoke opposition. They only jumped on the bandwagon when it was clear that their credibility was on the line if they did nothing.

To Campaign or Not to Campaign?

So, with millions of pounds flowing into the organisation every year from government, Sustrans risks biting the hand that feeds it if it challenges the status quo too vociferously.   And after all, as Sustrans staff constantly remind you (even as the last polar iceberg melts and the reality of our fossil based transport system grows daily more nightmarish) they are not a campaign organisation.

This is backed up by those with a close familiarity with the organisation, who tell me that Sustrans has always been led by a small team of engineers- they love building stuff and solving problems, but they lack a vision of how to achieve a future with fewer cars, or of the strong cohesive communities that would result.  They also have a strong case of NIH (if it’s ‘not invented here’ we don’t want anything to do with it).  Hence the resistance to members of the public volunteering their own ideas.

As rangers, Sustrans has a trusting army of volunteers it can guide and control, but working with politically savvy campaigners means that Sustrans loses control, and might be seen as campaigning (god forbid). Confronting our car-addicted culture in any meaningful way is something Sustrans is clearly not prepared to do.

They are very prepared, however, to campaign on their own behalf, for the award of £50 million of lottery funding toward their Connect 2 project.  Last year, they mobilised their entire staff to successfully wage a campaign for £50 million (that will keep their small army of engineers in work for years to come), while drawing criticism from their opponents for heavy-handed and questionable campaign tactics.
Unfortunately some of the projects that were promised if Sustrans won the £50 million seem to now be falling through the cracks in Bristol.

The National Cycle “Network”: Fear of Change, Fear of Conflict, and Fear of Death on the Road

Safety standards have been sacrificed for the illusion of a complete network...

Safety standards have been sacrificed for the illusion of a complete network...

As it does so often, it boils down to fear.  Fear of losing funding and putting two hundred people out of work.   Fear of confronting the government over its disastrous short-sighted selfish transport policies.  Fear of being at odds with landowners, Network Rail, British Waterways, and local authorities.

Historically, when a NCN route has come into conflict with the aforementioned, Sustrans too often simply gives up and directs cyclists onto country lanes which go miles out of the way, up steep hills, or along busy roadways.

Sustrans proudly claims in their annual report that:

“The National Cycle Network is a great success story. 12,000 miles have been completed so far, a third of which is traffic-free.”

To those who have tried to actually use the National Cycle Network to travel throughout the UK on a bicycle, the Network begins to look like a desktop study with little regard taken of gradients, directness, or signage.  It appears that any route will do if it looks OK on a map – if the route is longer, it adds miles to the total so it looks impressive to funders, even if it means Granny can’t pedal to her local bus stop.

Chris Hutt, who was involved with the founding of Sustrans, told me the following:

“Most of the NCN is on-road. During the push to achieve the millennium target they abandoned a defined safety standard and adopted an interim standard (ie. anything goes). At this point the NCN network ceased to mean anything very much. Odd fragments of off-road paths, some good, some poor, some an embarrassment, joined up with notional on-road routes to create the illusion of a national network. Sustrans have compromised on the crucial standards for the sake of getting the miles clocked up – exactly the ‘more is better’ mentality that underlies much that is wrong with our culture.”

That's 9 extra miles of the National Cycle Network!  No extra charge!

That's 9 extra miles of the National Cycle Network! No extra charge!

The claim that “a third of the network is traffic-free” is also misleading.   This includes a large number of substandard side paths that run along busy roads or motorways, where cyclists and walkers are burdened with toxic air, a noisy environment- not to mention hazardous crossings of side roads where non-motorised traffic is de-prioritised.   Doesn’t really seem like a traffic-free environment, unless you’re sitting at a desk in an office in Bristol drawing lines on a map……

The “On-Road” vs. “Off-Road” Debate

Speaking of busy roadways and cycling, there has been a longstanding and simmering dispute between the “on-road” philosophy generally aligned with the CTC, and the “off-road” philosophy who gravitate toward Sustrans.  In reality- of course- this ridiculous, self-indulgent dispute is outdated, as all but a very few cyclists want safe, direct, pleasant and high quality routes whether they are free of motor vehicles or not (of course all else being equal, a non-motorised facility is preferable).

Well, the problem comes when the presence of cycle paths is used as justification to diminish the rights of cyclists and pedestrians to use the public roads.   Unfortunately Sustrans has contributed to this dangerous bias.  A man I met at a recent conference on cycle campaigning (where Sustrans were conspicuously absent) conveyed the following story to me:

“A local cyclist, Daniel Cadden, was pulled over by the police in Telford for riding on a B road with a parallel cycle path, and charged with inconsiderate cycling.   His case went to court and was featured in the local press, where a  Sustrans ranger wrote a letter ‘apologising on behalf of all cyclists’ for Daniel’s ‘irresponsible behaviour.’  This apology may very well have influenced the judge who initially found Daniel guilty….”

Even though his conviction was ultimately overturned, the damage was done by Sustrans, who have seemingly internalised the cyclist inferiority complex.

This opinion that cyclists have no right to ride on busier roads – and if they do so are inviting legal and/or physical punishment – is not limited to isolated individuals within Sustrans; it comes from the very top.  A friend of mine told me about the time he met John Grimshaw, the former CEO of Sustrans:

“I was telling (John) about a ride I had done on the National Cycle Network – because of the poor signage I had missed a turn and ended up on a busy A road that was narrow and heavily trafficked.   I was terrified for my life because of the fast traffic and the narrow road, and drivers were honking their horns at me.  I was surprised when John rebuked me: ‘It’s people like you who give cyclists a bad name.”

It seems that on balance, Sustrans may be contributing to the negative perception of cyclists and making our roads less safe for those on two wheels.  Most of their work reinforces the notion that cyclists shouldn’t be on the roads, which of course strengthens their hand in seeking funding for off-road routes.  Unfortunately the ultimate price is paid by regular cyclists who depend on the road network to get them home safely.  A case of the fox watching over the hens?

Has Oil Wealth Compromised Sustrans?
merchants-crest-cutout shell_oil

Who actually runs Sustrans and makes decisions about how our public money is spent?  A board of 11 trustees runs the “company” and these 11 actually appoint their own successors, meaning that there is virtually no democratic influence over the policies of the organisation.  One of the board members is a man named Chris Curling.   Curling belongs to the powerful and secretive Bristol based Merchant Venturers, a largely rich, white, and male organisation that has its roots in the slave trade.  They have an enormous amount of behind the scenes political power in Bristol (as evidenced by City Council corruption revealed by a recent FOI request).

The Venturers have nearly £1 million invested in Shell, an oil company guilty of environmental destruction, human rights violations, and complicity in the murder of Ken Saro Wiwa, and eight other Nigerian environmental activists.  The Merchant Venturers sign off on their accounts on November 10th every year, the same day that these activists were hanged for organising popular resistance to Shell’s crimes against the Nigerian people and environment.  Is this just an odd coincidence?  Curling’s presence on the Sustrans board raises some troubling questions indeed for an organisation supposedly dedicated to promoting sustainable travel and reducing our reliance on petrol.

What to Do?

I say enough is enough.  We need an open, democratic organisation to boldly advocate a set of transport and planning reforms in the UK: compulsory purchase orders (CPO’s, or eminent domain for American readers) for the development of an integral cycling network in the UK.   It’s all very well and good that Mr. and Mrs. Smith use their section of abandoned railway as a parking space for their Land Rover, but guess what?  Human beings kind of need safe, carbon neutral migration routes and like the millions of badgers, foxes, rabbits, and birds, we’re growing increasingly fed up with becoming roadkill…..

So what is the solution to the sad state of Sustrans? According to employees, staff morale is at an all time low.  Not an ideal situation to say the least.  However, it seems there is now an opportunity to reinvent itself with the recent departure of founder and visionary John Grimshaw. I’m beginning to think Sustrans should simply merge with the Department for Transport, become the Department for Sustainable Transport, carry out the programs it carries out, but be governed by MP’s in the House of Commons not an unelected, self-appointed board with no accountability to the public.

The other alternative is that they get their chutzpah on and become an actual campaigning organisation- pushing government and the private sector to make the necessary changes we need to reduce our fossil fuel dependent transport system- promoting an ambitious program of continuous non-motorised travel-ways along canals and railways, and return to the spirit that galvanised a whole generation to believe in the bike to deliver us personally and culturally to a new world of freedom and mobility via two wheels.  That’s the image they convey and a goal I suspect their supporters believe them to be working toward.

If it was up to me, I’d encourage them to pursue the latter option, but it will necessarily involve conflict, and for a conflict-averse corporation like Sustrans, frankly I’m not sure they’re up for the fight.  Be that as it may, Sustrans should at least be honest about their current role, and if they continue to solicit donations along cycle paths, let their membership (sorry- supporters) have a democratic voice in the policies of the organisation.

Until that happens, I would discourage anyone from donating money to Sustrans.  Why not support the more democratic CTC or your local cycle campaign instead? Giving money to Sustrans as it stands now is like adding a little extra on top of your council tax bill every quarter.

And for god’s sake, Sustrans- stop pouring cold water on creative suggestions from the public to improve the National Cycle Network.  If you’re not willing to do battle with the entrenched interests that are obstructing real change around transport issues, at least get out of the way so that those who are up for the fight can get on with it.

Sustrans were offered the opportunity to be interviewed and to provide comment for this article, but they declined.  They were also sent a list of questions to clarify their policies, but so far six months later I have yet to receive a reply…..

55 responses to “The Problem with Sustrans: How a Grassroots Phenomenon Has Turned Into a Private Unaccountable Corporation

  1. As always “On the Level” lives up to its reputation as one of the few quality blogs. I congratulate you.

    You’ve put into words the reservations I have long felt about this organisation.

  2. Wow, this a long and well researched article.

    Sustrans did provide support for the RP campaign, including technical support -mapping- as well as political advice. They didn’t want the BRT, but I think were constrained by not wanting to upset local or national government. The issue about whether they knew about the plans in July 2007 is another thing. I think what happened there is someone on the BRT committe asked someone at Sustrans what they thought, and took some silence “I’d need to know more” as acquiescence.

    -SteveL

  3. Representatives of Sustrans were meeting with the BRT promoters in the latter part of 2007 yet failed to alert the local cycle campaign group or anyone else to what was threatened. That to me suggests an arrogant proprietorial attitude to the Railway Path, as if it was for them to decide if and how it should be given over to public transport.

    When a Light Rail Transit (LRT) route was proposed along the same Path back in 1990 Sustrans couldn’t await to get in bed with the private promoter (Advanced Transport for Avon – ATA) to carve up the Path between trams and bikes. It was left to the local cycling campaign group (Cyclebag) to fight the proposal all the way to the House of Lords. Their Lordships rejected the ATA proposals which resulted in the demise of ATA so Sustrans never got their consultancy fee in the end!

  4. cheers josh. good article. i feel in agreement with you, though my feelings lacked much convictorial evidence, so good to read this.
    I appreciate the work you must have put in to research it.
    As for the comment above from Benjy…i’d encourage you not to be too entrenched in the ‘real world’ of today, for tomorrow it will be a little bit different, and it will be our actions that will have shaped it. So critiquing the current norm and visioning the future really seems like a very worthwhile – indeed responsible – practice to me.
    All the best bro
    Dan

  5. Benjy, Josh did say that he had invited Sustrans to comment but they declined, so any one-sidedness is hardly his fault. Even now they, like anyone else, can comment here if there is anything they feel is untrue or unfair. I bet they don’t.

    As for naivety, the first proposals for cycle routes put forward by Sustrans’ precursor Cyclebag in the late 1970s were seen as naive and unrealistic by many at the time, but now we know better. All new ideas have to break through the same reactionary attitudes, so good luck to Josh with the Cycle Expressway initiative.

  6. Great article that confirms all my suspsions I had about Sustrans.

  7. That’s bristol for ya mate, everything’s run by big business and the funny handshake brigade. The only way to get any grass roots influence with the council is to either lobby them intensley (public demonstrations, etc) or to save up and buy a councillor of your very own!

    BTW – Have you noticed how annoying Sustrans’s chuggers are? They actually block the way on cycle routes to get you to talk to them, to the point of actually being quite dangerous. I’ve nearly been in collision with other cyclists and pedestrians because of this practice, and when I finally gave them a lecture, they actually had the brass neck to say that it was “their” cyclepath, and how “they” built it. Great eh?

  8. There’s nothing naive about wishing for safe, direct and pleasant cycle routes that are car-free.

    The Netherlands has been doing this for decades, it is no pipe-dream, it just needs vision and investment and the decision to get on with it.

    The result is an excellent network that ordinary people actually use with huge social and health benefits.

  9. Hi Josh.

    It seems to me you’ve slightly misunderstood what Sustrans is all about. It’s not (and never really was) a politically radical cycle campaigning organisation. It may have started at the grass roots level, but it has a long and successful history of working with the establishment rather than against it to promote all forms of sustainable transport and not just cycling. For example through informing and shaping health policy through its Active Travel project, or working with local government and communities on the Connect2 project.

    I do agree that there is room for both approaches – working with the establishment and campaigning to change it. But as you mention, there already is a national charity which does all the things you ask for – cycling advocacy, political lobbying and campaigning, standing up for the legal rights of cyclists, supporting the right to ride on the road instead of being forced onto segregated cycle paths, having democratic structure: the CTC.

    You should be careful not to over-criticize Sustrans for failing to be something which it doesn’t even aim to be. Support the work which it does well, and leave the other work to others.

    Jake

  10. Jake-

    I’m not expecting Sustrans to be a “radical cycle campaigning organisation.” I’m quite aware that they are not. I am expecting them to enact policies that are consistent with their marketing materials, and if they insist on representing cyclists and making funding decisions with public money then they must become more democratic.

    As you can see in the “disclaimer” I do support some of the work Sustrans does. The problem is when they work closely with local authorities and together exclude other sustainable transport interests from the process and undermine the good work of local advocates. This is unfortunately the reality of how Cycling City has unfolded.

    When I ask the station manager at Temple Meads if we can get more cycle parking installed (as it’s packed every day and sometimes impossible to find a space), he says “oh well Sustrans says there’e enough cycle parking…”

    When we ask the Bristol City Council why they’ve made Prince St. Bridge dangerous and inconvenient for cyclists using Cycling City money, they say, “oh well Sustrans supported the plan.”

    I agree that there needs to be a broad church, with many approaches needed. However, if one obese churchgoer is sitting in the front row eating up all the bread and drinking the wine,
    funneling all the church’s charitable funds into their own pocket, then it’s time for the other parishioners to intervene…

  11. I congratulate you on your brave critique and agree the relationship between Sustrans and Bristol City Council is far too close for comfort. I am very concerned the Cycling City money will be squandered on salaries and needless beaurocracy, instead of being put to good use… but hey, this is England!

    An organisation which supports development on the Bristol-Bath Greenway surely says it all. Bristol has a history of corruption as regards companies securing contracts with the council. It’s time this was stopped, especially when it concerns something as important as the environment.

  12. Pingback: Sustainable gravy transport « Bristle’s Blog from the BunKRS

  13. Nice work Josh. You have raised important questions about public accountability whilst being careful to point out that it is the structure you criticse, not the employees.
    You mention one of the trustees by name, are the names of the others on public record? I would like to know how they are accountable for the public money they spend. National audit office?
    Sustrans were indeed helpful to the Save the Railway Path Campaign, but as soon as the plan was ‘shelved’, they returned to insularity.
    I think it is highly unlikely that Sustrans can change. We would do better to persuade those mistakenly relying on their advice (like the Temple Meads manager quoted) to consult a democratic local cycling group
    I think the council-sustrans cosiness can and should be ended too.

  14. Nice article. it’s as I feared. the Cycling City is just an opportunity for some pocket lining and leaching away of budgets on glossy publicity (bit like Bristol content-free services in other areas). Bristol City Council and Sustrans seem to be in the same league, well meaning but easily diverted into self aggrandisement. I’m now seriously considering my position as a Sustrans “supporter”.

  15. Sustrans ‘supporters’ generate £2.7 million income each year, although recruiting and servicing them costs a fair whack – about half a million as far as I can make out from accounts – so the net worth to Sustrans is about £2.2 million.

    The CEO of Sustrans is on around £70k, rather more than most of the ‘supporters’, some of whom I happen to know lead very abstemious lives on very modest incomes indeed. That’s one aspect that I find hard to stomach.

    Sustrans’ overall income is around £25 million a year but much of that is earmarked for specific projects so cannot be spent as they see fit. The income from supporters is presumably available to spend at their discretion, so could be used to mount a more effective campaigning side if they wanted to.

  16. I lost my rag with Grimshaw when he presented a highly dangerous plan for Blackboy Hill at a public meeting many years ago. I could not believe that such a knowledgeable man could present a plan which was likely to make cycling less safe by putting cyclists on the wrong side of the road facing oncoming traffic whilst descending a steep hill.

    Recently, here in Croydon, Sustrans have been supporting plans to direct cyclists along narrow steep footpaths past my home.
    http://crapcyclelanesofcroydon.blogspot.com/2007/09/connect2-in-croydon.html

  17. “Support the work which it does well, and leave the other work to others.”

    What exactly is it that sustrans “do well”? They built some cyclepaths back in the 80s, and currently they annoy me by blocking my way when I actually try to use said cyclepaths so that they can beg money off me. They also suck up National Lottery cash and campaign for the rights of cyclists to be driven off the roads.

  18. If you haven’t read Chris Hutt’s related post “Sustrans Sussed” at http://greenbristolblog.blogspot.com/2009/01/sustrans-sussed.html

    He makes some good points, especially:

    “Both Josh and I acknowledge the benefit that cyclists (and walkers) have derived from some of Sustrans’ better paths, most notably the Bristol & Bath Railway Path (below). In this area we also enjoy the Kennet & Avon Canal towpath from Bath to Devizes and the River Avon path from Ashton to Pill. But all these were created or upgraded in the 1980s. Since then there has been little of significance done in this area, although the funding now channeled through Sustrans is vast by comparison with the meagre shoestrings of the early years. That paradox merits some investigation.”

    So when Sustrans was operating on a shoestring, they managed to get a lot accomplished, at least here in the Bristol area. Now that they are flush, it’s hard to see the benefit to local cyclists. I suspect that much of the money has disappeared into bureaucracy, exactly what many fear will be the ultimate outcome of the Cycling City project…

  19. Josh – re: your suggested solutions.

    1. Do you really think Sustrans merging with the DfT would make it more effective at achieving transport reforms?

    2. Do you want Sustrans to become a campaigning organisation – and do exactly the same as the CTC?

    3. The average Sustrans supporter is a 2 car-owning male. If they had a democratic voice in the organisation, do you think they would ‘boldly advocate a set of transport and planning reforms in the UK’?

  20. Cheers Josh: your article certainly reflects my experience of cycling, Bristol and Sustrans.
    As an 18 year old I worked a bit as a volunteer on the Bristol/Bath and Avon cycle track in the 70’s. 25 years later I worked in the Sustrans office as an occasional diy bod. There was plenty of nice people there and folks worked hard. But I was struck by John Grimshaw’s autocratic and frankly occasionally bullying manner and the quite posh atmosphere of the place. I was also very struck by the way Sustrans (presumably John Grimshaw) appeared to sit on the fence when Bristol City council initially threatened the Easton cycle track. It was only when there was a massive public outcry that they came out against the proposal to destroy the track they had created. To me Sustrans has been too much of a one man band.

  21. Will, I think you’ll find that wherever a thrusting new business, campaign or charity emerges it will be driven by an autocrat without much time for the niceties of fairness, democracy, openness and honesty. Such people are invariably pragmatists with unshakable self-belief who want to get things done by whatever means necessary.

    The other extreme is a stifling bureaucracy where what little that gets done is done by the book and with full and extensive consultations involving all the stakeholders (those with nothing better to do than waste their lives sitting in endless meetings). If anything material eventually emerges from these processes it will be so compromised by the desire not to offend anyone that it will be tokenistic and impractical.

    So it’s unlikely that the Bristol & Bath Path (and others) would have materialised but for someone like John Grimshaw. No one’s ever accused him of being easy to work with and many, like myself, have retired hurt along the way, but that’s the price we pay for getting things done.

  22. Hi Sally, to reply to your comment:

    1. I don’t know whether Sustrans merging with the DfT would make it more effective, but it would at least be more honest- in recent years Sustrans has become more like a consulting firm than a charity, but still collects money from the general public who desire change. Best of both worlds for them, really- but as I said not entirely honest.

    2. No I don’t want Sustrans to become the same as the CTC- I simply would like them to regain their initial vision for a continuous, priority network of cycleways throughout Britian- this vision has unfortunately been compromised for expediency and funding.

    3. Yes democracy is a pesky critter- it would be a lot more convenient to seize control and do what we know to be right. The truth is that democracy is a two way street- it involves leadership and vision. If Sustrans had the guts to clearly and respectfully articulate to its membership why driving two cars (much less one) was a behaviour inconsistent with the climate crisis we face, and to demonstrate why restrictions on car use, not just disjointed cycle paths, are necessary and desirable for everyone, then perhaps these “2-car owning males” would be convinced and brought along for the ride- as it were.

    The hallmark of an effective democracy are leaders who look at the facts and do what is right and what is just, rather than being blown by the political winds and living in fear. In that respect, Sustrans is taking a page out of Bristol City Council’s book. No wonder they work so well together.

    I’m reminded of one of the first days I lived in Bristol- I was riding along the road in Bishopston handing out leaflets for Bristol Critical Mass, and I ran into Phil Insall, one of the top staff at Sustrans- loading his bike on top of his car, to drive it into the countryside for a ride. We had met in 2005 when I visited Bristol, and he was sort of sheepish and embarrassed when he saw me ride up.

    I think that says a lot about why the organisation has to coddle its members with the idea that mass car use is compatible with a sustainable society- because their leadership has to convince *themselves* that this is true. They don’t have to suffer the poor conditions that we’ve created for cyclists and pedestrians in urban areas- they can just pop their bike on top of their car, and drive to their nearest traffic-free cycle path……

  23. That’s a really interesting and important piece Josh. I think it’s very useful to have discussion about cycling promotion in the UK, and there’s far too little of it. Thanks ;-)
    Whilst I tend to agree with most of your criticisms of Sustrans, I also think that it’s not Sustrans which is the problem so much as the UK Government’s spinelessness in relation to sustainable transport.
    Sustrans should really only be one piece of the sustainable transport jigsaw, not the whole thing. But it seems increasingly to be becoming the whole thing, at least with regards to walking and cycling.
    This is convenient for the UK Government, and particulary the Department for Transport (DfT). What the DfT seems, effectively, to be doing is contracting out much of the construction and promotion of the UK’s walking and cycling infrastructure to Sustrans (even if that’s sometimes via ludicrously convoluted means such as the Big Lottery, requiring ‘the public’ to vote for what Government should anyway be providing – the urgently needed expansion of sustainable transport infrastructure). By getting Sustrans to do its work, the DfT can more easily maintain its deeply embedded, institutionalised, neglect of (even hostility towards) walking and cycling, notwithstanding occasional bursts of rhetoric to the contrary.
    Thus continues the DfT’s institutionalised fear (by now it’s become a caricature, but not a very funny one) of ‘alienating the motorist’ (though this ‘alienated motorist’ is increasingly, I think, a figment of the reactionary mass media) – it’s not the DfT which is promoting walking and cycling, it’s Sustrans.
    So irrespective of where Sustrans fits in the picture (though personally, I’d like to see it as just one organisation pursuing specific and well-thought out projects to promote walking and cycling), I think you’re right – what we need is a Department for Sustainable Transport, with the kind of budget available to the current DfT – but with the money going into improving conditions for walking and cycling (and, relatedly, making it progressively more difficult to continue motoring-as-usual).
    Sustrans is clearly not up to the job (and nor should it be) of making cycling and walking the hugely dominant modes of urban mobility in the UK – that’s up to the Government, and it should start acting accordingly.

  24. I couldn’t agree more, Dave. Thanks.

  25. Let’s take that a stage further. The DfT should be the DfST, dealing exclusively with sustainable transport, while those who wish to promote unsustainable transport can go and set up a charity and bid for lottery funds via gimmicky TV promotions. I wonder how many miles of new trunk road that will deliver.

  26. Chris, you are the man.

  27. I work for a small cycling group and I once wrote an article that was ever so slightly critical of a Sustrans route (on account of the appalling surface, the rubbish dumped everywhere, the lousy signposting etc). I got a phone call from a VERY senior Sustrans person saying (and I quote) “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?!” I was told that I must never again voice such comments without first running them past Sustrans for approval. I was aghast.

    In the voluntary sector I have heard the term “Sustrans Hoover” several times. Basically, any grant funding comes along and on goes the vacuum cleaner! Sustrans scoops the lot and the little groups can go hang!

    Like you Josh, I applaud a lot of what Sustrans has achieved. But they know nothing about building links with other cycling orgs or engaging with the cycling community. Sadly I think they’ve become very arrogant, remote and self-centred.

  28. This explains a lot. I’d heard a lot about Sustrans when in the UK, but saw very little of this ‘National network’ that they were supposed to promote. Now I know why.

  29. Another thought, both Sustrans and the National Cycle network have Wikipedia entries, that are entirely positive. If there is evidence that Sustrans isn’t whiter than white, could you make a fresh paragraph about some of the other side of the story?

    ational Cycling Network:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Cycle_Network

    Sustrans:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustrans

  30. If you click on the history tabs of the Wikipedia entries you can see that hundreds of changes have been made since the entries first appeared in 2004.

    Sometimes references are inserted to criticisms and sometimes these are removed. Notable are attempts to point out that the NCN is largely on existing minor roads with nothing more than some (often poor) signing.

  31. I love the idea of having a charity set up to build motorways. We could do one as a spoof.

  32. Yes, it could be called CARTRANS, short for Carbon Transport.

    CARTRANS chuggers would hang around at desolate motorway service stations accosting the occasional motorist to recruit them as supporters, bewailing the fact that the Department of Sustainable Transport (DfST) just isn’t interested in unsustainable modes of transport anymore, what with all the access barriers to be negotiated and the MOTORISTS GET OUT AND PUSH signs at every junction with a Greenway, not to mention the lack of maintenance and gritting making the motorways so hazardous in the winter.

  33. This post has provoked a lively discussion on the CTC Forum, too.

  34. better yet, community volunteers could create new service stations on parkland. We could recreate the M6’s “chernobyl B services” up on purdown camp, demand a new M-way exit route.

    Of course, if there was a phone in campaign to get funding CARTRANS would win over anyone else. But would people care enough to come down and put in the hours to build new car parks?

  35. Martin Parkinson

    OnThe level said:

    “I ran into Phil Insall, one of the top staff at Sustrans- loading his bike on top of his car, to drive it into the countryside for a ride.”

    Actually – I’m not been funny here – that really did appal me.

    I tend to regard my own eccentric travel behaviour (I’ve mostly commuted on foot for decades now; in the last year I was in a car once) as a sort of private ‘conceptual art project’ which I don’t expect other people to emulate. But I do expect people who get PAID to promte active transport to be exemplary in their behaviour.

  36. I was amazed to see an off road path i’d cycled on for years suddenly become part of the NCN. Well done Sustrans. A major acheivement.

  37. I go along to my local cycle forum. I’ve attended every single one since it was set up. Local BUGs and the cycle campaign and (usually) the CTC are all there too. We patiently plug away at it, trying to move things forward and make the area more cycle friendly. We NEVER see Sustrans people at these meetings except when the Sustrans Connect 2 project was being dreamed up and they wanted local authroity funding. Suddenly THREE Sustrans reps started attending fourms, putting the case for Connect 2. Sustrans got its money and – strangely – we don’t see Sustrans folk at the forum any more. I know they have a job to do and that their projects are their priority — but honestly, their degree of self-interest is truly staggering. In many years of cycle campaigning I’ve never seen Sustrans try to work with other groups or simply to give something unconditionally.

  38. I completely agree with many of your comments about Sustrans. I was a volunteer ranger for a short time, allocated route 55 (most of which had not been built at the time), but found that the paid Sustrans staff did not seem to know what was their remit, and what my remit as a volunteer. I agree with the comments above, that such ambivalence by Sustrans is largely self-serving and deliberate. At one meeting in Manchester, the manager, Mike Dagley, said clearly that the Manchester Office were not interested it what volunteer rangers were doing, but we should just ‘get on with it’ (whatever that means). The whole experience was extremely demotivating, so I resigned, ’cause I’ve got more important things to do with my life. Shambolic is a word I would use rarely, but it applied to Sustrans (North) in 2007.

    Mr Dagley said that his office was ‘far too busy’ to take up some of my ‘good ideas’, but I had proposed these as volunteer activities!

    Perhaps the charity commission needs to look into Sustrans (if it has jursidiction)?

  39. Very interesting, if somewhat depressing article. As I understood it Sustrans were making the best of the results of the Beeching report. So where the country lost ‘non cost-effective’ local rail services at least cyclists benefitted.
    On the scale of a national transport policy however, replacing trains with bikes is madness as the massive increase in car use demonstrates.
    It shouldn’t require a major lifestyle change for people to go about their daily business, but opting to use public road transport or cycle everywhere is simply not an option for most people. Either too slow and inconvenient or too impractical.
    Looking to Sustrans to address national transport policy is unrealistic, so I suggest the funding they recieve would be better directed at improving and reinstating rail services. We wouldn’t need a separate national cycle network if the level of road traffic was reduced.

  40. John Michael Rogers

    Jake said “it [Sustrans] has a long and successful history of working with the establishment rather than against it to promote all forms of sustainable transport and not just cycling.”

    Really, Jake? Could you name one?

    Sustrans has consistently opposed the re-opening of light and heavy rail links at every opportunity.

  41. Quite frankly SUSTRANS are a disgrace. Their receipt of millions of pounds worth of public monies whilst being completely unaccountable combined with their never ending efforts to thwart any attempt of railway re-openings , is nothing short of a political scandal that needs exposing for what it is.

  42. @B Willis: Interesting statement. Can you cite some examples of “…their never ending efforts to thwart any attempt of railway re-openings…” please.

    • How many do you want. Ask the Gloucestershire and warwickshire railway about there plans to extend to honeybourne.

  43. I’m no fan of Sustrans (see above) but it’s perfectly right and proper for them to defend existing and potential railway paths from competing threats including rail.

    In most cases a railway path will offer much better value for money than any sort of rail use so again it would be foolish to systematically abandon railway paths in favour of rail.

  44. I think that rather than blanket objections to rail restorations each proposal ought to be judged on merit.
    For example, the Radstock to Frome railway is on the list of Network Rail’s of proposed re-openings (see http://preview.tinyurl.com/yhlodz6 ). The so-called “Colliers Way” ncn24 cycle route currently uses the rail route but, even as a keen cyclist and cycle instructor who regularly uses the path I would unequivocally support the rail restoration, as would any right minded person. As it is, the derelict rail line is still in situ which demonstrates that it is perfectly feasible that the cycle path could easily be reinstated alongside the restored railway – it was originally constructed as a double track Brunel line, so there is plenty of room for both. Against the very high cost of rail re-instatement the cost of rebuilding a parallel cyclepath must quite small.
    I think that routinely objecting to rail restoration without considering its merits by a so-called “sustainable transport” charity smacks of hypocricy. Not everyone can or wants to ride a bike and a restored train service must do nothing but good to Radstock and Midsomer Norton.

  45. Tell me it’s not true! Quite a read, even a year on, it has the ring of truth about it.

    I find it grossly unfair and not a little offensive when an organisation funded to the tune of £50m in the last year alone quibles over the payment of an expenses claim of £1500 covering a 13-month period. Especially when were it not for one or two people going out on a limb, Sustrans would be looking shell out many times this amount, simply to maintain an unsatisfactory and unpallatible status quo for all concerned. It would seem that the author of this wonderfully crafted article does indeed have the rights of it. I only apologise for not recognising this sooner and only now adding this belated comment.

    Democratic process is by now long passed. When an unelected, charitably constituted organisation can hold a whole village to ransom, what hope is there?

    May not make much sense even to begin to explain the background to this comment. But take a look anyway at http://www.pontvalley.net to see how a whole community was let down by an organisation that simply had to say yes instead of no and, just for once, actually let something happen.

  46. “Can you cite some examples of “…their never ending efforts to thwart any attempt of railway re-openings…” please.”

    More than happy to. They recently objected to the extension of the Llangollen to Carrog line to Corwen. They rediculously ‘demanded’ that the line be re-instated with a cycle path along side it. Er how exactly on a single track line? And more importantly why? There is a perfectly quiet and hardly used B road connecting the two places that is a delight to cycle on already.

    Happy to say that on this occasion Sustrans did not get their way. May that continue – A plague on their house

  47. OTLB is right. But sometimes the naivete of folks amazes me. Sustrans is no different to a whole host of NGOs charities and non profit making organisations who may establish themselves with altruism to meet a particular or perceived need but then find themselves as part of the establishment and find it difficult to separate social responsibility from self preservation. In the UK I can show you the HQ of a ‘Registered Social Landlord’ covered in marble; the same RSL has a ‘celebrity’ board member; I have seen hunger relief charity personnel in Cambodia enjoying an unbelievably lavish lifestyle; and met CEOs of these charities with eyewatering salaries. If enough of us good folks join up and try to influence things from the inside it could make a difference. Or maybe I’m now being naive? I will report back but in the meantime be assured my stretch of the NCN will be properly signed!

  48. Great article – found it mentioned here http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/green-living-blog/2010/may/10/sustrans?showallcomments=true#end-of-comments

    I doubt their constitution lets them campaign, and they can’t try to represent anyone. You are right – their agenda is to clock up miles of path regardless of reality on the ground, and keep grants coming in.

    Never ever assume that what they say is true or their real position – use the Freedom of Information Act to find out what they actually say to councils and government – you’ll probably find they support the crap proposals they later try to blame on councils.

    Glad to see this finally come out – they have had far too easy a ride, and boy do they love riding roughshod over people.

  49. Sustrans most certainly aren’t a campaigning charity. I found my local sustrans office in Newcastle rather unsupportive when I started a campaign to improve cycling in Newcastle’s city centre (which is in dire need of improving). I have now cancelled my monthly donation with sustrans, written to sustrans’ chief exec to describe my disappointment and become a CTC member! Visit http://www.katlayout.co.uk/ for more on the safe cycling petition.

  50. Pingback: Sustrans Stonewalls Again « On the Level: Car Free Blog

  51. I’m a volunteer ranger and when working on the NCN i often get asked “what is sustrans”? I’ve been asked so many times that i’ve written to Sustans with the suggestion that they consider changing their name and or logo to more logical ones in order to reduce the confusion. Alas, their response was one of instant rejection. Also, even though they had plans and basic planning permission to convert a 3 mile stretch of disused railway to a cycleway a few years ago, it all fell through at the last hurdle due to them concentrating on Connect 2 projects. So, perhaps most of this chain is correct, perhaps Sustans is a bit out of control and lacks accountability? Bob

  52. Appreciate we’re now in 2011, but the blog jolted my memory of my own (short-lived) experience as a volunteer ranger for a stretch of NCN route 55 about 4 years ago..
    I quickly got the impression of a strange, dysfunctional set-up, where the volunteer co-ordinator told an open Sustrans meeting that he did not want to be informed about any volunteeer activities that the new volunteers carried out. When I also offered to help with any other projects, nothing was forthcoming. There was very little in the way of support, a lot of precious and cliquey folk in the organisation. I soon realised what an empty role it was, apparently just a case of getting as many volunteers on Sustrans’ books as poss for whatever reason. As stated above, no democratic structures were in place at the time. I soon left.Sustrans for something worthwhile.

  53. Pingback: Transport Poverty

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