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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…..

Fossil Fool Rocks the Bike

[Youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=cchoLMKe530]

My friend Paul (AKA Fossil Fool) from San Francisco is a bike rapper and cultural innovator- a party bike builder and inventor of the “down low glow.”  Unconstrained by stale notions of what a rapper is supposed to be and what they’re supposed to drive, Paul and his project, Rock the Bike are ahead of their time,  inspiring a generation to discover the joys of two wheels.   Bike culture is thriving in San Francisco, as it is in many other cities at the moment, with Bicycle Film Festivals, Bicycle Music Festivals, and a growing, rolling street culture.

This is the kind of thing that can inspire massive, sudden evolution out of unsustainable, backward lifestyles, not limp-hearted government leaflets that have “ten tips to save money and the environment.” God how boring is that?  Now, check out Fossil Fool’s No Bikes in the Quad.

Now, after a short ride on BART to Oakland with a totally gratuitous bit of bikesexuality, linked to London Cycle Chic from whence it came…

sbanataliaenvy

……we bring you some East Bay bike rap:

[Youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=hQGLNPJ9VCE]

Speaking of emerging bike culture, if you’re in Bristol this week, check out A Night of No Gears, a film about fixies and single speed riding and culture this Friday at the Cube Cinema.  Ride on people…..

NO Means NO!

_44705797_heathrow_no_pa4161

Clearly Gordon Brown has a bit of a literacy problem and can’t read the message we’ve spelled out for him- Heathrow is the line in the sand that we cannot allow the greedy, growth-at-any-cost-powers-that-be to cross.  The good people of Sipson who face the demolition of their village have been pushed and pushed and are now beginning to plot direct action.   Guess what?  We are all Sipson residents, and we all face destruction of our home as a result of this disastrous plan.  Bookmark this link to stay up to date on news and find out where and when to protest (this saturday in Terminal 5 is a good start).

Go Away BAA We don’t want your Third Runway!

Motor Mania

Whenever I mention this cartoon here in the UK, no one knows what I’m talking about, so I thought I’d post it here.  It’s a wonderful piss-take of drivers, one that you would certainly never see these days from the dumbo’d down corporate, plastic Disney.

The obvious Mr. Walker/ Mr. Wheeler, Dr. Jekyll/ Mr. Hyde connection exposes a truth about the motorcar and society- perhaps one we are not so comfortable with now that we have allowed the car to dominate practically every aspect of modern life.  It’s this psychological split between the driver and walker- the lead-footed petrol addict and the resident who has to keep a close eye on small children and pets.   And of course they are often the same person.

I argue that the mistake politicians have made in trying to bring about a sustainable transport system is that they speak to the driver, not the resident.   I mean, if you wanted to close Prince St. bridge for example, would you try to win the support of Mr. Walker or Mr. Wheeler?

In 1948 J. S. Dean, the chairman of the Pedestrians Association (now Living Streets), wrote these words:

“…there is an extraordinary gulf in the motoring mind between intention and action.   What are we to do with these people and their split minds?  As they kill and maim pedestrians they chatter: ‘We are all pedestrians.’”

There are lots of examples of this fascinating split personality syndrome in our modern transport system.   What are some other examples people can cite?

Bristol Cycling City: A Troubling Reputation Already

1

The following was sent to me by someone who lives on the continent- someone who knows how to design proper cycle facilities and how to make cycling a priority in a city.  Because he works in the profession and doesn’t want to be seen as criticising from afar, I am posting it here anonymously:

Dear Josh,

I found this link to the details of Bristol’s job vacancy for a project manager to overlook the cycling city initiative:

http://www.bristolbetterbybike.co.uk

There are some issues here:

1. It would appear that the domain name for the cycling city initiative has nothing on it except the vacancy.
2. The first six months of the three year period has, it would seem, been spent on deciding that they ought to advertise a job vacancy.
3. The suggestions of what needs doing seem to concentrate on the insubstantial: training a few more kids, recycling bikes…
4. There’s rather too much about “challenging attitudes” and being a “beacon”…
5. They appear to want to re-invent the wheel. Given the lack of time available and the limited budget (for all their bluff, even this amount is much lower than the budget here) this is an especially bad idea.

In my view they’d have been better off spending the first evening after being awarded the money by having a good party and then the next morning phoning up some professionals who actually know how to do this stuff and writing them a cheque to get on with it.

Perhaps they could have used such people as Ligtermoet and partners who have been involved in much of the good (and successful) design in the Netherlands:

http://ligpart.nl

or Timenco, a spin off of the same:

http://www.timenco.be/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=13&Itemid=26

I’m sure there are other such firms. I’ve not any experience with any of them, but I can say that the list of projects on the website of the first of these two is pretty impressive, and the summary of the work experience of Tim in the second one is also impressive.

What seems to be an issue here is that, as ever, they want to take on an accountant. Everyone is supposed to be an accountant in the UK. It’s impossible to be in any responsible position unless you are that type of person.

It’s quite different here.  Our local cycling planner doesn’t necessarily know the cost of what is done. He knows what works – he designs what works. However, costing is someone else’s problem.  This means you can have someone with vision in charge, instead of someone who “knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing”. Compromises might have to be made, but design doesn’t start with a compromise.

I think it is a terrible mistake to have a money person in charge of the vision for Bristol.  There are two quite different jobs here and it is unlikely that one person can do both of them.

To summarise, from afar it looks very much like they are heading off down a path of managers looking after more managers, taking a very long time about it, and not consulting with the experts. I’ve seen just this sort of thing happen in business that I’ve been involved with in the past….

Dec. 9th Forum: Bristol’s Public Transport at a Crossroads


This Public Forum, organised by the Transport for Greater Bristol Alliance, will ramp up the pressure on local government to deal with Bristol's transport mess in a way that prioritises health, access, and quality of life

This Public Forum, organised by the Transport for Greater Bristol Alliance, will ramp up the pressure on local government to deal with Bristol's transport crisis swiftly and sustainably

If you are fed up with Bristol’s transport problems and want to hear about and share solutions, this forum on Dec. 9th is one you don’t want to miss.  Christian Wolmar will be the main speaker, joined by Cat Hobbs of the Campaign for Better Transport who ran the campaign to increase service on the Severn Beach Line, and also your blogger who will be speaking about my Driven to Excess research.
I first heard Christian  speak at the Driving Change conference in London, where he rightly criticised the government’s “modal agnosticism” around transport.   A compelling, hard-hitting and knowledgeable speaker- you don’t want to miss him.
Here is some of the publicity that’s been sent around in advance of the forum:
It’s no secret that Bristol’s public transport is failing both the community and commerce. It is too expensive, dirty and unreliable. People are forced to use their cars with consequential delays, parking problems, an unacceptably high death and injury toll, and pollution. We are at a crossroads in terms of the need to make the right transport decisions. You are invited to hear and discuss options which will could radically improve travel times and costs across Bristol at a Public Forum in the centre of Bristol.

Hope to see you all there!

Top Ten Bristol Transport Debacles

congestion

It just seems to keep getting worse.   As residents of Bristol continue to suffer the effects of rising traffic levels and shoddy transport choices on their environment, health, and quality of life, our political leaders are scared stiff of appearing to be anti-car.  Their paralysis, borne out of fear of intervening in society’s petrol addiction in any meaningful way- is preventing them doing anything to actually solve the problem.  Instead, like a drug addict, we increase the dose to get the same high- we widen roads and build new car parks, hoping that it will make us forget our problems.  Temporarily relieved, we wake up the next morning feeling worse than ever.   Politicians talk green, but their actions are digging us deeper into the gaping black hole of car dependence and climate catastrophe every day.

Like it or not, it seems that the forces of darkness have decided that if they stand any chance of launching their schemes to increase road and airport capacity, they’d better do it now, and they better force them through all together before the twin realities of peak oil and climate change reshape our transport landscape forever.  This plan could divert and distract us, or it could end up backfiring on them, raising the hackles of a powerful new coalition of Bristolians who say enough is enough.

If you live in Bristol and you care about the future of your city, my advice is to gear up for a fight over the coming months.  The shit is truly hitting the fan folks- you better arm yourselves with bicycles, keyboards, d-locks and a copy of the Freedom of Information Act cause it might get very ugly.

Here (drum roll please) are the top ten recent transport debacles in Bristol:

Bristol City Council plans to use Cycling City funds to make cycling across Prince St. bridge more dangerous

Bristol City Council plans to use Cycling City funds to make cycling across Prince St. bridge more dangerous

10.  Cycling City Debacle, Illustrated Nicely by the Prince St. Bridge Project: The Cycling City project is in disarray, with council-hyped plans for Prince St. bridge being launched into the media without any consultation with cycling groups.  Turns out that, in spite of Sustrans’ misguided support for the scheme, the project would prepare the ground for a diesel bus takeover of half the bridge at the expense of conditions for cyclists and pedestrians.    The plan violates every good design rule, would delay cyclists and put people in danger.   Southbound cyclists would either have to wait with the exhaust-spewing cars, or cross over to the wrong side of the road, then have to negotiate back to the left side of the road after the bridge, through the waiting (or even worse, moving) line of cars. Northbound (inbound) cyclists would be faced with negotiating through crowds of pedestrians now using the roadway.  Pedestrians on the east side of Prince St. would be forced to cross the street twice, just to cross the river.   Fun.

We need to close this bridge to all but emergency vehicles and use this as a key restriction of traffic volumes in the city centre- a key “filter” in a city centre filtered permeability strategy.  Unfortunately, as we know Sustrans and the council don’t like to ruffle feathers, we are left with a dangerous and compromised facility.  Plus it will worsen air quality to have cars idling.

Come and speak out in favour of full closure at the Bristol City Council “extraordinary” committee meeting on Monday, the 24th of November at 6pm at the Council House, College Green Bristol.   You can e-mail comments in advance (required if you want to speak) to ian.hird@bristol.gov.uk

If the Council want to have a project by project pitched battle rather than an open and inclusive planning process then it seems that that’s what they’re going to get.

George Ferguson wants to build innovative cycle houses- right on top of this mature hedgerow along the Bristol-Bath Cycle Path

George Ferguson wants to build innovative cycle houses- right on top of this mature hedgerow along the Bristol-Bath Cycle Path

9.  “Red Trouser Gate”: How the City Council is prepared to Sell off Public Land to Destroy a Mature Hedgerow along the Bristol-Bath Path for 25 car parking spaces at the Chocolate Factory development:  Several bloggers in Bristol, including the illustrious Bristol Blogger and the ever-gadflyish Green Bristol Blog, have uncovered this scandal that reveals the seedy underworld of Bristol planning practice- where developers get access to public land through back channels, and adopted council policy is simply “advisory.”  The problem here is precedent- if Squarepeg and the Merchant Venturer George Ferguson can get away with cutting a chunk out of the greenway, then why not a thousand other developers along the path?  Before you know it, paradise will be paved, and we won’t even have the benefit of public transport….

brt_photo

The bendy bus- despised by all Londoners, is Labour's vision for Bristol's transport future. OK yes it is a fancy bus. But can you say lipstick on a pig??

8.  Rejection of Trams, and Corporate-backed Embrace of Bus Rapid Transit: The bus “rapid transit” project that would connect Long Ashton Park and Ride with Bristol City Centre is out for consultation at the moment.  Ignoring a groundswell of support, the unaccountable West of England Partnerhsip chose to drive their diesel buses roughshod over the popular plan for a modern 21st century ultra light tram system to become the future of Bristol’s public transport.  Couldn’t be anything to do with the fact that central government, cozy with rubber tire, internal combustion engine, and oil companies, prioritises bus schemes over rail.   Nahhhhh……  Anyway, come see their plans, meet their high-priced consultants, and give feedback that will probably be ignored.  There’s been good recent analysis on local blogs: here and here.  Plans have been put on hold to run the BRT up the Bristol-Bath cycle path, but some observers believe it’s just a matter of time before they try again.

What a bunch of useless weeds!  Let's pave it over shall we?

What a bunch of useless weeds! Let's pave it over shall we?

7.  (Taken for a) Park and Ride: Now comes news from the Evening Post that the Council is looking into plans to pave over food-growing allotments in Bristol for a park and ride scheme.  Never mind that park and ride projects have been found to encourage people to switch from public transport to driving and increase the distance of car journeys.  Never mind that local food production and the use of fertile urban farmland is urgently needed as part of the transition to communities less dependent on fossil fuels.  As long as the corporate interests are happy and people can feel good about using public transport while still getting their car fix, things are fine- plus if you need veggies you can always drive to the out of town Sainsbury’s (featuring a huge, free car park) and buy vegetables flown in from Kenya!  Who needs an allotment anyway?  More details about this horrible scheme here.  You can sign a petition against the plan here.

council_house_photo_demo

We said "NO!" They said, "democracy is so 20th century- let's expand by stealth instead."

6.  Bristol Airport Expansion- Just Plane Stupid: Bristol Airport is still pushing for a major expansion project and on Wednesday evening were unfortunately successful in their application to bypass the planning process and build a “walkway” that would expand the airport by stealth.   Stay tuned for more irresponsible climate vandalism from the airport bosses and be sure to join Stop Bristol Airport Expansion.

One day soon (if we don't act) this will be a new polluted ring road and a car-dependent suburb with 10,000 new houses

One day soon (if we don't act) this will be a polluted ring road and a car dependent suburb with 10,000 new houses...

5.  South Bristol Ring Road-Invasion of the Greenbelt: The West of England Partnership is also plotting to build a new road through greenfields- the South Bristol Ring Road (now rebranded the link road) that- together with the tens of thousands of new homes planned- will generate more traffic, more carbon emissions, and further deteriorate communities.  Join the Alliance Against a South Bristol Ring Road and say no to new roads in the consultation process that’s currently underway.

Some Bristolians believe this is actually an alien spacecraft, sent to Earth to mesmerise us to consume more junk.....

Some Bristolians believe this is actually an alien spacecraft, sent to Earth to mesmerise us into consuming more junk....one thing is for sure- it certainly encourages us to drive more...

4.  Cabot Circus Transport Nightmare: The “Car-boot” Circus mall opened in September, featuring one of Europe’s largest car parks, a behemoth of 2500 spaces, lit up with neon that’s visible for miles, and (count them) 6 cycle parking racks, hidden in a corner. (mortified by negative media coverage, they’ve hurriedly added more in recent weeks). Plus not a single additional public transport service was added to prepare for the influx of shoppers. The extra traffic generated by the scheme is bound to tarnish the lungs and shorten the lives of the already deprived population of St. Pauls (but that’s okay because corporate profits are more important than the lives of voiceless brown people).

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Tolerance of pavement parking and removal of a key cycle lane combine to create hostile conditions for pedestrians in Bristol

As part of the knee-jerk planning panic surrounding Cabot Circus, the Bristol City Council- in their infinite wisdom, decided to add a new lane on Lower Ashley Rd, in the process removing the cycle lane and narrowing the pavement, which as you can see in the photo above, is now a perfect width to park your car on.  This blogger discovered yesterday that one reason for the Lower Ashley Rd. project was that benzene levels during peak times were some of the highest ever recorded in a residential area in the UK.   So out of a sincere desire to protect the lives of the residents of Lower Ashley Rd. (or, if you are more cynical, to avoid the political ignominy of being known nationally as a toxic hellhole) the council quickly sacrificed the cycle lane and half the pavement to put in a new vehicle lane.  So much for long term solutions…

Occupation of pedestrian lands is provoking anger throughout Bristol

Occupation of pedestrian lands is provoking anger throughout Bristol

3.  Pavement Parking: Pavement parking has reached epidemic levels in Bristol.   Yes it is definitely illegal.  Yes it is definitely selfish.   And unfortunately the council has decided to turn a blind eye to the practice, leaving the disabled trapped in their homes and mothers with pushchairs forced out into traffic.  The criminal occupation of walking areas by motor vehicles has become so standard and accepted in Bristol that the fire department is now leaving notes of complaint on the windscreens of vehicles which are NOT parked on the pavement! Wow.  It’s this attitude of entitlement- the the city somehow owes you a free piece of public land to store your car on- that if there’s no space for two rows of cars in the street- well screw you we’ll just take the pavement– that is what is so irksome to an increasing number in Bristol, illustrated by blogs like Bristol Traffic and Southville Roads.  Print out this great flyer from Living Streets and use it on offending cars in your neighbourhood today!

Look carefully Bristol City Council because these are the people who will be locking themselves to your diggers if you try shoving asphalt and diesel down our path again...

People Power: Look carefully Bristol City Council because these are the people who will be locking themselves to your diggers if you try shoving asphalt and diesel down our path again...

2.  Threat to the Bristol-Bath Cycle Path: It’s hardly a surprise that this inept local government would attack the one transport facility in Bristol that is truly a pleasure to use, that is free, environmentally friendly, and healthy.   But it’s true- earlier this year, some high-paid transport consultants who probably didn’t even step foot on the path or speak to anyone who uses it, came up with a brilliant plan to pave over Bristol’s favourite linear park.  Thankfully, some dedicated, knowledgeable, and energetic volunteers mobilised a 1,000 strong march on the Council house.   Mark Bradshaw, Labour leader in charge of transport, and responsible for much of this top ten list, finally visited the path and was forced to admit the plans were just a bit stupid.   Just think we could have saved half a million quid if he had thought to stop by the path a few months earlier… you can e-mail Mark at mark.bradshaw@bristol.gov.uk

And the number One Bristol Transport Debacle………..

What's more important to us?  Heartbeats or 30 seconds saved by drivers?

What's more important to us? Heartbeats or 30 seconds saved by a driver?

1.  M32 Junction 2 Blood Alley: Sorry I Killed Your Grandma, But I Didn’t Want to Spill My Latte

Three deaths of elderly Bristol pedestrians at one junction in 12 months is no accident- it’s a preventable tragedy.   When you locate a Tesco across a motorway from a residential area, and then fail to provide any safe level crossing across a 3-lane slip road where drivers are accelerating to 60mph, instead expecting people to go hundreds of metres out of their way, passing through a dark underground passage reeking of urine, home to drug dealers, muggers and prostitutes— it’s no accident.  It’s death by design. Sacrificing the most vulnerable, the slowest among us, so that the traffic can keep flowing.

The short-term solution here is to install a signalised crossing of the slip road to allow safe pedestrian access along what is clearly a significant desire line.   The entrance to Stapleton Rd., currently a residential one way speedway, should be closed to motor vehicles entirely at Junction 2- this would also close a longstanding gap in the cycle network between the Easton Bypass Path and Eastville Park.

The Bristol City Council’s official response to these needless deaths was to put up a sign for pedestrians: “DO NOT CROSS M32- 3 PEDESTRIANS KILLED HERE IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS PLEASE USE FORMAL CROSSING POINT.”  No corresponding signs to drivers speeding off the motorway to watch for pedestrians, of course.   Typical blame the victim attitude.

I wrote to Bristol City Council’s “safety” team, asking what they were planning to do to respond to these deaths. They responded:

“Our road safety budgets are allocated against specific projects at the start of the financial year and therefore the budgets for this year have already been set aside for other projects and as such any significant works in this area would have to wait to be considered when the budget for next financial year, April 2009, are known.”

Three people have lost their lives because of your failure to fix this dangerous condition and you’re telling me you have to wait six months for your budget to come out?   It’s funny how money just appears from nowhere when it’s needed to build a 2500 space car park or a new ring road.   But £25,000 for a new pedestrian crossing to prevent more senseless loss of human life?  Sorry we just can’t spare any change.  Serves them right really- don’t they know that walking is dangerous?  They should have driven the 200 metres to Tesco, anyway….

All I can say is I bet they’d find the money pretty damn quick if these were rich white people being slaughtered in the street in Clifton.  Perhaps a Merchant Venturer venturing to their local Waitrose…..then something would be done.  Enough said.

The fact that three innocent people lost their lives here in the past year demands that we stage a protest- a direct intervention to prevent any more people being killed.   If you are interested in helping to organise this, please e-mail me at velorution@yahoo.com In the meantime, you can write an e-mail to MP Kerry McCarthy at mccarthyk@parliament.uk asking that funding be made available to carry out the improvements outlined here, and asking her to direct the Highways Agency to undertake emergency safety improvements to the junction.

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Phew!!!  we made it through that rather ugly and scary tour of Bristol’s transport hall of horrors.  Thanks for coming along for the ride.  It’s okay to be afraid, but don’t be paralysed into inaction.   Yes it’s horrible, inhuman and selfish, but that doesn’t mean that a wonderful, human-scaled, safe, and responsible future isn’t possible.   But one thing is certain- we deserve a better Bristol than we’re being offered- so keep that in mind when you vote in the next local election in May, or when you decide that maybe it is worth organising your neighbours against pavement parking or that new ring road; maybe it is worth getting arrested on the slip road at Junction 2 so that we can all have a future.

That may be what it takes to turn this rusty Cadillac called Bristol Transport Policy around…..

Bristol Transport Policy

Bristol Transport Policy

Maybe there is hope after all……maybe we’re not all sheep

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In 1989, Ben Elton wrote his novel Stark about a conspiracy of wealthy industrialists to “deal with” the threat that climate change and subsequent ecological collapse posed to their profits:

“it’s the producers that count.  The consumers just want their car and their cooker and their cheap fuel, they’re sheep.  We must influence those in power, the people that profit from the disinterest that the general population seem to be showing in their future.”

Well this last week there are glimmers of hope on the horizon- hope that human beings do have slightly more capacity for independent thought than our woolly friends above (whom I was surrounded by on a cycle tour through the French Alps).  First the election of Barack Obama in the States, showing that the selfish consumerist gluttony that characterized the Bush years may finally be yielding to something else…

Then, yesterday, the UK Dept. for Transport released their traffic data, which showed a decrease in the volume of traffic over the past 6 months.   To understand how unusual this is, look at the inexorable rise in traffic volumes over the past 60 years:

increase-in-traffic-chart-ctb

Yesterday’s Independent article, which Chris Hutt kindly brought my attention to, says:

“Britain is in the early stages of a recession, with unemployment rising and industry shrinking, leading to fewer cars and HGVs on the roads. But during the recession of the 1990s, traffic remained static, suggesting there are other reasons for the decline.

It would appear thousands of motorists are giving up driving, either because of soaring fuel costs, rising parking and car taxes or because of the environmental cost.

What if- when all is said and done- we actually developed the ability to see the state of our roads and streets, our cities and countryside, indeed our planet as it really is- to see human and ecological communities under stress- pushed to the breaking point by filthy polluted air, the screeching roar of traffic, the senseless destruction of life by speeding steel and chrome, blood on oil-stained asphalt, kids growing obese because they have nowhere to play, people deprived of the ability to get around as humans have for centuries- using muscle power.   What if we could see the thin film of atmosphere of our planet being thickened irreversibly by the trainloads of coal heading to a fiery end in our power plants, the millions of little tin boxes mindlessly speeding along their post industrial arteries?

What if we could see all of this and just say no- a critical mass of individuals deciding that we have driven too far down this road- that our transport habits are jeopardising all that we hold dear- and that change is now critical.

The last month I have been traveling around the UK, presenting my research, Driven to Excess, to community groups, conferences, and even at the Houses of Parliament last Tuesday.   The response has been tremendous- it’s incredible the effect solid research data has- like Appleyard, I’ve managed to document the social erosion caused by our car habits, and when I talk about our predicament, I see these lightbulbs flicker on- it’s almost as if people realise, “that’s what’s wrong with our lives.”

There seems to be a real interest in car-free lifestyles these days, a willingness to get a taste of the freedom that a good bike can provide, and to get the automotive monkey off our backs.   It’s this shift in human perception that excites me most, more than the cycle expressways, the dream public transport systems, or the multi million dollar social marketing contracts- the simple individual decision to pull the bike out of the garage, and pedal away from that rusting hulk of an illusion that we can maintain the “great car economy.”

We ride because it’s pure.

We ride because the car is broken.

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(images courtesy Andy Singer)

Quick Update on Cycling City

Just a quick update for those who couldn’t make it to the meeting last week:

There were really no surprises at the meeting.   There are some good elements of the plan, and there are still some poorly thought out aspects.   The public nor the main cycling organisations in Bristol (Lifecycle UK, Bristol Cycling Campaign, and CTC) still haven’t seen the whole plan- it looks like they will keep it under wraps until it is ready to be approved by the larger council, scheduled for the 30th of October.  This is apparently how they do things in Bristol- move forward their plan in private and then run it through the council before anyone has a chance to provide input or feedback.

The long and the short of it is:  if you care about the future of Bristol and its quality of life, get involved with your local cycling organisation and write to your local councillor and CC terry.cook@bristol.gov.uk supporting the points below (in the previous post).   You can join the very active Bristol Cycling Campaign listserve and tell your friends to do the same.    Thanks for everyone who turned out last week. See you on the Halloween Critical Mass!!

Bristolians- Speak Up for a REAL Cycling City!!

Speak Up for a True Cycling City in Bristol!
Come to the Public Meeting this Wednesday evening October 8th from 6- 8:30pm at Fairfield High School, Allfoxton Road, Horfield!

Rusting Eyesore or 21st Century Bicycle Expressway? You decide...

Rusting Eyesore or 21st Century Bicycle Expressway? You decide...

You may have heard that Bristol is now Cycling City UK.  It’s hard to believe the hype after the last few months: the Council “forgetting” to include a single bike rack as part of the Cabot Circus development (boasting over 2500 car spaces), removal of a key cycle lane on Lower Ashley Rd., and an attempt to destroy the best bits of the Bristol-Bath Cycle Path.

Yet Bristol remains on track to receive over £11 million in funding (added to the City’s £11 million for a total of £22 million) to improve cycling in Bristol.  The “public outreach” and “consultation” has quite simply been a debacle.   This blogger recently learned that members of the public were turned away from the last public meeting on September 10th at Armada House.  Planners also told members of an advisory panel “not to tell anyone else about the plan,” less than two weeks before it gets approved by the City Council.   Now they’re finally presenting the plan on Wednesday, but they tell us “we’re terribly sorry but it’s simply too late to accept public comment.”

THIS IS JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH.   This is £22 million of taxpayer money being spent on cycling in Bristol- truly an unprecedented amount of money, and an incredible opportunity to develop a high quality cycle expressway network in Bristol.  Yet we could end up seeing the money spent on more of the same: inadequate cycle lanes- often in the dangerous ‘door zone’ that end just when you need them the most, ill-thought-out facilities that don’t join up and abandon cyclists at junctions, and underwriting the payrolls of existing city council staff and large charities.

At the meeting on Wednesday, many of us will be asking the City Council to meet their responsibility to consult the public and make the Cycling City plan work for the people of Bristol, specifically:

1) Set aside £1 million for construction of the first phase of a Cycling Expressway that would connect St. Werburgh’s, Bishopston, Lockleaze, Montpelier, and St. Andrews directly across the M32 to Easton and the Bristol-Bath Cycle Path, via a level, traffic-free pathway along the rail line.

2) Funding development of a 10 year Cycling Plan for Bristol:  If we don’t have a plan developed in consultation with all of Bristol’s neighbourhoods, we will end up with a fragmented network and disjointed policy (more of the same)

3) A 20mph speed limit in all of Bristol’s residential areas, to encourage cycling and walking.  A pedestrian hit at 30 mph has a 45% chance of being killed, while at 20mph it’s only a 5% chance.

4) Ensure that key on-road cycle lanes are included in the plan- such as striping a continuous bike lane on the A38 (Upper Gloucester Rd.)

5) Funding of grassroots initiatives to market and promote cycling, and hiring of a visionary, inspirational project leader.

6) Key restraints on motor vehicle traffic to prioritise cycling: closure of medieval City Centre streets to car traffic, filtered permeability at key locations along minor roads (allowing biked/ peds through while creating cul-de-sacs for cars)

If the City Council is serious about truly making Bristol a Cycling City, then this is one way forward.   If we’re happy with the way things have been, we can always just let £22 million be frittered away and continue to sit in our cars spewing more CO2 and cursing the traffic.  The choice is ours.

Come speak up for a better Cycling City Plan at the Cycling City Public Hearing on Wednesday October 8th at 6pm -8.30pm at Fairfield High School, Allfoxton Road, Horfield.  For more information about this campaign, contact Josh Hart at velorution@yahoo.com