Almost a year and a half after I posted it, Sustrans has still not publicly or privately responded to my article, The Problem with Sustrans: How a Grassroots Phenomenon Has Turned into a Private, Unaccountable Corporation. The piece generated thousands of hits and dozens of readers from all around the UK have chimed in and confirmed my observations. My friend Chris Hutt- one of the original founders of Sustrans and an incredibly knowledgeable bicycle advocate, sadly died without warning a couple of months ago, and had this to say as part of his Sustrans Sussed post on the Green Bristol Blog last year:
“The current wave of criticism is not merely negative carping. It is a vital part of the dynamic environment within which we all function and will in due course bring about change. How quickly we see the necessary change depends on how far gone Sustrans is. Will they bury their heads in the sand and carry on currying favour with those with the money bags or will they recognise the need to re-engage with their core constituency, Britain’s cyclists?”
Sustrans started as a grassroots DIY organisation- people from the community getting out there with a shovel and pickaxe and restoring a neglected rail line between Bristol and Bath into a linear green haven. This bottom up effort came from visionaries who believed they could change transport. Back then with a tiny budget and a rebellious attitude, Sustrans accomplished some amazing feats of engineering and land preservation for which we should all be grateful.
Now though, there is growing concern about the direction of the UK’s “leading sustainable transport charity.”
The questions people are asking about the organization haven’t gone away, but have only intensified in response to Sustrans’ reluctance to engage, particularly glaring after they refused to even acknowledge questions posed two weeks ago on the Guardian’s You Ask- They Answer series.
Common threads to what people are saying are:
-Sustrans has become self-serving and opaque, often failing to work with and empower local people and local ideas.
-Sustrans spends millions of public money with inadequate public oversight.
-Sustrans has compromised its original vision of a high quality UK cycle network, settling for long detours and steep hills just to add mileage.
Sustrans is hardly unique amongst charities (on either side of the Atlantic). Many have adopted the worst characteristics of corporations- cozying up to the government agencies they are meant to influence, and bickering with each other for increasingly scarce resources. While Sustrans absorbs millions of pounds from concerned people in the UK to (not) campaign for a bicycle network, organizations like NRDC and EDF convince well meaning American environmentalists to support the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill backed by big oil, coal, and gas and the Nature Conservancy takes millions from oil companies currently wiping out sensitive wetlands. As the title of Nick Seddon’s 2007 book asks after looking at the state of charitable organisations in the UK, “Who Cares“?
Here is a sample of comments received on the original article:
“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.”
” 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.”
“Perhaps the charity commission needs to look into Sustrans (if it has jursidiction)?”
“Tell me it’s not true! Quite a read, even a year on, it has the ring of truth about it…..
Democratic process is by now long passed. When an unelected, charitably constituted organisation can hold a whole village to ransom, what hope is there?
“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.”
-Alan Gillard, architect, Cardiff
“Glad to see this finally come out – they have had far too easy a ride, and boy do they love riding roughshod over people.”
“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.”
If no change is forthcoming from the charities that are meant to be bringing about the change we so desperately need, perhaps the best solution is for all of us to pick up a shovel and start digging. As Virgil said:
“They can do all because they think they can.”
It’s time for all of us to start believing another world is possible. It is.