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:
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.
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”….
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
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...
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!
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?
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…..