My friend Josh Hart has just posted a detailed critique of Sustrans on his On The Level blog. Although many cyclists have been unhappy about the direction that Sustrans has taken, including of course this blogger, Josh's piece is probably the most comprehensive assessment so far of what has gone wrong. Since Sustrans now enjoys a very high profile, styling itself as Britain's "leading sustainable transport charity", and is often assumed to represent cyclists' interests, it is important that it is scrutinised in some detail.
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.
In the 1990s Sustrans made the transition from a small seat-of-the-pants outfit driven by little more than the remarkable energy of John Grimshaw to being a substantial national organisation handling budgets measured in millions. In some ways it was a necessary evolutionary step but it came with a price. Part of that price was the importance that Sustrans now gives to blowing their own trumpet, something that had formerly been neglected. But the adoption of modern, corporate PR techniques has alienated many who once felt comfortable with Sustrans' early maverick image.
As image became more important than substance the attention once given to the detail of cycle routes was sacrificed to achieve grandiose targets for the National Cycle Network (NCN) to gain funding from the National Lottery. The principle of the NCN was to have been that all elements of the network were to be safe enough for a 12 year old to cycle on without adult supervision. But in the rush to deliver thousands of route miles to tight deadlines this was quickly abandoned in favour of an 'interim standard' which meant whatever it took to join up the lines on the map.
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?
August 1985. A juggling unicyclist celebrates the official opening of the Bristol section of the Railway Path (pre asphalting).