Why I’ve decided to stop supporting Sustrans

Sad day. For many years I’ve made a regular donation each month to Sustrans to support their work in developing cycling and other sustainable, healthy forms of transport in Britain, including the National Cycle Network (NCN). Today I cancelled my payments.

Child trailer stuck in a “gate” on NCN16
 (photo from Cyclestreets.net)

Why would I do this? For a long time I have been quite irritated by the way that the NCN has emphasised quantity over quality but I have taken the view that something is better than nothing and Sustrans’ efforts have done some good, maybe not as much good as they like to claim.

However this month it all came to head for me when I received my copy of the Tandem Club magazine for December 2012. It included a short article by the editors, Bob and Karon Bending, expressing their frustration at the number of difficult obstacles they encountered on NCN sections of their recent long distance ride from Lands End to John o’ Groats (LEJOG is the classic long  distance ride from one end of Britain to the other)

Mainly these were various kinds of awkward gates and barriers placed by local authorities to prevent motorcyclists from accessing Sustrans off-road trails. Local councils and residents seem to be obsessed with the idea that motorcyclists will run riot on any path that is not securely blocked. However this makes these trails very difficult for any but fit cyclists on lightly loaded conventional bikes. Bob and Karon use a Hase Pino like ours and they had to unload it and lift the bike through many of these barriers.

The Pino is often used by disabled people. Anybody with a wheelchair, mobility scooter or tricycle (also used by disabled cyclists) has little chance of passing these barriers so this is a very obvious kind of discrimination against people with disabilities. In fact the same issue of the Tandem Club magazine shows a recumbent tricycle tandem being manhandled through a tricky gate on a cycle trail in Peterborough, requiring several strong men.

So Bob and Karon wrote to Sustrans and published the lengthy reply which said, in essence, that these barriers were placed by local government, that Sustrans tried to avoid having them but felt it was better to work with the local authorities and have an imperfect cycle trail than none at all.

I’ve heard this argument before but increasingly I think that Sustrans are just not taking responsibility. Maybe they cannot prevent the local council from placing these stupid, costly and counter productive installations, but they might make their position much clearer.

For example they could introduce a system of star-rating different routes and districts, focusing on rideability, accessibility and safety. An annual award for the best and worst town could do a lot of good. Very clearly published standards and reliable evidence about the actual dangers from motorcycles and how best to prevent them would also help.

Meanwhile, thinking about my own cycling, I realised that I always ignore or actively avoid Sustrans routes whereas I used to plan trips around them. Sometimes I do go for a ride to have a look at one but usually in the spirit of an intrepid explorer prepared for any danger and often enough my caution is proved right. Vandalised signage, muddy difficult surfaces, bad grading, those horrible gates, and a general sense that you are being taken anywhere but where people live, work or play – cycling through a muddy former railway cutting with no views and very little of interest along the way is not my idea of a good time.

All this comes from Sustrans growth period leading up to the Millenium. Having started with one highly successful local project between Bristol and Bath the drive for national growth took hold. Because government and the other funders tend to like big numbers rather than quality measures Sustrans went all out to build a zillion miles of cycleway. If they couldn’t have a smooth hard surface they would accept a soft one, if they couldn’t have a well-graded route then they would just build one that goes up and down like a rollercoaster, signs were an invitation to local kids to give them a bash so they point the wrong way.

But for me the worst offence is that the routes are frequently blocked to disabled people. Several years ago on an important Sustrans route in North Wales I met a disabled cyclist and his wife trying to wrestle his recumbent trike through a narrow barrier, later on I encountered gates that would have been completely impossible for them so I suspect they would have abandoned the effort. In the same section I met a local man on a mobility scooter who could only go about a mile along the route before he met a blockage.

These are people who cannot use most footpaths so cycle trails are their only way of enjoying a ramble in the countryside away from the traffic. It is shameful that the NCN is constructed to exclude them.

So I plan my own routes, using tarmac roads as much as I can and entering NCN off-road sections as a last resort. I use my own map because NCN signs can’t be trusted and I’ve now cancelled my payments to Sustrans.

I’ve decided to make a regular payment instead to the Cyclists Touring Club to support their campaigning work which seems to be more directly focused on improving the quality of cycling in the UK. But it’s a sad day.

(NB you may notice that the publication date on this post is incorrect. It was written on 24 December 2012 but I manually changed the date to 30 Nov so my Kerala posts form a complete set with no breaks. If I can think of a way to do that without fiddling the dates on other posts I will do so)

7 Responses to “Why I’ve decided to stop supporting Sustrans”

  1. Scania Says:

    I hear what you say and have had trouble with the dog trailer at these points. Disabled people have special keys for toilets, maybe a key system to open and close may be just another costly aspect….. But a thought.

  2. chrisrust Says:

    Thanks, the trouble with making a special provision for disabled people with keys, apart from the cost and organisational problems, is that it deals with “official” disability and ignores people who have arthritis or other conditions of ageing that make them less able but still determined to be independent. And of course it doesn’t account for people like you with camping/child/dog trailers or adventurous souls who like to experiment with novel kinds of pedal power.
    I wrecked a perfectly good pannier on my heavily loaded touring bike once, trying to ride through an anti-motorbike “chicane” I caught the bag on a fence post and snapped off the rack mounting clips.
    Cheaper I imagine to leave out the barriers and do some policing in those areas where problems appear.

  3. Matt Says:

    I have worked with Sustrans on a couple of routes (on the highway authority side) and you may be horrified to hear that i have found them frustrating in that they demand such a high level of surface finish in some circumstances that routes don’t get built as there is not enough funding. I feel sorry for sustrans. Their charitable status tells you everything you need to know about the quality of strategic transport planning in the uk and the status of cycling within that. Outside of London cycling is an afterthought for when all the car issues have been addressed.

    Oh and don’t expect the barriers to be phased out soon. The police all but demand them – it means they don’t have to police them!

  4. chrisrust Says:

    Thanks Matt, it may be that Sustrans have been enforcing a higher standard of construction in recent times, the problem is the huge and corrosive heritage of sub-standard stuff left over from the big push of the 1990s. I’d like to make it clear that I’m not really criticising Sustrans for past errors, we all make mistakes, but I don’t like the way they are dealing with it now. It feels like they are pretending that everything is fine and they are anxious to not upset any local authority or acknowledge that not all parts of the NCN are equal.

  5. Tim Says:

    Rest assured that you don’t need to be “officially” registered disabled to get a radar key:

    But yes, better to do without the discriminatory barriers and do some actual policing, as Sustrans themselves advocate.

  6. Simon Geller Says:

    Sustrans policy on access barriers is set out in this document: http://www.sustrans.org.uk/assets/files/Info%20sheets/ff22.pdf

    Here are a couple of quotes:
    Anything more obstructive than bollards is inconvenient to ordinary
    cyclists and may be totally impassable for those with trailers
    for shopping or children, tandems, especially if loaded, recumbents and any other non-conventional bike.

    The document also contains advice on how to remove barriers while continuing to make it clear that motorised users are not welcome on cycle routes.

  7. Savage Says:

    I currently have a baby to transport around. If my local offroad route had reasonable barriers, I’d have bought a bakfiets – but it doesn’t, so I haven’t. Pity though as one of those would have been fun.

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