Sustrans – Good or Bad?
a critical review

In the beginning…

This was once a railway!
Believe it or not, there was once a railway running under this bridge and across the tree-filled meadow. In the 1970s British Rail virtually gave away bits of disused railways to adjacent landowners just to be rid of their responsibility for it. To recreate this linear route would be impossible.
This is near Wretham on the line between Thetford, Watton and Swaffham in Norfolk, which closed in 1964. To cycle between these towns now requires the use of long stretches of busy A-road.

I can hardly claim to have invented the railway path but back in the 1960s, when I wasn't trying to save railways as railways, I did enjoy walking along disused lines. Cycling on them would have been rather difficult as most of them still had their track at that time!

As they were sold off I became very concerned about the piecemeal way it was being done – a concern that was shared by a 1970 report for the Countryside Commission* which bemoaned the loss of these valuable linear corridors. To me, converting these well-engineered, easily graded, direct routes for use by cyclists and walkers seemed to be the best way forward.

Sadly, government policy was to get as much money as possible for redundant railway land and this meant selling the most valuable sites – the stations – leaving isolated lengths of derelict line which had to be almost given away.

Local councils had the option to buy lines complete, but few chose to do so unless they could see the land being useful for new road schemes or the cuttings for landfill sites. It was to be years before more enlightened views were widespread and by then, in most cases, it was too late.

I first came across Sustrans in the early-1990s. It had completed the conversion of a disused railway between Bristol and Bath into a high quality path for cyclists and walkers in 1986 and had moved on to promote similar schemes across the country.

Side note: at this point it's worth correcting the common misconception that Sustrans pioneered the conversion of disused railways into paths for walkers and cyclists, and that without Sustrans there wouldn't be any of these paths.

The Leek & Manifold Railway in Staffordshire was converted when it closed in the 1930s, for example, and Michael Dower raised the idea in his article 'Green Ways' in The Architectural Review in 1963. By the late 1960s a substantial number of schemes had been opened or were being developed. Many of today's best-known railway paths were created before the group that subsequently became Sustrans was formed in 1977.

In the mid-1990s Sustrans developed the idea of a National Cycle Network (NCN). I welcomed this development, expecting that most of the Network would consist of disused railways, any gaps being filled by new construction of a similar quality to the railway paths. The paths making up the network would be broad, well-surfaced, direct and fast. They would be true cycleways – the cyclist's equivalent of the motorways.

This is my review of how it turned out.

My first doubts about Sustrans and its projects

I had my first doubts about the NCN when I noticed signs for the West Country Way while on holiday in Devon and, out of curiousity, decided to follow them. It soon became clear that the route was extremely indirect, it used some of the roughest roads in the area, and the signing wasn't up to much.

Unimpressed, and wanting to see if this was an isolated example, I decided to cycle along a more substantial length of the NCN. This turned into a 1,000 mile journey from York to Hull and thence to Harwich, followed by London to Bath and on to Padstow. You can find my reports of this and other subsequent trips over parts of the NCN on this website.

My exploration of the NCN – what did I find?

Unfortunately, my exploration of the wider NCN confirmed my initial concerns.

Click here to read my conclusions. (A separate window will pop up. When you've finished reading, close the window to continue reading here.)

I also found that increasing numbers of local authorities were relying on Sustrans to guide them in their development of cycling facilities and I (and many other cyclists) found that it was difficult to influence the proposals being put forward. I considered joining Sustrans so that I could have a say in its policies but it seems that you can't join Sustrans as you can, say, the National Trust. It appears that a small, unaccountable group are, in effect, controlling the development of cycling facilities in this country.

Do we need a National Cycle Network?

One of the questions I found myself asking is whether we need a National Cycle Network at all. In its latest route monitoring report†, Sustrans admits that the
Bodmin Moor – not a bike in sight!'
In the depths of Bodmin Moor and not a bike in sight. Only a tiny fraction of the number of cyclists who ride the Camel Trail venture this far on the NCN's West Country Way.
use of the NCN is predominantly urban. Only 14 per cent of trips are on rural routes and, as many of these trips must be on the popular railway paths and cycle trails, use of the rest of the rural network must be very low. It is unlikely that the cost of providing NCN facilities in the countryside can be justified.

Taking Cornwall's Camel Trail as an example, use tails off rapidly as the distance from Wadebridge increases. Very few people venture as far as the Trail's end at Wenford Bridge on the fringes of Bodmin Moor and I have never encountered another cyclist on the NCN's West Country Way as it crosses the moor between Bude and Bodmin.

A better alternative for those wanting recreational rural routes is the National Byway, a 4000-mile system of well-signposted lanes developed at a fraction of the cost of the National Cycle Network. So, instead of the NCN why don't we simply have a series of local cycle systems in urban areas?

In fact, do we need cycle paths at all?

Cycle lane in north Essex
If we have to have cycle paths, they should be in the form of on-road cycle lanes, enough to give novice riders comfort while introducing them to the skills of riding in traffic, and giving motorists the experience of sharing the roads with increasing numbers of cyclists.

The argument for cycle paths is that they encourage people to take up cycling by offering a traffic-free enviroment in which to do so. The argument against them is that they create the idea – among motorists, local authorities, the police – that cyclists shouldn't be on the road. Some cyclists regard Sustrans as the greatest threat to cyclists' right to ride on the road and there are signs that they may be right.

Someone who has been brought up to cycle in a traffic-free environment may never feel happy to ride in traffic and will ever after be restricted to riding on traffic-free paths. Those who eventually migrate onto the roads will do so never having learned how to cope with traffic. My own view is that a far better alternative would be to spend the funds presently being ploughed into cycle paths into a decent level of cycle training to give novice cyclists the confidence they need to share the roads with other forms of traffic. And, by getting more cyclists onto the roads, the safer they will be‡.

But aren't cycle paths popular?

Bikes outside Woking station...
Bikes at Woking station: outside (above) and inside (below). Note the bikes attached to the railings because of the lack of cycle stands – many others are attached to any handy piece of street furniture.

And this level of cycle commuting is achieved despite the nearest section of the National Cycle Network being several miles away!
...and more bikes inside Woking station
In Exeter where cycling has been promoted heavily since the mid-1990s (cycling increased by 30% between 1994 and 2004), except for the attractive cycle route beside the Exeter Canal, two to three times the number of cyclists use the main traffic corridors compared to those using designated cycle routes. This suggests that the absence of cycle paths is not a deterrent to increased cycle use. The availability of fast, direct routes is more important.

Commuters, generally, seem unconcerned about cycle paths. In my home town of Woking in Surrey cycling to the station was booming long before a local network of cycle routes was introduced, encouraged by high costs of car parking and traffic delays. What holds cycling back in Woking isn't the lack of so-called 'safe routes' but insufficient cycle parking provision. Every time more cycle racks are installed they are snapped up immediately.

The Exeter and Woking examples are evidence that you don't need a cycle network, national or local, to get commuters out of their cars.

Former railway lines and canal towpaths used as cycle trails are extremely popular and deservedly so, but in most cases their main use is for leisure cycling and walking. The absence of traffic is a key element in their success, but as much for reasons of tranquillity as safety. Even those who are quite happy cycling through traffic on the way to work may not want to do so on a holiday or weekend outing. Casual observations of cycle paths alongside busy motorways, main roads, and railway lines support this conclusion. Other aspects of their success is that they're flat, an important consideration for most novices, especially in hilly parts of the country, and they need no navigational skills.

Cycling on the Tarka Trail at Bideford
Will their experience of cycling on the Tarka Trail really encourage this young couple to cycle to work when they get home after their holiday or is it just a pleasant day out?

Tourism is the dominant function of these 'leisure' trails. In 1995 it was estimated that the economic benefits of Devon's Tarka Trail were around £20 million a year (at then current prices) compared to costs of the project of around £70,000 a year. Although recent figures suggest that cycling holidays in the UK are flat at around 700,000 a year, day cycle rides are on the increase and the leisure cycle trails have a key part to play in this.

However, the essential feature of such trails is that, just like theme parks, they are tourist attractions, as the Tarka Project acknowledged right from the start and many others have discovered since. They need to be regarded as part of an area's overall approach to tourism if they are to succeed. They don't need to be part of a national network to fulfil this role, they have little to do with sustainable transport, and there's no evidence that they encourage people to cycle in their day-to-day lives.

Are cycle paths safe?

Cycle path crossing side roads
Roadside cycle paths mean an increased risk to riders as they cross side turnings. In this case the lack of any markings adds confusion as to who has the right of way.

It's often assumed that off-road cycle paths must be safe – after all, they keep cyclists out of the way of motor vehicles. Sustrans certainly says so. It describes many of its routes, such as those to schools, as Safe Routes.

Leaving aside the fact that some types of accident can still happen on a cycle path (such as cyclists colliding with each other or a pedestrian, or hitting a wall or bollard), road-side cycle paths usually increase the number of places where cyclists are at risk. For example, a cyclist riding along a main road has the right of way and vehicles joining from side roads have to give way. A cyclist riding on a cycle path beside a main road has to stop at each of these side roads and check in three directions (behind, ahead, and to the side) before crossing. This might explain why the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured on the roads rose in both 2004 and 2005.

For an excellent article on this subject by John Franklin, the author of Cyclecraft, click here.

The solution is not to build more cycle paths but to make to roads safer for cyclists to be on, especially be reducing and calming traffic, and improving junctions and roundabouts, which is where cyclists are at most risk.

Does Sustrans really help the environment?

Sustrans says there's a benefit to the environment where it provides cycle paths because of reductions in car use. This may be the case where, for example, children are converted from the school run to cycling to school but only 4 percent of cycle trips on the NCN are for education-linked journeys.

The Sustrans Route User Monitoring Report† notes that "36% of users of the National Cycle Network report that they could have used a car to make their journey but chose not to, replacing 83 million car trips" with a "potential carbon dioxide saving of over 300,000 tonnes".

Does this mean that people only walk or cycle to the station, work and shops because Sustrans created the NCN? Of course not, though that's what Sustrans seems to be implying. There could be many reasons why people don't use a car for those journeys – some of them may even have been walking or cycling long before the NCN was dreamt up! Some people may not even know or care that they're using part of the NCN – one man I met in Wiltshire didn't even realise that a major NCN route passed his front gate!

Enjoying the Camel Trail
Visitors enjoying the Camel Trail. Like many others, this couple had driven to Padstow and hired bikes there for their ride. How does this make the Camel Trail more environmentally-friendly than any other tourist attraction?

The single greatest use of Sustrans routes is for leisure purposes, even in urban areas. 45 per cent of all cycle trips on the NCN are for leisure purposes as opposed to pure 'transport' journeys. Unfortunately, as anyone who has visited one of the popular sections of the NCN, such as the Camel Trail in Cornwall, will tell you, these leisure users see the cycle path as just another tourist attraction and they drive to it, just as they would to any other tourist attraction.

According to a Cornwall County Council survey in 1998, an alarming 80 per cent of all visitors to the Camel Trail drive to it. On Devon's Tarka Trail the figure is still 58 per cent. Overall, about 20% of NCN users get to it by car. There is no benefit to the environment from this sort of activity and there may even be an increase in car journeys because of it.

Do Sustrans' figures add up?

Growth in trips on the NCN showing figures used until 2003 and as restated in 2004
Annual number of trips made on the NCN in millions of trips. The lower figures are based on the pre-2004 method of calculation.
Source: Sustrans Route Monitoring Reports 2003 and 2005

Every year Sustrans publishes a Route User Monitoring Report which shows how use of the NCN is increasing year by year, justifying the investment in the network. The reports focus on the good news but gaps in the information make me wonder whether the less good new is being kept back.

Grand claims are made for the success of the network. In 2005, it is said, 232 million trips were made on the NCN. How was this figure calculated and is it reliable? Unfortunately, the more recent Route User Monitoring Reports contain a lot less detailed information than was the case in the past, especially on the survey methods used, so it's difficult to look into them in detail. However, I've been able to piece together information from a number of sources that throws some doubt on the reliability of the Sustrans figures. You can find my analysis here. (A separate window will pop up. When you've finished reading, close the window to continue reading here.)

So who are Sustrans?

If the internet cycling forums are anything to go by, a signifiant proportion of the cycling community seems to disagree with the aims and objectives of Sustrans, let alone the practical effects of its work. So why don't these objectors join the organisation and have a say in the way it's run?
"The trustees are appointed by the members of the Charity and serve for a period of three years, which is renewable. The trustees, together with the Executive Board, identify the skills, experience, geographical location, etc, required among its trustees and advertise widely to attract them from its supporters and project partners."

Source: Sustrans Annual Report for the year ended 31 March 2005

Put simply, Sustrans, a registered charity, is a company limited by guarantee. In other words, it has no shareholders, just members. It's run by a group of (currently eleven) trustees who are appointed by the members of the company. The members of the company are the existing trustees, which means that the existing trustees appoint their successors.

Many people talk of 'joining' Sustrans – Sustrans originally used the expression itself but no longer seems to do so – and of being members of the organisation but they're not. They are simply supporters and donors. They have no right to participate in the decision-making of the organisation. They cannot attend the AGM of the organisation, they cannot vote on its policies, and they cannot decide who they would like to see running the organisation.

Despite being awarded vast sums of public money and carrying out 'public works' Sustrans is accountable only to itself and, as Thomas Paine said in his book Rights of Man, 'A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.' Disturbingly, Sustrans is regarded by many local authorities as being the 'voice of the cyclist' when in fact it represents only itself.

In Conclusion

*Disused railways in the countryside of England and Wales, HMSO 1970
†The National Cycle Network – Route User Monitoring Report to end of 2005, Sustrans 2006
‡see, for example, Assessing the actual risks faced by cyclists, Wardlaw M. in Transport Engineering & Control December 2002

You can either follow through the pages in sequence or go back to pick another route from the list of the NCN routes I've used.

Updated: 8 October 2006