An Open Letter To Sustrans

To whom it may concern,

I felt compelled to write to your organisation after spending several days cycling from Dover to the East Midlands, having just arrived from continental Europe. My intention was to make this journey as enjoyable and safe as possible, rather than to cover the distance in the minimum possible amount of time. Naturally therefore I looked to the National Cycle Network, in search of off-road and quiet routes through the country.

May I, then, congratulate you on having constructed one of the most comprehensive cycling infrastructures that I have come across during my bicycle travels in 34 countries.

Off-road cycleway in England

The UK’s cycling provisions stand out for many reasons. The first and most obvious is that they exist. From a global perspective, this immediately puts the UK far ahead of the game. Given everything I’ve seen here, from long-distance routes spanning Britain in her entirety, to urban awareness schemes in almost every significant settlement, to safe cycle-paths between particular amenities and points of interest, it’s difficult to understand why the system is on the receiving end of such constant criticism in the media. I guess people don’t realise how lucky they are!

Secondly, the infrastructure not only exists, but it works, and generally it works very well. From Dover I quickly found myself headed for Canterbury on tiny country roads through beautiful rural Kent. I had no need of a map as your signage was so comprehensive and the route so well-thought out. Leaving Canterbury on the traffic-free Crab and Winkle Way north to Whitstable, I was truly flabbergasted to be in a country which was so forward thinking as to invest time and money in dedicated off-road cycle routes such the one on which I was riding. Roads built specifically for bicycles – imagine that!

Not quite so pretty but a dream for covering distance quickly and safely was the bicycle road parallel to the A2 towards London – only in the cycling haven of the Netherlands have I seen such things before. Having spent an uncomfortable amount of time sharing roads into major cities in other parts of the world with gigantic trucks, top-heavy buses and outrageously heavy traffic – the drivers of which clearly had little or no idea of general road safety, let alone a cyclist’s needs – I was overjoyed to find such a thing. Thank you.

In London itself I immediately noticed the overpowering presence of bicycle-related road markings and signs. While there didn’t appear to be much in the way of traffic-free routes in Greater London, it was noticeable how many more cyclists there were on the streets than just a few years ago when I last cycled in the British capital. It seems to be a wise move to hammer into motorists’ heads at every opportunity the fact that cyclists do in fact have the right to use the road and will exercise that right, and that in slow-moving urban traffic, co-existence is possible and practical – there is only occasionally a substantial need for dedicated bicycle lanes.

This awareness certainly appeared to be reflected in the style of driving I encountered, almost all of which was patient and courteous towards me as a cyclist. Well done for playing what I am sure must have been an instrumental part in moving the UK’s attitude forward like this. If only I hadn’t seen so many cyclists who failed to follow the highway code as well as the motorists – I am afraid that they may tarnish the reputation of London cyclists in general.

Now I’m not sure if you are involved in the relationship between cyclists and trains, but I also wanted to mention my experience taking my fully-loaded touring bicycle across London on the First Capital Connect regional train network. I was expecting a complicated system of bicycle reservations and compartments, extra fees, or – worse – not being able to take the bike at all. Instead, I found a heart-warmingly sensible system at work – outside of rush-hour, I could wheel my bike onto the train and stick it anywhere there was space. Free. On a train with precious few passengers at that time of day, it was I have to say a refreshingly common-sense approach, with no fuss involved whatsoever, in contrast with the cycle provisions on regional trains in some other parts of Europe in which I’ve had the displeasure of using them.

Heading north from London, I lost the National Cycle Network route I had planned to follow, but I quickly discovered that it didn’t really matter, because given a good map of minor roads England really is a joy for the cyclist – the landscape painted with the verdant greenery which sprouts from every nook and cranny, the stunning sunrises that herald every new day (even if the rain-clouds do rush in a few hours later), the convenient abundance of hedgerows behind which it’s so easy to hide one’s tent at night, the hearty lunchtime refreshments that can be found in every little village pub – why don’t more people cycle-tour on this lovely little island?

Of course the system isn’t perfect – if it was, Sustrans wouldn’t have anything to do! But regardless of the criticism I am sure you face, believe me when I say you’re doing a sterling job. Thank you once again for all of the above, and keep up the good work.

Best regards,

Tom Allen

11 Responses to “An Open Letter To Sustrans”

  1. Christian Benke

    I wholeheartedly agree to this statement, having travelled from London to Edinburgh myself in 2008, it was a joyous experience(Including a section by train from Worcester to Manchester)!

    However, i’ve been highly disappointed with the Sustrans “Thames Valley” map, i quickly got lost on my way out of London near Kingston, before i realized the map was not aligned north. There was an arrow on every page that indicated where north was – as the alignment of the map changed on every page! Unbelievable stupor on the side of the map-makers, have you ever heard of a map not pointing north? For the rest of my journey, i’ve relied on the regional maps of Ordnance Survey which cover vast parts of the most interesting landscapes of GB in a great scale of 1:250 000

    Reply
    • Tom

      Hmmm… I was always taught that the North arrow existed for just that reason – so you can calibrate your compass against the map you’re using. For some specialist maps I guess it makes sense for North not to be up? I’ve followed cycle-route maps in other countries which also exhibited this feature…

      Reply
      • Christian Benke

        Well, you’ve got a point, i guess they did it to fit as much track as possible on the wide format of the map. But back then i was only used to maps pointing north and didn’t expect anything else – i re-read my blog-entry from back then a few days ago and there where also other reasons why i disliked the map: http://poab.org/log/id/5 – a little bit of a rant though 🙂

        Reply
  2. Tom

    For anyone interested, here’s Sustrans’ response:

    Dear Tom.

    Many thanks for your fantastic feedback on the National Cycle Network and cycling in the UK in general. It’s really nice for us to receive such positive feedback as it isn’t always so complimentry.

    The National Cycle Network is indeed a great network and is also constantly being extended and improved. It is a huge job maintaining such a large infrastructure which wouldn’t be possible without our invaluable volunteer rangers who work on the National Cycle Network ensuring it is kept up to a high standard.

    What we really want to see is a significant increase in the usage of the National Cycle Network and sustainable forms of transport as well.

    Many thanks for your feedback again which I will pass on to my colleagues.

    Kind regards

    Sam Howard

    Information and Trading Officer

    Reply
  3. andy

    There is still a long way to go though and it’s going to mean infrastructure change and pedestrianised areas in the inner cities I think.

    I haven’t followed the cycle routes much but when I have I think that the signage could be made more obvious and some of the ‘starts’ and ‘ends’ of cycle paths are quite ridiculous and seem like an afterthought. Difficult to explain without examples.

    I’m sure Sustrans do a great job, but like they say uptake is really important.

    Reply
    • Tom

      It’s not perfect, definitely. But I wanted to write this while I could still see objectively how fantastic it actually is compared to everywhere else I’ve been (with the honorable exceptions of the Netherlands, Germany and Austria).

      They’re always looking for volunteers and feedback if you think there’s something specific that could be improved.

      Reply
  4. Adrineh

    What a lovely letter! So I take it you and Tenny arrived safe and sound? 😉 Keep in touch!

    Reply
  5. Spokes East Kent

    We at Spokes East Kent Cycle Campaign are really glad that you enjoyed your trip through Dover, Canterbury, Whitstable, and everywhere in between. Many of our members are the Sustrans Volunteer Rangers that maintain the signs, cut back the vegetation when it’s taking over, and campaign to get the routes created in the first place. It’s great to know that our work is paying off.

    If you come back our way any time soon then you may want to take a look at a couple of things new developments:
    Two new bridges should soon hopefully be installed on the Crab & Winkle Way in Whitstable to enable extending the traffic-free route on the level through to the coast.
    – The construction of a 5km traffic-free riverside route between Canterbury and Chartham is virtually finished now (just a few days remaining). This is a route we’ve been campaigning for for a very long time and it’s great to see it almost complete.

    Both routes will form part of the Sustrans National Cycle Network. If you take a look at our blog and wider website you’ll see that we’ve been fortunate enough to gain quite a few other successful routes in recent times.

    Reply
  6. Peter Jordan

    That route through Kingston ( 4 i think ) onto Oxford is the best i have done, especially Puntney Bridge along the Thames to Chertsey. I’m still eating the jam i made from the ripe plums i took off the trees by the Thames near Kingston Bridge.
    I love the way the routes wriggle and carve their way though the countryside without touching major roads. My mates laugh when i tell them it took me 2 days to do the London to Brighton. If Sustans put more sticky route signs higher than kids can reach on lampposts it would be a good idea i think. Some of the bigger signs get moved either deliberately or get knocked by traffic which can put you on the wrong route.

    Reply
  7. Dan Harrison

    Well said. All too often we’re too quick to criticise without doing something about it. So refreshing to read some positive feedback.
    …if only I’d made the effort to check out these routes before I’d left.

    Reply

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