Comment: Sustrans airs views on London mayoral candidates

One of the more unexpected developments in the London Mayoral race happened a couple of weeks ago when sustainable transport charity Sustrans – through its London director Carl Pittam – made a statement strongly in favour of Ken Livingstone.

“Ken Livingstone sees that Londoners want a choice in how they get around and is committed to providing transport for all,” Pittam said, before adding, “Unlike Boris Johnson, whose focus leaves out the millions of Londoners who don’t own a car.”

>> Subscribe to Cycling Weekly this Autumn and save 35%. Enjoy the luxury of home delivery and never miss an issue <<

In fact, rather dramatically, Pittam even suggested that Boris Johnson’s transport manifesto seemed: “intent on bringing the capital to a standstill”.

The reason I say this proclamation was unexpected has less to do with the individual merits of the mayoral candidates, and more to do with this being a pretty dicey approach for Sustrans – a registered charity – to take. According to the Charity Commission’s website, during national or local elections: “Charities must not support or oppose a political party or candidate.”

So what exactly is Sustrans doing? I asked its policy advisor Eleanor Besley to explain.

“Essentially we’ve had a look at all the manifestos and there’s a big step between the four other leading candidates – Jenny Jones, Brian Paddick, Ken Kivingstone and independent Siobhan Benita – and Boris’s. We can see that through various different policy strands Jenny, Brian, Ken and Siobhan are all committed to seeing cycling much more mainstream. And what we see through Boris’s is that although he is seen as the ‘Cycling Mayor’ the policy structure in the manifesto doesn’t back that up quite as well.

“We can’t back a candidate because of our charitable status, so we’re non-partisan, but what we’ve picked up now that we’ve looked at all the manifestos is that Jenny’s, Siobhan’s, Brian’s and Ken’s all have great strengths for cycling through varying elements and different focuses. It’s less a case of Boris not being a cycling advocate, more the policies he has put in his manifesto which would undermine the efforts towards making a cycling city.”

Although Sustrans apparently can’t back a candidate it didn’t prevent Besley – writing on the website – from saying: “Ken Livingstone and Jenny Jones both lead the way when it comes to their proposals for cycling.” She then said that: “While cycling levels in central London have rocketed in recent years, …Johnson really stands still on cycling.”

So surely Sustrans is therefore opposing Boris. “No, it’s not us saying Boris is a bad person, or we wouldn’t support him,” Besley told me. “It’s much more that in the manifestos it is much clearer from some of the others how they would achieve mainstream cycling and with Boris’s it feels like some of those policies are lacking or being undermined by some other bits of his policy. There’s absolutely no blocking or disagreeing with Boris in any way, it’s just that the headline analyses of the policies have thrown that up.”

Personally, I still can’t quite see the distinction between judging somebody’s manifesto is terrible for cycling or saying they “will bring the capital to a standstill”, and outright opposition to them. But on a more practical level, what happens if Boris does get back into power – does that mean Sustrans representatives will be persona non grata at City Hall? Besley said she doesn’t think so. “We have a great working relationship with the team at TfL and the GLA under Boris,” she explained.

So I’m confused and a little bit concerned about the way Sustrans has gone about this. By all means cycling groups should be free to fight their corner and fiercely lobby all the candidates in the run up to an election. But this type of issuing official reactions to manifestos and personalisation of the issues, which in some cases – particularly Carl Pittam’s words – has expanded almost into the realms of party politics, sits just a tad uncomfortably with me.

See this weeks Cycling Weekly, out Thursday April 26, for interviews with all four main mayoral candidates on cycling.