COMMENT: New Cycle Superhighway has transformed cycling in London

COMMENT: New Cycle Superhighway has transformed cycling in London

BikeBiz columnist Laura Laker follows the story of the ground-breaking and newly opened Cycle Superhighway 6 in London, crediting how business helped make it possible...

Standing on Blackfriars Bridge in Central London you could be forgiven for thinking, momentarily, you are in Copenhagen or Amsterdam, as people on bikes wait in their dozens at traffic lights, before making their way from one wide, protected bike lane to another one beside the river, entirely separate from motor traffic.

Nonetheless it was, and is, London. Where else but London would someone cuss the Mayor and he welcome it? Punk is not dead, my friends.

Just three years ago some computer-generated images rocked my world, and started this whole impossible project rolling. That chilly March day in 2013 Boris Johnson cycled along Victoria Embankment with Chris Boardman to launch his £913m Cycling Vision, with the East-West Cycle Superhighway its flagship scheme. It was the start of a sea change – a road change – the likes of which London has never seen.

Those images showed the Victoria Embankment transformed into a slice of cycling utopia, with wide, two-way bike tracks protected from traffic by kerbs. It was, at the time, a motorway-style hell road for cycling – a fight with fast-moving traffic driven in such a way that made little concession to the presence of a puny human on a bicycle.

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A few people laughed at the images – the context being UK cycling schemes have a nasty habit of appearing as pale ghost shadows of their original plans. Little then did we suppose this crazy dream would become a concrete reality, that this former hell road could ever be a place where you’d see children – yes, children! – cycling.

True it came and, even if you pinch yourself and click your heels three times, true it remains. I saw it for myself when Boris Johnson did his final photo call on Friday as London Mayor, launching the new three mile section of truly Dutch-style protected bike infrastructure from Tower Hill to Parliament Square.

En route I saw kids cycling – a rare sight in London – and adults cycling, too, in normal clothes, including tourists on Boris Bikes taking selfies at dedicated bike traffic lights. You could see it for yourself, now – people actually doing the school run by bike.

A group of cycle campaigners, and Boris, cycled up and down a slip road linking the E-W and N-S routes in the morning sun. That’s a whole slip-road for cycling – with no motor traffic. People on bikes passed in groups of half a dozen.

I hovered around Boris as, in a piece to camera, he urged the capital’s next mayor to invest in cycling infrastructure to unlock the brownfield sites that will provide much-needed housing for the city’s rapidly-growing population. I asked him an awkward question about David Cameron’s damp squib cycling revolution – by which I mean I asked it in an awkward way, and he didn’t really answer the question, but anyway.

Let’s go for a bike ride there. Marvel as we pedal along smooth tarmac, on cycle tracks wide enough for two cargo bikes to pass one another comfortably! Suddenly realise you’ve been cycling along a busy central London road for some minutes without the distinct sensation you are about to be sworn at, or threatened in some way. It hasn’t even appeared as a distant possibility. You are, dare we say it, relaxed, and enjoying the ride, protected as you are from traffic by a nice solid kerb (complete with bevelled edge so you don’t catch your pedals). Heck, you feel so safe you’d happily invite your kids to cycle here, or your elderly relatives.

And people will, they already are. Before it was open people were sneaking around the barriers to ride on it. There’s a bizarre section, redolent of 1990s car racing game, Gran Turismo, where you’ve got a tunnel to yourself, but there’s no cars. A tunnel! Families can be seen riding along on it.

You can see it for yourself, and even pretend you’re cycling it, if you like, as videos, courtesy of London’s helmet cam crew, and photos, abound of just how many people are using these routes. The pent-up demand is astonishing, even for those of us who believed it existed. A clip of the North-South route, here, is a snippet of a rush hour in the life of London’s new bike routes.

One section of the North-South route, just south of Blackfriars Bridge, scored 86 on the Cycling Level of Service (CLOS) – an assessment tool for cycle schemes. This, I’m told, is the highest ever CLOS score for a British cycling scheme (virtual hi-fives Transport for London [TfL] staff who made this happen; hugs a passing cyclist).

Johnson’s cycling csar, Andrew Gilligan was the driving force behind this mammoth and at times slow-grinding project. You can hear my interview with Gilligan here, from Friday – he admits he and Boris doubted at times the route would become a reality. He is still fending off criticism from the Janet Street-Porters of this world, and it’s painful watching, but clearly the cycling numbers speak for themselves.

While he said the most important thing in any cycling scheme is political leadership, Gilligan also credits the vocal support from the business community in helping overcome some of the huge barriers the project faced. Thanks to Cycling Works, an initiative by the Kenyon brothers, bringing together business voices in support of cycling, we saw that employers want people on bikes, because cycle- and human-friendly infrastructure means a pleasant city, enjoyable and safe routes to work, and healthy staff.

London’s new Cycle Superhighways are a great step forward for cycling and I think Andrew Gilligan and Boris Johnson, and all those that quietly helped make these epic pieces of bike infrastructure a reality, should be congratulated for it. I haven’t even mentioned the CS2 upgrade, CS5 across Vauxhall, or all the other bits of protected cycle routes popping up on the capital’s roads.

It is now possible to cycle from Stratford in East London, to Parliament Square – eight miles - with very little contact with motor traffic. This would have been unimaginable three years ago.

You may agree or disagree with Johnson’s politics, but what his political leadership – and Gilligan and TfL staff’s hard work – has done for cycling in London is astonishing. Now all we need are more British mayors with the same drive to make genuine improvements to our cities and towns, and a government that shows genuine leadership on cycling. What we’ve learned is businesses can help make that happen*.

* See British Cycling’s ChooseCycling Network

Tags: cycle superhighway , Cycle superhighways

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