The utterly amazing growth of cycling in London

Carlton Reid
The utterly amazing growth of cycling in London

"Cycling in London has seen remarkable growth," says a new document from the Mayor of London's office and the Greater London Authority. "It is sometimes suggested that cycling is a marginal or fringe activity," states Human Streets, The Mayor's Vision for Cycling. "In London, this is no longer true. In zone 1, during the morning rush hour, 32 per cent of all vehicles on the roads are now bicycles. On some main roads, up to 70 per cent of vehicles are bicycles."

According to TfL, motorists entering central London during the morning peak in 2000 outnumbered cyclists by more than 11 to 1. By 2014, the ratio was 1.7 to 1. "If these trends continue, the number of people commuting to central London by bike will overtake the number commuting by car in three years," believes TfL.

The new cycling infrastructure soon to open fully will boost the numbers of cyclists, says the Mayor of London's office and the GLA, but the growth in cycling is not due to hard engineering. "Most of [the growth] has been achieved before our main infrastructure projects have even opened. But early evidence is that when they do open, they lead to even faster growth," says Human Streets.

The document also says that "cycling in London has never been safer" adding that "fear about safety is a major deterrent to cycling but even as the numbers of cycle journeys have risen sharply, cycling casualty rates are the lowest ever recorded."

The GLA states that "cycle infrastructure is extremely popular" but that the "debate about cycling is distorted by complaints from a loud, but small minority – who tend to believe, often quite sincerely, that 'everyone' drives. In fact, only 3 per cent of Londoners drive a car or van in central London every day, and only 7 per cent once a week or more. 71 per cent of Londoners never drive in central London."

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In Herne Hill, south London, the closure of a road to motorists (it was still open for pedestrians and cyclists) caused fury. Businesses complained it would slash their trade. The Herne Hill Society now says it has been "crucial to the continuing regeneration of Herne Hill” and is “such a success that it now seems strange that it attracted so much controversy”.

Part of this controversry is caused, says Boris' office and the GLA, by the "them and us" mentality between some motorists and cyclists. "Many think of cyclists as somehow a separate species, unconnected to the rest of the transport system. But of course, anything that gets more people cycling improves life for other users of the transport network too – even motorists, in the end," says Human Streets.

And the cycling legacy document linked to London's "Cycling Vision" programme, raises the possibility that the London congestion charge of £11.50 will have to be raised to rein back the recently growth in motoring in London. "After falling for many years, the number of vehicles in central London has started to rise again," says the document.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson, in the foreword to Human Streets, says:

"Cheaper petrol, population growth, a buoyant economy, the construction boom, the growth of Internet shopping deliveries and the rise in the number of private hire vehicles have all contributed. Central London traffic volumes are still well below where they were in 2000. So future cycle and pedestrian schemes in central London are not dependent – and should not be conditional - on a fall in traffic. Indeed, cycle schemes can in themselves induce traffic reduction, as the existing Superhighways are likely to do. But over the next decade, if the number of vehicles continues to rise, it will inevitably make it more difficult to deliver future cycle and pedestrian schemes."

Johnson warns that the next Mayor should not cut back on TfL's cycling programme.

"Measures to discourage traffic in central London have not been explicitly discussed by either of the main mayoral candidates," says Johnson. "But such measures are implicit in some of the policies they have proposed. Both Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan have promised to pedestrianise Oxford Street. Mr Khan also proposes to part-pedestrianise Parliament Square. The City Corporation wants to restrict traffic at the Bank junction to buses and bikes. It is likely that none of these ambitions, let alone all three, can be achieved with the current volumes of vehicles in central London."

He adds: "The next mayor should pledge to at least maintain the current level of spending, and preferably to increase it."

Johnson says that his "single biggest regret as Mayor" is that he did not call for segegrated cycling infrastructure from the start. "Our original painted lanes were revolutionary at the time. But knowing what I do now, we would have blasted ahead with our new segregated cycle lanes from the beginning."

Agreeing that "road space is hotly contested he said that there is "clear evidence" that the new cycle superhighweays will succeed. "The first one to open, at Vauxhall, has in only four months led to a 73 per cent increase in cycling across Vauxhall Bridge. I have every belief that the same will be true of the further four Superhighways we have almost completed."

He added: "In the suburbs, our mini-Hollands are starting to reshape car-dominated town centres into places that work for the majority who do not drive."

"Cycling in London has never been more popular," says Johnson. "The number of bike journeys has risen by two-thirds since I became mayor. Above all, cycling in London has never been more normal. Eight per cent of black and minority ethnic Londoners are now frequent cyclists, the same proportion as white Londoners. Yet though we must cater for the numbers of people cycling, there’s an even better reason why I hope my successor will carry on where I leave off. It’s that if more people cycle, everyone else benefits too, even if they have no intention of getting into the saddle. Everyone who gets on a bike is freeing up space for someone else on the bus, or the train, or indeed in a car. Everyone who cycles is improving not just their own health but other people’s health, because bikes do not cause pollution."

Johnson rebuffs those who say the building of the cycle superhighways is the cause of London's congestion. "They get the blame because they're what you can see. But we are removing traffic lanes on only 15 miles of London’s 1500-mile main road network. The main cause is the fact that our population is growing by 10,000 a month. To cope with all those new people who need to use the roads, we must make better use of the roads - by encouraging people on to forms of transport, such as bikes, which take up less space."

He adds: "Getting people out of cars is in fact the only way to keep London moving for essential business and commercial vehicles. Doing nothing with the roads would not return us to some never-existent ‘50s Elysium of free-flowing traffic. Doing nothing would mean that congestion gets worse than it is now.

"Cities compete these days on quality of life. London can’t afford to stand still in that – our rivals won’t."



TfL's "cycling Tsar" Andrew Gilligan also writes a foreword for Human Streets. He says: "Officially, the cycling programme is about cycling. In reality, it is about breathing."

He adds: "It’s about pollution, about health, about noise, about the kind of city we want to live in. It is about making the best use of scarce space on the roads, about freeing space on public transport. Most of the people who will benefit from the cycling programme aren’t cyclists. That, no doubt, is why across London, almost every time we’ve put cycling schemes to public consultation, they’ve been supported by clear, often overwhelming majorities of people – most of whom aren't cyclists either.

"In engineering terms, cycling schemes are not very complicated. The key factor is political leadership. Everyone supports cycling – until it involves doing anything meaningful. Meaningful cycling schemes almost always have clear majority support, but seldom unanimous support. They will usually inconvenience or upset somebody. So for years in this country, we did half-hearted cycling schemes that upset nobody but also, bluntly, helped nobody and changed nothing. Then in London, a few years ago, something did change. Triggered in part by the early painted Superhighways, the first real attempts to cater for cycling, the sheer numbers of cyclists rose so high that it became absurd not to cater for them.

"Our new approach in London is to do serious, meaningful schemes and prove to others that they work. But it takes courage to be the first."

"London does seem to be on the same journey as the dozens of other places which have done this sort of thing. New York City, for instance, has already been through the cycle, so to speak, of the “bikelash,” followed by growth in cyclists, falls in motor traffic, economic and civic dividends for everyone else, and acceptance. One of their new cycle lanes, on Prospect Park West, was dubbed “the most controversial slab of cement outside the Gaza Strip.” Now it is a part of the furniture."

Gilligan remarks that "political signals suggest that some of the [Mayoral] candidates have been spooked by the bikelash. They shouldn’t be – it won’t last.

He adds: "Much of the opposition to cycling schemes is based on a belief that motor traffic is like rainwater and the roads are the drains for it. If you narrow the pipe, these people say, it will flood. If you block one route, they say, the same amount of traffic will simply flow down the next easiest route. But that seldom or never actually happens in practice. Because traffic isn’t a force of nature' it’s a product of human choices. Our surveys tell us that huge numbers of Londoners will choose to cycle if they feel safe doing so. If we open up that choice, even more people will take it."




Tags: boris johnson , transport for london , tfl , human streets

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