Make London a haven for cyclists

London has become a cycling city – and Britain something of a cycling nation – by default. The recent surge in its popularity has been a grassroots phenomenon, prompted by overcrowded and expensive public transport, a large number of young, talented people on low wages and a wider recognition of its health and environmental benefits.

As demonstrated by the recent toll of cycling fatalities, the response from the authorities has been slow, inadequate and, in the case of the appalling Cycle Superhighway 2 in east London, counterproductive. There has been no sense of urgency about improving cyclists’ safety. Transport for London’s long-awaited freight strategy to reduce lorry journeys at peak times to avoid conflict with cyclists has not materialised, despite the fact that during the Olympics a very similar scheme was successfully deployed.

While cycling remains relatively safe, TfL’s statistics show that every journey carries a 10% greater risk of resulting in a serious injury or death than in 2008. The Cycling Vision drawn up by Boris Johnson’s cycling tsar, the journalist Andrew Gilligan, is commendable, but lacks both urgency and the coherent thread that would deliver safe cycling for all.

One of London’s rival global cities, New York, is demonstrating what could be done immediately. The city’s transport commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, has embarked on a radical plan to improve the lot of pedestrians and cyclists. Times Square, for decades a permanent traffic jam, has been turned into a space so peaceful that the city authorities installed deckchairs in the summer; local businesses have boomed.

Crucially, it’s not just Times Square – 50 spaces in suburban centres have been improved in the same way. All this has been done quickly and experimentally, allowing unsuccessful aspects to be reversed, using principally, as Ms Sadik-Khan put it, “paint and plastic” to reroute traffic and create usable spaces.

This is not, as she emphasises in a brilliant TED talk available online, just about cycling. Creating a city fit for cyclists also ensures it is a better place in which to live and work. The lesson from New York is that things can change and quickly. What is needed is a strong political vision and the boldness to implement it.

Take Seville, often reckoned too hot and cramped for cyclists, which has gone from 2,000 cycle trips per day to 72,000 in seven years, thanks to mayor Alfredo Sánchez Monteseirín’s strategy of building cycle lanes, reducing road space for cars and launching a cycle hire scheme. That answers the naysayers who argue that London is not Amsterdam or its streets are too narrow.

Britain is dependent for its future on attracting bright young people, They are the ones most likely to hop on their bikes and consequently they make up a disproportionate number of these tragedies. They deserve the infrastructure to travel safely, arriving at their destination in one piece, rather than having their lives shattered by a 40-tonne truck or a double-decker bus – and we should recognise it is our duty to safeguard their futures in this way.

  • Matthew Woods

    Good article, especially on the wider impact of being a “cycling city” and all the “live-ability” issues that come with that. I started cycling in September thanks to the Cycle to Work Scheme and use a mixture of park, towpath and central London roads and have noticed just how many cyclists there are; at some lights and junctions, I’ve been among two dozen people on bikes. Just imagine how much space they’d take up if they were each in a car. The pitch to policy-makers, especially at the moment, needs to be an economic one, based on reduced costs and congestion, better health, more attractive city centres and more cost-effective urban housing development.

    Despite all the schemes and paint, fundamentally, safety is a function of the way all road users interact with and view one another. I’m also a motorist and a pedestrian and think this informs the way I ride my bike. Cyclists will only be safer once different users stop arguing over who owns the road/towpaths/parks and start to realise that we all have to share the space. This can only be done with better information, awareness and training of ALL road users.

  • avlowe

    The key problem for HGV traffic is construction work – sporadic but often with huge tonnages to be moved and at present the currency is the 32T rigid 4-axle truck with 20T payload – a big site can generate 150-200 truck movements per day, with a fleet of 50-60 trucks to keep the expensive excavators serviced by removing the material (there is no space to stockpile the stuff and it is wasteful to put it down to pick it up again) and taking this to a tipping site up to 35 miles away.

    Along the Regents Canal, where use of this waterway would move 1 barge for every 4 trucks, development threaten to block off every opportunity to load and unload freight. On the river there is just ONE wharf in Central London which can take a 500T barge (25 trucks which only need to make a short journey to the riverside) but this is only available to load, and get barges in/out at high tide. A barge string with 1 tug can take up to 100 trucks off the roads, maybe not completely but the noise, emissions, road damage, and risk ‘footprint’ of 60-70 mile round trips to the tipping sites outside London, can be cut to a 4-8 mile trip to the riverside, canal or railhead.

    This in turn could be set up with temporary Lorry Lanes, which would set up these short routes to deliver a fixed, dedicated route for the trucks, which provided safe places to cross and interact with other road users, and a managed speed regime. This would be a very specific intervention for projects which deliver intensive truck activity and seriously increased risk. Speeds would be regulated but with the aim of keeping the material flow moving possibly 15-20mph with a green wave or convoy regime.

    Many rail opportunities have also been cut and removed. It costs just a few £’000 to maintain a ‘warm’ connection but a new or restored connection could cost £millions to deliver and take years to plan and complete – thus TfL needs to maintain such opportunities as a key freight strategy.

    The realistic detail is to manage rather than ban the trucks, and to deliver this with simple measures. A key detail will be to make that transfer from the road vehicle to the barge or train a move that costs no more (or less) that making the whole trip by road.

  • Paul Holt

    CW’s logic seems to be “more cyclists, so make more cycleways”. There are also more rail passengers, so is CW also calling for more rail routes, say those links broken by Beeching? No? Funny that.

    Similarly, there are more motorists, so is CW also calling for more parking?

  • steveintoronto

    Are you calling for more space aliens? No? Funny that….