What Boris must do to get Londoners on two wheels

The sun is out and so are the cyclists. Suddenly they can be seen zipping round London like water boatmen on a pond; many are clearly novices, cycling tentatively around parked cars and fearfully trying to avoid the bendy buses.

This happens every summer as more and more people realise the flexibility and fitness that cycling promises. Slowly, too, the authorities have begun to realise that there are advantages to encouraging cycling: every new cyclist is one fewer car driver or passenger on the overcrowded public transport system. The most notable transformation is in Kensington and Chelsea: 20 years ago the council ripped out cycle lanes when the GLC was abolished, but now its far more enlightened leadership is allowing cyclists to go against the flow in one-way streets.

But there’s an important change at the top too. Ken Livingstone was vaguely supportive of cycling, but as someone who was never seen on two wheels and was an inveterate Tube user, he never quite got it. His heart was never really in it and only badgering by the Greens ensured that Transport for London had a substantial budget for cycling improvements. Meanwhile TfL ran into serious foot-dragging by the boroughs over the completion of its London Cycle Network.

Boris Johnson, however, is famously a cyclist in the true London style, jumping traffic lights and using his mobile phone like the rest of them. He was very supportive of cycling during the hustings and soon after his election pledged to more than treble the level of cycling, from its present share of around 1.25 per cent of journeys in order to outdo Livingstone, who promised only to reach five per cent by 2025. He said: ‘I will be working with TfL and the boroughs on new ideas that might enable us to be more ambitious [than Livingstone’s target]’.

But we have been here before. In 1996, Steve Norris, then a Tory transport minister, promised to double cycling by 2002 and quadruple it by 2012. Labour made similar promises in its 10-year transport plan in 2000. Neither of these targets were met – because there was no detailed strategy for increasing the level of cycling to reach these targets. Consequently, the proportion of journeys made by cycle nationally has remained broadly static since then, despite the recent rise in London.

To ensure his promise is not empty, Johnson will have to implement a raft of policies, some controversial. He will need to spend considerable sums of money. And, crucially, he must be prepared to support strongly a policy that is by no means universally popular. Indeed, he may well attract the ire of what many cyclists call the ‘petrolheads’.

For the past eight years, Transport for London has adopted what could be termed a ‘managerial’ approach to boosting cycle use – by creating cycle lanes, painting advanced stop lines at traffic lights and installing cycle parking both on the street and at schools and colleges.

While that is helpful and has helped accommodate the considerable new numbers of cyclists coming on to London’s streets, it will require far more to meet Boris’s target. As Koy Thomson, the head of the London Cycling Campaign put it, “Transport for London needs to treat cycling as the fourth main transport mode after buses, the tube and trains.”

For instance, there are ideas such as the “Direct support for cycling” initiative in Ealing, which involves schemes ranging from individual tuition for adults and schools training to installing lockers on council estates and teaching people basic maintenance. These schemes are relatively costly because they involve a lot of one-to-one meetings – but they have a proven track record in encouraging new cyclists on to the roads. Unless Boris is prepared to put considerable sums of money into such programmes, it is hard to see how he will ever achieve his target.

That’s on the micro level. But such a programme needs to be matched with high-profile initiatives to show that cycling is an integral part of Boris’s vision for the capital. In central London, he intends to implement a cycle hire scheme like the ones in Paris and Barcelona, which have been remarkably successful. That’s excellent – but again it cannot be done on the cheap, as the costs of providing and maintaining the cycles in such schemes normally require a subsidy. Beyond that, though, the new Mayor has not been specific about new ideas for reaching his cycling target.

Outside the centre, Boris needs to push ahead with Transport for London’s idea for a network of cycling corridors along major arteries – and if necessary take on the boroughs if they oppose it as they did under Ken. We also need cycle-friendly hubs around major town centres – a novel and and particularly important idea. Cycling is not just about getting from A to B on lanes but it is about hopping on your bike to pop into your nearest town centre to shop or even go to the pub. Until now, too much of the focus has been on journeys to work when, for cycling to permeate the culture, it needs to become an everyday activity for all the family. Only then will Boris achieve his targets.

These sort of measures will undoubtedly be criticised by motoring groups as anti-car, because at times they will involve taking road space away from cars or restricting access for them. That is where Boris will have to be careful. Has he got the bottle to stand up to motorists?

The motoring lobby tends to present cars as the ultimate form of freedom. But in a city with very limited road space, they are the opposite. One person’s car is another’s burden. Prosperous inner areas of cities are not those with four-lane highways or huge gyratory systems, but rather those like Kensington High Street where most people are walking or cycling. Boris could do worse than follow the lead of his fellow Tory councillors in Kensington & Chelsea, who seem to have understood this long before any other politicians.

Pushing a vision of a city in which there is limited freedom to drive but far more for pedestrians and cyclists will take some courage and vision, but it may be easier for Boris to do than Ken. If he manages it, we could look forward to a city where crowds of cyclists are not so much a seasonal product of the sunshine, but just a sign of a modern city on the move.

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