Cycling Booms in London, and the City’s Not Looking Back

Image: City of London
If current trends continue, there will be more people bike commuting in central London than car commuting by 2018. Image: City of London

Boris Johnson says that one of his goals as mayor of London was to make cycling “more popular and more normal.” As Johnson’s eight-year tenure winds down, it looks like the progress he made in his second term has accomplished that mission.

If current trends continue, bike commuters will outnumber car commuters in central London by 2018, according to a recent report from Johnson’s office [PDF]. Citywide, Transport for London estimates people already make 645,000 bike trips on an average day.

Photo: Patrick Mackie/Geograph.org.uk

When Londoners head to the polls later this week to elect their next mayor, five candidates will be on the ballot, all of whom have signaled they will continue to expand the city’s bike network, reports the BBC’s Tom Edwards. Most of them have pledged to triple the amount of protected bike lanes in the city.

You can trace the London cycling boom to several factors, including the introduction of congestion charging under Johnson’s predecessor, Ken Livingstone, in 2003. But the big turning point came during Johnson’s second term, when bike advocates prompted him to get serious about installing protected bike lanes.

In his first term, Johnson championed the construction of “cycle superhighways” on some of the city’s busiest streets. But these routes, which offered little or nothing in the way of physical protection, didn’t live up to their billing. Cyclists were not satisfied with them and staged huge protests calling for safer bike infrastructure. The BBC’s Edwards recalls how cyclists booed Johnson when he was seeking reelection four years ago.

In recent years, Johnson has devoted more resources to protected bike lanes, upgrading the existing “cycle superhighways” and laying out a plan for more. He now says his “single biggest regret” was not doing so sooner.

Johnson has tripled the city’s 10-year budget for cycling, from £273 million to £913 million. The newest “superhighway” was set to open just days ago.

In addition to protected lanes on high-traffic streets, Transport for London is also building out a network of “quietways,” similar to what Americans would call bicycle boulevards — low-traffic streets where car speeds are kept in check and cycling is prioritized.

As more people get on bikes, cycling in London has never been safer. In 2015, nine people were killed while biking in the city. While still too many lives are lost, the fatality rate per bike trip is the lowest on record.

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Despite the predictable “bikelash” from some quarters, public opinion is firmly behind the investments in biking. In a recent YouGov poll, 71 percent of London residents said they support the cycle superhighways.

Even the Automobile Association is on board. “Getting more people on bikes, getting more dedicated cycle lanes is better for everyone,” Edmund King, the president of the AA, said in March.

Whoever wins this week’s election, the next mayor seems very unlikely to change course. “Cycling is now a mainstream policy in London politics,” wrote the BBC’s Edwards. “That is quite a story.”

  • Robert Wright

    There’s always a tendency in street safety activism to think that some other place is doing it better. I’ve lived and cycled (in two blocks) 11 years in London as an adult. I’ve spent the last four years in New York and am moving back to London this summer. People from London are always telling me how envious they are of the great things being done in New York. People in New York are always telling me how great things seem in London.

    The truth, inevitably, is a bit more complicated. Cycling in London has come a long way – the commuting rate in London was around 4 per cent in the last figures I saw, against 1 per cent in New York. It’s true that the new Superhighways look really good and effective. It’s worth bearing in mind, meanwhile, the catastrophic policies that led to them. The original Superhighways, painted on busy main roads, were insanely dangerous. I, as a hardened, 4,000-mile-a-year commuter cyclist, didn’t dare use them a lot of the time. Transport for London ended up being pushed into building the new, protected lanes essentially because it was so embarrassing that commuters kept getting killed on the painted superhighways. I’m glad they’re being built but we shouldn’t forget that they were born out of the atrocious, ill-thought-out policies.

    It’s also worth pointing out that transport policy in London is complicated. Transport for London runs the arterial roads. But the other roads are run by the 32 separate boroughs. Many of these boroughs, particularly in outer London, are actively hostile to putting in better cycling provision. Cycling there remains, as far as I know, far more like trying to cycle in Staten Island than rolling up the Allen St protected bike lanes in Manhattan. The cycling growth is heavily concentrated in inner London, particularly in boroughs like Hackney that are poorly served by the underground, rather than evenly throughout the capital.

    On the quietways, meanwhile, I’m no expert. But many of these are, I think, developments of the London Cycle Network laid out along quiet back streets in the 1990s. It’s a complicated network, whose layout one has to learn. But it was useful for journeys where there wasn’t a decent alternative on the arterial roads. I always had the impression that Boris Johnson developed the original, dangerous superhighways partly because he thought the London Cycle Network was too associated with Ken Livingstone and he wanted to do something for himself.

  • Vooch

    In Manhattan below 60th the car:bike ratio is 10;1. In some parts of lower Manhattan, the ratio is now 5:1.

    1:1 ratio is Tokyo and a good goal to strive for

  • The Superhighways are turning out alright, but the Quietways are still suffering a bit. That’s the area that the new mayor should really strive to improve.

  • Kevin Love
  • Kevin Love

    New York vs. London may be a “grass is greener on the other side of the fence” situation. But some other places really are doing it better. Such as every city in The Netherlands.

  • While cycling is undoubtedly booming in London, the central London statistics need to be taken in a wider perspective. 90% of all peak trips into central London are on public transit, just 5% by car and 2.7% by bike. The £11.50 congestion charge has significantly dropped car volumes into central London which accentuates the relative increase in cycling. That said, cycling is the fastest growing mode in London and the cycle superhighways and quietways will be the key enabler for London to get another significant boost in cycling numbers.

  • LondonCycling

    The ‘big turning point’ in London was triggered by the ‘Love London Go Dutch’ campaign led by the London Cycling Campaign in 2012. Supported by 42,000 people it secured the backing of all leading Mayoral candidates, including Boris Johnson (the winner) and main rival Ken Livingstone, to ‘streets as safe an inviting for cycling as those in Holland.’ A similar LCC campaign has secured the backing of the leading Mayoral contenders in 2016 (www.lcc.org.uk) for a trebling of protected routes on main roads, cycle friendly town centers and safer trucks.

  • Marcus

    The new improvements are both welcome and well overdue, but the day to day reality of cycling in this city hasn’t changed much. Outside of the sparkling new lanes (which are awesome), the world chugs on with malevolent cabs and white van drivers. I regularly cycle a bakfiets with my son, and rarely if ever get passed at the speed limit or safely (one would think the sight of a todler might incite some form of emotion).

    I’m not really sure what the answer is, other than wholesale bans of motorists from central London. I live in Hackney, where the local speed limit has been reduced to 20mph (for several years now). One would be hard pressed to to find a single motorist obeying the speed limit. This isn’t idle chat, I work for a consultant who does contract work for TfL and the boroughs, and their surveys show the mean speed of traffic as 34mph at a 30 mph speed limit and 33 mph at a 20 mph speed limit. Until there is some sort of actual active enforcement, nothing changes in the mind of the motoring public.

    Meanwhile we are left to the wolves.

  • Ledicko

    London’s cycling miracle was fuelled by fast rising transport and accomodation costs, forcing young londoners to live further and further out and in neighbourhoods less well connected to tube networks. Once more people started cycling, politicians got interested. See this article for more on this:
    ow.ly/4nq6Tt

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