Outer London’s Huge Bike Plan Could Break the Cycle of Bad Suburban Transit

Kingston’s rail station would become a “major cycle hub” under London’s plan to pour tens of millions of dollars into biking improvements in three of its suburbs.

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

You may have heard that London has just approved a spectacular crosstown protected bike lane. But another part of its plan has, ironically, gotten little press in the United States.

As London’s regional government begins what may be the biggest municipal bicycling investment in the history of Europe, it’s setting aside $140 million for the suburbs.

“Cycling is, I think the secret weapon of suburban sustainable transport,” says Transport for London Director of Surface Strategy and Planning Ben Plowden. “It is much more like car travel than transit is.”

It’s almost impossible to build car-lite suburbs with transit alone

In the United Kingdom as in the United States, efforts to reduce car dependence have relied mostly on the biggest tool in the shed: transit.

In London and New York, transit reigns supreme. The cities’ woven grids of bus and rail lines carry the overwhelming share of non-car trips in each city.

But in smaller cities and suburbs, transit needs help. With further to walk to each bus stop, fewer people ride. With fewer riders, buses run empty and it becomes cripplingly expensive for agencies to run them frequently. With infrequent buses, even short transit trips can take hours.

It’s a situation familiar to anyone who’s ridden transit in a U.S. suburb or small city — let alone tried to balance the budget of a suburban transit agency.

“You’re not going to have a $125 an hour bus with 43 seats coming through all these cul-de-sacs,” said David Bragdon, a former New York City sustainability chief who now runs Transit Center, a transit-focused policy nonprofit. “It just doesn’t work.”

That’s why London, working to stave off congestion as its population keeps climbing, is looking hard for better ways to improve suburban transit. And that’s what led its transport agency to the bicycle.

In many suburbs, bikes already carry 15 percent of transit ridership or more

Transport for London estimates that half of car trips that could be converted to bike trips are in outer London.

The potential for bicycling in the suburbs, says Plowden, is mathematical.

London’s streets already carry 600,000 bike trips a day, he notes, about 20 percent of the entire London Underground.

“This is already a mass transit mode,” said Plowden, speaking last week at a Transit Center-sponsored event in the Portland suburb of Beaverton. “It’s a much cheaper way of getting people around the city than rail transit, certainly, per passenger-kilometer… because they bring their own equipment.”

Those ratios aren’t unlike those in many U.S. cities, including suburbs. In greater Denver, bikes already carry 22 percent as many commuters as the bus and rail network. In greater Indianapolis, it’s 30 percent; in greater New Orleans, 31 percent; in greater Portland, 36 percent.

Even in Beaverton, an auto-oriented suburb that straddles the Portland region’s most-ridden rail line, bikes carry 24 percent as many commuters as transit.

Plowden’s argument isn’t that transit is a bad investment. Transport for London is proud that 94 percent of metro-area residents now live within 400 meters of a bus stop. Thanks to service improvements, London bus ridership has been rising fast.

Faster, in fact, than every mode except one: the bicycle.

Europe’s lesson: Bikes enable suburban transit ridership

A rail stop in Delft, Netherlands, eight miles south of The Hague. Photo: A.J. Zelada.

Among rich countries, the best places for biking — Amsterdam, Denmark, Germany — are also among the best places for transit.

These countries design their suburbs so local trips can be done by foot and bike as well as by car. Trips into the city, meanwhile, often use the train or bus.

The key to the system: Once biking becomes easy in the suburbs, it also becomes easy to make a short bike trip to a train station. That can break the vicious cycle of low suburban transit ridership.

“One of the biggest challenges for conventional transit in this country is first/last mile,” said Bragdon. “You can run this good light rail service every 10 minutes on this trunk line, but people are still low-density. Biking, I think, is a real practical solution to that problem.”

Plowden agrees. His agency is dedicating 10 percent of its massive $1.4 billion biking improvement budget over the next 10 years on a trio of what it calls “mini-Hollands,” suburbs that will be dramatically redesigned for biking.

“They are spending sums of money that you would never have contemplated spending in an Outer London borough,” Plowden said.

Plowden’s agency calculates that Outer London’s boroughs, the suburban areas developed mostly in the 20th century, contain 60 percent of London’s population and half its potential bike trips: trips of several miles currently taken in cars that people are physically able to bike.

Plowden said that if bikes can be made a viable option for those trips, a century’s worth of suburbs, in the States as well as Britain, can be freed from their overwhelming dependence on cars.

“It provides the opportunity to meet those more complex suburban journeys,” he said.

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18 thoughts on Outer London’s Huge Bike Plan Could Break the Cycle of Bad Suburban Transit

  1. Grand. The whole concept is admirable, but are they really serious? If they are, they would also make changes where it matters: policies and requirements for new developments. In 2015, new developments shouldn’t be showing up calling a disconnected gutter stripe on a six-lane arterial “bike infrastructure”, but that continues to happen at literally hundreds of suburbs in various stages of planning and construction all over America. Retrofitting certainly shouldn’t be left out, but we must also make sure that we stop the problem from happening in the first place.

  2. Moving people out of cars should never be an end in and of itself, it is only good as a MEANS to an end. Transit has a carbon footprint about equal to single-occupancy automobiles, whereas bicycle carbon footprints are miniscule in comparison. So from a climate change point of view, gains from moving people from cars to transit are marginal, whereas there is a real win to move them to bikes.

  3. Right, but there are many benefits of moving people out of cars that have nothing to do with climate. There’s safety, local pollution, a better use of space, a nicer place to walk and live…

  4. That depends quite a bit on the usage levels and the type of transit mode, as well as the car used for comparison. I took a look at some numbers, and if we’re talking about a London tube train vs a hybrid car, it’s reasonable for the train to have about half the carbon/(person*km). That’s hardly a marginal change.

  5. Right.

    Unfortunately, in much of the U.S. mass transit is as expensive and energy intensive as driving alone in an SUV. Thus the need for the bicycle. And something not mentioned here — dynamic carpooling.

    Don’t forget that many areas of NYC are suburban as well. Residents of those areas could use the sort of bike parking seen in the photo above. Perhaps near the terminal of the Flushing Line, at Queens Borough Hall if a way could be found to get bicycles over the Kew Gardens Interchange, on Hillside Avenue in Queens, at the Kings Highway express stop on the Brighton Line, the 8th Avenue stop on the Sea Beach line (for Dyker Heights), etc.,

  6. Good idea but we’ll have to see about execution. Some of what TfL call Dutch are actually far short, particularly their idea of a Dutch roundabout. If they implement these with their current thinking and find that people still don’t like doing battle with cars in their ‘Dutch’ roundabouts they’ll simply proclaim it a failure and go back to the status quo.

    TfL have not got the concept of segregation of modes and until they do I don’t hold out much hope for what they do.

  7. This is actually a wonderful idea. I was in Holland (The Netherlands) and they have incorporated this kind of plan in every city and town over the entire country. We were on a bike tour there (with these organizers for anyone interested) with the family and sometimes we would drive a full day without interfering with a car. This is the future!

  8. But we are talking here about suburban bus vs car, no tube in sight. The bus does no better than a Toyota corolla, if that. You might as well just buy a prius and drive to the train station, as long as you can find parking. Or if you are serious about lowering your impact, you will bike.

  9. “as long as you can find parking”. But to judge from the behavior of suburban road and parking lot abutters, cars actually suck, and are surprisingly unwelcome, leading to less-than-adequate parking. Thus the usefulness of bikes.

  10. We think the following statement taken from the article encapsulates the problem succinctly here in Southern California:

    “The key to the system: Once biking becomes easy in the suburbs, it also becomes easy to make a short bike trip to a train station. That can break the vicious cycle of low suburban transit ridership.”

    1) Bring back the spirit of hopping on a bicycle to ride (safer streets).

    2) Increase bicycle infrastructure at the street level (bike racks and on buses).

    3) Increased bicycle infrastructure on light and heavy rail cars( bicycle stalls — a dedicated ‘bicycle car’ on each train).

    As I mentioned in last night’s Metro meeting in the San Fernando Valley, the Metro and Metrolink are under used for both bicycle commuting and bicycle tourism. Both organizations should build into their design for newly purchased light and heavy rail cars the ability to remove seats (for converting a rail car to a dedicated bicycle car) without compromising safety. This reduces the argument of low ridership and availability to a forward thinking argument (increase bicycle commuter ridership will be followed by a conversion to a bicycle car by Metro and Metrolink). Safety and availability are the key to promoting bicycle use in Southern California.

    On a final note, as a ‘monthly ticket pass’ holder, my wife and I ride for free on the weekends — anywhere on Metrolink. I imagine that only a small amount of Southern California residents are aware of this benefit of holding a monthly pass). In order to promote bicycle tourism, infrastructure needs to be in place. Lets catch up with Caltrain (which is in the process of adding a 3rd bicycle car to each train) and promote sustainable and healthy — active transportation.

  11. I’ve read this article over and over, and still don’t get it.
    It’s about how bike parking near transit is a good thing? Everyone already does this right now. All the train stations have bike parking.
    Then it mentions that we need bikes as a ‘first/last mile solution’ because buses won’t go down cul de sacs. Except the problem there is that the cul de sac streets lead to arterial roads that have 40-45 mph speed limits, and you have to take them to get to the train station, which very few people will do on a bike.
    The outer suburbs are not designed for bikes. The only streets that actually go anywhere are all full of auto traffic, and biking is considered recreational, so bikes paths are ‘roads to nowhere’ thru forest preserves and the like.
    Downtown/center cities are congested and have plenty of bike riders, which is why it’s so easy to get a successful bike share program in place in those areas.
    But there’s a lot of people who could ride bikes around their neighborhood and do first mile/last mile to transit who are not being served – the people who live in ‘city neighborhoods’ away from the center city (called ‘outer boroughs in New York City, neighborhoods in Chicago and other places) and the older, inner ring suburbs. These places have extensive street networks, low car traffic streets that a bike rider can take many places without getting run over, and can connect to transit. But when they get to a bus stop, there are only two choices – hope that the bus bike rack isn’t full (only two bikes can fit on a bike rack on the front of the bus) or find a place to lock up their bike. And there usually isn’t a bike rack near the bus stop. There might be one in front of the store across the street, or there might not. It’s very random. Again, I’m talking about away from the center city, like the article is. 8 miles, 12 miles, and more from downtown. There are popular transfer points where many buses stop, and no multi bike racks like at the train station. So there’s no incentive to bike to the bus stop, even though it’s very easy to do so in these areas, because they’re bike-easy. The only problem is planners ignore their need to lock up their bike at bus stops.

  12. The oncoming shift to electric buses (which is happening very, VERY fast) will make it very clear that buses are more carbon-efficient than cars, as long as they have enough people in them. (Which in “Outer London”, they will — this is a very dense area by US standards, despite the name.)

  13. Unlikely. We have plenty of electric light and heavy rail systems in America, some through very dense area, and none of them beats the good ole prius per passenger mile. It’s hard to see how your electric bus will be any better.

    Anyway, cars are shifting electric as well.

  14. Also don’t forget the million or so new Yorkers who actually live in the burbs and use one of three commuter rail systems to get in. parking at those stations is a big deal, and can double the overall price of the ride, if you can get it at all. a perfect place for bike-to-train.

  15. In live in East London and there are a number on new flats/apartments going up with no dedicated car parks and you buy these flats based on the knowledge that you may have no where to park a car.
    We are lucky that in that area I have two 24 hour bus lines that go to and from central London nearly every 8 minutes and five tube stations in 15 minute walking time.
    It’s difficult as I always keep thinking about where your delivery van, trades people or visitors are supposed to park (and that space not be abused by other people).

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