How London Tried (and Failed) to Become a Cycling City


While centuries of urban development in Amsterdam prior to the bicycle’s invention resulted in a city ideal for both bicycle use and a bicycle network, the same cannot be said for London. As a busier centre of trade bound less by geographical restrictions than Amsterdam, sprawl has been a continuous part of London’s urban form.

However, there are some similarities between these cities. Both are relatively flat (or almost completely flat, in Amsterdam’s case) and have a predominantly historic road network. And despite London being a larger city, half of all journeys by car are under two miles. Aspects of London’s recent cultural history are also similar to Amsterdam’s, with car use increasing after the Second World War and bicycle use doing the opposite. However, whilst the Dutch saw this as a cultural change they didn’t want to endorse, the British reacted differently, continuing to embrace automobiles.

One potential reason for these differing reactions could be our collective experience of bicycle use during World War II. Occupying Germans stole thousands of bicycles from the Dutch when they seized the Netherlands, leaving them unable to transport themselves in the manner they were used to. In Britain, however, strict petrol rationing meant bicycle use rose considerably as, for many, it was the only way to get around. The actions of war meant that the Dutch lost their bicycles, but the British were forced on to them.

As soon as the Brits had the opportunity to get off their bicycles they did, with car ownership increasing rapidly in the post-war years, and continuing to remain high. This despite the fact that, as in the Netherlands, campaigns to improve London’s bicycle provisions and encourage a return to bicycle use have been happening since the 1970s.

And whilst Amsterdam pragmatically started transforming itself into a cycle-friendly city, London got a bit distracted. During the 1980s, plans for the London Cycle Network emerged, though construction didn’t begin until 1995 and wasn’t completed until 2010. Viewing the London Cycle Network on a map could lead to a conclusion that the Dutch approach to infrastructure was being replicated. A web of ‘cycle routes’ span central and inner London, supposedly offering direct and attractive routes to destinations. However, whilst the London Cycle Network appears comprehensive in map-form, this is an illusion. Certain sections are segregated and others avoid main roads entirely, but the majority of the network is shared with roads. Features such as on-road marked bike lanes and bike boxes may be present, but much of the London Cycle Network is simply London’s road network, plus a little paint.

Even during the earliest stages of the London Cycle Network, a lack of ambition was obvious, with the preface of the official design manual noting ‘the design of cycle facilities frequently requires a range of compromises to be made’ (and you know you’re in trouble when the notion of ‘compromise’ crops up as early as the preface). These compromises are not only clear in functionality, but in a failure to increase cycling. Ambitious goals to increase the amount of trips taken by bicycle from 1998 levels of 1.36% to 10% in 2012 have not been achieved, or even come close to being achieved. In fact, in the 15 years since construction began, the bicycle share of trips has risen to just 2%. 2012 might be just around the corner, but a 10% modal share for bicycles is not.

The small, mixed-use developments typical of Amsterdam are practical for both bicycle networks and developing sustainable communities. Important amenities are more likely to be within a walkable or cyclable distance, and people are actually on the street, rather than locked up in their cars. But London’s urban form and culture are different to Amsterdam’s, and the challenge of introducing a bicycle network capable of developing sustainable communities is greater. On the most basic level, London’s size means constructing a bicycle network is inevitably going to be a bigger task. However, the economics of the city arguably create a bigger problem than its form. Central London is home to one-third of the city’s jobs, despite only taking up 2% of its land space and housing only 300,000 of its residents. As a result, commuting is standard practice for most Londoners. Even if London was to introduce a bicycle network that prioritsed short distance journeys, it may not be beneficial in encouraging cycling or developing sustainable communities, simply as it isn’t representative of how Londoners move around the city.

London’s more recent bicycle network developments have taken a different approach. ‘Cycle Superhighways’ and a cycle hire scheme have created a network more reflective of the city’s commuting and city centre-focussed culture. But can a bicycle network built around longer distance journeys ever encourage the development of sustainable communities?

Image courtesy of Matthew Black on flickr

  • http://www.transportparadise.co.uk Richard Mann

    The two big markets for cycling are adults-in-a-hurry and secondary-school-kids. The modal split for Dutch teenagers is roughly 60% bike. The first group needs direct safe-ish routes to work locations (and stations), the second needs safe routes to school and town centres (to get them established).

    LCN+ was too variable in design, trying to be everything to everybody; this doesn’t work if you’re starting from scratch – you need to focus on the target market. There’s no point being hyper-safe if it makes journey time uncompetitive. The CSHs have a credible market, but are “just paint” rather too often. There’s no point being fast if it’s patently scary.

    Instead, LCN needs to be adapted to focus on journeys to secondary schools and town centres, and – separately – main roads needs to be tamed so that they’re comfortable, by controlling parking, removing gyratories (actually it’s the diverging junctions that are the problem) and getting speeds down to about 25mph. In some places it may be easier to combine both tasks, but you need quite a bit of space to do it well, and generally it’s easier to do them separately.

  • http://www.bikecation.co.uk/ Bikecation

    They should make it as safe as possible still 

  • Enrico
  • http://twitter.com/VoleOSpeed David Arditti

    Not really convinced of this account. The stuff about “the war” is very questionable, as cycle use in the UK remained quite high until the early 1960s, and anyway it is wholly irrelevant now. The big issue is that the cycle network attempts in London never tacked the issue of subjective safety, and that is why they failed. And you only have to look at the Dutch inter-city cycle routes to show how high-quality subjectively safe cycle paths get many people cycling remarkably long distances (10km plus). And what about the largely unrealised potential of public transport–bike integration in London? The fact that Londoners commute should not be the barrier to cycling that it is being held to be here. The real barrier is the lack of safe cycling space and sensible integrated planning.

    • http://www.thisbigcity.net Joe Peach

      I agree the war stuff is questionable. I do think it is an interesting possibility though, but, of course, totally impossible to prove or disprove. 

      • richardafrazier

        A great article that’s clearly stimulated some debate.

        I’d have to agree with David and say that, to an extent, commuting can often be a barrier to cycling. Only this weekend I watched a man turned away from the tube, with his puntured bicycle in hand and, given the time of night, little option but to whell his back however many miles back to his home.

        Ultimately though it is, as David says, the lack of safe, cheap/free and convenient cycling space available that is deterring greater numbers taking two wheels to the road. Unlike David, I mean this on two levels. Firstly, the congested roads of varying quality offer an at times uncomfortable journey. This is never helped by the questionable quality of parts of London’s road network and the disregard of some road users towards cyclists.

        Secondly, the risk of bike theft is still high across London with professinal thieves out and about in vans and with a conoisseurs eye for all things bike-based – from fully kitted out road bikes to Brookes saddles.

        Until these issues are resolved, the latter one in the more immediate future and the former in the long-term, I don’t think we’ll see as big an uptake on cycling to work as we’d like.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_4WJB22ZZ2SORCBIU7DBJJ3IN3Y Richard

    This is forced.  If you look at the expansion of car use in the Netherlands post war, bicycle usage declined considerably and precipitously.  Around 1970, the Dutch realized car-centricity was not sustainable and they began to rework their mobility system towards biking.  What they have today is a function of 40 years of decisions and practices that support biking.  Of course, it’s helped by flat terrain, a small country, and a strong transit system.

    I don’t have slides or anything, but if you contacted the Fietsberrad (the bike league of the Netherlands) they could explain it to you.  I happened to be in a workshop in DC that was led by them and this was covered.

    Anyway, this gets to my major point about these kinds of issues, that “culture” is constructed.

    WRT Britain and the US and bicycling, Harvard Public Health researcher Anne Lusk makes the point that “vehicular cycling” has been the dominant biking mobility philosophy in these countries for the last 40 years, so of course amongst European and North American countries, of course the US and Britain have the worst mode split numbers of biking.

    As far as ambitious goals not being met goes, it’s because a system to bring about change is not in place either programmatically or in terms of infrastructure, e.g., calling a blue bike lane a “cycle superhighway” doesn’t make it something it isn’t, and doesn’t promote the conditions that the non-riding for transportation potential cycling demographics say they want in order to start biking.

    • http://www.thisbigcity.net Joe Peach

      You’ll enjoy the rest of the posts in this series, Richard. Pretty much all the points you mention in this comment are explored. 

  • P Slater

    Safety and quality cycle routes are critical to the growth of continued cycling but so is culture and convenience. At H2 Bike Run we provide the solution at the journeys end – showers, bike parking, bike service/retail, laundry etc. Perhaps not so relevant to the “Dutch” cyclist but very relevant to a long distance commuter who wants to combine their commute with exercise.

    We would hope our service goes some way towards solving the problem of long distance commutes and sustainable communities.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_T7Y3EYX3HUZHTSLALGLILOPPUE Matthew

    The story of how the Dutch got their cycle paths isn’t as simple as this makes it sound.

    It was the result of concerted citizen protest and civil disobedience:


    The issue was one of child deaths on the road caused by motor vehicles. Hence the Dutch law that makes the motorist automatically responsible for any accident between a car and a pedestrian or cyclist.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/ J

    I strongly disagree that London has failed in its efforts to increase cycling. Failed, implies that they have tried and given up. From what I’ve read, cycling is rising steadily in London recently, and efforts to improve the cycling network are far from over. The city introduced cycle hire which has proven quite popular. The system is set to greatly expand to accomodate both increasing demand and the Olympics. Sure, the cycle “superhighway” has many many issues, making it not that useful for many novice cyclists. However, it is certainly not a negative addition to cycling and could provide the backbone for future improvements. This is basically what New York City is doing. You could certainly call the superhighways underwhelming, especially given their name, but calling the promotion of cycling in London a failure seems way too strong and definitely premature.

    • http://www.thisbigcity.net Joe Peach

      London has not failed in its efforts to increase cycling, and this post does not say the city has. As stated in paragraph 5, this post is about the London Cycle Network, which was a failure. The London Cycle Network is not London’s bicycle network. It was a specific project which makes up just a part of London’s overall bicycle network.

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/ J

        My earlier post was misinformed, and I apologize. I have removed it, as it does not contribute meaningfully to the discussion. I’ll try to be more careful before posting next time.