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?