London’s Bicycle Network: Good for Commuters, Bad for Communities

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This post is also available in: Chinese (Traditional)

Amsterdam’s bicycle network is the envy of cities all over the globe, receiving praise for the economic, environmental, and social benefits it supposedly brings to the city. Yet with independent retailers struggling, air quality issues, and portions of society still not embracing bicycle use despite an extensive network and cyclist-friendly legal system, there are obviously limitations to what a bicycle network can achieve.

But just a few hundred miles away, London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, is desperately trying to turn the British capital into a cycling city, and barely a week goes by without some kind of proclamation on the transformative potential of an improved bicycle network. However, if Amsterdam’s bicycle network has its limitations, what can London’s less comprehensive equivalent achieve?

Transport for London (TfL) has stated its belief that bicycle networks can ‘strengthen London’s economy by improving access to local town centres’. Whilst numerous studies suggest economic benefits from developing a city’s bicycle network, the flaw in TfL’s logic is that London’s more recent bicycle network developments exist to improve access to the city centre, not the town centres that surround it.

Launched in Summer 2010, London’s ‘Cycle Superhighways’ are bright blue bike lanes stretching from outer to central London, following main roads to offer the quickest routes into the city. The Greater London Authority – the administrative government body for the Greater London area – states the ‘Cycle Superhighways’ are built ‘to improve cycling conditions for people who already commute by bike and to encourage those who don’t to take to pedal power’. Additionally, recent studies by TfL have found that 80% of journeys taken along the routes are cyclists commuting to and from work. The ‘Cycle Superhighways’ are being used as intended, but not in a way that improves access to local town centres, and not in the way that TfL believe bicycle networks can be economically beneficial.

Considering the lack of emissions associated with bicycle use, developing London’s bicycle network could be viewed as an opportunity to improve air quality. Consistently failing to reach the minimum standards set by the EU, London’s air quality is the worst in the UK, and among the worst in Europe. However, the enormity of tackling the city’s poor air quality is beyond the capabilities of its bicycle network. London’s congestion charging system resulted in a 20% drop in car use, the fastest growth rate for the city’s bus system since the 1940s, and a 16% drop in CO2 emissions within the charging zone itself, yet due to the zone’s relatively small size, CO2 emissions across the city as a whole have barely changed. If London’s congestion charge is unable to notably improve air quality as a whole, a truly dramatic increase in cycling would need to occur to see an improvement in air quality. With the Mayor of London aiming for 5% of all trips to be taken by bicycle by the year 2026, the ambition is clearly not present on a government level for such a change.

The design of London’s newest bicycle network additions is also troubling. As with the ‘Cycle Superhighways’, London’s cycle hire scheme prioritises the city centre, launching with all 352 of its cycle hire stations in an area of London that houses only 300,000 of the city’s almost 8 million residents. Those living in that area might get improved access to nearby services, but for the remaining 7.7 million of us, it’s a bit more complicated. Thankfully, the success of the city’s cycle hire scheme means it is expanding eastwards through more residential areas in time for the 2012 Olympics.

In addition to its limited geographical distribution, London’s cycle hire scheme has been criticised for failing to attract a broad range of users. Notably called a ‘posh-boy toy’ by Guardian journalist Tim Lewis, the typical user is young, male, white, and not exactly on the poverty line, if you get my drift. Whilst this problem is indicative of bicycle use in the UK as a whole, it suggests that London’s newest bicycle network addition has failed to make cycling a real alternative for those who wouldn’t already consider that mode of transport. One ‘cycle superhighway’ also presents a worrying example of the city’s priorities. Running from Tower Hill, in central London, to Barking, 9 miles east of central London, the ‘CS3’, as it is known, cuts through Tower Hamlets – ‘London’s most deprived borough’ – providing a speedy route from the city’s central business district to Canary Wharf and beyond. Regarded as London’s second central business district, Canary Wharf is home to numerous international banking headquarters, in stark contrast to the deprivation experienced in other parts of Tower Hamlets. Whilst a bicycle network in this part of London could have been designed to offer affordable transport opportunities that encourage local economic growth and access to services, it was instead tailored to those commuting in between two of the wealthiest parts of London. Sustainable communities was obviously not high up the agenda when the CS3 was developed.

London’s commuting culture dictated the approach taken with its newest bicycle network additions, which has arguably been a success for the city. Levels of cycling are up along the superhighways, and the cycle hire scheme saw 6 million trips made less than a year after its launch. Yet this city-centre focus has made it harder for the city’s bicycle network to introduce benefits on a local scale. Frustratingly, London’s initial attempt at developing its bicycle network had the capability for such change. The London Cycle Network took inspiration from Amsterdam, planning a seemingly comprehensive and web-like infrastructure across the city. Unfortunately, significant delays with its implementation and huge compromises on functionality neutered it. Had London been willing to more fully commit to this initial vision, then a bicycle network conducive to the creation of sustainable communities could have been a reality. Either as a result of a lack of ambition, being too willing to compromise, or something else entirely, this failed to happen, and whilst London’s current approach has brought about an increase in levels of cycling, the benefits on a local scale are less positive.

Image courtesy of Alan Perryman on flickr

  • http://twitter.com/EnglishChris75 Chris Goodman

    Nice post. Its interesting to highlight the need for cycle infrastructure to provide an alternative not only to a commute into the city, but just as importantly to try to provide an alternative to the huge number of car journeys that of just a couple of miles.

    I’m not sure I’d agree with you about the existing schemes being deemed a success though.  Whilst the bike hire scheme might be, I think its becoming fairly well acknowledged now that in many places the Cycle SuperHighways are just blue lines painted on a road, usually offering no extra space for cycles or protection from vehicles. They are driven in, parked in and disappear at key junctions.  They potentially make cycling less safe by giving the illusion of offering some kind of protection, when they actually do not (in most cases).  

    More worryingly as far as providing sustainable transportation options throughout the city is TfLs current priority of putting the “smoothing of traffic flow” first in the redesign of major junctions (including Blackfriars, Bow and other recently publicised dangerous junctions, many of which are on major commuting routes). In many cases TfL are increasing motor traffic space and reducing cycle and pedestrian space. Hardly a sign of the Mayor taking more sustainable options than the car seriously, and possibly the reason why he has limited himself to such unambitious targets for %age cycle journeys by 2026.

  • http://twitter.com/EnglishChris75 Chris Goodman

    I meant to include links to a couple of good blogs highlighting the issues with the current approach to the cycling infrastructure: http://ibikelondon.blogspot.com/ and http://cyclelondoncity.blogspot.com/

  • R Truscott

    The start of this article initially made me angry, for it’s seemingly anti-cycling stance, doubting the economic and social benefits of cycling and the effectiveness of cycling even in Amsterdam. However the more I read, the more I became convinced & won over, especially as you articulated some of my inchoate concerns, such as that I would have preferred a upgrade to the LCN cycle route network rather than the Cycle Superhighways, and the middle class, white and young bias of those who chose to cycle. So well said!

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

      Thank you! With regards to the first paragraph, the key word is limitations. I’m very much pro cycling, and get around London on two wheels the vast majority of the time. However, I believe it’s important to be realistic, and acknowledge that bicycle networks aren’t the key to solving all urban challenges. They are certainly beneficial though, as this entire series has explored in depth!

  • http://twitter.com/omAthos Oscar Montoya J

    Interesting to link this article to yet another one in this page where former Bogotá mayor “Peñalosa” adamantly states bikes and its network are far from social exclusion and very pro-integration. Whereas here in a paragraph a prejudice is noted when White-Fancy-Welathy Londoners would use it.

    Still would like to understand why the title of the article says is bad for communities?

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

      Peñalosa indeed states that. It doesn’t mean he’s right though, just as this blog post doesn’t necessarily mean I’m right! As this post and series of posts frequently mentions, the success comes down to the design, at least to a certain extent. So a well designed bike network can do exactly what Peñalosa says, but if the bike network bypasses poorer areas, it is surely less socially beneficial. In terms of communities, with regards to this post, my point is that a less inclusive network, like London appears to be developing, can’t be good for the creation of sustainable communities. Similarly, by creating bike lanes that favour long distance journeys, the small scale benefits are reduced, therefore community developing benefits are reduced. Unless you live in central London, in which case it’s pretty awesome. but only 300,000 of London’s 8 million residents do. 

  • smanitya

    I actually see some real positives here.
    1. It’s great the network is there to begin with. It might be extensive or perfect yet, but I think starting with linkages to the City Centre is usually a good place to start and tends to make the most sense given existing travel demand and infrastructure. Now it’s a matter of finding the means to build upon this existing skeleton and put some meat to it in other parts of town – this is always a gradual process. Amsterdam’s network was not built over night.

    2. While I agree all modes of transport should be accessible to all people of differing demographics, I actually think it’s a nice change that the so called “wealthy white males” are early adopters. Typically, most communities would see alternative forms of transport to the private automobile as something only the less priviledged would use as they can’t afford a nice fancy car. So hey, if these well to do guys are choosing to not buy a car (when they could afford one) or leave theirs at home for other trips and picking up a bike instead, I say let’s cheer them on! Now let’s just try to find a way to not make it exclusive to any one “class” of people.

  • KimJanne

    I’m confused. 

    If a bicycle super highway “cuts through Tower Hamlets – ‘London’s most deprived borough’”, doesn’t that provide access to the residents of Tower Hamlets?

    I certainly don’t know the geography of London, but in Minneapolis our Midtown Greenway connects some wealthy areas through a historically low-income area, and I ride with a lot of recent immigrants and others who I suspect aren’t from our more posh neighborhoods.  As well as plenty of well-heeled cyclists.  

  • http://parkwaycity.com Rvermeulen

    check out parkway city for a  better way to implement bikeway networks

  • http://parkwaycity.com Rvermeulen

    check out parkway city for a  better way to implement bikeway networks