Radically Rethinking Cycling in London

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London looks best in spring. The long sweep that mellows into English summer has always been the best time of year in London.

But whilst the city is lauded for its walking sights, London still sees a paltry 2% of trips undertaken on bike – despite the recent improvement in infrastructure. If it’s become passé to cite the examples set by Amsterdam and Copenhagen where over 30% of trips are taken by bike, then it’s become equally tiring to talk about London’s failures.

There’s no reason why the same can’t be achieved in London. Forty years ago Copenhagen was the same congested mess that London is today. The way we’re looking at this is all wrong.

London’s plans for expanding cycling provisions aren’t harmed by a lack of action. The London Cycling Campaign has an ambitious plan entitled “One in Five by 2025” – 20% of trips taken by bike in 2025.

But the practical means of achieving these lofty goals won’t be achieved through gentle persuasion in the form of tax breaks, subsidised cycle hire schemes, or further miles of cycle lanes that don’t prioritise the cyclist.

It means reaching beyond the young, macho or ultra-fit typically associated with urban bikers to broaden the appeal for casual cyclists, families, and the middle-aged. In the Netherlands, for instance, where 27% of all trips nationally are made on two wheels (and up to 50% or more of all trips are pedal-powered in some urban centers), more women ride than men. Even among people over 75, a quarter of all trips are on bike.

Despite the media attention given to mega-mileage supercommuters, for most people who depend on bikes for transportation, life works best when all necessities are in reasonable biking distance from their home. Preferably along routes that don’t include riding on dual carriageways or having to cycle anxiously across them.

In this vein, much advocacy work has gone towards improving cycling facilities – an oft-cited concern of  casual cyclists. And whilst there’s no doubt that this can be an issue, simply removing that barrier is not enough to encourage greater participation. Especially if we are not making cycling faster and more convenient than the car or public transport.

In twenty years time the car will still be the dominant mode of transport. The combustion engine didn’t win out because it was popular. It won out because it was cheap, reliable and enabled you to get places fast. In the same vein, the critical mass of cycle usage won’t be achieved through gentle persuasion, it’ll happen when oil prices rise so high that it impacts on the wider systems that impact us all.

To encourage more people to cycle shorter distances we need to separate the casual from the commuter, instead of lumping them both in together. We need to lose the Lycra and reclaim the free-wheeling, childhood joy that cycling should be about.

Bike hire schemes are just the start and it can’t end there or else we’ll forever be stuck at 2%. World class cities from Seoul to San Francisco have ripped out highways, closed areas to vehicle traffic, expanded rapid bus transit and light rail systems, launched bike- and car-sharing services and built up the dense, walkable neighbourhoods that are in ever-rising demand. It is this level of systems thinking that will be vital in increasing bicycle usage. It’s not just the bike; it’s a whole way of life.

The main problem is in the way cycling is sold to the general public: as a tool to do something that most people don’t like to do – go to work.

Think about how cars were originally sold to the commuter. There is no mention of what the car was (ultimately) going to be used for. The ads promoted the freedom and possibilities that came to be associated with the automobile. The main approach from the bike industry, by contrast, has been to isolate itself from the casual and pander to the niche, macho and techie sub-cultures of cycling. Trying to sell these same bikes to a different market isn’t going to cut it. There’s a real opportunity here to ‘think differently’ about the way we look at cycling in London.

Copenhagen Cycle Chic and Amsterdamize and Copenhagenize all provide examples of this – as small cogs in a much larger machine. Similarly, US cities from Portland to Minneapolis all provide examples of cities with high car usage integrating ambitious cycle projects.

Instead of insisting that it won’t happen in London there is now a real opportunity for the city to cherry-pick the best examples from elsewhere and create its own, workable example.

Image courtesy of Tim Arai on flickr

  • http://amsterdamize.com amsterdamize

    So far, London has put more effort into marketing & drawing up ‘ambitious’ plans than dealing with the elephant(s) in the room: the car. No amount of PR & wishful thinking can get a good chunk of the 98% that don’t cycle on a bicycle, for any purpose, as people feel it’s too dangerous. And they’re right, it is.
    The Super Cycle Highways are no more than blue paint washing (giving CPH a bad name), which further negatively fuels the ‘debate’ whether bike infrastructure is helpful. Bikability is nice, but won’t make a dent. It’s like instructing you how to handle a knife and then end up in a war zone. A big giveaway of failed policy is the fact that the burden of safety is put on the people on bikes (helmets, hi-vis, etc), while most car drivers basically get off the hook with their day in court after seriously injuring/killing someone on a bike (or on foot).
    Alas, spin is all around, but it’s getting ridiculous. Good thing there are a few people who are in on it and call a spade a spade. Here are a few good resources, run by people who care and get things straight. Cycling in London/UK needs real facts and real measures to move ahead, not more of the same.

  • http://twitter.com/flaviogut Flavio Gut

    Nice perception.

  • http://ibikelondon.blogspot.com ibikelondon

    I couldn’t agree more; I think that cycling (and cyclists) have a genuine and real PR problem in respect of their image in the UK. (see my prior thoughts on this here; http://ibikelondon.blogspot.com/2010/02/cyclings-pr-problem-and-its-serious.html )

    However, I also think that care-free chic cycling isn’t something you can push too much – it comes as a consequence of the conditions. The day-glo jackets and cycle helmet garb so popular amongst London’s cyclists at present, to me, are a sign of cyclists under stress; people are literally ‘dressing for battle’ because they will be competing for road space with lorries and big scary vehicles.

    As you rightly identify what London really needs in order to achieve true mass cycling is proper and dedicated cycling infrastructure. Sadly, and for some very strange reasons, many of the people in the upper echelons of the UK cycle advocacy scene are suspect of such cycling facilities (especially segregated infrastructure) and actually actively campaign against it. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot…

    It’s a chicken and egg situation – there can be no mass cycling without proper infrastructure but at present London is just not building it.

    Love your work thisbigcity, keep it up!

  • Alex URBACT

    Like London many cities in Europe are developing a specific policy to enhance biking practice among their inhabitants. Within URBACT (http://urbact.eu/), some of them have decided to cooperate in common projects to develop local-level innovative solutions on this issue.

    URBACT is a European exchange and learning programme that enables cities to work together and to develop solutions to major urban challenges like achieving low carbon urban environments.

    More precisely, the URBACT Project Active Travel Network (http://urbact.eu/en/projects/low-carbon-urban-environments/active-travel-network/homepage/) aims to tackle transport problems caused by solo car use in small/medium sized cities by motivating walking/cycling . The project includes 9 European cities : Weiz, KFU-Graz, Skanderbor, Serres, Ljutomer, Novara, Norderstedt, Radzionkow, Lugo, Riccione and Sebes.

    The main target is to motivate the inhabitants to walk more or to use the bike. The main task for all partners is to work out a strategy paper and a strategy plan within the scope of the URBACT project to anchor the non-motorised individual traffic.

    Each city then must set up an local support group which involves key stakeholders and acts as a steering committee for the action plan. Professional awareness campaigns for decision makers, stakeholders and citizens are to be worked out and put into practice in the project period.

    For more information, please refer to :

    - Active Travel Network Homepage:http://urbact.eu/en/projects/low-carbon-urban-environments/active-travel-network/homepage/

    - 2010 URBACT Conference: http://urbact.eu/en/header-main/news-and-events/view-one/urbact-events/?entryId=4858

  • http://twitter.com/77A Mark Sanders

    We, (as bike evangelists) must NOT focus on speed & racing – but convenience like bike use in Holland.

    The bike industry, and most of (us ?) nerdy enthusiasts tend to focus on speed, efficiency, elitist tribes and, dare I say, smugness of ‘doing the right thing’ for the planet.

    Like racing car and street racing car enthusiasts, we can be seen by the other 90% of the population as totally un-cool !

    I think the key tipping point is when we see equal demographics using bikes for everyday transport, men, women, old and young – as in Holland, Cambridge (UK), and a few other CIVILISED cities.

    [Guilty secret - Yes I too like going fast on bikes and I used to in cars - BUT, just like the car analogy, I don't think this is attractive or appropriate for 90% population getting from AtoB .. the Bike industry as a whole don't seem to get this, at least not in most of the UK and USA].

  • Duncan

    “There’s no reason why the same [as in Copehagen, etc.] can’t be achieved in London”.

    Ii think there is a fundamental reason: London is much bigger, expensive and more sprawling than the the places you mention. I suspect most people in London live further from work than in Copenhagen, etc. If the city were higher-density then there’d be less distance to travel, and less space-per-person (or more specifically, for driving).

    Some of the other issues you mention – about the cycling community’s elitism (?) are also true. But the current environment does favour a particular type of ‘warrior-commuter’ – helmeted, yellow-jacketed and lycra-clad. If your commute is 100m/week and in aggressive, congested traffic on potholed roads then of course it’s not going to appeal to everyone. Allowing motorcyclists into cycle lanes is also a bad idea (from a cyclign perspective): it looks like lots of fun, and I know they’re also vulnerable road users but it adds to the sense of cycling being unsafe.

    Try cutting the speed limit to 20mph on most roads (and enforcing that), introducing cycle priority traffic lights, and creating good (direct, wide) cycle lanes on more main routes. It’ll help a bit.

  • Duncan

    “There’s no reason why the same [as in Copehagen, etc.] can’t be achieved in London”.

    Ii think there is a fundamental reason: London is much bigger, expensive and more sprawling than the the places you mention. I suspect most people in London live further from work than in Copenhagen, etc. If the city were higher-density then there’d be less distance to travel, and less space-per-person (or more specifically, for driving).

    Some of the other issues you mention – about the cycling community’s elitism (?) are also true. But the current environment does favour a particular type of ‘warrior-commuter’ – helmeted, yellow-jacketed and lycra-clad. If your commute is 100m/week and in aggressive, congested traffic on potholed roads then of course it’s not going to appeal to everyone. Allowing motorcyclists into cycle lanes is also a bad idea (from a cyclign perspective): it looks like lots of fun, and I know they’re also vulnerable road users but it adds to the sense of cycling being unsafe.

    Try cutting the speed limit to 20mph on most roads (and enforcing that), introducing cycle priority traffic lights, and creating good (direct, wide) cycle lanes on more main routes. It’ll help a bit.

  • http://twitter.com/BehoovingMoving Steven Fleming

    Well said! London, Portland and Minneapolis are cities on rivers. Let the banks be fun bicycle highways, with ever possible tendril leading from there into each district. It will serve getting to work, but more importantly, sheer pleasure.

    • Potensh

      No…pedestrians have a hard enough time as it is not least from cyclists!

      • http://twitter.com/BehoovingMoving Steven Fleming

        If pedestrians were as frightened as you suggest, they would form the kinds of lobby groups we cyclists must form, and push for parallel pedestrian-only paths, alongside the bike routes. Many American trails now separate bikes and walkers. Go to it!

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

    The outer boroughs are really quite similar to medium-sized cities, except for the out-commuting to central London. If some of those outer boroughs chose to follow the model of places like Oxford, and slow the main roads down, and remove the gyratory junctions, they could make cycling a fairly attractive option quite quickly.

  • Guest

    Excellent article about the culture of cycling in London. I’m a middle-aged woman who feels ostracised and intimidated in most cycling shops, where staff only seem interested in selling expensive racing bikes to their lycra clones. My friends feel the same way. There’s a huge market to be tapped, but the cycling community needs to be more welcoming to the casual cyclist.

  • http://twitter.com/BehoovingMoving Steven Fleming

    here here, heavy no-fault laws protecting the rest of us, from motorized vehicles. At the very least, London needs a few hard hitting law firms, like these guys in New York, who send ripples of fear through the driving community. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/nyregion/a-new-breed-of-lawyers-focuses-on-bicyclists-rights.html?_r=2&hp

  • http://helpmychaincameoff.blogspot.com/ Helpmychaincameoff

    I think an interesting point you mention about differing style of adverts there are for cars and bicycles.  Indeed, adverts for bikes (as few as there are on TV) are not targetting the demographic the LCC want to attract. This can be said for the print adverts as well. Unfortunately I don’t think advertising agencies will use the same creative approaches they use for marketing cars as they do for marketing bikes until cycling becomes more popular with the every day person. It’s safer for them to focus on the sporty, technical aspects of cycling which brings in much of the revenue for cycling brands.