Early last Monday morning, weird as it may seem, I stood on Vauxhall Bridge counting cyclists. This has become an (almost) annual activity at this time of year as I attempt to grasp what the effects of introducing more dedicated cycling infrastructure over the past few years have been.
I chose Vauxhall Bridge – and specifically the section of the two-way cycle superhighway 5 (CS5) that runs across it – as my counting spot in 2015 after Boris Johnson’s cycling commissioner, his journalist friend Andrew Gilligan, became rather cross on the radio. As well as disputing a report that most cyclists on the bridge were ignoring CS5, Gilligan said that he had, “counted, with my own own eyes, 750 using it in an hour.”
Shortly after this, my own counting, which took place during morning peak travel periods, found significantly lower numbers of cyclists using CS5 than the 750 Gilligan said he’d counted – 422 an hour on a Monday and 533 an hour the next day. I also counted a substantial minority of cyclists crossing the bridge on the opposite side of the road, making use of the bus lane there rather than crossing over to use CS5 – 196 an hour.
The following year, 2016, I repeated the exercise, again at the end of November. That time, CS5 was being used at a rate of 760 cyclists per hour during the morning peak, while the number crossing the bridge on the opposite side had nearly halved. This was a significant increase on the figures of the previous year, both in terms of cyclists using CS5 and all cyclists crossing the bridge added together.
Last year, I didn’t do a count. The reason was that I left it too late. Although I visited the bridge, the cyclists crossing the bridge were so sparse that I concluded that the proximity of Christmas must explain it. But this year, I made my visit near the start of December – last Monday.
The result surprised me. Rather than the number of cyclists using CS5 being much the same or higher per morning peak hour than in 2016, they were considerably lower. They were even lower than in 2015, the first time I did my count. The rate was only 340 cyclists per hour – barely half the 750 per hour claimed by the then Mayor’s cycling commissioner shortly after CS5 had opened. Meanwhile, the number crossing on the other side was so small it wasn’t worth bothering with.
What might explain this sharp drop in the numbers I witnessed? I was a little earlier on the scheme this year, so perhaps the rate of cyclists crossing picked up later in the morning peak, after I left. But I was only 20 minutes earlier than in previous years and, in particularly striking contrast with 2015, the weather was quite mild for the season.
Of course, I would need to do a lot more counting to get a really accurate picture of CS5 use on Vauxhall Bridge. There might be all sorts of daily variations in the numbers for all sorts of reasons. Even so, my little bits of fieldwork, for all their limitations, might be a pointer to something – perhaps to the same stalling of growth in the amount of cycling in London as a whole documented in Transport for London’s recently-published Travel in London Report.
This is not what was meant to happen as a result of superhighways and other dedicated cycling infrastructure being built. On London has reported on this issue already. That’s just as well, because no one else is.