Dave Hill: London’s cyclists must improve their attitude

Dave Hill: London’s cyclists must improve their attitude

Cycling is a transport mode London should encourage for reasons almost too obvious to need listing: bicycles generally take up less road space per person travelling than private motor vehicles, potentially reducing congestion and thereby helping the economy; cycling enhances personal fitness; bicycles are impeccably green.

Yet although City Hall and many boroughs have been very actively encouraging this form of “active travel” for ten years and more, it continues to be used by only a very small minority of Londoners. And even though Transport for London data show pretty consistent increases by some measures over time, they aren’t large and what lies behind the figures isn’t clear.

The latest TfL Travel in London report, an annual statistical bulletin, tells us that cycling made up 4.2 per cent of “journey stages” in the capital in 2022 compared with 3.3 per cent in 2019, prior to the pandemic and the big push during that period to encourage more bike-riding. In 2013, the figure was just 1.9 per cent (table 4, page 15).

Yet other long-term yardsticks are more sobering. Go back to 2015 and the seven-day week average number if stages cycled was just under 1.1 million. In 2023, it was about 1.25 million (figure 6, page 13). It doesn’t seem enormous progress over eight years .

Other stats show that the largest percentage of cycle trips, 37 per cent, are made for leisure purposes, overtaking the percentage who make them to get to a usual place of work. Of course, there’s here’s nothing wrong with riding bicycles for fun – far from it – but the real policy prize is people choosing to cycle instead of using cars for commuting or for shopping excursions. Now and again I ask TfL if they have figures about any such switching. They haven’t yet been able to help me.

Neither is it obvious that such increases in cycling as there have been are due to new people doing it frequently. The Travel in London Report says its data suggest more people have taken up cycling on an occasional basis than have done so regularly (page 22). We cannot really tell to what extent increases in cycling are down to fresh converts to the mode or to veterans doing more of it.

The Travel in London report also acknowledges that “in the longer-term context there has been only a small change in the cycling population,” with “long-standing imbalances in the representation of certain groups” persisting. The London cycling demographic contains heavy over-representation of white males from higher-income households. That, for the avoidance of doubt, doesn’t mean cycling is a bad thing, but it underlines the importance to enlarging the demographic of broadening it.

How might such a change be best achieved? The usual answer from established cycling campaigners, a prominent and committed group of activists, lobbyists and journalists, is usually that more of the same measures that have characterised policy since Boris Johnson announced his “vision for cycling” in 2013 are required. For them, the key remains special road infrastructure hiving off space for use by cyclists alone.

The argument has always been that many Londoners say they would be more inclined to cycle if they felt less scared of the roads and, therefore increasing the amount of “protected space” will give nervous would-be cyclists the confidence they need to finally take to two wheels, realising latent “cycling potential”.

Yet we now have quite a lot of this “infra”, some of it, as in Waltham Forest, rather eccentric. And it can have significant disadvantages for other road-users and for pedestrians. TfL has just produced a review of so-called “floating bus stops”, where cycle lanes are dug through pavements to save cyclists having to overtake buses picking up passengers. Those passengers now have to cross the lane when boarding or alighting from their bus.

The review was conducted following pressure from the National Federation of the Blind of the UK, which considers floating bus stops inherently dangerous, backed by Conservative London Assembly member (AM) Emma Best. It found that two-thirds of the designs had shortcomings and that a “significant proportion” of cyclists failed to give way to pedestrians at their zebra crossings.

Reaction to the review has been instructive, with defenders of the designs stressing TfL’s conclusion that the danger they present is small. However, Sadiq Khan and Labour AM Elly Baker have picked up on the concern about cyclists’ behaviour. And not before time. A remarkable feature of London cycling advocacy has been its resolute refusal to even recognise, let alone address, the blithe and routine disinclination of vast numbers of London cyclists to consider other people or respect the most basic rules of the road.

You see it everywhere, every day: fast cycling on pavements; reckless slaloming through other traffic; red lights and zebra crossings ignored. Bike lanes themselves are avoided by some cyclists due to the boy racer mentality of others on two wheels.

Yet from champions of cycling, there is silence. Pressed on the issue, be they prominent individuals with influential organisations or solo social media agitators, they instantly change the subject to the greater danger posed by motor cars. No one denies that greater danger. This makes it all the more trying when promoters of cycling become juggernauts of whataboutery. They should be taking responsibility and showing leadership.

This points to where cycling campaigning fails. Its relentless focus on securing special treatment, with financial resources to match, allows little if any regard for those inconvenienced, alarmed and occasionally endangered by cyclists who think the Highway Code, and even basic good behaviour, is for other people. Go to Copenhagen, so often cited as an example London ought to follow, and be astonished by the civility of cyclists there compared to the casual rule-breaking and extreme sport mentality prevalent here.

There is a certain moral arrogance in play. If anything, London cyclists should feel particularly obliged to conduct themselves well, given their typically high social status. Were public money being earmarked for a small minority of middle-class white males in any other context, the Guardian, for example, would be outraged, especially were that privilege being abused. Yet even mentioning the fact in such quarters is deemed taboo, so unassailably righteous is the cycling cause held to be.

All of this makes cyclists and cycling itself off-putting. It is seen as the activity of a cocksure elite – selfish, spoiled and complacently convinced of its own virtue. That pisses other people off. Wouldn’t it be better if, instead, they were enticed and enthused?

Cycling has a very long way to go before it can be seen as a mass participation transport mode in London. Road engineering solutions, themselves worthy of broader debate, might be part of the way forward. But it is hard to see London cycling progressing faster without a better attitude, an improved mindset and a major culture change – a change that needs to be encouraged from the top.

Support OnLondon.co.uk and its writers for just £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE. Threads: DaveHillOnLondon. X/Twitter: On London and Dave Hill

Categories: Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *