In early May, as part of his emerging programme to reduce Transport for London to a supplicant annex of national government, Boris Johnson said an outcome of new measures to make public transport Covid-safe should be “a new golden age for cycling.” On the same day, Sadiq Khan announced his Streetspace programme, which included the “fast-tracked” introduction of “temporary” bikes routes sufficient to accommodate “a possible ten-fold increase” in the number of kilometres previously cycled once lockdown restrictions were eased.
Soon, cycling campaigners were speaking of a “race against time” to get the instant cycle infrastructure in place before severe new social distancing restrictions on public transport capacity produced a “car led-recovery” instead, leading to gridlock and a return to the high levels of air pollution London had endured before the coronavirus chased cars off the roads. But within a month a TfL chief was warning that motor traffic levels were already back up to 80 per cent of pre-lockdown levels and rising. Will the “new golden age” come to pass?
Yesterday, Guardian cycling campaigner Peter Walker concluded from a round trip in south London that the post-Covid capital is “in deep trouble” unless “almost every major road” has a temporary bike lane put on it “with a commitment to make them permanent in time”. A “pivotal point” has been reached, he wrote, because even escalating congestion would not persuade people to forsake driving “as they feel there’s no other way”.
Anxiety about the city becoming one almighty snarl-up is certainly justified, though perhaps the government-required increase in the “level and scope” of the congestion charge will have some mitigating effect. However, behind Walker’s plea lie assumptions that underpin the arguments of London cycling activists across the board and seem to now be firmly established at City Hall and Transport for London too – assumptions that might not be quite as invincible as many cycling campaigners strongly believe.
One of these assumptions is that a very large number of Londoners would really like to get around by bicycle rather than by private motor vehicles or public transport but dare not do so because they fear London’s roads are too dangerous. The other is that this road safety fear would be massively reduced if only there were far more segregated lanes and other forms of protective road infrastructure for cyclists added to London’s streets.
The first assumption rests on calculations of a theoretical potential for more cycling to take place. TfL produced an interesting one in 2010 and an updated version in 2017. More recently, the Guardian has publicised a calculation that with “rapid changes to road layouts” and other policies “up to half of all public transport journeys [nationally]” of a certain distance “could be made by bike or on foot” and a survey has found high levels of backing among Londoners for more and larger special bicycle lanes, including making temporary ones permanent.
The second assumption is that realising the potential for more cycling held to have been identified would be substantially realised by alterations to the design of roads to make them safer, or at least perceived to be so. The basis for the strong – indeed, it often seems unshakable – conviction that dedicated cycling road infrastructure is the magic bullet means for unleashing a wave of pent-up cycling desire is that the installation of such infrastructure in other European cities is the reason why a lot of cycling happens in them. Hence, the London Cycling Campaign’s “Go Dutch” campaign of a few years back and the “mini-Holland” borough cycling schemes funded by Boris Johnson during his second term as London Mayor.
There are, though, problems with these assumptions, one of which is that they reinforce each other more effectively than they provide evidence for much current London cycling policy. Coming up with figures for the amount of additional cycling that could be done if more people chose to cycle is not automatically the same thing as the amount that would be done if the changes to road design believed necessary to bring that additional cycling about were made.
The formula relied on by campaigners like Walker and Boris Johnson’s mayoral “cycling commissioner” Andrew Gilligan (now his transport adviser) is that more safety infrastructure is what brings about more cycling, much as night follows day, a belief summarised in the slogan “build it and they will come”. However, pre-Covid analysis by TfL of how much cycling was happening on its infrastructure-transformed roads and by whom did not really bear this out.
Moreover, the history of Dutch city cycling cultures doesn’t support the view that cycling infrastructure was their primary cause, certainly not in any straightforward cause-and-effect way: Amsterdam’s, for example, emerged from a long period of quarrels and compromises, in which lanes were installed to discipline cyclists rather than to liberate them. And Copenhagen’s cycling renaissance in the 1980s was nurtured by a combination of factors, including post-oil crisis financial necessity and motor traffic controls, with lanes just one part of a policy mix that evolved against the backdrop legacy of a mass cycling society between the wars.
There are other ways to alter road arrangements that can encourage cycling, such as filtering and restraining car use. These can work well. And, in fairness, Streetspace gets behind these principles too. But the “build it and they will come” slogan screens out a range of reasons other than safety concerns why Londoners say they don’t cycle.
It remains very much the case – perhaps more so than ever – that London’s cycling demographic is dominated by a very narrow section of the London population: they remain, in TfL’s words about its infrastructure routes last year, “mostly white, male, middle-aged, middle and high-income people who cycle regularly”.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that that such people are bad or that cycling is a bad thing. What it does mean is that safety infrastructure is not a universal solvent of resistance to taking up cycling. Therefore there have to be reasons other than road safety concerns – to do with class, culture, gender, aspiration, occupation and so on – that explain why other groups of Londoners don’t cycle in numbers proportionate to their presence in the population. Breaking down those barriers requires understanding them, not dismissing them. A study from 2011 holds up extremely well.
Another problem might be that London’s most fervent cycling activism has become a kind of identity politics, in which riding a bicycle is not simply a means of transport but a signifier of an entire value system, one we see proudly and sometimes aggressively depicted and enacted through Twitter. This sort of attitude risks putting some people off – there have been discouraging data about the number of Londoners who think cycling is “not for people like me”.
It also tends to inspire rather fanciful claims about cycling, such as that cycling, of itself, lessens pollution. Bicycles are impressive feats of engineering but, as yet, they do not have the capacity to clean air. If large numbers of people can be shown to be switching from using motorised transport modes to riding bicycles, then the claim might stack up, but TfL says it has no figures on this.
Such cycling activism also tends to display a somewhat fundamentalist insistence that the only thing preventing the current approach from so far producing the “cycle revolution” promised when it was introduced is that it simply hasn’t gone far enough. The mere suggestion that the new road infrastructure might not be honouring its manifesto pledges or that additional or alternative policies might produce better results is routinely attacked as “anti-cycling”. Could anything be less logical? Do we want more people cycling or don’t we?
The current shake-out of London’s transport networks caused by the coronavirus is still at a very early stage. Maybe the (for now) temporary road changes and the proposals for banning cars from some streets in Central London will indeed nurture more cycling among more Londoners than before in the long term. But even if it does, changes much larger and broader than simply building bicycles lanes will have to take place before any “golden age” can be proclaimed.
Photograph: A new cycle lane along Park Lane.
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