Dave Hill: Will the pandemic produce a London cycling ‘golden age’?

Dave Hill: Will the pandemic produce a London cycling ‘golden age’?

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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Categories: Comment


  1. Guy Lambert says:

    I’m a fairly recent convert to travelling by bicycle. I think there are several inhibitors
    1) Safe infrastructure, where it exists, is incomplete. It tends to disappear as soon as the road gets really dangerous, EG at junctions. Minor junctions have overt car priority. Major junctions are usually a free for all.
    2) Culture wars. Cyclists are seen as the enemy – ignoring the rules, getting in the way, trying to occupy the moral high ground. We need to move to a culture of coexistence, and cyclists have a serious part to play in this.
    3) Cycles are crap. My car is 15 years old, has covered 130,000 miles and has never broken down nor had a puncture in the 7 years I’ve had it. Barely a week goes by without some kind of issue with my bike, usually the gears or tyres. Plus most don’t have lights, mudguards, racks fitted as standard. And they – or bits – get nicked all the time (I’ve had £2.50 lights and even a spare inner tube nicked)
    4) There is no real enforcement against motorists. Yes, I know, there isn’t against cyclists either, but it’s very hard to injure or kill anybody with a bicycle, easy with a car. Very few obey speed limits (esp 20mph); many don’t respect cycle advanced stop lines; many text and phone on the move. Local authorities (who might enforce) have no powers, police have no resource.

  2. Paul Gannon says:

    Hi Dave, I’ve tweeted you three times asking for some source(s) for your suggestion that Amsterdam’s bike lanes were installed to ‘discipline’ cyclists, but not had any reply. I’ve now written a blog on the subject based on Fred Feddes’s book ‘Bike City Amsterdam’ where he details the history of the network with no hint of anything being done in order to discipline cyclists. I’d like to invite you to read the blog &, to ensure balance, provide your source(s) in a comment to my blog, thanks, Paul Gannon: https://cyclableblog.wordpress.com/2020/07/14/bike-city-amsterdam-a-manual-for-changing-the-world/

    1. Dave Hill says:

      Hello Paul. I don’t have time to respond to every request for this or that on Twitter. I’m afraid I didn’t even know you had made one. There is a link to a relevant Guardian article about a history of European cycling. It’s all in there. I don’t accept any simple and exclusive cause-effect relationship between the existence of bicycle lanes and the amount of cycling. Nothing is ever quite that simple.

      1. Paul Gannon says:

        Thanks for the reply. The link in the article doesn’t clear the matter up very well as what you say there is rather different to the point you make in this blog posting and you don’t cite any quote from the book you mention that can confirm and contextualise the suggestion. I recommend you consult Feddes’s book, Bike City Amsterdam. I found no hint in that detailed book that disciplining cyclists was a motivating factor in Amsterdam deciding to build a cycle network, indeed the opposite seems the case. Interestingly, given the class reference in your earlier article that you link to, in Amsterdam, Feddes’s book tells us, the transport & planning briefs traditionally went to the the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) & they were, until the mid-1970s, pro-car. As Feddes points out, it was the PvdA’s change of policy to favour vulnerable road users (women, elderly & children) and appointment of pro-cycling aldermen to the transport & planning briefs that was the most significant factor.

  3. Elizabeth Racki says:

    A well balanced and informative article, thanks. The sudden imposition of road closures has shocked and worried me. So many signs, fines, threats, cameras, road markings… as a motorist I need to watch the road and drive safely. Lately my head swivels like a meerkat and I can no longer navigate roads I’ve known for fifty years as a safe motorist. Children, babies and elderly/vulnerable people are safer in a car. A cyclist is as vulnerable as a pedestrian walking along the middle of a road. At night in dark clothes and no lights they are all but invisible. I love a bike ride but it’s not a good form of transport for luggage, work tools, heavy kit, shopping, deliveries, etc etc. Both my sisters, fit as butchers’ dogs and keen cyclists had regular falls and scrapes, fractures and bones broken. I’m 70 and don’t fancy any of it! Not in rain/wind/snow/late at night/ long distances. It took me many years of public transport, various motor bikes and long, dark walks home before I could afford a car. I’m sticking with it. Want a lift?

  4. Philip Virgo says:

    Is there any sign that the LTNs have had any effect other than causing jams and increased pollution (from stationary vehicles) on the roads to which traffic has been re-routed. Has there been any increase in the use of cycles by the young, poor and non-white population? Have there be any attempts to find out why not? Is it correct that there has, instead, been a substantial increase in the use of scooters because they are much easier to store securely at home, at school and at work.

  5. Kim says:

    Thanks Dave, this is such a good summary of the background to funding for an imagined ‘golden age of cycling’ under the pandemic. You question all the assumptions that is based on really well.
    I love your open minded approach. I am a cyclist & non driver living in Hackney, but I find the cycling campaigners are incredibly blinkered & belligerent in their attitude & unfortunately the council have whole heartedly adopted the same stance. Paul Gannon, who I noticed had taken exception to your article in comments is a good example of this. I am a cyclist but I also have disabled family members & no thought has been put in to the needs of blue badge holders or elderly residents etc. The Council have shown absolute distain for the wider community in Hackney in imposing such a comprehensive LTN scheme with no equality impact survey, pre-consultation with residents or pre-measures of traffic & pollution levels. They have abused the pandemic situation, causing a lot of new congestion & pollution on roads with bus routes that traffic has been funnelled on to.

  6. Carmen Drysdale says:

    The approach to cycling and LTNs has all the hallmarks of bullying. If people were being forced to walk or cycle in other countries we would be shouting about liberty. These LTNs have a bad taste of cycling communism.
    It takes no account of, health or wealth. It is creating walk/cycle poverty- those who may lose jobs because they cannot work flexible hours that allow them to walk/cycle to the childminder, breakfast club, work and then in reverse to meet all the time restraints these activities demand.

    Those who suffer from illnesses, for the fatigue that comes with long covid, are not classified as disabled but need their car to bridge the energy gap between their home, bus stop or train station so that they can continue to work rather than depend on the state.

    I could go on but the blinkered approach to The Golden Age of Cycling falls on closed ears and resembles the tunnel vision that an athelete has when they crouch at the start line.

  7. Guy Lambert says:

    Nobody is forcing anybody to walk or cycle!
    The vast majority of road space is allocated to the storage and movement of motor vehicles. In London, 30-40% of people have no access to a motorised vehicle. Nearly everyone has access to walking and access to cycling is available for not much money to the vast majority of people.
    At times in the summer in outer London, motorised traffic levels returned to the same level we had experienced before the pandemic, despite many people still furloughed or working from home. People are less willing to use public transport, which in any case has greatly reduced capacity, at least for the short/medium term.
    If some people do not alter their travel habits to undertake some journeys via active means away from motorised vehicles, we are likely to experience widespread gridlock when something near normal life resumes. And of course the many deaths caused by air pollution, traffic accidents and ill-health associated with an inactive lifestyle will continue or increase.

  8. Eric Phillips says:

    It’s nice to read so many views on both the cyclist and the vehicle drivers, I’m 76 disabled and still drive, I understand cyclists need to be safe as much as myself. Due to the many road closures in and around London Fields I have not been able to get around much these days, unfortunately I had to take my car for a service in South Woodford, sadly I could not use Richmond Road as this is now a bus gate only so I had been forced to use Landsdowne drive making sure I used i use the bus gates on time, unfortunately my clock was six minutes slower the Hackney Councils clock and was issued with a penalty notice. I can’t understand why Richmond Road bus gate can’t have a time limit like the one in Landsdowne drive?

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