Recent figures from Transport for London (TfL) indicating that, as yet, new cycling infrastructure is failing to have the effect of broadening the range of Londoners choosing to get around the city by bicycle seem to underline that nurturing a mass, mainstream cycling culture in the capital may require something more than redesigning roads.
When Boris Johnson published his Vision for Cycling in 2013, he claimed that a combination of new, dedicated fast routes “for cyclists in a hurry” and “quietway” routes would help to meet his wish for “more women cycling, more older people cycling, more black and minority ethnic Londoners cycling, more cyclists of all social backgrounds” switching to pedal power “without which truly mass participation can never come”.
Johnson’s successor as London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has altered some of the latter’s plans, but a central stress on segregated (or “protected”) lanes has remained. Meanwhile, TfL’s analysis of its new data says “the demographic profile of people who cycle on new infrastructure is not significantly different from those who cycle as whole” and that those people continue to be “mostly white, male, middle-aged and high income people who cycle regularly”.
How, then, can London encourage the much more diverse – and therefore much larger – population of cyclists Johnson rightly wanted to see?
TfL recognises that there are reasons – of culture, of gender, of identity – why some sorts of Londoners take up cycling and others don’t. Its most recent annual Travel in London report acknowledged a problem with “the image of cycling”, and the transport body is trying to address this by funding a variety of local schemes, organised through the social and environmental regeneration charity Groundwork.
These schemes seek to encourage cycling among groups of Londoners currently under-represented in the capital’s cycling population. At the start of this year, three-year grants of up to £10,000 were announced to fund 30 schemes across the capital. They included projects to encourage families, children, girls and young women in Ealing and older people to Hammersmith & Fulham and refugees from Syria to see cycling as something people like them can do, along with others where young offenders are taught bike maintenance.
One course, led by Access Sport, is for women working for two East London NHS hospitals. Ivy and Maria (pictured above, left and right), who are with the Royal London, have been frequent attenders and seem to be making good progress. Maria was a complete beginner, while Ivy had never ridden on city roads before. Their lessons involve cycling out with instructors from their meeting place, the St George’s Leisure Centre in Shadwell on The Highway, a potentially intimidating road connecting Limehouse with Tower Hill.
Maria said she thinks being in an all-female group has helped her, “because we have similar aspirations and similar fears”. For her, these fears have been, initially, simply being confident of keeping her balance and, later, of fellow road-users, ranging from “other bikers to buses”. Maria likes the sense of security she gets from a protected lane and says she finds most fellow cyclists to be considerate, but adds, “there are times when they can be be quite scary, because they don’t realise we are learners while they just want to get to where they are going as soon as possible”.
She also feels that schemes like Access Sport’s should be more widely advertised, remarking that many women in her age group don’t know how to ride a bike, and that particular effort should made to target mothers: “I think they could have more fun with their children if they cycled together.” As yet, Maria doesn’t own a bike of her own and, as a resident of outer south-east London, is far from considering cycling all the way to work each day. A public transport-user, she thinks a first step to independent bicycle travel might be riding from London Bridge station to her job, and also on local streets and in parks.
Ivy learned to ride in her country of birth, the Philippines, though doing so in London is a very different thing, with all its traffic and rules of the road: “It’s quite nerve wracking.” Her awareness of road safety issues is sharpened by working in accident and emergency. Even so, she is already discovering cycling’s pleasures: being in the open rather than crushed in a bus or Underground carriage; the relaxing properties of exercise. Ivy too is yet to buy a bike of her own, and says she won’t until her confidence is greater – “I don’t want to buy one and then not use it” – and won’t commute on it if she does, as she lives only a short walk from her place of work. Rather, she anticipates cycling for health and for pleasure.
The numbers attending this particular class have a dropped a little since it began – down from around ten each week to maybe half that. But some attrition is always to be expected and Ivy and Maria attribute it to hospital staff’s unpredictable work patterns rather than the quality of the course. There are plans to open it up to members of the leisure centre too. Maybe low profile but creative initiatives such as these can have a bigger part to play in making cycling truly a mode of transport for all Londoners of all kinds.
On London, in partnership with the London Society, has organised a panel discussion about London’s cycling policies and how they might be helped to work better. It will take place on 3 September and it would be great to see lots of On London readers there. Buy your tickets here.