“Imagine if we could invent something that cut road and rail crowding, cut noise, cut pollution and ill-health,” Johnson, a keen cyclist, wrote in its foreword to the document. “Something that improved life for everyone. Well, we invented it 200 years ago: the bicycle.”
Johnson promised “a proper network of cycling routes throughout the city”. He pictured cycling becoming “an integral part of the transport network” with a greatly increased provision of special road infrastructure “above all for the huge numbers of Londoners who would like to cycle but presently feel unable to”. And he declared: “I want more women cycling, more older people cycling, more black and minority ethnic Londoners cycling, more cyclists of all social backgrounds – without which truly mass participation can never come.”
In May 2016, Sadiq Khan succeeded Johnson as Mayor. He too sketched a big cycling vision. “My aim is to make London a byword for cycling around the world,” his election manifesto said. Khan pledged to increase the proportion of TfL’s budget spent on cycling, to continue with the “cycle superhighway” programme Johnson had introduced with “a focus on segregated provision”, and more.
The pandemic led to further momentum being added to cycling policy through the Streetspace programme, a short order set of road space management schemes which included new segregated lanes for cycling, along with new Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. City Hall and TfL said these would combine making social distancing easier with making riding a bicycle more attractive and that, as a result, “cycling could increase ten-fold post-lockdown“. They were temporary arrangements described as possibly becoming permanent, and many have.
In early 2021 Khan’s manifesto for the next mayoral election, held in May of that year having been delayed by Covid, said he would be “supporting a revolution” in cycling, boasting that his extended first term had seen “the length of of protected bike lanes increase five-fold” and vowing to work with local authorities to bring about more “cycling-friendly schemes”.
So here we are in spring 2023. Transport for London is continuing to implement a cycling action plan, produced in 2018, which includes “more than 450 kilometres [28o miles] of new cycleway routes” being built by 2024 and aims to expand the capital’s cycle network so that, in TfL’s words, it “reaches a third of Londoners by 2025”. A crowded TfL map shows cycleways of various kinds (below).
But how much more actual cycling is taking place in London compared with before the implementation of Mayor Johnson’s 2013 vision and its successors? How many more people – a different thing from the amount of cycling – are choosing to cycle instead of travelling by other means? What sorts of people are they? Has the investment in changing roads to encourage more cycling been justified by the outcomes? Are the goals of cycling policy being achieved?
The most recent annual Travel in London Report, published at the end of last year, contains many Transport for London statistics about the quantity of cycling taking place in London in the past few years and how it has changed over a longer period.
A table (on page 61) shows the estimated average numbers of “journey stages” taken in London each day, including weekends, by different modes of travel between 2000 and 2021 (a journey stage is defined as part of a one-way excursion from one place to another, in which other stages might have been undertaken using different modes).
In 2000 an estimated average of 300,000 journey stages were taken by bicycle each day. By 2012, Olympics year, that estimated figure had doubled to 600,000 a day. And in 2021, eight years after Johnson’s cycling vision had been published, it was put at 900,000.
A very similar pattern is shown in the estimates for the average number of daily trips over the same period (page 59), a “trip” being defined as an entire one-way excursion and the estimate being for the mode typically used for covering the longest distance within it. In this case, the change was from 300,000 a day in 2000 to 800,000 a day by 2021.
This clear upward trend does, however, need to be assessed within wider contexts. Travel in London Report 15 also tells us that between 2000 and 2019 – the last full year before the pandemic – there was an increase in the average number of journey stages completed daily by all modes of transport (including walking) of 24.6 per cent, and one of 19.3 per cent in the average for trips, a period during which London’s population also went up continuously.
Cycling, strikingly, saw the biggest percentage increase during that period (followed by those for rail and buses). However, it was from a very low starting point. A graph on page 60, reproduced below, shows that cycling continues to account for a very small percentage of travel in London.
Moreover (page 97):
“The story of cycling in London over the last two decades is one of strong growth throughout the 2000s and first half of the 2010s (particularly for journeys starting or ending in central London) followed by a reduction in the rate of growth from around 2015 and until the outbreak of the pandemic.”
Why the reduction in the growth rate from around 2015? That, after all, was when the first of Mayor Johnson’s segregated superhighways was opened (and there had been unsegregated ones since 2010).
Travel in London Report 15 says it “probably reflected the general slowing of growth in travel over this period, as well as diminishing returns effects in the next phase of unlocking cycling potential after the initial rapid gains”. That said, an increase in the rate of growth rather than a fall would clearly have been preferable from the point of the view of Mayors Johnson and Khan, given the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on encouraging more cycling.
There are also questions to consider about who has been doing such additional cycling as there has been. A TfL analysis of cycling potential produced in 2010 as Mayor Johnson’s earliest cycling policies were coming into effect stated (page 46): “At present, those most likely to cycle are white men aged 25 to 44. Current cyclists have a higher than average income and are more likely to be resident in inner London”.
The graph below (from page 103 of Travel in London Report 15) covers 2010/11 until 2021/22 and shows that very little has changed since then. Cycling in London remains very much the transport choice of people at higher end of the household income scale. They are still also likely to be in the 24-44 age group, far more likely to be men than women, and overwhelmingly more likely to be white than Asian or black.
Of course, the fact that affluent, young (and youngish) white males dominate the London cycling demographic doesn’t mean they are bad people or that cycling is a bad thing. It does, however, show that Boris Johnson’s stated desire in 2013 to see more women, people from London’s ethnic minority populations and from all social backgrounds – “without which,” as he correctly put it, “truly mass participation can never come” – has not yet been fulfilled.
The 2010 TfL analysis of cycling potential might be seen as anticipating this. It said the growth in cycle travel between 2001 and 2008 was “largely caused by cyclists increasing their cycle trip-making” rather than by the number of people cycling going up: “There is no evidence of a net increase in the number of cyclists overall.” This was before the Johnson mayoralty and its cycling policies.
The TfL analysis also said: “It is reasonable to assume that it may be easier to persuade and enable existing cyclists to cycle more frequently than to encourage others to cycle for the first time,” and added: “There remains potential to increase cycle travel even amongst those who cycle the most frequently.”
These assessments were backed by survey findings showing that frequent and infrequent cyclists alike were far more likely than non-cyclists to say that a trip they currently took using a different mode could or might be cycled instead. The analysis concluded: “There is significant potential [for growth] amongst those groups of the population already more likely to cycle – there are many people who are ‘just like’ cyclists but don’t cycle”.
To elucidate the types of Londoners keenest on cycling, a “cycle market segmentation” table was produced (page 34, shown below).
In 2016, soon after Sadiq Khan was first elected Mayor, TfL produced a new analysis of cycling potential. This echoed the 2010 analysis in seeing scope for white, male 25 to 44-years-olds with jobs doing more cycling than they were already, but also stressed that for significantly more trips and journey stages to be made by bicycle rather than by other means would mean “changing cycling demographics” and that “targeting new cyclists is key to realising the cycling potential”.
Six years on, Travel in London Report 15 suggests this has not yet occurred. At the same time, it has been hard to be sure to what extent the accumulation of new cycling infrastructure has nurtured more cycling or more cyclists of whatever age, sex, occupation or ethnicity than there were before. It is also difficult to measure the degree to which Londoners have been persuaded to switch to cycling from using other forms of transport.
Early in Sadiq Khan’s first term TfL reported strong take up of the showcase central London superhighways and provided figures they thought indicated some degree of switching from bus and Tube use to bicycles (more so from the latter whose ridership profile is more like of the cycling population). However, TfL, when asked the other week, said it has no data about any switching from car driving to cycling, which is the change – from an unsustainable mode to a sustainable one – wanted most of all.
Have the new infrastructure routes attracting new cyclists? A July 2019 TfL cycling trends update, which looked at what was happening on them, found that the social profile of their users did not differ significantly from that of the Londoner cycling population as a whole. It also found that although there was more cycling than before on all the new infrastructure routes assessed, it wasn’t yet possible to say if that was because their existence was prompting more people to cycle or because people who already cycled were abandoning their previous routes to make use of the cycle-exclusive new ones.
And what effect did the Covid-period, with its Streetspace interventions have? Travel patterns changed dramatically under lockdown of course, with bus and Tube use almost drying up for a while.
Travel in London Report 15 treats some of the data from that period with caution, but says it is “clear from the 2022 counts undertaken in spring following the removal of most pandemic restrictions…that the pandemic was associated with a net step increase in cycling”.
By this they mean “18 per cent more kilometres cycled on weekdays across London than in 2019 before the pandemic, led by 27 per cent in central London”. There was also a much bigger increase in cycling at weekend, taken to be cycling for leisure purposes. The percentage changes are represented in the graph below.
What TfL terms a “net step increase” might be seen by others as no big deal: a hefty percentage increase compared with 2019, even if sustained, still amounts to a small percentage of trips and journeys overall and TfL and City Hall are well aware that large sections of London’s population who could, in theory, switch to cycling from driving or taking the bus or Tube still haven’t done so. Why is that? And what can be done to change it?
The consistent, firm conviction at City Hall, within TfL and in cycling activist circles has been that the golden key to making London a true cycling city is redesigning roads to give cyclists “protected space”. The maxim “build it and they will come” has been common currency of the administrations of Johnson and Khan. To mix mobility metaphors, they believe dedicated bike lanes and other road design measures will lift all ships.
As TfL’s own research shows, that hasn’t happened yet: affluent white males in their mid-twenties to mid-forties have continued to be the main beneficiaries of cycling policy with very limited signs of other categories of Londoners joining them. This is a problem for cycling policy objectives, and it isn’t ultimately one of diversity. It’s one of volume. To again borrow the words of Mayor Johnson “true mass participation can never come” unless a far wider range of London’s choose to cycle instead of travelling by other means.
Perhaps that will gradually, eventually start to change: if TfL and the boroughs keep on building, not just lanes but storage and parking spaces, maybe more types of Londoners will come along to swell the still small cycling population. But given where we are, it’s worth at least reflecting on what informs the argument that altering roads is the best way to create greater safety – together with a confidence-building feeling of it – and, as a result, a larger cycling population.
The logic of the case can be quite easily traced. For example, the 2010 TfL analysis of cycling potential described concerns about safety as “the most significant barrier to cycling in general and for specific trips”. This seems unlikely to have been lessened by high levels of media coverage given to London cyclists’ deaths, perhaps intensified by the very fact that Johnson had policies that aimed to reduce them. The saddest and most extreme example was a period of less than a fortnight in November 2013 when six cycling fatalities occurred, prompting the then Met Police Commissioner to urge all road-users to take greater care.
Running alongside and reinforcing the argument for special infrastructure was the (still current) aspiration to emulate the high levels of cycling found in some other European cities, most particularly Copenhagen and Amsterdam. The existence of conspicuous amounts of special cycling infrastructure in those two cities is taken as proof that its supply does indeed persuade many more people to take to two wheels.
Hence, the London Cycling Campaign ran a publicity programme called “Go Dutch” which sought to persuade transport authorities to build segregated lanes like those in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities. And after Johnson announced in 2013 that £913 million of TfL money would be spent on cycling projects over the next ten years, some of it was earmarked for what were called “mini-Holland” infrastructure programmes in specific boroughs.
But given the rather limited progress so far towards Johnson’s “mass participation” goal it might be worth reflecting on whether the relationship between special cycling infrastructure, the road safety of cyclists and the attraction of cycling for Londoners is as straightforward as it might seem.
As Full Fact showed at the time, that 2013 cluster of cyclist deaths belied a long-term trend of a fall in the rate of cycling deaths on London’s roads going back to the early 1990s. A few months later Boris Johnson’s very own cycling adviser made the same point and complained that “any attempt to say that cycling is actually quite safe and getting safer” in the wake of another cyclist’s death “was swept aside” by a wave of claims about its extreme danger. Although he also argued that segregated space should be provided, he wrote: “The presence of mass cycling on London’s roads has changed drivers’ behaviour. London drivers now are more aware of cyclists and more considerate to them.”
The idea that greater safety can be achieved by cyclists asserting their presence in the main carriageway used to be quite mainstream (there was even a campaign group devoted to that end called “critical mass”). It is now rarely aired. Neither is the view that hiving cyclists off into a separate lane on the left hand side of roads can make turning right more dangerous. The pro-“protected space” voice has become the only one loudly heard.
Whatever the justification for public anxiety about cycling safety, its existence strengthened resolve that it needed to be addressed and that “infra” was the way to go. “Something had to be seen to be being done,” as one senior transport figure of the time puts it. And it has been. Yet even if we accept that more road segregation increases cyclists’ safety, this hasn’t – at least not yet – had the effect of broadening and so enlarging the cycling population base on anything like the scale needed to fulfil the potential identified by TfL’s analyses.
Why is that? Even raising the question can be quite risky. When Sadiq Khan’s cycling and walking commissioner addressed it publicly in 2018, he was rebuked by campaigners who insisted that infrastructure was still the answer. Journalism about cycling, much of which has a pro-infrastructure campaigning quality, rarely considers the subject.
The Guardian, which might be expected to be sympathetic to concerns that large sums of public money are being spent on public amenities enabling the lifestyle choices of a small group of middle-class white males, has been positively disapproving of the issue being highlighted. “Leave class out of the London cycling debate,” insisted one of their writers in 2015. More recently, those who recognise that cycling seems not to appeal to poorer Londoners have been rather sneeringly dismissed in Britain’s leading outlet for progressive values as conspiracy cranks. The Bicycle Association launching a “diversity in cycling” project last month was a rare breaking of the silence.
Yet getting to the root of why cycling mainly appeals to only a very narrow section of London’s population seems a prerequisite for widening it. A previous Travel in London Report included responses to a survey about why people didn’t cycle. Many said it simply wasn’t for “people like me” – a viewpoint inviting closer investigation.
Insights into this had already emerged in a 2011 study, co-commissioned by TfL. It established an overlap between being someone who cycles and a set of values bound up with class, ethnicity, taste, status and aspiration which others do not share. This seems to be reflected in the ways London cycling activists present themselves on social media, defining themselves by their preferred mode of transport: the cyclist as a form of social identity with sometimes aggressive identity politics to match.
This relates to the matter of whether the style and tone of cycling activism puts off more people than it enthuses, inadvertently reinforcing a form of exclusivity rather than dissolving it. Is more infrastructure an answer to such a problem? Can you engineer your way past a cultural barrier? It might not help that leaders of the cycling lobby seem so reluctant to even acknowledge, let alone condemn, cyclists routinely ignoring red lights and zebra crossings, speeding along pavements and so on.
If Copenhagen is the model they want London, a much larger city, to follow, they might learn from Jan Gehl, the celebrated guiding spirit behind the way the Danish capital works. Interviewed in 2014, Gehl said cycling infrastructure shouldn’t be there for “people who consider cycling an extreme sport”. A “superhighway” mentality, with cycling taken up because it means getting from A to B at greater speed, is not desirable. Neither is “demanding the right of way and thinking that children and old people are just as bad as cars. You hear such cyclists argue that because they don’t have good conditions on the roads it makes it alright for them to break the law,” Gehl said. “And, of course, that makes them very unpopular and makes it harder for a proper cycling culture to break through.”
Some of the new bike infrastructure is experienced by non-cyclists as a nuisance or even a danger to them. The Waltham Forest “mini-Holland”, hailed by some – though not all – as a triumph, includes cycle lanes cutting through and across pavements. Claims that lanes on main roads have contributed to making London’s bus services slower are dismissed with chortling condescension by some cycling ultras, but bus service bosses quietly take a different view.
It has been left to pro-car Conservatives to raise the alarm about cyclists ignoring the rules of so-called “bus stop by-passes” created for their convenience in the name of safety. Many cycling campaigners regard themselves as vanguard progressives, leading from the front in the battles against against pollution, climate change and congestion. Yet few seem troubled by the symbolism of older, sometimes disabled and often poorer people, perhaps with physically tiring jobs, in charge of small children or carrying heavy bags of shopping, having to stand back and make way as fit young men with tidy salaries take precedence over them, sailing past along taxpayer-funded expressways.
That might be a harsh way of looking at it. But can it be confidently said that a lot of Londoners who, for all sorts of reasons, are unlikely ever to take up riding a bicycle in preference to catching a bus or driving a car, don’t feel that way? If not, where does that leave the pursuit of mass participation cycling?
The case for transport policy encouraging more use of bicycles is very strong for three main reasons: cycling produces no air pollution or other harmful emissions; although the bus is the street transport mode that uses road space most efficiently in terms of moving people around, bicycles do so more efficiently than cars, certainly those carrying fewer than three people; cycling, being a good form of exercise, has considerable benefits for public health.
The issue is not whether more cycling is a good or a bad thing – its is quite obviously a good thing – but whether the priorities of cycling policy and the approach of pro-cycling campaigning in the last ten years have been the right ones.
Have concerns about road safety, though perfectly right and proper, taken undue precedence, perhaps overly influenced by campaigners and misplaced public opinion. Have the means used to address them been the most effective available? Has too much faith been placed in new road infrastructure to bring about change and too little attention been paid to other reasons why so many groups of Londoners – age groups, income groups, ethnic groups and women – might feel cycling is not for “people like us”? Has pro-cycling campaigning become a hindrance to enlarging the cycling demographic rather than a help?
The answers to such questions are not yet clear. Perhaps more people should be asking them.