London's Plan to Move Cyclists to Side Streets

This may actually make sense, thanks to the city's unique street design.

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Javi Sánchez de la viña/Flickr

After years of planning, London is finally poised to witness a quiet revolution for two-wheeled transport: an exhaustive citywide network of new cycle routes. This overhaul will nonetheless be coming with a substantial twist. As a visitor to the city, you might possibly never come across a single one of the new routes unless you really try.

That’s because outside of the center, so many of them will be squirrelled away on streets where people other than residents and delivery vans rarely venture. Dubbed Quietways, these routes (due to start their staggered launch in September and being constructed right now) will stick almost entirely to the back roads.

It may sound like a cop-out, but there’s some intelligent thinking to the scheme that makes it more than a ruse to tidy cyclists away under the carpet. For a start, London’s unique street design suits the idea brilliantly, which is why many London cyclists have used their own, unofficial versions of the networks for years. In the city’s core, streets are often too narrow to allow smooth flowing car traffic anyway, while London’s early love affair with streetcar suburbia means that it has nearly endless leafy streets for cyclists to weave through. The purpose of the routes is not to give users a tour of English domestic architecture, of course, but traveling these roads can be a revelation, opening up a handsome, less familiar London full of peace and elegant moderation.

The idea behind making these streets more cycling-friendly is simple, but impressive. As this excellent Cyclists in the City piece from last year details, London cyclists often get snarled up in traffic control systems designed to prevent cars from turning side streets into rat runs. The new Quietways are designed to help bikes avoid these issues by turning one-way streets for cars into two-way streets for bikes, beckoning cyclists along lanes blocked to cars with bollards. Old barriers that sometimes force riders to dismount will be smoothed away, while road markings will be made clearer.

The lanes’ creators are also thinking about how bikes will interact with other traffic. To lessen the jarring screech and surge typical of city cars hitting intersection after intersection, traffic lights will be reduced in favor of raised, speed table pedestrian crossings (possibly with Belisha Beacons), which are thought to be better at slowing cars while keeping streets free flowing. Yet to be finalized, a provisional, flawed map (posted below) of the lane plan for central London alone shows that, even without fully segregated lanes, there’s ambition at work here. Intuitive, step-by step improvements like this are the sort of thing that make city cycling tenable.

But is it enough? Probably not. There’s a worrying trend in "new" concepts for London cycling. Whether they hide bikes away in back alleys or give them the Robert Moses treatment on elevated "skyways," they’re all about ceding the lion’s share of the current road network to cars. Londoners are losing confidence in the current bike lane network – their naming as “superhighways” seeming increasingly ludicrous – after a series of recent deaths. But Mayor Boris Johnson seems unwilling to antagonize the road lobby by creating the sort of lane segregation that real safety requires. Put baldly, this is only going to mean yet more death, even as the city trumpets yet further how it is making London into a New Holland. Creating an alternative shadow network is far better than leaving cyclists entirely vulnerable, especially if real ingenuity is going into reshaping road architecture. But creating a sense that main roads are motor traffic’s rightful possession is hardly likely to improve road safety. Thanks to the new Quietways, bike transit across London should become a lot smoother, but they’re not yet a sign that the battle for cycling safety has been won.

Top image: Flickr user Javi Sánchez de la viña

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