London May Soon Have More Bikes Than Cars at Rush Hour

But cycling in the city still faces an uphill ride.

Image Flickr/Mario Micklisch
Riders pass through Trafalgar Square during a London bike rally. (Flickr/Mario Micklisch)

According to a new report by Transport for London (TfL) car levels in the city center have plummeted while bike numbers have risen sharply, creating a pattern that could soon see the latter overtake the former during rush-hour. Looking closely at the figures, it’s specifically the rise in bike numbers that is most striking. As cycle commuting in the city becomes more popular, bikes are taking more road space than ever.

Not that drops in car numbers aren’t impressive in their own right. According to the report, the number of rush-hour cars in Central London has more than halved since the millennium. In 2000, an average of 137,000 drivers entered the Central London cordon every day. By 2014, that number had dropped to 64,000. The slump in Central London car numbers is substantially thanks to the city’s congestion charge, introduced in 2003, which saw vehicle numbers drop steadily in the years following.

The rise in the number of cyclists, meanwhile, has been even more dramatic. While just 12,000 people cycled during the Central London rush-hour in 2000, 36,000 were present in the same area at the same time by 2014. Across the day as a whole, the number of Central London cyclists rose from 40,000 in 1990 to almost 180,000 in 2014. So cyclists still have a few years before they overtake drivers, but their numbers are rising sharply, with the speediest growth occurring since 2008.

Transport for London

For anyone sick of London’s poor air quality, that growth in bike use is surely good news. But the question remains as to whether London is making enough changes to make sure the steep rise in cycling keeps going.

Certainly, the city has already done a fair bit, and has more projects in the pipeline. Cyclist futures are being brightened by a plan to construct properly protected lanes after years of making do with cycle lanes that were really normal, unprotected roads painted blue. The crown jewel among these is the East West Cycle Superhighway, a protected two-lane route shadowing the Thames River that should be ready this summer. Elsewhere, London’s existing lanes are getting upgraded segregation, with special care being paid to classic blind spots, such as junctions.

Campaigners say this isn’t enough, pointing out that TfL will spend more renovating a single Tube station (albeit a very important one) than it will on all London’s cycle infrastructure for the next six years. At the same time, another key cycling plan has stalled. London’s Quietways network, a system of alternative backstreet cycling routes through the capital, has been delayed mainly because planning for smaller roads sits with local boroughs rather than with TfL.

Bike infrastructure isn’t the only cause for concern. If you look at TfL’s own figures, you’ll see that the major reduction in Central London driving all happened a while back. Since 2009, the number of cars has at times risen and fallen without any notable downward trend. There could be some further driver reductions if—and this is a sizable if—plans such as those to pedestrianize heavily polluted central Oxford Street are pushed through. London’s cycling boom may seem unstoppable, but the city has a ways to go to make sure the sharp peak in bike commuting doesn’t smooth out to a gentle slope.

About the Author

  • Feargus O'Sullivan is a London-based contributing writer to CityLab, with a focus on Europe.