Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
London's bicycle advocates say they're fed up with a city government that promotes cycling but isn't serious about safe bike infrastructure.
If you tend to think of Europe as a uniformly bike-friendly place, you might well be shocked by events in London this month. In the past three weeks, three cyclists have been killed here. This Monday, 2,500 cyclists packed into central London to protest this unacceptable death rate, cycling a route near where 54-year-old Alan Neve was killed by the driver of a truck on Monday morning. This came just 72 hours after a vigil for 20-year-old Phillipine de Gerin-Ricard, the first user of London’s bike-share scheme to die on the city’s roads. What makes these deaths even more worrying is that they happened on London’s network of cycle superhighways, a high-profile cycle lane system whose flaws bike advocates have been warning Londoners about for some time. Alan Neve’s death, for example, happened at a point where cyclists are funneled onto an exceptionally busy road, and fined by police if they avoid it by using a bus lane.
The fatalities have also happened at a time when the London mayor’s office has been promoting city cycling like never before, promising a grand transport vision that places bikes close to its heart. So what on earth is going wrong?
(left); A bike highway in London. Courtesy of Jack Thurston/Wikimedia Commons (right)
One problem is that much of London’s cycling infrastructure is little more than half-hearted green-washing. Launched in 2008, the city's twelve grandly titled bike "superhighways" gave cycling a greater visibility than it’s ever had before, and in some modest ways have been a success. While narrower than their name suggests, they attract bikes to a single route and the resulting morning and evening crowds of cyclists thus gain some visibility and safety in numbers. They also provide a clear network for London’s bike-share scheme, which managed six million journeys in its first year alone. Beyond making cyclists more visible, however, the superhighways offer no specific protection and have been described hyperbolically as "£2-4 million per mile for some blue paint." As Mike Cavenett, communications manager at the London Cycling Campaign comments, the network’s road markings provide an illusion of safety:
The cycle superhighways probably lull people into a false sense of security – you see a blue painted lane and you assume it has some protected status. In fact they have no legal status at all, they’re not demarcated, the markings are just there supposedly to warn motorists that cyclists are around. The young woman who died recently on Cycle Superhighway Two had only been in London for a few weeks. You can’t presume to get inside somebody’s head, but it’s possible she assumed she was protected on a route that I would only recommend to very experienced cyclists. In fact, the majority of Londoners wouldn’t dream of getting on a bike. I’m a cycling advocate and even most of my friends won’t.
The alternative scheme the London Cycling Campaign advocates, based on Dutch models, would not be uncontroversial or cheap. They recommend cycle lanes of at least 2 meters width, protected by proper curbs. Along routes like East London’s recently lethal Cycle Superhighway Two, this would mean losing a lane for motor traffic on either side. This might be a step too far for some, though the LCC assert that it would mostly be drivers on unnecessary short journeys that are deterred by lane reductions.
If the mayor’s office is unwilling to push cycling safety, however, they should stop trying to coax Londoners and visitors onto a network where people are dying even in the spaces designed to protect them. As one of the placards at Monday’s protest read, "blue paint is not enough."