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.
That money will pay for more bike lanes and bridges. Can it also buy a genuine cultural change?
London Mayor Sadiq Khan has been a vocal cycling advocate for some time, and now he has a new plan to put Londoners’ money where his mouth is.
This week, he promised to inject £770 million ($978 million) of new funding over the next five years into improving London’s cycling infrastructure and conditions. This shift is phenomenal. It means London will be spending more than twice the amount on cycling than it did under Khan’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, at 5.5 percent of the total transit budget compared to 2.4 percent under Johnson. The annual spend per citizen will reach £18 ($23), a level of funding that broadly matches what is spent in Denmark or the Netherlands. The new plan is thus more than just a cash windfall for pedal-pushers. Along with Khan’s creation of a far more diverse board for TfL, the transit authority, it suggests a genuine cultural change is afoot.
But what will London actually get for this money? The most eye-catching point in the plan is the creation of two new cycle superhighways, as broad, properly segregated bike lanes in London are called. The city already has eight, the most ambitious of which are the East-West and North-South axial super highways that cross central London, even though a few parts of these are still under construction. The two new routes will be among London’s longest, with one stretching from Tower Bridge into Southeast London and another creating a bike spine from inner West London out to Hounslow, the borough nearest to Heathrow Airport.
Another key project could be funding for a new pedestrian and cycle bridge across the Thames in East London. As CityLab has already noted, this plan is an unusually practical, sensible one for a river that attracts all sorts of fluffy lunatic proposals. It could give thousands of commuters an opportunity to cycle to work, which is currently prevented by the absence of an East London bridge. On the neighborhood level, London will also be creating more so-called “Mini-Hollands.” These are traffic-calmed areas modeled on Dutch prototypes that have been reworked to slash through traffic and reclaim much of the roadway for sidewalks and bike lanes.
Some other big cycling plans, however, have fallen by the wayside, such as a proposal to construct a huge elevated cycle path over West London. This is no bad thing. The idea was an overhang from a period where London’s authorities were in denial about the need to commandeer road space from cars for bikes, and thus hatched all sorts of fantasies that created an alternative cycling network floating above the road space. And given that the cycle flyover plan was hatched under the rule of Mayor Johnson, it was probably never proposed that seriously anyway.
While the plans will delight cycling advocates, less pro-bike Londoners could need some persuading that this level of investment equals good value for the money. Thankfully for the mayor, there’s ample evidence that London’s recent investments in cycling have already made a difference, promoting a modal shift that is allowing the city’s streets to move more people than before.
A paper published by TfL last week shows that where London has made space for cyclists, they have easily filled the void. At what the report describes as “key congested locations” in central London, the bike lanes are now transporting 46 percent of all people. They are doing so while using just 30 percent of the available road space. While this shift has not removed car congestion from the roads, the report shows that motor traffic on the remaining road space is still traveling at the same speed it did before works began. Given that London’s air quality is currently so bad that people are being warned to keep their babies indoors, any modal shift that reduces pollutants in the air is also likely to cut the city’s health care bill.
If this new enthusiasm for cycling makes you think that London’s future path to more bikes and cleaner air will be smooth and thornless, however, then think again. Just as the city of Paris is currently engaged in a battle with its wider region, London’s bike-friendly policies sit at odds with those of the U.K.’s current central government. In an example of this, Britain’s new (national) Transport Secretary Chris Grayling complained today that London’s new cycle lanes had been badly planned.
“I don’t think all the cycle lanes in London have been designed as well as they should have been,” he told The Standard. “There are places where they perhaps cause too much of a problem for road users and they could have been designed in a smarter way.”
In a precursor of what could be an obstructive approach to London’s plans, on Tuesday, Grayling rejected Khan’s proposal for the city to take over the wider metro area’s ailing commuter rail services. Meanwhile, much of the U.K.’s right-leaning media (overwhelmingly based in London and thus heavily skewed towards covering its problems) has continued to demonize the city’s new cycle lanes as a disaster.
While it’s certainly true that managing London’s future congestion and transit problems will be complex (an issue CityLab has already explored), there’s actually only the slenderest of evidence to support these claims. London may still find that, in persuading the country that its cycle plan is the best solution, it faces hurdles as much ideological as practical.