Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
“It’s such a simple ask,” said one campaigner who did it in London in 2014. “Say ‘I have a right to get to work safely.’”
In 2014, when Boris Johnson started construction on his 18-mile, fully segregated cycling “superhighway” linking London from east to west, the “bikelash” was fierce and immediate.
Local chambers of commerce protested that the then-mayor’s plan was being “railroaded” through without a full study of traffic and economic impacts. Taxi drivers were furious about losing lane space. Politicians whose commutes were impacted by construction pushed back fiercely: One former chancellor described the lanes, in the House of Lords, as “doing more damage to London than almost anything since the Blitz.”
From the city’s perspective, Johnson’s bike schemes were designed to make transport cleaner, safer, and more efficient for a growing population (and boost the mixed legacy of a controversial mayor). But the pushback that dominated public discourse in the early years of planning and construction came as no surprise: Typically, the hardest part about building bike lanes isn’t laying paint or installing bollards. It’s the politics.
Chris Kenyon, a longtime London tech worker and bike commuter, believed he could help the city win more hearts and minds, but knew he’d have to be savvy. So in 2014, Kenyon and three other civic-minded bike commuters launched a campaign called Cycling Works. If they got the city’s largest employers to pledge support for just two specific curb-protected projects, they could push back on the claim that new infrastructure was “bad for business.” Over eight weeks,* volunteer activists hit the streets to speak with tens of thousands of London cyclists, asking them to tell their bosses and the city’s CEOs to publicly support those two routes.
Over two years, with that grassroots method and a simple website, Kenyon and his collaborators collected letters and signatures from CEOs of 200 of the largest businesses in the city, including Microsoft, the telecom company Orange, Unilever, the Financial Times, and Coca-Cola. The effort garnered media attention, and the support was transformative for City Hall and Transport for London, Kenyon says. “It changed the tone of the discussion,” Kenyon told Streetfilms, in a new short documentary about the effort. “We know from having talked to them a year later that it was incredibly important at that time to making sure the plans were not watered down.”
Now that much of Johnson’s vision has been realized, rush-hour cycling in central London is up nearly 200 percent over the past two decades, from just 12,000 riders pedaling in the inner city in 2000 to 36,000 in the same area in 2014. With congestion pricing winnowing the number of private cars, bikes may be on pace to overtake automobiles, representationally, in the center city: As of 2016, about 32 percent of all rush hour vehicles on central London roads were bikes. That share seems to be rising.
But London’s bike-lane build-out might not be enough to keep cycling growth on track. As my colleague Feargus O’Sullivan has written, the city’s expenditures for cycling are still vastly outweighed by other transport modes; meanwhile, jurisdictional complications have delayed parts of the city’s plans that would extend protected lanes to boroughs outside inner London.
The bikelash goes on as well: Traffic continues to be terrible, and critics continue to find powerful platforms to blame bikes for the congestion and smog. A recent op-ed in the Financial Times by Lawrence Solomon (who also leads a think tank that denies the science of climate change) argued that bike lanes are adding to pollution by squeezing cars into “narrowed spaces that slow traffic to a crawl.”
It’s true that, all other things being equal, taking away room for cars can slow the flow of traffic. But that’s not necessarily so if some commuters are switching from cars to bikes, as other cities have shown. London’s congestion problem is about a growing population, and the rise of on-demand and delivery vehicles—not the fractional number of streets that have had to give way for bikes. “The cycle superhighways have taken out some road capacity [for motor vehicles], but there's more capacity for actual people,” says Garrett Emmerson, Transport for London’s COO of Surface Transport, told CityLab last year. Advocates in London and any city trying to keep pressure on politicians and quiet naysayers may take a page from Kenyon’s book: get their bosses to pipe up. “It’s such a simple ask,” Kenyon said. “Say ‘I have a right to get to work safely.’”
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Cycling Works campaigned for two years.