The introduction of bikes as a usual transport method in London since 2007 has since been a “trial and error” process.
Everything dates back to 2000, when the Transport for London Council was created, promoted by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, with the aim of reducing the long-lasting traffic jams in the city by using the bike as a solution. London is mostly flat, its streets are relatively wide and the average internal displacement is 3.2 km. Ideal for cycling.
It wasn’t until 2007 that the first firm step was taken, in the form of bike sharing. They were quite a success – for a small annual fee Londoners could use urban bicycles without worrying about them being stolen. Bike sharing helped to promote the idea that urban cycling is accessible to everyone (regardless of physical condition), useful, practical and healthy for all people – those who are frequent riders and those who are not.
The bicycle boom required a cycling infrastructure in line with the number of cyclists on the streets. So the Cycle Superhighways appeared, consisting of lanes near the sidewalks painted blue and crossing London from the outskirts to the City. These “blue-painted areas” were not physically separated from the “motor vehicle areas” and were constantly being cut off by bus stops, parking areas and other obstacles.
Evidently they did not work as initially expected – they were dangerous for the less daring – or less experienced – urban cyclists when riding near road traffic. The project was unsuccessful due to the numerous deaths of cyclists who were run over, up to 13 in 2012.
In 2013, the cyclist mobility system was redesigned and the company opted for segregated cycle lanes and traffic lights for bicycles, a way resembling the one implemented in Dutch streets. Cars were also forbidden to access some areas of the town centre. The bike became thus totally prevalent.
The new measures had an effect and bicycle riding increased by 60%, accounting for 60% of rush-hour commuting. It became clear that if you build good cycling lanes, more bikes will appear.
Lately, some areas have been marked as quiet ways – areas with little traffic and numbered cycle routes painted on the ground. These roads do not attract new urban cyclists, who are afraid of riding in the middle of traffic, nor the experienced, who do not find them very useful if they cannot use them to get to their destination – a pattern similar to the one we have here in Madrid.
Also, bike lanes are not continuous in London. In the English capital, boroughs have independence to decide on certain aspects, such as the arrangement or modification of streets. This means that, in order to build a bicycle lane that crosses the city from end to end, all the boroughs through which it runs must agree, and this doesn’t always happen.
The borough of Kensington and Chelsea, for instance, has been very restrictive with bicycle lanes, blocking all those that were projected in their area. The result is obvious – discontinuous bike lanes, the thing urban riders hate the most, just as a puncture on their way to work on a rainy day.
As in all cities in which bike lanes have spread, there is intense ongoing debate about the question. Old lanes are closed, new ones are opened, supporters and critics appear, as do others who propose compromise solutions. However, you can’t deny that sustainable urban mobility has come to stay and all cities will have to face the challenge sooner or later, together with the debate surrounding the issue.
If you want to know more about the situation of cycling infrastructure in London here are a couple of very interesting videos by Jay Foreman.