London, cycling and the ‘self-healing city’
We must accept that there are trade-offs over road space and try to end the war between its different users.
This article is an edited version of a talk Leon Daniels gave at an event held on 3 September 2019 co-organised by On London and the London Society called: Are London’s Cycling Policies Working For Everyone?
Before I try to address the reasons why there isn’t more travel by bicycle in London and why it is so restricted to a particular group of people, I want to share some of my experiences as Transport for London’s managing director, surface transport at the time when what were originally called cycle superhighways and other new cycling infrastructure were introduced, initially under the mayoralty of Boris Johnson.
There were a number of reasons why those policies were adopted. One was that every time a cyclist was killed on the roads of Greater London at that time, it was reported on the front page of the Evening Standard and there was outrage. The number of cyclist deaths in the city in the last ten years has been between eight and 16 a year – this, in a country where four or five pedestrians die in road traffic accidents every day. Even so, 16 deaths are, of course, 16 too many. And there was serious public concern and demand for better facilities for cyclists and an end to those deaths
Throughout this time, London was under the threat of a €350 million fine from the European Union for breaching air quality minimums. Encouraging more cycling by making it easier, especially for the more timid, was an aspect of tackling the air quality issue. The policies were also about the efficient use of road space, redistributing that road space in a more equitable way, and the Mayor making a bold statement.
I certainly believe that the new infrastructure makes a lot of cyclists safer on London’s roads than they would have been otherwise. But what else can we learn?
One problem for an agency like TfL is that if you are very considered in your approach to doing something bold and new and do a lot of research and investigation first, you are accused of being far too slow. But if you go about it quickly, you are accused of barging it through without properly considering the views of all interested parties and of not assessing the outcomes properly. In this case, we acted extraordinarily quickly and the main elements of the new segregated cycle superhighways were all in place within four years.
I also think there’s a terrible tendency to think about cycling in isolation from everything else. We really mustn’t do that. When we are considering the question of whether London cycling policy is working for everyone, we have to include not only who is or isn’t travelling by bicycle but also how encouraging cycling is affecting other street and road users. Doing this reminds us that in everything we do, there are trade-offs and not everyone will be happy with them.
Nimby correspondence nearly always can be identified by an opening statement on the following lines: “I am generally in favour of more [cycling], but……” (The most important word at the end!). And so it was whether from individuals or owners of business premises, all saying basically the same thing, which boiled down to: “What you’re about to do near my house or outside my shop is going to cause the end of the world.”
The world didn’t end. In fairness, it is true that the cycling infrastructure built on my watch did have a negative effect on bus speeds and bus passenger journey times, and indeed for all traffic. However, there have also been other factors simultaneously including the growth of private hire traffic and internet-driven deliveries which have also affected traffic speeds. It has also made life more difficult for people trying to make deliveries, especially to frontages where there is cycling infrastructure.
Why is there such an over representation, statistically speaking, of affluent white males cycling in London and such a low proportion of other groups, whether defined by gender, ethnicity or type of occupation and also of 16 to 24-year-olds? I’ve spent some time thinking about that, especially as that demographic make-up hasn’t been changing. Is it because there aren’t enough cycle-friendly streets at the beginnings and ends of longer journeys on protected lanes? Is it because those who are male and in the upper earnings bracket are more likely to be employed by companies with better storage and other facilities for cyclists?
I have a suspicion that it is very much tied up with the perception of cycling, as opposed to the reality. Part of the solution to that, of course, is to find more ways to get more people to try it, through training, coaching and encouragement, especially of the young, the nervous and the otherwise unconvinced. This could be done, for example, through schools and universities as a form of recreation. There is no engineering solution to deal with the whole of this problem, because most of it is behavioural and attitudinal. The recent advent of dockless electric bikes will certainly encourage the less fit and those where distance or gradient is a factor.
Behind all this is a broader question: What sort of city do we want? That is a question for the electorate and for the Mayor. Unless we answer it, then answering some of the others that flow from it will be more difficult.
I think we should think hard about how to end the war between different kinds of road users – taxi drivers against private hire cars, HGV drivers against cyclists and so on – and build some mutual respect instead. That war can’t help but make those people who don’t cycle but might like to try it less likely to take it up.
And here is a concept I keep thinking about. What about some sort of self-healing city? I mean by that a city that is capable of adapting to the new challenges that are continually set for it and which gets us out of this terrible grip of conflicting priorities working against each other. Maybe we should talk about what a self-healing city might look like: one in which, if people’s journeys were interrupted for any reason, they were automatically re-routed and received the information they needed; a city where societal changes, like more deliveries or private hire vehicles, could be more easily coped with.
Because, what we really all want in the end is for all people to have confidence in using the whole transport system, whether it’s walking, cycling, travelling on the bus or using the river, according to their transport preferences and needs.