London’s new official plan for cycling has no new infrastructure or funding.  How to genuinely democratise cycling in a big city?

Cyclists using the cycle superhighway on Blackfriars Bridge
 Cyclists using the cycle superhighway on Blackfriars Bridge. Londoners have told Transport for London that the distinction between superhighways, quietways and ‘mini-Holland’ areas is confusing. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

London has a new official plan for cycling. It’s full of bold statements of intent and has some interesting ideas. That’s the good news. Here’s the drawback: within the 59 glossy pages I could detect no new plans for cycling infrastructure.

This all might seem a bit niche, not to say London-centric. But there is a wider lesson here: if cities are to truly move ahead in making cycling everyday and for everyone, good intentions aren’t enough. It involves political boldness, and taking risks.

The arguments as to why London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has or has not been a disappointment on this front have been well documented on this blog, so I won’t go over them again.

Instead, let’s look at the new template for cycling, jointly produced by Khan’s office and Transport for London (TfL), to divine more general points about how you can genuinely democratise cycling in a big city, and what isn’t going to do this.

It is, of course, just my view. By all means disagree (or agree) below:

London’s leadership is fully signed up to more cycling

The optics and stated intentions of the report, the Cycling Action Plan, with the ambitious subtitle of “Making London the world’s best big city for cycling”, are fine. In fact, they’re not far different to what I’d argue myself.

Such is the need for a more active, safer, cleaner city, it argues, that building for mass cycling is a must. “Without a big increase in cycling, we won’t be able to address London’s congestion and air quality issues,” it says at one point – an obvious point, perhaps, but worth reiterating amid the evidence-free agitations of cab lobbyists and some other malcontents.

The report is also clear on how to achieve more cycling. In his introduction to the report Khan’s cycling and walking supremo, Will Norman, notes that Dutch and Danish cities are filled with bikes not due to some cultural quirk, but “because their streets have been designed to prioritise people, not cars”.

Even the photos spread the inclusive message, showing lots of people riding in everyday clothes, as well as children, and someone riding a handcycle.

When the public discourse about cycling is so dominated by irrelevancies such as red-light jumping and helmets, this very clear public stance is reassuring.

Bike lanes in the city are having a rebrand

In what might be termed a lesson learned, the report says that the current branding distinction between so-called cycle superhighways – direct routes on main roads, sometimes with separated lanes – and the more back-route, on-road quietways and “mini-Holland” areas is to end.

Londoners have told TfL that the current system can be “misleading and confusing”. I’d agree, but I’d argue more that they’re irrelevant.

To work, cycle routes have to be – both literally and figuratively – joined up. They have to be as useful for a parent meandering to a school or nursery, going to a job and then returning via a shop as they are for a rapid, end-to-end commuter.

The problem with London’s cycling efforts, emphasised by the focus on the relatively few separated-lane superhighways, is that cycling is too often convenient for commuters heading to and from central London, but not for many others.

Strange as it might sound, digging up main roads to install separated bike routes is the easy bit of cycle provision. The only way to properly democratise the streets is to also comprehensively tackle back roads, especially where people live – enforcing very low speed limits, cutting off rat runs, basically making it less convenient to drive short distances. This is hugely politically difficult, and London has yet to get to grips with it.

It’s not just the mayor’s responsibility

As with lots of other issues, not least crime, Khan is the public face of problems for which he is by no means entirely responsible.

An obvious example here is Westminster council, always a top contender for the UK’s least human-friendly local authority, which has in recent months telephoned in policies from the 1970s such as blocking construction of a well-supported new bike lane on a dangerous intersection, and halting moves to pedestrianise Oxford Street.

Other councils are almost as venal – take a bow, Kensington and Chelsea – and even in areas where there is more official support, a lack of ambition and a terror of the drivers’ vote has, in particular, resulted in the failure of the quietways programme.

The new report directly tackles the tendency of some councils to water down bike schemes, saying that from now on there will be no central funding for routes “that do not address the fundamental reasons why people don’t currently cycle”.

In tandem with this there are six “quality criteria” for routes, such as low traffic volumes where cycles have to mix with vehicles, low speeds, and limited numbers of lorries.

This is all good, but the report argues that not all have to be met, and as I understand things, it would still be possible under this system for a bike route to be deemed good if only one of the two main factors (low traffic volume and low speed) was achieved. This seems curious. A bike route is useless if it is clogged by traffic, however low-speed, and can never feel safe if the vehicles speed past, however infrequent they are.

There is nothing new here

After reading the report, I asked the very helpful TfL press person a simple question: does it announce any new routes, or any new funding? This prompted a slightly confusing chain of messages in which I was told several times about all the work due to start.

I pressed: but is there anything new? Eventually the reply came: none of the routes outlined are new. As it turns out, there is some more funding – an extra £1m for the so-called Healthy Streets (pdf) scheme, amounting to £200,000 extra per year for the five-year programme.

All this takes us back to the fundamental worry many people have about London’s plans for more cycling and walking: it’s all going too slowly, and at a terrible cost, not least in air quality, congestion and sedentary living, as well as the social price of cycling being out of bounds to all but – in the main – the young and gung-ho. London also faces the risk of not only being overtaken by more ambitious overseas cities, but others in the UK such as Manchester.

This is the central lesson I take from the document, which has repercussions for towns and cities everywhere: it takes boldness and political will to reshape places for the future, and the cost of failure is high.