The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Nothing super about the cycle superhighways with these targets!

Joe Peach offers a reality check on Boris Johnson's new cycle superhighways, reminding us that behind the scheme are ridership targets that remain paltry compared to the northern European cities London is trying to match.

Cities: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London

Topics: Roads and traffic, Walking and cycling

Stating a desire to "change the urban landscape of the city", London's Mayor Boris Johnson has recently launched two 'cycle superhighways' and a bicycle hire scheme. Johnson, an avid cyclist himself, knows that London is lagging behind other global cities in integrating the bicycle into its transport network and views these changes as an opportunity to create a "cycling revolution".

And if there's any city that needs such a revolution, it's London, where a dismal 2% of journeys are made on a bike. Compared to European cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, who respectively see 32% and 40% of all trips by bike, London clearly has some catching up to do.

Integral to Johnson's proposed 'cycling revolution' are the cycle superhighways — bright blue cycle lanes connecting outer London areas with the city centre. Promoted as safer, faster and more direct, the first two of the proposed twelve superhighways have already opened, linking Barking in the east and Merton in the south west to London's city centre. Two additional superhighways are expected to be launched every year until 2015.

Both routes come in at around 9 miles or 14 kilometres, and are always a minimum of 1.5 metres wide. But whilst widths vary along the route, they are rarely more than three metres wide, meaning space for overtaking is rare and separate lanes for varying speeds are non-existent. If this was a road for cars there would be nothing super about it.

Essentially, the 'super' prefix refers to the fact that they are a vast improvement on what came before. London's current bicycle lanes are narrow and positioned on the road's edge — roads which are frequently in poor condition. To resolve this issue, the surfaces of the superhighways have been fully refurbished, creating a smooth, cycle-friendly terrain, and the majority of the route is raised, introducing a separate bicycle-only road in between the pavement and main road.

However, certain sections of the superhighway are not divided from the main road, meaning cyclists still have to risk pedalling alongside automobiles and share space with the vehicles who choose to ignore the blue lanes.

But despite the slightly overconfident branding, the superhighways are still a step in the right direction for London. The raised lanes reduce risks for cyclists where they are in place, and safety is expected to improve. Bicycle-only traffic lights and junctions remodelled to slow automobiles are expected to further contribute to cyclist safety, as well as reducing the amount of time required to travel between destinations.

By improving safety and timeliness, Johnson believes that London will soon see five per cent of all journeys being made on a bike, with a more ambitious aim of a 400 per cent increase in ridership by 2025 being quoted by Transport for London (TfL), the government body responsible for London's transport system. However, whilst a 400 per cent increase looks impressive on figure, this only equates to eight per cent of all journeys — still a tiny proportion compared to Copenhagen or Amsterdam.

The proposed timeline for the launch of the remaining superhighways and TfL's distant 8 per cent target demonstrate the major flaw in London's plans: a real lack of urgency.

One excellent example of successful bicycle integration — and an equally important guide for the timescale required to achieve such levels — is Amsterdam. Often cited as the most bicycle-friendly city, Amsterdam has worked hard for over thirty years to achieve mass-ridership. After an increase in car-ownership between 1950 and 1970 threatened their bike-friendly status, the city began taking measures to ensure continued bicycle use, measures which bear a striking resemblance to those now being taken in London.

By introducing an extensive 'Main Bicycle Network' between residential districts, employment hubs and the city centre, alongside other improvements such as bicycle-only traffic lights and removal of street clutter near bicycle lanes, Amsterdam was able to grow bicycle ridership to its current levels of 40 per cent from a low of around 20 per cent thirty years earlier.

Of course, cultural and geographic factors come into play in Amsterdam that London could never replicate. The bicycle has a rich history in the Netherlands, and Amsterdam's small size and level terrain further contribute to its high bicycle use. If London were able to mimic even their 'low' ridership figures of 20 per cent, it would be considered a massive success! But if the sheer amount of time required to increase bicycle use in Amsterdam from its 1970s levels is at all reflective of the time required to increase ridership inLondon, waiting until 2015 to complete the cycle superhighways should not be an option.

There are reasons behind London's decision to soft-launch these superhighways. Unforeseen issues will likely arise on the two routes currently in action, and future developments will be able to take this into account. But this should not justify the timeline proposed for those developments.

If Johnson and TfL are serious about their aims to increase ridership, London needs a safe, efficient and comprehensive network of roads for its cyclists, as soon as possible. Plans for these twelve superhighways would certainly contribute to this goal, but the five year wait being proposed is simply not good enough. If integrating the bicycle into London's transport network is the priority Johnson and Tfl are suggesting it to be, we would not be waiting until 2015 to see it begin.

Joe Peach is a researcher at the Royal Institute of British Architects exploring the effects of technologies on cities of the future, and completing a Masters in Sustainable Communities and the Creative Economy. His opinions are his own.


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