Recently the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, launched his cycling vision for London. His plan is to double bike use over the next ten years. "Mini-Hollands" in the suburbs are promised alongside thousands of additional bike parking spaces. Designated routes criss-crossing the capital are also in the mix. The most eye-catching proposal is to convert a lane of the A40 Westway, a 1960s flyover running between North Kensington and Paddington, into part of a "Crossrail for the bicycle." This will link west London to Barking via Canary Wharf. Fifty years ago London was building urban motorways. Now its elected leader is converting them into tree-lined cycle paths. This represents a remarkable change in policy. It is about the Mayor's vision for London as a city as well as lanes and stands for two-wheelers.
Critics will argue that cycling is a minority interest; that Boris is lavishing scarce resources on his pet projects. The real challenge, they will say is in delivering major increases in capacity on the tube, railway and some roads. In Great Britain as whole, cycling accounts for just one percent of so called vehicle miles. Even in London, which in comparative terms is a cycling hotspot, fewer than three people in a hundred use a bike to commute into central London. Yet the mayor is planning to spend around a billion pounds on his strategy. That would buy him the Nine Elms Northern line tube extension, a set of new trains for an underground line or nearly four thousand new Routemasters. It is about four times Transport for Greater Manchester's total annual budget. Huge sums are already being spent on London's rail system and investment in other modes is at historical highs. This strategy has to be about more than cycling. It is a catalyst for improving the city.
The Mayor is not alone. Boosting bike use is a priority for leaders of major cities across the globe. New York goes live with its bike hire scheme this month and has recently laid out two hundred miles of lanes. Chicago, a city dominated by motor traffic, has a plan for over six hundred miles of bike routes by 2020. Paris, which led the way with its own hire scheme in 2007, is increasing lanes by over two thirds, to service 65 "biking neighbourhoods".
Why are city leaders racing to invest in the humble two-wheeler? Along with other mayors, Boris is sending out a popular message about the sort of city he wants to see. London politicians of all persuasions compete with each other to promote pro-pushbike policies. By taming motor traffic, investment can make streets more attractive for shoppers and residents and transform urban space. Despite the headlines, bicycles make better bedfellows for pedestrians than cars. High profile cycleways can be built in one electoral term. They are less likely to irk residents than new roads or bus routes. They may even help to ease the squeeze on the morning tube commute.
In London, driven by population growth, bike use has been on the up for two decades - well before the time of Mayors Ken and Boris. Weary of increasing fares and congestion, younger Londoners in particular, have voted with their wheels. High profile accidents have spurred campaigners into demanding improvements. They can now claim some success.
With London's population forecast to reach around ten million by 2030, the race is on to boost the capital's transport infrastructure. The mayor will need to pedal fast to keep up.