Last month, London Mayor Boris Johnson announced what could be very ambitious changes to London's cycle infrastructure, pledging nearly £1 billion worth of funding to the scheme.
His plans which includes a Crossrail style cycle route that would run at least 15 miles from West London to East London; a 'tube network' for the bike in which cycle lanes would run parallel to tube lines, quiet back streets and dangerous junctions would be improved.
Ambitious as they are, the new plans have been criticized on various points. One issue that has been highlighted in the press is the controversy surrounding painting a proposed cycle lane blue on the Victoria Embankment, which some feel will upset the areas 'heritage' feel. Another is that, as Transport for London (TFL) only owns 5% of the London roads, the viability of most of the plans will come down to whether the relevant Boroughs approve them or not.
As a cyclist myself, I congratulate Boris on scaling up his transport ambitions and recognising the benefits of making London a cycle friendly city; if just some of his plans go through, they will be a great victory for cycling in London. The plans however face many obstacles...
I feel that the main stumbling block that is holding people back from hopping on their bikes in the same numbers as our European peers, is the issue of safety on our streets. The threat you face when jumping on your bike for a London commute is immense; it is a chaotic city to fare in whether you're a cyclist or a motorist, with dangerous conditions caused by poorly constructed, out of date infrastructure and numerous dangerous junctions. Both motorists and cyclists take daily risks, frustrated by each others behaviour. 'Backwards' town planning bears the main responsibility for this; it will be really positive to see some forward thinking road planning take place.
Pressure on our roads
Another major issue is the lack of respect that all commuters show for the rules of vehicle 'cohabitation' on our busy streets. I agree that it is a major problem that cyclists are forever jumping red lights, but cars, vans and busses do the same thing. Badly sequenced traffic lights, a shortage of road space and the sheer pressure of the number of different vehicles on our roads creates a very tense commuting environment. Creating more and wider segregated cycling paths, separated out from the rest of the traffic by paving or other divisions, is key to tackling this issue. I am absolutely convinced that cycling in the capital would noticeably increase in line with more segregated cycling paths; people would feel safer.
Unequal playing field
A third essential consideration, which which Boris Johnson has not even mentioned, is that in the battle of vehicle hierarchy on London's roads, cyclists are invariably the lowest common denominator; the opposite to the situation in Amsterdam and Copenhagen where cyclists rights are actually considered higher than those of motorists. In London, if a motorist drives in, parks in or in any other way obstructs a cycle lane causing cyclists to have to take evasive action, the car driver would hardly ever be penalised for their behaviour; the majority of London cycle lanes are near on invisible to most other traffic, they might as well not be there. If a car goes anywhere near a bus lane however, heavy fines generally ensue. Surely the same rules should apply everywhere?
Ultimately, if you park in a dangerous place, obstructing the safe passage of other vehicles, you should be penalised; if you jump a red light, you should be penalised regardless of your chosen mode of transport; if you senselessly run onto roads as a pedestrian, you must be penalised. Over time, heavy and consistent fines for rule breaking would without a doubt improve road safety and ease congestion, for everyone.
More accessible high streets
My final plea to the Mayor, is to pedestrianise more high streets in the city and increase 20mph driving zones. Pedestrianised urban shopping areas are common place on the Continent, however have yet to become prevalent in the UK, possibly due to our challenging urban infrastructures. But in this age of debate about the need to re-invent our high streets, perhaps creating a network of car free pedestrianised and cycle zones could be part of the solution to creating more dynamic and accessible shopping areas. There are already several examples of successful semi-pedestrianised areas in the city, one example is Exmouth Market in Farringdon; this vibrant pedestrianised street boasts cafes, restaurants and small independent shops, which during lunch times turns into a mini food market, enjoyed by people of all ages. There is plenty of scope for more such areas in this large city.
My final point is that motorists are not the enemy in this debate, I simply wish to stress the point that could see considerable economic benefits to making our streets more cycle friendly if we do things properly.
How far will Mr Johnson go
Boris Johnson says that we need to reduce congestion in London by getting more people out of their cars and onto their bikes. For this to happen, there needs to be a reason for people to do take that step; a mass investment in the cycling infrastructure would certainly help, but we also need to develop a system whereby it becomes uneconomical, impractical and inefficient to actually use a car. A very radical thought for many. It remains to be seen exactly how far Mr Johnson is willing to take his vision for Londoners.