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London cycling lanes

On yer bike: how the pandemic gave traction to London’s two-wheeled ambitions

Image credit: Alamy

Since Covid-19 first hit, London has almost doubled the amount of segregated cycling infrastructure and created dozens of ‘low traffic neighbourhoods’. Could the changes permanently change how Londoners travel?

Before the pandemic hit, the capital’s transport network was feeling the pressure. The London Underground was operating at far beyond its designed capacity, and every day saw an estimated 2.9 million journeys made by passengers, 38 per cent more compared to the year 2010, despite the network looking almost identical.

Then, of course, last year there was Covid-19. Suddenly, the transport network that enabled London to function became something to be avoided. How on earth were people supposed to get around the city?

“To be completely honest, when Covid hit and the first lockdown happened across every bit of government [...] it was crisis management,” says Will Norman. “How do we keep people safe? How can we keep the transport network running to make sure that key workers could get to hospitals, so the electricity system still works, so people could actually work in the supermarkets in a safe way?”

Norman is Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner, and he quickly found that his portfolio was a critical part of the response.

“For those people who had to work, suddenly cycling was a safe, convenient option,” he says, pointing at the time when social distancing rules were set to 2 metres, which meant that both trains and buses could only carry a fraction of the number of people who usually squeeze on to them.

“That would mean millions of journeys having to be made by other modes. And if a fraction of those went to cars, we would end up with gridlock on the streets. And a toxic air crisis [caused by additional emissions] is the very last thing we need in the middle of a respiratory disease pandemic.”

He stresses: “That’s when the alarm bells went off. We needed to do something really urgently on this.”

Quickly, shovels began to hit the streets. One concern was that as commuters returned to London, worries about using public transport would persist. So Transport for London (TfL) carved huge new cycling corridors through the centre of the capital, taking street space from car traffic, and giving it over to fully segregated cycle lanes linking major destinations.

For example, London Bridge was given a bike lane, and even Euston Road, a major artery that carries traffic along the north side of the city centre, gave space over to cycling. Perhaps the most striking example, though, was the transformation of Park Lane. Previously the road was effectively an urban motorway, with speed limits set at 40mph, much faster than most city roads. But once the engineers were done, the well-heeled residents lost road space to new cycle lanes that appear suspiciously permanent, thanks to the addition of raised bus-stop islands in the road.

“I think there was a symbolism that really sort of said we’re doing things radically differently here,” says Norman.

The scale of the transformation can really be seen in the numbers: according to Norman, since the beginning of the pandemic, around 90km of new segregated cycle lanes have been delivered. How did it scale so rapidly? Norman points to the Mayor and TfL’s existing ‘Healthy Streets’ policies, which have created a framework for designing and managing infrastructure to encourage walking and cycling.

“The scale at which we’ve delivered this stuff is remarkable, but that’s built on all that skill set and all that hard work, both from borough officers and from the TfL team, and the engineers and the guys delivering on the street, who’ve been able to adapt and think of really innovative approaches,” Norman says.

The pandemic has not had a uniform impact on London’s traffic levels. While the outer boroughs have seen an explosion in private car traffic, central London traffic levels are still much lower than they were before the pandemic, as many people are still working from home.

This is why Norman and Transport for London have also rolled out another major scheme, known as ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ (LTN). The idea is that instead of looking at the long routes that commuters use, they would instead focus on reducing traffic and encouraging ‘active travel’ within local neighbourhoods.

“There’s a real sense that we are not going to go back to a five-day working week where we all cram onto Tubes and go into central London,” says Simon Munk of the London Cycling Campaign, who speculates that after the pandemic, home working will persist, at least for several days of the week.

“I think lots of Londoners certainly are rediscovering their neighbourhoods and rediscovering the areas near them,” he says. “This is actually the growth in cycling that we’re likely to see.

“You don’t swap a 15-mile Tube journey for a 15-mile bike ride; that isn’t where the growth is. The growth is actually 3km trips. It’s trips to your local shops, it’s trips to school, it’s trips to the gym, or the pool or something like that.”

‘I think there was a symbolism that really sort of said we’re doing things radically differently here.’

Will Norman, walking and cycling commissioner

Typically, an LTN may involve closing off or restricting access to specific roads within a neighbourhood. Many of these have been installed at relatively short notice and relatively low cost, using street furniture such as planter boxers to block roads and limit traffic.

However, the LTNs have not been without their critics. In fact, the implementation in some areas has led to a fierce backlash, with the Mayor’s office, TfL and campaign groups who oppose LTNs engaging in a surprisingly contentious war of words.

“Six or seven have [caused] a huge amount of noise and challenge,” says Norman, “but there were a lot that haven’t. People want them and in fact, [we’re] getting requests for more in other areas.”

Why are some proving contentious? One LTN with well-organised opposition is in Lewisham, south London.

“What’s happened is we’ve moved all the traffic from the roads that had the least pollution problem on to the roads that had the worst pollution problem,” says Paul Lomax, co-founder of campaign group OneLewisham, who lives within the boundaries of the new LTN.

He describes how the LTN was first implemented back in June last year, but has led to a litany of problems, such as confusing signage for motorists entering the LTN, and the slowing of local bus routes as traffic has migrated on to main roads.

One of the strangest problems encountered was with Google Maps, which for weeks was not updated to take the new access rules into account, meaning that even after the LTN was created, vehicles using Google’s navigation software were still being directed inside, causing chaos.

“We now know that 45,000 people got fined a total of £3m, just to show how many people actually didn’t understand the signage,” he says of motorists caught breaking the new rules.

In Lomax’s view, ultimately the problem with LTNs is that they are not viable solutions to the problems of congestion and pollution, as cars are simply shifted on to major roads, making congestion worse.

“Apparently the objective is a massive behavioural change social experiment into seeing if you can convince people to stop driving,” he laments.

He even argues that LTNs can lead to negative social justice consequences, pointing to the experience of his OneLewisham co-founder – a bus user who has a son with special educational needs. As a result of the LTN shifting traffic, bus journey times have increased, and her son’s trips to a specialist school take much longer.

“We have to invest in public transport,” says Lomax. “I can’t help but think that the reason they’re pushing LTNs is just a way of trying to go, ‘well, if we can get people on their bikes we don’t have to bother with buses any more’. They’ve been sold these magic beans that are planters and are expecting magic results from them.”

One solution Lomax now advocates is the building of a tram that follows the route of the South Circular – one of South London’s major trunk routes. “Clearly that’s not a short-term solution. But if it is a long-term problem, it needs a long-term solution.”

Now that the end of the pandemic is hopefully in sight, there is an obvious question to ask: how many of these changes will stick around? Could Covid have inadvertently changed the course of London’s cycling culture and point towards a city of the future that looks like something closer to Amsterdam or Copenhagen?

“I hope a lot of it will become permanent, but it needs to go through the due process,” says Norman. “We haven’t just delivered for four months, and then it stops. It’s the next stage that I think is important and exciting.”

Norman believes that it will take time for Londoners and commuters to rebuild their trust in public transport, and regain the confidence to use it, and he also expects some of the new ways of living and working to persist too.

“I’m confident that some of the changes in behaviour will remain, in terms of people walking, cycling, more people changing commuting patterns, and people working from home more will mean more local journeys to local shops and local facilities,” he says.

“The one thing I am certain about is that to enable those people who started cycling to continue to cycle or to enable more people to start cycling, you need that safe infrastructure,” he says. “That is the building block of all of this.”

This raises an interesting question: creating safe, segregated infrastructure is good if your goal is encouraging more people to cycle – but how much infrastructure is needed before the effect is transformative?

“I think the trick to this is actually building that safe network,” says Norman. “Just having one safe route or two safe routes... that [leads to] more people using that route. But as the network develops, more and more people begin to do that, and see the potential of this.”

In other words, the challenge for Norman and his colleagues is to grow cycling infrastructure to a point where network effects take over, where the value of the components together is greater than the sum of the individual parts.

“People in cities tend to start cycling a lot – it becomes a mainstream mass activity – when you have some kind of rudimentary network in place,” says Simon Munk, citing evidence from European cities like Seville, which in a decade increased cycling from a 2 per cent mode share to 10 per cent of journeys.

Norman can already see evidence of how this could work across London in the centre of the city, where prior to the pandemic cycling infrastructure was already at its densest, observing that the growth in cycling created by the infrastructure was not just linear, but exponential.

Building the network, however, will not be easy. Unusually by the standards of other major cities, TfL does not actually control most of the roads in London. In fact, it is responsible for only around 5 per cent of routes, which tend to be the busiest trunk roads.

Even London’s world-famous Oxford Street is technically outside of the Mayor’s grasp. It and the remaining roads are the responsibility of London’s 32 borough councils, which each have a different level of enthusiasm for the measures Norman proposes.

For example, the borough of Waltham Forest in the north-east of the city is widely celebrated by cycling campaigners for its ‘mini-Holland’ scheme, while Kensington and Chelsea is significantly more hostile. In fact, at the end of last year, the latter caused controversy by choosing to remove a segregated cycle lane that covered the distance of the busy Kensington High Street. Since then, campaigners have already claimed that the space that had been given over to bikes is now mostly used as parking spaces for vans and taxis.

Clearly then, for cycling advocates like Norman, the pandemic has presented a huge opportunity to achieve their goals, but there are still significant barriers and opposition to overcome.

“I think what we need is to continue to invest and work hard on building the network. We need to promote cycling,” he says. “But to sustain that growth there’s a huge amount of work that still needs to be done.”

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