Boris’s £1bn bike strategy is about more than cycling

Alexander Jan
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BORIS Johnson recently launched his vision for cycling in London. The plan is to double bike use over 10 years, with mini-Hollands promised for the suburbs and thousands of extra parking spaces. Designated cycle routes criss-crossing the capital are in the mix, but the most eye-catching proposal is to convert a lane of the Westway – a 1960s flyover running between North Kensington and Paddington – into part of a “Crossrail for the bicycle.” Half a century ago London was building urban motorways. Now it is converting them into tree-lined cycle paths.

Critics argue that cycling is a minority interest; that the mayor is lavishing scarce resources on a pet project. The real challenge, they say, is in delivering major increases in capacity on the Tube, railway and roads. In the UK, cycling accounts for just 1 per cent of vehicle miles. Even in London, fewer than three people in 100 use a bike to commute into central London.

Yet the mayor is planning to spend around £1bn on his strategy. The same money would buy him the Nine Elms Tube extension, a set of new trains for an underground line or nearly 4,000 new Routemasters. It is about four times Transport for Greater Manchester’s annual budget. But huge sums are already being spent on London’s rail system and investment in other modes is at historical highs. This strategy is about more than cycling – it is a catalyst for improving the city.

The mayor isn’t alone in his quest. Boosting bike use is a priority for leaders of major cities across the globe. New York goes live with its bike hire scheme in May and has recently constructed 200 miles of lanes. Chicago, a city dominated by motor traffic, has a plan for over 600 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 cities and their leaders racing to invest in the humble two-wheeler? While the impact on congestion is modest, the mayor is sending out a message about the sort of city he wants to see. Politicians of all persuasions struggle to argue with pro-pushbike policies.

By taming motor traffic, investment can make streets more attractive for shoppers and residents and transform urban space. Bicycles make better bedfellows for pedestrians than cars, and high-profile cycle ways can be built in one electoral term. They are also less likely to irk residents than new roads or bus routes, and 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 Livingstone and Johnston. Weary of increasing fares and congestion, younger Londoners in particular have voted with their wheels. High profile accidents have spurred campaigners into demanding improvements, and they can now claim some success.

With London’s population forecast to reach around 10m by 2030, the race is on to boost the capital’s transport infrastructure. The mayor will need to pedal fast to keep up.

Alexander Jan is global head of Arup’s transactional advice team for transport.